A March Toward Fun, Family & Fitness

Trends in Military Recreation

By Chris Gelbach

As the military and the interests and needs of service members evolve, these shifts are also leading to new directions and trends in military recreation. In some cases, COVID-19 has augured in innovative ways of doing things that will likely remain far after the pandemic passes. In other respects, the coronavirus has mainly served to boost trends that were already on the rise.

A Return to the Outdoors

One trend growing even before the pandemic was increasing interest in outdoor programming and activities.

Not surprisingly, this has been a particularly notable trend at Fort Carson, located outside of Colorado Springs at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. "Our trend for a while at Fort Carson has been outdoor activities—100%," said Justin Glenn, community recreation officer for the Directorate of Family and MWR at Fort Carson.

A few years ago, Glenn's department set up a quality-of-life-based community wellness program called Mountain Post Living that helps service members and families take full advantage of the bounteous natural opportunities in the area.

"We're taking folks, we're getting them trained up, checking out equipment, and then we would transport them to Breckenridge or any of the cool resorts that are within about a two-hour drive," Glenn said. "The same goes for whitewater rafting."

For that activity, the installation has developed a program that brings in college students for summer internships and certifies them as whitewater raft guides. The hope is that they come back after graduation to continue in those roles providing this recreational option for service members on base.

"That's a marquee program for Fort Carson, and unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, we weren't able to deliver that program this year," Glenn said. "So that was a huge blow financially for sure, but also a resource that gets heavy utilization that we were not able to deliver."

The outdoor programs and services that are up and running at many installations are seeing unprecedented use, in part because of COVID.

"The biggest thing I am seeing right now is people are looking for something to get active and to do something local. There's not the travel and that kind of stuff anymore," said Chris Remillard, community recreation officer for USAG West Point. "When COVID hit the military, they stopped everybody moving from installation to installation. So we have people who thought they were moving who got held at their current installation for three, four, five months."

Because many outside communities near bases have also restricted what people in the local community can do, many service members and families have turned to outdoor activities using equipment from on-base rental programs.

"Our outdoor recreation checkout program revenue for the month of June is 128% higher than June of 2019," said Matt Enoch, chief of the community recreation division at USAG Fort Riley in Kansas. "For the fiscal year, we're still outpacing last year, even though we were shut down for three months."

Popular rentals at Fort Riley include all kinds of boats (ski boats, pontoons, fishing boats, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards), campers and trailers, other camping equipment, bounce houses and more. "I'd like to continue to expand because I don't think we have enough," Enoch said.

Earl Higgs, chief of the community recreation division at Fort Knox, has likewise seen increased interest in adventure programs such as canoeing, kayaking, backpacking trips and day hikes. But he's seen big changes in the equipment people are wanting over the years. This includes a shift in interest from tent camping to campers that provide more amenities.

"We don't see that many of the young military families wanting to tent camp," Higgs said. "We see more of them wanting to go into a camper where they have the restroom facility and shower right there in the camper. They have a stove, they have a microwave, they have a television."

As a result, the base's equipment checkout center rents fewer tents and more camper vans ranging from 20 to 33 feet in length. He's also seeing similar trends in boating.

"Many years ago, a 35- or 40-horsepower fishing boat was popular," Higgs said. "Now we're up to 175-horsepower bass boats, deck boats and pontoon boats. Particularly if they're taking their family out, they're looking for something they all can enjoy."

At the Navy's China Lake installation in Ridgecrest, Calif., the facility was not yet able to rent out equipment due to current COVID-19 regulations, so the facility has moved toward a more consultative role in encouraging outdoor recreation.

"We're providing assets so they can self-recreate—they can get information about hiking, about how to get out and use our local parks, and local resources for self-directed recreation," said Leslie Gould, fleet and family readiness director for NAWS China Lake. "We're facilitating self-directed recreation to an extent we never have before. Usually, we're the ones getting them to go on a bus, go on a tour, supporting them. Now we're doing self-directed recreational support. And it's needed."

E-gaming is another activity growing in popularity, with the Navy sponsoring recent competitions in games like Fortnite and Madden. In addition to being fun, these initiatives can help Navy members develop hand-eye coordination that's beneficial for certain Navy roles.

Time for a Quest

At Fort Riley, Enoch is also seeing strong ongoing interest in Warrior Adventure Quest, a program sponsored by the Department of Defense. "It provides team-building, high-adrenaline activities that are geared for the soldier who has recently redeployed with the intent of lessening negative incidents soldiers engage in in those 30 to 90 days after they return from the deployment," Enoch said.

