courtesy of Suzannah Guttowsky
View of Kalathas Beach, Crete, Greece, from a furnished apartment — compliments of the U.S. Navy recreation intern program (Inset: MWR gang hard at work making Fourth of July fun for the sailors.)

Not Just A Job

The Gig: U.S. Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation Coordinator

The Gig: U.S. Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation coordinator

The Work: The Navy employs some 15,000 civilians on bases around the world to make life healthier and happier for sailors and their families. That entails everything from organizing camping trips, concerts and pool parties to arranging weekend tours and childcare. Who knew?

Like all branches of the military, the Navy has a Morale, Welfare and Recreation department (MWR) that runs recreation, social and community support activities at Navy facilities worldwide...think Italy, UK, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Guam, Crete, Spain, Iceland — and so on. The department serves not only active-duty sailors but also retirees, reservists, and their families. There are myriad positions, from internships to management, to help run programs focused on aquatics, athletics and outdoor activities. There are even folks in charge of keeping single sailors entertained.

Training/Education: The best place to start is with a three- to six-month internship. Most interns are undergrad/graduate students in recreation. Depending upon the area of study, competition can be stiff. General recreation — due in part to the wide range of study it encompasses — is most competitive, averaging 250 applications per year, with only 75 placements available. Intern coordinators typically focus more on professor/advisor recommendations and the interview than on GPAs; mostly they’re looking for maturity and flexibility in an intern. The internship includes a three-day training program to clue civilians in to the nuances of rank and uniforms and to explain how recreation operates within the military.

Once you’re there, you do as much as they need you to, and your experience can depend greatly on where you go, what kind of program is already in place there and what requirements need to be met for college course credit. It just so happened that while I was in Souda Bay, Crete, the programs coordinator took pregnancy leave and the marketing director took sick leave, so I ran both programs for two months in their absence. It was an unbelievable opportunity for first-hand experience! I also led some amazing outdoor trips — hiking through the Samaria Gorge and camping on the island of Santorini — that fulfilled requirements of the internship for my university.

While internship positions are available around the world, overseas openings for full-time employment are often reserved for former interns who then go on to prove themselves a year or so stateside.

The Pay: “Pay” means something other than money with most internships and though the Navy is no exception here, there are some pretty rewarding benefits. Of course, round-trip travel is provided to the internship locale with room to change the trip back home as you’d like with some planning. There is a minimal stipend of $175 every two weeks — more than enough to exist on and be entertained with. Housing is provided and varies from base to base depending on what’s available — you may luck out and end up with, say, an apartment just off the beach. But even barracks housing is clean and comfy. The Navy also provides transportation to and from work.

Pay for full-time employees can range from $14,000 (GS-1) to $103,000 (high range of GS-15) depending on your education, job, experience and time in the Department of Defense system. If you can land an overseas position, salary is competitive with those in private recreation and additional benefits come in the form of paid housing. (Full-time employees in Crete had a hard time spending all of their allowance because the cost of living was so low.)
Intern accommodations in Crete…

Best Part: I went into an internship in Crete with no military exposure and some serious reservations (no pun intended) about the whole system, but I wanted to live and work and play overseas. At Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, I found some of the Navy stereotype, but I also found warm, adventurous, intelligent people in more abundance. It was also my first real foreign submersion. Since I was an American on a U.S. base within and dependent on the surrounding country, I could tiptoe into the surrounding Greek culture all around me until I felt reassured, or I could dive in headfirst. I think I chose somewhere in between, but that’s the coolest part — I had the time to choose, to explore, to wander in and out of a new world without the frantic pace mandated by a traditional two-week vacation.

Downside: One of the hardest things to come to terms with is that the Navy — the government in general — seems to operate with different expectations (usually lower) and at quite a different pace (usually slower) than what private recreation does. There are still plenty of “good ole boys” in the system who are not too fond of change. And that sometimes keeps MWR behind other recreation programs. But I also found good, enthusiastic folks pounding away at the status quo. 

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"I was introduced to three new worlds at once — MWR, the Navy and the island of Crete. No ordinary 9-5er will ever do now.”

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