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Staff Sgt. Michael Brooks of Clarksville, Tenn., works out at the Grafenwöhr fitness center Thursday in Germany. The top commander in the area said Wednesday that Army garrisons in Europe are considering using U.S. troops to keep MWR fitness centers longer.

Staff Sgt. Michael Brooks of Clarksville, Tenn., works out at the Grafenwöhr fitness center Thursday in Germany. The top commander in the area said Wednesday that Army garrisons in Europe are considering using U.S. troops to keep MWR fitness centers longer. (Seth Robson / S&S)

VILSECK, Germany — Army garrisons in Europe might resort to military manpower if soldiers want fitness centers to stay open longer in the face of harsh budget restrictions, the top general in Vilseck said Wednesday.

Using soldiers to man the facilities might be the only way to keep the centers open at times when troops want to use them, Brig. Gen. David G. Perkins, head of the Joint Multinational Training Command, told about 150 people at a town hall meeting Wednesday night.

Perkins said the training command wants to extend fitness center hours at Grafenwöhr in response to numerous requests for longer hours. Currently the fitness center at Grafenwöhr, which is open 90 hours a week, closes at 8:30 p.m. weekdays and at 6 p.m. on weekends.

The command is looking at the amount of military manpower required to meet demand for longer hours and how to spread that workload among units within the garrison, he said.

“Once we come up with the new hours and the requirement for military manpower, we are going to assess it,” he said.

JMTC Command Sgt. Maj. John Gioia told those in attendance that he would lay out a course of action on Feb. 15 to extend fitness center hours.

“We are in the fifth year of the war. ... All that money that we were spending on these programs and agencies is not there,” Gioia said, adding that retention levels could be affected if soldiers’ quality of life deteriorates.

In a Thursday interview with Stars and Stripes, Perkins said garrisons all over Europe are grappling with reduced funding for fitness centers and working with the Installation Management Command, or IMCOM, to solve the problem. The organization was established to make sure funding earmarked for quality-of-life activities was not used to pay for other projects.

“Conceptually [other garrisons] are approaching it the same way we are,” Perkins said.

The training command has placed questionnaires in all Grafenwöhr area fitness centers seeking feedback on opening hours, he said. Once that information has been collected, officials will look at whether needs can be met with existing funding, whether additional funding can be obtained from IMCOM, or if military manpower needs to be used to operate the facilities for longer hours.

IMCOM spokesman Jeff Young said one of the difficulties of using soldiers as volunteer gym workers would be the amount of extra training required.

“Gym workers are trained in CPR, defibrillators, fire safety and a host of required procedures,” Young said. “They also have to be extremely familiar with the equipment, i.e. weights, so that they could help out in an emergency.”

“Our [Morale, Welfare and Recreation] fitness and recreation workers undergo a couple weeks of training before working the gyms.”

Another difficulty in using soldiers is that they are subject to deployment, short-notice details and assignments, and changing training schedules.

“That can create some real difficulty in scheduling them,” Young said.

One soldier who was working out Thursday at the Grafenwöhr fitness center said he was in favor of longer hours.

Staff Sgt. Michael Brooks of Clarksville, Tenn., said he was previously stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., where gyms are open until midnight.

“Some soldiers are in school until 6 or 7 p.m.,” he said. “If [the fitness center] could at least stay open until 10 p.m., it would be used by a lot of soldiers.”

Brooks added that he’d be happy to work in the gym if he was tasked to do it, and expected there would be plenty of other volunteers.

But Perkins said that soldiers who cannot train or perform their military specialty because of a medical condition would be the first tasked to work in gyms.

The decision to use military manpower would not be made lightly and would take into account factors such as soldiers’ physical fitness, morale, providing wholesome entertainment and providing ways for soldiers to spend their free time in a productive manner, he said.

“We hesitate to use borrowed military manpower to offset these costs because we want to make sure soldiers are spending their time training or in their MOS with their unit,” Perkins said.

“Clearly our last resort is to use borrowed military manpower to do nonmilitary things (but) … providing adequate quality of life is a major factor in soldiers determining whether they stay in the Army which is why we are taking this issue very seriously.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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