Typical activities for the program include things like paintball, ropes courses, climbing, skeet shooting, skiing, snowboarding and zip-lining, but Enoch is also seeing it move into more unique and fun-based options. "Warrior Adventure Quest used to be really strictly focused on things like whitewater rafting and paintball, which are still really popular," Enoch said. "Now you have it expanding into escape rooms, archery tag, bubble soccer and other unique activities just to expand the menu and give them more options to choose from."

Because the soldiers do the activities with those they were deployed with, they help provide the action and camaraderie that service members often miss in the weeks following the deployment.

According to Gould, the Navy is seeing similarly high interest in its related program, Sailor Adventure Quest, though the program and its approach are somewhat different and tailored to the specific stresses that Navy service members are dealing with.

"Our sailors, when they come off ship, it's not the same type of stress that maybe an Army person would deal with coming back from Afghanistan," Gould said. It may not be as much of a stress related to a sense of imminent danger, but instead the stress of working long hours, being cooped up in tight spaces with the same people constantly, and not seeing family for months.

"What we find with a lot of the sailors, when they want to come to do something with MWR, is that they actually don't want to be with their unit," Gould said. "They want to go out and be able to have the skills to go out to do activities where it is self-directed recreation."

With Sailor Adventure Quest, "the motto is to make them a comfortable beginner by the time they leave us for the day," Gould said. An introduction to golf might consist of a 30-minute lesson, an introduction to the culture of the activity and then maybe three holes of golf. "It's a short activity that is completely about just fun and it's not intimidating, it's not beyond their skill level, and we get them hooked on that particular activity," Gould said.

In the end, this approach introduces young sailors to recreational activities they have never before tried, whether it be active pursuits such as golf, kayaking, surfing, fishing, paddle boarding and scuba diving or even skills like guitar playing, cooking or photography. "But the key with this 21st century sailor is to end on fun," Gould said. "I can't stress that enough."

The Army is likewise trying to teach new skills and provide fun opportunities to single soldiers through its BOSS (Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers) program. "We're trying to get these guys so they're not cooped up in the barracks, which is basically like a college dorm, and provide them with resources and skills to improve their quality of life," Glenn said. These activities can include everything from volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or food kitchens, to fun activities like horseback riding or ATV rides, fishing trips, or even lessons on how to cook with a hot plate and a microwave.

Facilities Get Flexible

Gould has also seen a shift toward more flexible spaces and toward consolidation of recreational activities into a single hub for efficiency. This includes a trend toward multifunction sports courts. "For instance, if I'm going to redo a basketball court, I might do a corrugated flooring that I can flip on one side for volleyball, I could have basketball or I could do pickleball," Gould said, noting also that the pickleball trend is even taking off now among young service members.

The co-location of recreational facilities into a single hub where people can visit the library, purchase tickets and attend classes instead of going to several locations introduces numerous efficiencies. "We may run that with only a staff of five or six, versus having eight facilities that are spread out and a different person at each facility," Gould said. By co-locating facilities with one customer-facing desk, it streamlines operations and makes things easier for customers, while allowing more of the recreation budget to go toward programming, supplies and equipment.

Enoch is likewise seeing an emphasis at the facility level on flexibility. "We definitely see a move toward multiuse facilities where stuff is modular, shifted around and almost like a chameleon where you can make a facility several different things depending on what you need to do," Enoch said.

This emphasis on flexibility also extends to adding amenities to existing facilities. As golf and bowling have trended downward among young soldiers, Fort Riley converted a site that had previously been a golf course into an outdoor adventure park with recreational opportunities for everyone from soldiers to small children. Fort Riley took out half the bowling lanes at its bowling center to create a family entertainment center with glow mini golf, a climbing wall, golf simulators, batting cages, billiards, darts, karaoke and more.

COVID Considerations

While different installations have worked with local governments and conditions to determine how to reopen coming out of lockdown, COVID-19 is in some cases creating trends that may persist long after the pandemic's end.

At USAG West Point, the installation quickly transitioned to an online checkout system for rental equipment. Once areas like the outdoor swimming area at Long Pond opened, ticket sales also went online with a strict 60-person limit at each of two three-hour sessions.

According to Remillard, this system ensures that customers won't show up and be disappointed when they're unable to get in, while also increasing safety for staff. "It was to reduce those friction points between our staff and our patrons, and also to reduce the lines because of COVID," Remillard said. "And the nice thing about our online system is, if you're out there, you can literally pull up your phone and if there are tickets available, you can buy one right there on the phone."

