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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”