Working With Warriors

Military Fitness and Recreation: Serving Those Who Serve

By Richard Zowie

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," an old adage made famous in the 1980 horror film The Shining, helps describe the importance for military service members of relieving their occupational stress through relaxation and recreation. Bases across America and throughout the world offer a vast array of alternatives for helping our troops get the fulfillment they need when taking a break from serving our country.

ases provide these types of activities through their fitness centers and recreation centers, where the services offered usually depend on the location of the base. Bases located near the ocean, for example, might offer more aquatic activities, while bases located in colder climates might offer things like skating and skiing.

"Frankly, I think each military base is unique, so I see more similarities than differences," said Robert Torres, public affairs officer at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.

Torres talked about the activities on NAS Corpus Christi that give it so much appeal. "I suspect that the on-base saltwater fishing and the easy access to bay and gulf fishing is somewhat unique," he said. "Kayaking, wind-sailing and other water-related sports are a premium with all the sun and warmth of the Coastal Bend area."

Fitness centers offer standard amenities like weight rooms, basketball and racquetball courts, volleyball, cardio machines, tennis courts, and running tracks and paths. There also are classrooms for aerobics and martial arts. Outside, there are more activities, like softball, beach volleyball, flag football, soccer, golf, sailing and even some unusual sports, like Frisbee golf.

Some bases offer picturesque fitness activities, such as Naval Air Station Pensacola's one-way eight-mile running trail that runs the length of the water near the base.

And speaking of water, if you like swimming, there's plenty of that as well, in the form of pools and even competitive swimming.

For those who like to camp, NAS Corpus Christi offers such capabilities at its marina. It features recreation vehicle slots, and rentable mobile homes that can be set up at the RV part or hitched to a vehicle and used for camping.

And, of course, in today's rapidly evolving technological environment, recreation centers are usually equipped with Internet access—making it easier for service members to instantaneously keep in touch with their family and loved ones.

Fit to Serve

While some military bases offer fitness activities and options as a way to help service members relax, there's also an overwhelming motivation to use these services to keep troops mission-ready.

"Fitness and physical conditioning are addressed from a mission-readiness perspective, rather than a recreation perspective," explained Jim Swilley, commander of the Fleet and Family Recreation Branch at Navy Installations Command in Millington, Tenn. "Each Navy installation's Morale, Welfare and Recreation department has the responsibility of helping sailors meet their overall fitness goals, and reduce health risks and future heath care costs, thereby improving Navy readiness." Swilley said the Navy Fitness Program consists of fitness programs and awareness and promotions.

Fitness centers can even be set up non-terrestrially, such as on board ships. Kerry Shanaghan, director of Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Naval Air Station Pensacola, said that on large decks of vessels such as aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships, there's a civilian MWR fitness instructor to oversee fitness activities and programming onboard. Recreational activities are planned by a civilian MWR professional who sets up tours in ports, and plans recreational activities and programming while under way.

The Air Force is no different, and provides recreation and fitness for airmen serving around the world. "Fitness and recreation programs are included in the deployment packages the Air Force sends to wherever the mission requires," said Jerry Stanfill, 37th Services Division chief at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. "Airmen trained in morale, welfare, recreation, fitness, lodging and food service deploy throughout the world to support deploying AF units. The Air Force emphasis is on fitness, readiness and taking care of the Air Force family."

Lackland—where, among its many other missions, the Air Force trains its new recruits—offers six fitness centers totaling more than 148,000 square feet with more than 300 cardio and strength equipment machines, multiple basketball, racquetball and volleyball courts, free-weight rooms, and many intramural sports. Two slides were recently added to Lackland's family pool, and the pools, according to Stanfill, serve a dual purpose.

In addition to providing a little aquatic recreation, Lackland's pools are used for more serious pursuits. "[They] provide military training support for key technical training courses offered at Lackland," Stanfill explained.

Popularity Contest

What are the most popular fitness activities among U.S. troops?

In the Navy, they tend to prefer using fitness equipment. According to Swilley, Navy fitness centers currently house more than 7,000 pieces of various cardiovascular equipment and more than 21,000 strength training machines—not including free weight equipment.

"The most popular and commonly used fitness program elements in the Navy are informal fitness workouts in the fitness center using cardiovascular machines, resistance strength machines and free weights," Swilley explained. "The most popular cardio machines are treadmills and elliptical cross-trainers. Group exercise classes are also very popular and are offered on all Navy installations in varying numbers of classes and sessions. Additionally, lap swimming is popular among all ages."

Swilley added that more than 2,000 intramural men's and women's sports programs are provided annually, and that the most popular intramural sports are softball, basketball, soccer and volleyball.

Stanfill said that with his base's diverse customer base, it's almost impossible to determine which activities or programs are the most popular. However, they do have a large number of participants in their intramural program, with more than 160 teams participating in various sports.

Many patrons use the cardio and strength equipment in the base's six fitness centers. Their fitness runs (each one is themed) are also popular, with an early Christmas run fielding more than 250 runners and giving out more than $2,500 in prizes.