Remillard has also seen increased interest in outdoor fitness classes like paddleboard yoga, and in more traditional activities that people can do at home or in small groups, from increased library usage to spikes in fishing, kayaking and canoeing.

He also expects certain practices to remain on an ongoing basis, such as a move from soap and water to clean equipment to use of a 10-minute virus-killing sanitizer. Other adaptations, like leaving a day in between cabin rentals, or shifting outdoor summer movies to a drive-in format may not remain. And his team is figuring out best practices for the upcoming season now.

"We operate one of three ski areas in the Army," Remillard said. "We are looking very heavily at what's happening across the globe at places like Australia, Chile, Argentina. How are they dealing with COVID-related responses to skiing? We've got between now and mid-December to get a plan together on how we're going to be safe to teach people skiing because on average, we do about 500 lessons a year."

At Fort Carson, Glenn has also seen value in growing communications through social media posts and in delivering programs via live feeds or pre-taped materials. Some of these options may remain for certain programs after the pandemic ebbs because they are reaching more people.

"Versus having a class held at the outdoor recreation center where we have a max capacity of 40 people, we're doing this live feed on Wednesday and we're getting 500 to 800 views, which for our community is fantastic," Glenn said. Fort Carson has likewise seen almost triple the participants in its virtual story times that are offered both by live feed and videotape.

And both Army and Navy installations have worked amid the pandemic to increase library digital resources. Right now, Gould is managing a joint-service initiative that will consolidate library services into one centralized system for the Department of Defense that will transform the library program into more of a community recreation hub. "The library is where we see classes happening, skill building, and it all tying into either paperback resources or hard-copy resources but more importantly, digital resources," Gould said.

Fitness Goes Functional

Meanwhile, the trend of functional fitness has accelerated even more rapidly in the military, spurred in part by the adoption of the new Army Combat Fitness Test. The new test debuting October 2020 includes a three-rep deadlift, a medicine ball throw, a new push-up variation, a sprint-drag-carry featuring a sled and kettlebells, a leg tuck on a pull-up bar, and a two-mile run.

"We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on functional fitness equipment that is designed to prepare the soldier for the rigors of actual combat and deployment work," Enoch said. "Our gyms have completely transformed over the last five years."

Since COVID, military recreation pros are also seeing a shift in how soldiers use these facilities. "Even though we still have our cardio equipment out, when people are coming in, they're using the selectorized equipment or the free weights," Remillard said. "For cardio, they're running or going for a walk outside, or finding different types of activity to do [outside] like paddle boarding, kayaking or biking."

At Fort Knox, Higgs noted that they've conducted some fitness classes outside in response to the pandemic. But unpredictable weather has caused them to move some classes back inside, where the base's facility enables classes with significant social distancing of 8 to 10 feet between participants. "You hate to schedule something and have to cancel it, so we lean more toward the inside," Higgs said. "We have this large building that we can easily accommodate 15 to 20 people for a fitness class and space them safely apart."

Community Partnerships for Mutual Benefit

Military recreation experts believe there's extensive benefits both for installations and for the local communities surrounding them in partnering whenever possible—but it isn't necessarily a quick or easy process.

"It's going to take time," Remillard said. "Nothing is ever quick with us. Because we have to go through all the legal hurdles and that kind of stuff. But once you're able to get those agreements, they're great."

Glenn noted that Fort Carson has intergovernmental support agreements with local municipalities aimed at reducing costs and providing more program opportunities to soldiers and community members. "Our public works department has worked out a great deal with the city of Colorado Springs for some leveraging power," Glenn said. "I try to do the same with the cities of Fountain and Colorado Springs for either trail network development or playground upkeep, maintenance and replacement. If we can partner on joint-use contracts and get the best bang for the buck, that just improves the quality of life and resources for the whole community."

Enoch noted that Fort Riley is likewise trying to develop an intergovernmental service agreement with the city of Manhattan, Kan., and with Kansas State University for the use of Fort Riley's pool, which will be the only Olympic-sized indoor pool in the area once the university's aging facility closes. "It's difficult for me to offer that to our community partners without a written agreement," Enoch said. "So what we're working toward is a recourse-sharing cooperative where I let you use my pool—what do you have that I don't that I can use?"

While partnering with the military may take time, it's something that the military is very open to and that can present tremendous opportunities for local communities. "Our installation management command has, at the highest level of the headquarters levels, said these agreements are good. It makes our services more efficient. It provides cost savings," Enoch said. "If you're in a community and you're near an Army installation, then you should be encouraged to go knock on doors and say, 'Hey, let's explore where we can share some resources.'" RM



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