Military Spouses Connect to Home and Each Other Through USO's Operation That's My Dress

“So much more than a dress.”

That’s how USO Regional Operations Manager Erin Ramey describes the impact of Operation That’s My Dress, a connection program developed by the USO and designed to assist female military spouses and service members in preparing for formal military events by providing them with a brand new gown or dress and accessories.

While past USO Operation That’s My Dress programs have included guest visits and fashion shows from professional models and former Miss USA winners, the recent event held on Sept. 18 in Okinawa, Japan was designed to focus more on connecting attendees to home and to each other.

“I think that’s the highlight of the USO experience for me,” said Ramey, explaining the USO’s mission of connecting the military community to home and country while stationed overseas. “It really puts us on the map – that goal of connecting spouses and service members while they’re far away from home to the things they love like fashion, current beauty trends and the opportunity to meet others who are sharing similar experiences.“

Finding something to wear for the more than 50 formal military events that take place on the island throughout the military ball season can be challenging. Local stores off base have limited sizes and styles for American women, and most American stores won’t ship to Japan.

That’s where the USO comes in. The USO Pacific and USO Okinawa teams planned this event for two years, bringing in local stylists, beauty product experts and 450 dresses shipped in from the United States, alleviating the financial stress that comes with preparing for military ball season, as the ball gowns and accessories are provided completely free of charge.

As the first time this program has been offered overseas, Ramey was determined to make it far more than a shopping experience. As a military spouse herself, she wanted to ensure that participants walked away from the event having learned something, but more importantly, having forged connections and friendships.

“You’re in a foreign country, away from family – you might even be new to the military too, which is a culture in and of itself – so how do you get out and add some familiarity to life?” she explained. “We just thought it was really important to give [the event] that extra layer of time to develop friendships and connections.”

When the event opened up for registration, the 125 available slots were immediately filled within 30 minutes, and an additional 100 women were placed on the waiting list. The day of the event brought in more than 100 female attendees, 50 volunteers and 10 USO staff members, showing the need and interest in this program.

After listening to the speakers’ presentations, the ladies proceeded into the Dress Expo room, where they were able to choose from 450 gowns in a variety of styles and sizes that would have been otherwise impossible to find in Japan. Participants also explored stations around the room that had jewelry, makeup and stylists waiting to help. By the end of the day, military spouses and service members of all branches of service were bonding, chatting and taking photos together.

“The enthusiasm and positive energy was contagious,” said Katie Ashford, a military spouse and USO volunteer. “In the changing room, the volunteers and participants would clap and cheer when a participant found her dress.”

Military spouses sacrifice a great deal in their personal lives to support service members and being stationed in a place that is so far from everything familiar can take its toll. USO Okinawa’s Operation That’s My Dress was an opportunity for female military spouses and service members to take a small break from their daily duties and simply make time for themselves in a way that felt like home – through finding a ball gown and making new friends.

“It took a strong team,” said Ramey. “To envision, plan and work together for the common goal of showing appreciation for active-duty service members and spouses serving each and every day in support of our country, and strengthening them during the time of their commitment.”

More from USO