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 Advancing Morale, Welfare & Recreation amidst GTMO pressures and stresses

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Guantanamo Bay Naval Station

Defense Systems Journal spent time in December 2013 with GTMO’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) Director Tara Culbertson and MWR Outdoor Recreation Director Tim Baugh to explore how their organization implements its mission in this unique environment.
 
Ms. Culbertson, who has been in her post for three and half years and Mr. Baugh, who has been at GTMO for over two years as the MWR’s Outdoor Recreation Director, note that the mission of MWR is to provide positive recreational experiences for active duty service-members, their families, and all residents of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station (GBNS).  They see their jobs as making an important contribution to the morale and welfare, the mental and physical well-being, of GTMO’s 5,500+ military and civilian residents.  Says Culbertson: “GMTO is a special place and it provides us with a great opportunity to introduce people to a wide range of recreational options.”
 
A Special Mission
 
MWR’s mission at GTMO is particularly important for two reasons that don’t necessarily extend to stateside bases.  First is the exceedingly high stress environment that many at GTMO – including the 1,200-member Joint Detachment Group (JDG) guard ranks within the Army’s Joint Task Force (JTF) – encounter daily.  Second is the fact that, unlike at most bases in the United States and even many abroad, there are simply no “outside the gate” opportunities for personnel entertainment and diversion. 

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“MWR is about reducing stress for these dedicated men and women” Culbertson says.  “When we get them doing something fun, their job problems get smaller and their work environments get better.”  Baugh agrees, adding: “I see my job here as pulling people out of their barracks, to keep them from secluding themselves.  I want to get them into the fresh air doing something enjoyable.  There’s no doubt that morale goes up when we get outside and take part in something."

And MWR at GTMO is exceedingly popular.  Culbertson notes that in just-passed Fiscal Year 2013, GTMO’s MWR offerings attracted a total of 1.3 individual visits from the Naval Station’s 5,500 residents, this number including participants across the scope and range of the organization’s offerings, including indoor and outdoor activities, child care, restaurants, etc.

An Outdoor Recreation Dream

Given GTMO’s location in the Caribbean, its no surprise that diving, fishing, sailing, and other water sports top the list of MWR’s most popular activities. 

Scuba diving is incredibly popular at GTMO.  Indeed, Baugh estimates that half of the Servicemembers at GTMO participate in diving during their stays and he notes that up to 50 people come to MWR monthly to become certified as open water scuba divers.  To do this, MWR works closely with a local PADI dive and equipment shop, assisting GTMO personnel in gaining these certifications with a high degree of professionalism at a reasonable cost.

Fishing and water-skiing are also very popular, with the MWR Marina’s modern fleet of fourteen pontoon boats, six V-bottom boats, ten flat-bottom skiffs, three sailboats, ten paddleboards, and twenty-five kayaks in great demand, particularly on weekends and holidays.

Among the prized fish pulled from the Bay into MWR boats with regularity are barracuda, grouper, jack, mackerel, permit, shark, and snapper.  MWR sponsors several tournaments annually as well as low-cost “Liberty” fishing trips for active duty service members.  Baugh notes that MWR works to keep boat rental fees reasonable and the organization provides low cost instruction as well.

MWR offers free sailing lessons with a view towards teaching a skill that sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines can enjoy for a lifetime.  Army Staff Sargent Rebecca Wood, a Kentucky National Guardsman stationed at GTMO since April 2013, tells DSJ that, when she came here she was determined to learn how to sail and was able to accomplish that through MWR.  She quickly learned and now sails as often as she can.

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As Sgt. Wood, pictured here at the helm, flanked by two of her co-workers, notes: “MWR brings opportunities to people stationed on a base that they may or may not normally have where they are from. I come from a landlocked state where sailing isn’t something people strive to do. Without this opportunity I never would have known that I like to sail, that I had the capacity to be good at it and what a wonderful experience it is.”

