Military Recreation & Readiness
Innovation, Efficiency and Enhanced Community Engagement
The U.S. Armed Forces considers recreation to be vital to the total force readiness of its military personnel. For this reason, each branch has its own MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) program. These programs can encompass a variety of activities, including fitness, sports and recreational facilities and programs, as well as youth and family activities, entertainment and hospitality amenities.
"In the 1980s, the military started to think of family advocacy as part of morale," said Robert Dozier, chief of public communication for MWR programs for the U.S. Army Installation Management Command. "In the distant past, a high percentage of soldiers were single men. But with the all-volunteer Army, the number of soldiers with families has skyrocketed."
MWR programs are also designed to assist in recruiting and retention. And while some soldiers are assigned to posts near major cities with plenty of parks and other recreation attractions, others are in more remote locations. Dozier noted that starting in the '90s, MWR funding was used to help improve on-post facilities in these areas to address the disparity in recreational opportunities between garrisons.
In the wake of congressional budget cuts, all MWR programs have been forced to streamline their operations. This, in turn, may provide greater opportunities for outside recreation departments in military communities to help fill the gaps in providing sports and recreational opportunities to local troops.
"We are in a position now as we face these reductions to say, how can we develop more partners outside the gate where possible to meet the needs of soldiers despite these budgetary stresses?" Dozier said.
Each Army garrison has a Director of Family and MWR Services, or DFMWR. These individuals can be a good contact point for local recreation managers interested in providing programs to active-duty personnel or in marketing existing programs to them.
While tactics such as advertising in the garrison newspaper can help, Dozier stressed the importance of also considering transportation issues, since many personnel might not have their own vehicle to get outside the base to reach the local paintball facility, park or other amenity.
As tightening budgets force MWR services to streamline their operations, they're also resulting in some locations being converted into spaces that provide a wider array of recreational opportunities in the same footprint.
Leslie Gould, community recreation program manager for Commander, Navy Installations Command, 922, noted that Navy MWR has also made engaging with the outside community a greater focus for the recreators who work on the Navy's approximately 75 installations worldwide.
"What we're doing a lot of times is if we don't have a park on base, we're promoting our parks around our bases," Gould said. "Because our main goal is to get our sailors and families recreating. Whether they're doing it with us, or they're doing it with a municipality or in their local community, our goal is to introduce them to recreation in the best way possible."
And for many activities, it may truly be a first introduction. "We want to introduce the young sailor to recreation," Gould said. "And may be the first time they're trying snowboarding or scuba diving. They're 18 years old. A lot of them haven't had the opportunity to be exposed to multiple levels of recreation."
According to Gould, the Navy has seen a correlation between active participants in these recreation programs and longevity in the military. "They stay in shape, they're healthy, they're more oriented to the environment around them," Gould said. "They're also more likely to go to an overseas duty station if they know that there's great recreation opportunities available to them. They may take a tour of duty to somewhere that's very remote because they want to go there for recreation services purposes."
New Programming Trends
As tightening budgets force MWR services to streamline their operations, they're also resulting in some locations being converted into spaces that provide a wider array of recreational opportunities in the same footprint. Gould noted the example of some former 18-hole Navy golf courses that have been downsized to nine-hole courses, with the other half transformed into recreational green space. "So we've taken nine holes of our golf course and we've converted that into foot golf, disc golf, biking trails, hiking trails and made it like a recreation complex on the base," Gould said. "We're trying to maximize real estate to increase recreational opportunities, while still keeping our golf program at that location."
In terms of programming offerings that are becoming more popular, Gould is seeing surging interest in fun sports like bubble soccer. "Everybody is loving that—our commands love to do it and the recreators love to promote it," Gould said. Also growing in popularity is crafting as a social event, such as paint nights where people get together and learn how to paint a picture. In some locations, these events are becoming weekly or monthly programs.
Gould is also seeing the increasing use of digital technology to provide new twists on traditional program offerings. This includes allowing people to listen to music when they golf using BYOD (bring your own device), and bowling software that allows teams in different bowling centers to compete against each other remotely. "So it's kind of cool that we're using technology in a new way to kind of rebrand an old game in a new age," Gould said.
Programs for Wounded Warriors
MWR professionals are also increasingly focused on providing inclusive recreation opportunities for wounded veterans. Gould noted that Navy MWR sends all of its recreators for a five-day course at Penn State University called the Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors program so that each installation is better prepared to offer these opportunities.
The Navy also has a separate Wounded Warrior Program - Safe Harbor program that coordinates the nonmedical care of seriously wounded, ill and injured sailors and coast guardsmen, using MWR facilities. Similar programs exist for the Air Force and Army.
Likewise, the Marines facilitate the medical and non-medical care of their wounded, ill and injured Marines through the U.S. Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment. Part of this organization, the Warrior Athlete Reconditioning Program (WAR-P), promotes the health and rehabilitation of marines recovering from physical and mental health challenges through adaptive recreation and reconditioning.
To reach veterans more successfully with recreational programming, experts agree that providing opportunities that allow veterans to get together can significantly add to the appeal.
