WASHINGTON – 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.
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.
It all converges after 11 years of war — at a time when safe, affordable options for military members and their families to blow off steam are more important than ever, said Bob Vogt, the Army’s division chief for soldier and community recreation.
“If we didn’t have the programs offered on an installation for a soldier or his family, they would have to go find a release somewhere else,” he said. “We have a safe, controlled environment on our installations, and we can offer a reduced fee for a lot of programs to help them release some of that pent-up stress and frustration.
“So our goal is to try not to reduce or eliminate any services and to try to maintain the current level of services,” Vogt said.
In some cases, that has required the Army to borrow from nonappropriated-fund activities to keep fitness centers and other appropriated activities running.
“But we can only do that for so long, because it puts our funding under a lot of strain,” Vogt said. “Over the short term, it allows you to maintain your services. But if you start diverting funds from self-sustaining activities for an extended period of time, you lose your ability to recapitalize. When the roof on the club collapses or the freezer blows up, you don’t have the funds you need to recapitalize.”
Across the services, officials 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.”
The decisions to reduce or eliminate services have been tough, Vogt acknowledged.
“With sequestration and the loss of appropriated fund support to continue many of our programs, we are going to have to increase user fees, reduce hours or possibly eliminate services,” he said. “But we are doing everything in our power not to let that happen.”
As decisions are made, the emphasis remains on readiness, officials emphasized.
The Navy, for example, has put fitness, libraries and the Liberty Program that serves single sailors at the top of its list, reported Lorraine Seidel, Navy recreation program manager.
“Those programs are pretty important to have,” she said. “So by curtailing other programs somewhat, but not down to the bone, we are allowing some flexibility to retain those things that we really need to have on the base.”
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, Seidel reported. 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.
In other cases, installations are opening their doors to outside patrons. Many Army posts invite local swim teams to their pools and high school golf clubs to their golf courses. One particularly successful arrangement between the Presidio of Monterey and the city of Monterey, Calif., provides free maintenance services on the post’s sports fields in exchange for city use of those fields based on availability, Vogt reported.
“We are generating income, working with our partners outside the gate, and offering programs we might not otherwise be able to offer,” he said. “We are trying to be creative and tie into municipalities outside the gate, many of them in the same situation we are. So it is a perfect time for us to partner with everybody.”
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,” Seidel said. “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.”