"Volksmarches (a non-competitive, 10-kilometer fitness walk on an outdoor path) are quite popular in Europe and have a strong following amongst the many Air Force personnel who have been assigned in Europe," Stanfill added. "Paintball is also quite popular with the airmen in training. It gives them an activity that is fun, outdoors and away from their training environment."

Bruce Lloyd, public affairs officer for Naval Air Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said his base's location makes for some very active sports competitions. "It's much more intense as we are the sole provider for the entire isolated and remote-duty station community," he explained.

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Besides fitness and intramural sports, military bases also offer a wide variety of activities in the recreation arena. At the Presidio of Monterey, Calif., home of the Army's Defense Language Institute (DLI), one of the most popular recreation center activities is Internet usage and computer games.

"We're in a computer age," said Bob Emanuel, director, Morale, Welfare and Recreation at the Presidio.

What makes these activities especially popular at the Presidio, Emanuel noted, is that the rec center offers free Internet access as well as wireless Internet capabilities.

"We're seeing more and more people coming in with their laptops," he added.

The Presidio tries to keep up with the demands of its service members. Emanuel said that the staff will make trips to local stores to buy the most recent video games. "We listen to what the young troops want and offer them the activities they like," he explained.

Other popular Presidio rec center activities include billiards, table tennis, televisions, board games, chess and even Texas Hold 'Em poker tournaments.

"[The tournaments] have gone over surprisingly well," Emanuel said, noting that the recreation center plays an integral part in the lives of service members, since many of them are fresh out of basic training and boot camp. "When they come to DLI, the first couple of weeks they're on phase (meaning that they can't leave the base). These are the bulk of our patrons to the rec center. Once they get off phase, they usually head off base a lot since Monterey, unlike lots of military installations, is right in the middle of a tourist town with tons to do."

Lackland, according to Stanfill, offers outdoor recreation programs like horseshoes, as well as skill development programs including arts and crafts activities like painting, photography and custom framing, and even automobile maintenance, where a person can get advice on how to repair or maintain their vehicle. There also are video arcades, Internet cafes and cooking classes—a little bit of everything, in other words.

Shanaghan said that NAS Pensacola offers a little bit of everything as well, including free Internet usage, the latest Xbox and Playstation games, areas to play 8-millimeter movies, and televisions with full cable programming. In addition, there are many off-base activities, like trips to Disney World, Busch Gardens, New Orleans Saints football games, Atlanta Braves baseball games, whitewater rafting, sky diving, scuba and trips to the beach, local malls and local sporting events and concerts.

Pensacola is also home of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels military aerial demonstration team, and NAS Pensacola offers homecoming air shows for the Angels.

"We also offer board games, card games and a library with a full selection of books and books on tape and CD," Shanaghan said. "[The recreation center] offers a chance to get out of the academic or military environment and relax with your peers."


What about service members who have a taste for the unusual in sports?

No worries. Bases like Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, offer paintball. Other more exotic sports include extreme dodgeball, indoor soccer, indoor and outdoor kickball, whiffleball and Ultimate Frisbee.

Another exotic sport is walleyball, which is similar to volleyball, except that it's played in an enclosed racquetball-sized court, and the ball can be played off the walls—hence the name, walleyball.

"Our walleyball courts reside at our five-star status Chaparral Fitness Center and are a very popular activity," said Jerry Stanfill, 37th Services Division chief at Lackland Air Force Base.

"We have such a demand that we have to take reservations for this activity."

Singled Out

Recreation options on base also help to serve singles during their free time, keeping them out of the trouble they might find elsewhere.

"It is postulated that if we can keep younger service members onboard during their Liberty time, they are less likely to run into trouble out in town, such as underage drinking and other activities," Shanaghan said. "It also saves the service member a lot of money, as all the equipment use in the Liberty Centers and Fitness Centers is free."

Down in Cuba, the recreation program includes Liberty, which offers many different programs for single and unaccompanied personnel from all the service branches that are assigned to Gitmo.

"Due to the isolated and remote conditions, the Liberty program is an integral part of the MWR program and directly contributes to the overall quality of life for personnel residing in the Combined Bachelor Quarters facilities," Lloyd said. "Two Liberty Recreation Centers provide Internet service, various computer games, recreational equipment and supplies for use in the recreation room, including board and table games, pool tables, ping-pong tables and free issue of indoor/outdoor recreational equipment. Our Liberty program annexes located at Camp America and Tierra Kay support sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen and coast guardsmen deployed to Guantanamo in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and detainee security operations. These annexes continue to be a highly popular quality-of-life program."

Family Support

Most military recreation centers also offer programs geared toward youth and families.

At the Warhawk Fitness Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for example, there is now a room where children can play while their parents or guardians exercise, said Jerry Stanfill, 37th Services Division chief at Lackland. "The room opened in June 2007 and has been used more than 1,100 times."

But beyond these simple rooms, there are also youth centers that help support military family life.