In this program, the recreational offerings being offered have been changing over the past few years to accommodate the changing profile of marines entering the program. "There's been a very marked transition from marines who were dealing with IED blast-induced injuries to marines who might not have physical, visible scars but have PTSD or traumatic brain injuries," said First Lieutenant Andrew Bolla, public affairs officer for the Wounded Warrior Regiment. "Because we are transitioning from wartime to peacetime, our patient population is not only decreasing, but the nature of their injuries and illnesses is changing."
Rachel Barbieto, program manager for WAR-P, is seeing a shift in interest in different recreational programs that is primarily driven by this change. As a result, the programming has started to shift to less of an emphasis on wheelchair and seated activities to more mobile programs that include golfing, rowing, scuba, water sports and winter sports.
Because of these activities, the WAR-P and similar programs can be a great place to contact when creating adaptive or other sports or recreational programs that might be of interest, since they're happy to share those opportunities with their active duty soldiers and veterans. "We can push it out and appreciate those opportunities," Barbieto said.
In terms of programming for this audience, some top sports include those that are featured in the Department of Defense Warrior Games. In this sporting competition, athletes representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command compete. The eight sports in the 2016 games will be archery, cycling, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball.
Engaging the Veteran Audience
To reach veterans more successfully with recreational programming, these experts agree that providing opportunities that allow veterans to get together can significantly add to the appeal. "It's really just bringing people together that want to be together and giving them the opportunity to usually make fun of one another," Bolla said. "But in the grand scheme of things, they're bonding."
Sometimes, hiring a veteran can be one way to show that your programs are relevant to them. Dozier recommends this when looking at hiring for things like fitness programs. "You shouldn't be asking, 'How do I get a soldier into my boot camp program?'" Dozier said. "Your business model should be, how do I hire a soldier so that it enhances the boot camp facility that I have so that soldiers transitioning into the population can take advantage of that opportunity, and it also enhances what I'm offering to the community at large."
Since the military also attracts active, fitness-focused individuals who sometimes develop a love of the outdoors through MWR programming, Gould also has seen many veterans go into recreation management themselves. "Many of our veterans who depart from the military or retire come to work for MWR as recreators later on," Gould said. "Or they get a rec degree when they get out and they start working in a local community in recreation. It works both ways."
Because veterans often enjoy interacting with each other, recreation departments can often make headway with this audience by considering the interests of veterans in their area as a way to attract those first few participants. "And once you start bringing in onesies and twosies together, they know friends who tell a few friends, all of a sudden you have a close-knit group of people who are willing to support your programs," Bolla said.
In some cases, these opportunities for veterans to get together are going beyond recreational opportunities to include public service projects for parks, playgrounds and other environments, as well. One organization providing these and other opportunities to the veterans is The Mission Continues, which has service platoons made up of post-9/11 veterans and non-veteran members in more than 40 cities nationwide.
Aaron Scheinberg, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, is now executive director of the Northeast region for The Mission Continues. After his service, he went to grad school and got a good job in corporate America. "But I was really missing that connection to a deeper service and meaning and doing it in a team and being really active too," Scheinberg said. "And luckily The Mission Continues was founded on that principle that what veterans need most is a connection to a sense of purpose."
While each platoon selects its own area of focus based on needs of that community, Scheinberg estimates that about a quarter of them focus on projects related to parks, playgrounds or similar facilities. In those cases, he recommends that recreation managers reach out to the service platoon leader in your area.
In one project, the organization's New York 2nd Service Platoon brought together more than 100 volunteers for a two-day service project at Fort Wadsworth on Sept. 11 and 12, 2015. The fort, which overlooks New York Harbor and is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, has been closed to the general public because of years of deterioration. The volunteers worked to remove trash and debris from rooms in the Civil War-era building.
"We cleared out 30 tons of trash and debris. Stuff from decades ago," Scheinberg said. "And that was just the beginning. We realized, this is closed to the public and it should be open. So now our effort is on continuing work on removing debris and bringing in experts to help with the flooring and electricity and getting it to a point where it can be used for public good and public use. And all around there's landscaping and trails. There's a lot of work to do."
While each project is different, many events feature large-scale volunteer events of around four hours in which the veterans can assault a task. "We always get underestimated and then people always say, 'Holy crap, I've never seen volunteers work that fast or intensely before,'" Scheinberg said. "Almost every project I've ever done with a new partner has been like that."
In addition to its service platoons, The Mission Continues also offers fellowships to post-9/11 veterans that involve 20 hours of service per week for 26 weeks at a local nonprofit or community organization. Eligible 501(c)(3) organizations can apply with the organization to have a fellow serve with them.
According to Scheinberg, success in getting veterans to participate in these kinds of efforts takes a unique approach. "If you're trying to attract veterans, it's not your grandma's type of service," Scheinberg said. "It can't be nice and flowery. It's got to be badass. It's got to be tough and gritty. That's what attracts veterans. And that's what attracted them to the military."
In addition to helping reintegrate veterans into civilian life, service and recreational programs can give ex-military members a chance to be active, competitive and an asset to their communities.
"We exist because we don't agree with the portrayal of veterans as victims or people who got a bum rap," Scheinberg said. "We see veterans as assets, as leaders, as able to do types of service work that most people don't want to or can't."