Commander Bob Kurkjian’s Navy career ended before it started – twice. But his need to serve propelled him to nearly two decades of service and a career with the USO.
Kurkjian, who joined the Navy in 2002, initially was kicked out of the NROTC due to a low GPA, and, six years later, his direct commission officer application was rejected. It wasn’t until he earned his first master’s degree that his Navy career began.
Since then, he has been deployed four times – once at sea (2009 to early 2010) and thrice overseas (2007-08 in Iraq; 2009 in Bahrain; 2019 in Afghanistan). Now, he serves other service members, as well as his country, as a Navy reservist and president of USO West.
Kurkjian joined the USO in 2012 due to what he called a “series of coincidences and serendipity.”
“The amalgam, the meeting point of the fact that, ‘Hey, I come from the nonprofit management world, and I’m a Navy reservist,’ – what better intersection of my skill set and talent than working for the USO?” said Kurkjian, who oversees fund development, operations and program delivery for nine western states.
And one of the biggest military-related challenges in the United States, according to Kurkjian, is the civilian-military divide.
“In an environment where fewer and fewer Americans actually know someone in the military, my one foot in the military world, and the other in the USO and civilian world hopefully helps bridge that gap just a little,” he said.
Having been deployed while working for the USO, Kurkjian said he gained “immense appreciation” for being on the receiving end of USO programs.
“Everyone knew the USO was there for them. And that was key,” Kurkjian said.
On his own path to Afghanistan, Kurkjian said, the USO had a presence every step of the way, from leaving LAX to arriving at Bagram Air Field.
“There was this amazing continuity of service – every step along that path that covered three continents,” he said.
And once stationed overseas, the USO’s presence was still felt. The group organized a Fourth of July celebration at Bagram Airfield that featured carnival games, “goofy prizes,” and a fried Oreo machine.
“When you walked into that event, you weren’t at Bagram Air Force Base anymore,” he said. “You were back home at the state fair.”
Active in both the military and civilian world, Kurkjian said the biggest lesson from the reserves that applies to his USO work is simply how to deal with people.
“In the military, you’re around people who come from an enormous variety of backgrounds and walks of life and religious beliefs and political beliefs and life experiences that had I not been in the military, had I only worked in the LA area or the D.C. area, I likely would have never encountered,” he said. “It’s given me a very important appreciation for different opinions and different life experiences and really helped me understand the larger national dialogue that ebbs and flows.”
As his dual careers continue, Kurkjian is working to ensure there is a USO presence in every area of his region where troops are present.