WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2013 – As outgoing shipments from Afghanistan top 1,000 pieces of rolling stock and thousands of cargo containers a month, officials are taking pains to preserve the highest quality of life for U.S. forces on the ground — including access to popular morale, welfare and recreation services — for the duration of their deployments.
MWR has been recognized as a vital contributor to the mission effectiveness of deployed forces throughout U.S. military history, Ed Miles, the Defense Department’s director of MWR policy, told American Forces Press Service.
During the American Revolution, traders traveled from one military camp to another, selling the troops everything from playing cards and dominos to cigarettes, to offer a temporary respite from the rigors of combat.
Official MWR programs evolved over the years, and today, when U.S. forces deploy overseas, so too does a formalized network of support and leisure services to support them, Miles said. The offerings range from elliptical and stair machines to keep troops in shape to ping-pong tables and televisions to entertain them to Internet cafes where they can stay in touch with loved ones at home.
“We try to focus all MWR programs on meeting the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional needs of the deployed forces,” Miles said. These services are considered so important to the well-being of the force — and to its readiness and resilience — that MWR assets typically are among the first to arrive in new operational theaters, he noted.
After the first operational troops deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, portable “fitness in a box” and “movies in a box” units soon followed. As the deployed force grew over time, so did the MWR programs to support them. As Camp Leatherneck expanded in Helmand province during 2010, for example, officials opened a new 24-hour MWR facility, equipped with televisions, movies, video and board games, books, and foosball and pool tables.
“When you’re not working, you ought to have a little time to relax, a little bit of time to take some of the stress off, and this gives us a great facility to do that,” Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commanding general of Regional Command Southwest at the time, said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony in December 2010.
Another MWR facility, the Oasis, was built by deployed soldiers last year on Forward Operating Base Walton, near Kandahar, to give a break to those who are roughing it in austere conditions. The Oasis offers an opportunity to unwind with a plethora of services: free Internet, gym equipment, video games, movies and TV, games, and private rooms for those who simply want to sleep.
“We want to give soldiers the ability to come off the line and take a break, get some sleep, and possibly forget where they’re at and where they’re stationed for just a few days,” said Army Lt. Col Todd Burtulis, commander for the 4th Infantry Division’s 204th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the unit that built the facility.
“MWR is all about balance — being able to rest and recreate and be fit, both mentally and physically,” Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Rhodes, chief enlisted manager for the Air Force Personnel Center Services Division, told American Forces Press Service.
“Deployments can be taxing, and if you’re not able to get the proper balance when you are there, you can really get out of whack,” he said. “And after you have been doing your job 12, 14 hours a day, [MWR] allows you the opportunity to decompress and to take a moment and gather yourself.”
With 28 years of service under his belt, Rhodes remembers the days when the military didn’t put as much emphasis on MWR services during deployments.
“You went on a deployment and you worked and you worked and you worked some more,” he said. “Everyone figured that the more you worked, the more time it took up and the closer you were to returning home. But it didn’t allow for any kind of balance.”
Army Sgt. Adam Hughes, who manages the Army’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program, said he, too, recognizes the value of MWR services overseas. “It’s priceless,” he said. “Having those assets in place is absolutely integral to the stability of the unit.”
That’s one reason the Defense Department is committed to providing the most comprehensive MWR services possible during the Afghanistan drawdown.
“We will keep as much as possible for as long as possible to support the troops,” Miles said. “We have an obligation to any deployed member in a deployed environment. It goes back to what we are doing to sustain their morale and their readiness while they are there. And as long as there are boots on the ground over there, we have an obligation to make sure that those folks’ mental, social and physical needs are met.”
One of the centerpieces of that effort will be the MWR facility that opened a year-and-a-half ago at the site of a former passenger terminal at Bagram Airfield. It features pizza, sandwich and coffee shops, a non-appropriated funds store, wireless Internet and other comforts for transiting passengers.
“We created an environment where all airmen, soldiers, sailors, Marines, coalition partners, civilians, contractors and other transient personnel can come and relax while they are awaiting their final destination, wherever that may be,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Katrina Stephens, commander of the 455th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron, during the grand opening ceremony.