While Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (GTMO), Cuba is saddled at present with some measure of controversy for its terrorist detention camps, military forums, articles about life on the base, and features all reveal effusive praise on the quality of life, in huge part due to one person – Tara Culbertson, Director of GTMO’s MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) program.
In 2013, DSJ travelled to GTMO and spoke with Culbertson about the activities that her organization runs to provide “a robust and varied program of high quality positive recreation, fitness, youth development, entertainment and hospitality opportunities … [to] contribute to the quality of life for the ONE TEAM stationed at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.”
Back then, Culbertson was halfway through her fourth year at GTMO, a period that would already qualify as an extended term in the isolated post, but when DSJ returned to GTMO last week, we were shocked that Culbertson was still there—now in her eighth year on the job. While not quite a record, she said, it is certainly way above the typical three year stays that sailors do and far longer than the typical one-year deployments that sailor, Marines or Army soldiers do.
“I love it here,” Culbertson said, “and I love helping other people love it here.”
And that job is an important one — for the some 6,000 service members, their families, and foreign nationals here, there is no “outside-the-gate.” Almost anywhere else, base or post patrons can leave the gates and have alternative entertainment options, but at GTMO, Culbertson and her staff of 350 to 400 people — mostly foreign nationals from Jamaica or the Philippines — are it. What they don’t provide, the base patrons will not be able to do.
In fiscal year 2017, Culbertson and her colleagues ran a total of 4,850 programs or events that attracted over one million visits to one of their over 40 MWR facilities. Whether it’s scuba diving lessons, the 24/7 gyms (“no excuses” as the signs say on the doors), either of the two pools, bowling alley, color runs, sewing, ceramics, canvas painting, woodshop, or auto-skills classe, boat rentals and deep sea charters, bingo, weekly first-run movies — including the new Avengers: Infinity War — in any of the three 1,500-person occupancy Lyciums, WMR does it all for free or a price reduced more than what you could find anywhere else.
“Guantanamo is fortunate to have Tara [Culbertson],” as one long-time MWR patron told DSJ. “She cares about the residents and the base as a whole … She truly enjoys being here.”
For Culbertson, the most rewarding part isn’t the awards, though last year her MWR program received 5-star Accreditation from the Commander, Navy Installations Command for the first time, but it’s developing people and helping people on the base to “have a good tour.” During her eight years at GTMO, Culbertson has had at least five former employees go on to become MRW directors at other bases.
“It’s just a great opportunity to … develop a fantastic staff, to develop people,” she said. “I consider this my little leadership laboratory that I’m developing more MWR leaders … that’s my pride.”
In the end Culbertson says, “They need us here. It’s not going to be San Diego. It’s not going to be Europe. It’s just not. It’s not those things, but there’s still a lot to love about it. This is absolutely a community where absolutely people will help,” and DSJ just can’t help but think at least a little part of that culture is due to Culbertson’s long-term dedication to the people and the base.