Feature Article - March 2016
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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.