"Youth Centers are a huge part of military life—not just for the kids, but for family programming as well," Stanfill explained. "In addition to the open recreational side of the house, a school-age program provides parents with before- and after-school care, as well as all daycare during the summer and school holidays. They offer all of the same amenities—board games, cards, video games, pool tables, foosball tables, ping-pong, air hockey, computers, as well as fine arts, dramatic arts, photography, sewing, crafts and many other recreational opportunities, including educational and recreational field trips."

Stress Relief

Stanfill said that recreational activities and fitness activities play a key role in the success of military personnel as they perform their duties.

"We understand the stress of deployments, regular moves to new assignments and the general stress of being part of the national defense program," he said. "We offer patrons the stability and confidence that they will be physically fit, mentally rejuvenated and their families cared for whether the active-duty member is on-site or deployed. These services are critical to the Air Force's success, whether the mission is at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota or Ramstein Air Base in Germany, or a deployed site in Southwest Asia."

Stanfill added that the success and efficiency of today's Air Force depends on the physical well-being of its members so that they can be prepared for any assignment that needs to be filled.

"The Air Force has embraced a doctrinal concept, the Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF), that calls for units to deploy within a very short timeframe to support joint or combined operations," he said. "Underpinning this concept is Agile Combat Support (ACS). Deploying units will depend on ACS to move the aircraft, logistical equipment, supplies and personnel to meet taskings and conduct operations. For the Air Force to be effective in the fluid AEF environment, service members need to be well trained in their particular specialty, and they also must be physically fit."

Recreation and fitness centers vary depending on whether stateside or in a remote location, Shanaghan said, adding, "Remote locations require compact, transportable and potentially temporary equipment, such as the Navy's theater-in-a-box set (portable movies system), portable basketball courts and moveable fitness equipment. Computer access is a primary concern for family connectivity, whether provided by local Wi-Fi or hardwired computers. Video gaming is prevalent today and easily set up if power is sufficient. Satellite brings in regular programming for TVs."

Emanuel said that in the many years he's spent working in recreational centers, he's observed heavy use in deployed areas, and the Middle East is no exception. "[The rec center] essentially becomes everything," he said. "The ones in Iraq are hubs of activity, and they're critical for combat stress."

Combating stress is something that all services understand is important to the well-being of a service member. Stressed-out service members are ones who will have more challenges performing what often can be very dangerous or demanding jobs. Whatever leisure time they get, Stanfill said, must be taken advantage of.

"Leisure time is often in short supply in a deployed environment, so it's important to offer activities that allow troops to unwind and get their minds off of work, relax and rewind for long shifts," Stanfill explained. "Self-directed and participatory recreational activities help troops maintain their physical and mental well-being and promote esprit de corps. Bazaars with local vendors, movie theaters and rentals, game rooms, pool and card tournaments, live bands and comedians—these activities and much more are offered during sustained operations at our deployed locations. We also offer ways for the airmen to communicate back home with families. Morale calls, and now computers with camera capabilities offer airmen the opportunity to speak and see their families."

Doing More with Less

As bases seek to maintain and, when possible, improve their fitness and recreation centers, they must also try to balance things out with the budget they've been given. When restrictions are in order, adjustments need to be made. The programs' organizers work to offer as many quality services as possible.

Emanuel said that, right now, DLI's rec center is required to be open 56 hours a week, but they're able to keep it open 70. If funding cuts for the next fiscal year are in order, they may have to slow things down and creep closer to the required 56 hours, he said.

"Budgets are always a consideration," Swilley said. "While there often are competing priorities for limited resources, providing first-rate Liberty Centers is a top priority for Navy leadership. Program standards have been established for most MWR programs, including Liberty Centers, and commanders typically go out of their way to ensure their Liberty Centers meet or exceed those standards."

Stanfill added that it's important to make the most of the budget allotted.

"Quality of life programs are not funded at the same level as mission requirements, but fitness programs are declared to be mission-essential and receive strong consideration when funding decisions are made," he said. "There's never been a time when there was enough money to do everything. Today's fiscal environment makes it more difficult to provide all the programs and activities, and some programs at state-side installations are now offered on a fee basis. These decisions are made with serious thought given to the impact of potentially losing a program or the effect that charging participants will have on their limited personal budgets, but the Air Force still places a high priority on readiness and quality of life programs and opportunities for the airmen and their families."

Shanaghan said that money—specifically, non-appropriated funds—can be generated from things like golf courses, bowling alleys, RV parks and marinas to provide capital to fill in the other areas as needed.

"Everyone would like more money to do more things, but the reality of a nation at war is that there might be competing priorities for military dollars, particularly as it relates to stateside shore support," he said.

Lloyd added that down in Cuba, being an isolated and remote-duty station that supports the war on terrorism, they have not experienced any issues or restrictions on their budget requirements.

Torres hopes that at NAS Corpus Christi, improvements can be made. "Our facilities could all use a facelift," he said. "We've got a gym that is almost 70 years old, and is still being used daily. Good, modern sports equipment would be well-received."

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