Adjacent, if not in the water, GTMO sports eleven public beaches, many littered with prized sea glass, coral and shells and equipped to varying degrees with cabanas, showers, beach volleyball courts, restrooms, and BBQ grills.  Snorkeling, body boarding, and surfing are popular pastimes for Servicemembers and their families.

Ashore, MWR runs leagues in sports including basketball, bowling, football, kickball, soccer, softball and sponsors a host of races annually, including 5K and 10Ks, a ten-miler, half- and full marathons as well as trail runs, triathalons and an annual Guantanamo Bay Swim.  A robust schedule of classes is held in an array of areas including power/strength training, spinning, yoga, water aerobics, and Zumba.

Something for everyone

Culbertson notes that she and her staff work to keep MWR closely in sync with customer demand.  This means investing in new programs like Zumba and Power Training, but also in facilities like the soon-to-open Denich Gym expansion, the “Ground Zero” paintball range and new recreational equipment including standing paddleboards, kayaks and mountain bikes.

Just as critically, she notes, MWR’s customer-first orientation also means being willing and able to adjust program schedules to accommodate the needs of a workforce with varied hours.  Using the example of shifting the MWR Marina hours away from early morning hours (when it wasn’t being used) to allow for evening hours where there is demand is one example.  “We can’t keep everything open all of the time, but we can offer activities and services when people want them and not be locked into a 9-5 mentality." 

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The open-air Lyceum cinema at GTMO offers first-run movies free-of-charge.

MWR programs extend well beyond outdoor sports, to include a broad swath of entertainment and educational opportunities.  Of note are the MWR’s two theaters, including the open-air Lyceum cinema (right) offering free movies and cheap snacks nightly, with some new releases playing in midnight showings.  The Band Room at Marine Hill offers Servicemembers an opportunity to jam on guitars and drum sets.
 
Perhaps the most wide-reaching service MWR provides to the residents of GTMO is Wi-Fi Hotspots, which Baugh says now number fifteen.  These sites allow troops that might not have access in their residences community-based access to the Internet and connectivity with their friends and family at home.
 
Culbertson notes that because of the lack of off-base, beyond-the-gate alternatives, she and her staff pay particular attention to sustaining activities – including such things as auto skills, bingo, pottery and woodworking -- for a range of age groups that CONUS-based MWR programs need not regularly support.  Further, based on the Naval Station’s unique location and circumstances, MWR “Liberty Program” activities, generally limited to young (18-24 year-old) unaccompanied Servicemembers, are open to all active duty personnel at GTMO. 
 
Making a difference 
 
Culbertson, who has worked in MWR for 19 years, also feels a special affinity to GTMO.  “MWR really is a lifeline and it really is a pleasure to be able to provide these things to our Servicemembers and their families.” 

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Tim Baugh, MWR Outdoor Programs Director and Tara Culbertson, MWR Director

Baugh, who came to Guantanamo in 2011 from a recreation program at Penn State University, says that his current job is the most rewarding of his career.  “This is far more gratifying than my past work because you get that instant feedback when you make someone happy.  I know that we are making a difference.”
 
While getting away from ones colleagues has some real value, so too does socializing with co-workers in a low-stress environment.  Culbertson and Baugh explain that they see many groups or detachments (Dets) use MWR activities for team-building outings ranging from picnics and barbeques to kayaking, camping trips, and paintball and MWR encourages this.
 
Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, chief of the Joint Task Force (JTF) prison camps’ public relations team, tells DSJ that the MWR plays a key role and “does a fantastic job” in advancing the health and welfare of the GTMO community, including 1,200-member Joint Detachment Group (JDG) guard ranks, all of whom live at GTMO on unaccompanied tours.  Cmdr. Filostrat explains that the JTF and JDG utilize MWR outings, including golf outings, beach barbeques, fishing and camping trips to sustain organizational morale.
 
Summarizes Commander Filostrat: “MWR gets our folks a chance to decompress in a healthy environment. GTMO’s MWR program is the best that I’ve seen in my twenty years in the Navy.” 

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