NEW YORK – The long months away from home can make life on a military base lonely and monotonous. But a growing number of bases are organizing recreation programs to help combat the boredom.
In addition to services like fitness centers and swimming pools, there are a host of other activities soldiers and sailors can participate in to take their minds off impending war and make the most of their time overseas.
Many bases offer outdoors activities such as horseback riding, skiing, rock climbing, SCUBA diving and mountain biking. There are also organized shopping excursions, concerts, sporting events and sightseeing tours so soldiers can see more of the countries they are stationed in, as well as take classes like woodworking or martial arts.
"You have a lot of free time. You need things to do. A lot of these programs are designed to fill that void," said Capt. Kevin McNamara, the Navy’s director of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation department, which administers the activities.
Though the MWR isn’t new, it has evolved significantly in the past decade because the military has realized how important a satisfying lifestyle is to its personnel and their productivity.
"One of the whole purposes is to address the quality-of-life of the people," McNamara said. "They tend to do a better job and stay in the Navy. That is what this is all about."
McNamara said more money and attention has been given to MWR, which currently offers at least 50 different programs to Navy personnel around the world. The other branches of the military also have MWR departments.
The on-base offerings at Sasebo Naval Base in Japan exemplify how MWR can spice up sailors' free time: 25-cent midnight movies; weekend snacks from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.; comedy shows and bands at the base's theater; and a sports competition for night owls called "Midnight Madness."
But the activities aren't just for fun and games. One practical reason behind the array of leisure programs is to deter soldiers from spending the bulk of their free time getting into trouble off-base and carousing in the local bars.
"They wanted to give alternatives to going out over the weekend," said Joe Giordono, a correspondent for Pacific Stars and Stripes, a daily newspaper distributed on American bases. "They want to have them think of their free time as something other than time to go sit in a bar."
A number of highly-publicized incidents involving military servicemen have underscored the need to provide alternatives to stirring up trouble, according to Giordono. The USS Kitty Hawk made headlines last year for several arrests of its personnel, including that of one sailor for attempted robbery and assault, another for carjacking and a third for smuggling marijuana.
"That’s the kind of stuff [these programs] are aimed at preventing," Giordono said.
The programs may not be able to keep all soldiers and sailors from going out on the town, but the military has reported a decrease in the number of alcohol-related incidents in recent years, according to Giordono.
"It's pretty easy to get sucked into going to the Hooch or Roppongi every weekend," Airman Chester Bobak of the USS Kitty Hawk told Stars and Stripes, referring to some popular nightspots near his base.
But the base's relatively new recreation program gives people more choices, Bobak said. "This teaches you how to find different ways to spend your free time," he told the paper.
Giordono said soldiers will always enjoy living it up at the local watering holes, but the additional activities help engage them in more productive endeavors.
"Are you ever going to make rock climbing the No. 1 option over going to a club? No," said Giordono. "But I think in terms of the number of options that [the programs] provide, they’re pretty effective."
McNamara said participation in the MWR activities is high and helps lighten the load for personnel who are far from home.
"The Navy is a hard life," he said. "This is a way to soften it and make it a little more enjoyable."