Innovative programs keep MWR relevant

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service

Military fitness centers, swimming pools, lodging facilities and outdoor recreation offices might sound to some like a footnote among competing budget requirements. But Ed Miles, DOD’s MWR policy director, and his counterparts across the military services see a close connection to military readiness.

“We have a direct impact on the readiness and retention and resilience of the troops and their families,” Miles told American Forces Press Service. “When you have a healthy and fit force, it has absolute national security implications -- in terms of stress reduction, physical and emotional health and esprit de corps.

Congress has long agreed, authorizing funds since 1989 to cover 85 percent of programs with the most direct link to readiness: fitness centers, community centers and library programs, among them, Miles explained.

Amenities such as arts-and-crafts centers, outdoor recreation centers and youth programs that are less directly tied to readiness receive a lower authorization of 65 percent.

Meanwhile, “nice-to-have” offerings such as military golf courses, bowling alleys, campgrounds, food and beverage services and similar services generally must be self-supporting, with user fees covering all costs and overhead.

A variety of factors has thrown this formula off kilter, Miles said. With increased privatization, almost three-quarters of military families now live off installations and tap services and programs in their communities. Many, like their civilian neighbors, have fewer spare dollars to spend on recreation. And with sequestration putting a big dent in already-reduced MWR budgets, the military services find themselves struggling to provide quality-of-life programs and services to their members.

The Air Force, along with the other services, are looking at other ways to keep MWR programs viable.

They’re beginning to scale back operating hours at fitness centers to the Defense Department-mandated 90 hours per week. Patrons increasingly find themselves being asked to pay nominal fees for aerobics and other fitness classes taught by paid staffers. Library hours at many installations have been reduced to 40 hours a week. Most bases now operate just one pool to reduce lifeguard salaries and other overhead costs. Outdoor recreation centers are considering charging rental fees for skis and other equipment, rather than the smaller maintenance fee charged in the past. Concerts and other special entertainment have been scaled back or cancelled altogether.

Volunteers, long the backbone of many MWR services and programs, are putting in more time in fitness centers, family support centers and libraries as well as on intramural fields to cover personnel shortfalls.

“It would be a lot tougher for our staff to deliver the quantity and quality of programs they do without those volunteers,” Miles said. “And with sequestration, we find that we are depending on them more than ever. Without our volunteers, we would be in a world of hurt.”

Committed to preserving quality-of-life offerings despite ever-tighter budgets, military morale, welfare and recreation officials are scaling back in some areas as they introduce innovative approaches to delivering services and programs.

Based on extensive surveys, the Air Force identified fitness, appropriated-fund dining facilities, youth and child care services, outdoor programs and libraries as its most important offerings, said Michael Bensen, the Air Force Personnel Center’s deputy director of services.

In some cases, the services are trying new innovations to keep popular programs running.

The Air Force, for example, is testing a pilot program at six bases that gives qualified users 24/7 access to fitness centers, even after the paid staff has left for the day. Based on the results, the initiative could be expanded to more bases, Bensen explained.

The Navy is revamping its community recreation program to bundle services and programs at one location. A waterfront recreational area at Naval Base San Diego serves as a model, combining outdoor recreation services and the ticket booth for local tours and attractions under one roof, served by a central front desk. Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, initiated a similar concept, consolidating MWR activities under one overall manager.

New partnerships are helping to keep services going despite budget cuts. In some cases, military patrons now get free or low-cost access to community or commercial services and programs that their installations no longer offer.

For example, Joint Base Andrews in Maryland established a partnership with a popular private-sector company that teaches rappelling, kayaking and other outdoor activities to military patrons. That saves the Air Force the cost of hiring its own instructors while ensuring “a quality experience at a reduced cost,” Bensen said.

That mindset must continue to sustain morale, welfare and recreation programs through the current budget crunch, officials said. The result, they said, will have a direct impact on military readiness.

“We think MWR makes for an overall healthy living experience,” said Lorraine Seidel, Navy recreation program manager. “If we don’t take a step back and take care of ourselves, we lose the ability to function and be at our best. That underlies everything MWR strives to provide, so [service members] can live a healthy life and be ready for the job.”