Story by Courtney Pollock on 08/06/2019Considered the Gateway to the Mediterranean, Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota is routinely a ship's first port call in Europe after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Deployed Forces Support (DFS) Program provides services to visiting ships and Rota's four forward-deployed destroyers.
"We are their welcome to port,'" said Xylene Lennon, MWR Deployed Forces Support Program Manager. "We are their 4-1-1 for not only base offerings, but what the region offers."
Because of the American military presence at Rota, there are familiar base departments and services making it easy for visiting ships.
Lennon expanded, "With MWR being here, it's an opportunity for ships to get the same services they are used to in Norfolk but here in Rota."
So far this year, MWR has provided support tours, party packages, equipment repair and replacement to 57 ships. To maximize their time in port, communications start before the ship ever pulls into Rota with MWR reaching out to the ship's fun boss' or recreational services officer.
"We send them a Vamos Welcome Aboard specifically geared towards deployed units with trips and offerings," said Doug Hasselbring, director of MWR Community Recreation. "We have created special fleet packages such as golf, movies, bowling and more."
The document gives visiting ships an idea of what MWR Rota has to offer and several prearranged trips that are popular with visiting ships such as Gibraltar, Seville, and flamenco shows. However, this is in no way the only offerings. MWR also offers customizable tours through their Trips2Fit program.
"Trips like going to see a FC Sevilla [soccer] match, staying overnight in Seville, and canyon descending are outside our regular offerings," said Lennon. "So if there's something unique to Spain that they want to experience, we can customize a trip for them as well."
Recently, the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Arlington (LPD-24) visited NAVSTA Rota. Their visit had unique requirements that MWR worked around to still provide the Sailors aboard with a fun port visit.
"Due to operational commitments and schedule, the Rota port visit was planned to be primarily a working port and the [MWR] staff was able to flex both tour schedules and hours to create an enjoyable experience for all of Arlington crew members," said Ensign Trenton Noller, recreation service officer of Arlington.
MWR staff tailored the 22 tours to accommodate work shifts which ended at approximately 3 p.m. each day.
"We [MWR] designed trips like Cadiz and San Marcos castle to meet their needs," said Jorge Torres, MWR Tickets & Tours specialist.
Torres created a new tour offering, San Marcos castle and dinner in El Puerto de Santa Maria, to maximize the participants' time away from the ship while providing a unique Spanish experience. The evening tour included a tour of San Marcos castle and sherry tasting in their bodega followed by a traditional Spanish dinner before returning to base.
"Not a lot of people can see a castle," said Torres. "They freak out when they see a winery inside a castle."
So far this year MWR Rota has offered 66 trips a number that already surpasses last year's total getting more than 2,137 Sailors and Marines out to explore and experience Spain. Whether the trip participants are looking for historical, cultural or outdoor adventure trips, MWR Rota has a trip to meet their needs.
"This is one of the best MWR staffs I have worked with so far as the recreation service officer onboard Arlington," said Ensign Trenton Noller. "Excellent customer service and clear communication made planning the command's port visit extremely easy."
While trips can provide a huge morale boost, DFS provides additional behind-the-scenes support to visiting ships and Rota's forward-deployed destroyers.
"Ships also get support from DFS in regards to equipment repairs and new equipment," said Lennon. "I also offer assist visits which is an opportunity to go over their financial binders and their program to make sure they're on track for their next inspection."
Maintaining a ship's recreational programs and funds is hard work and Lennon aims to simplify the task for the ships. She routinely works with the four Rota destroyers to provide training, guidance, mock inspections and oversight. She even assists in helping to plan recreational opportunities while they are in port.
"There is no down time so I think having a DFS office here makes it even more impactful because I am here to go on board and say I know you're crazy busy but let's see if we can do an improv movie night on the deck with a pizza,'" said Lennon.
Lennon also prepares the ships for inspection of their recreational funds. When she started over three years ago, three of the four ships forward-deployed to Rota were unsatisfactory for their inspections. After training and developing the crews, all ships have passed the CNIC Afloat Recreation Inspection.
Another behind-the-scenes element is the repairing and replacement of fitness equipment. While DFS maintains a stock of new fitness equipment for deployed forces, Lennon works to minimize expenses. One way the program is able to save money is with Jesus Bernal, an employee with MWR Information Technology department. Bernal routinely meets ships at the pier to go onboard to repair fitness equipment. This year alone, he's repaired 104 pieces of fitness equipment as well as taking a proactive approach in training Sailors.
"Jesus also leads our repair workshops so our ships have a way to repair when they are out to sea," said Lennon. "The rotation [schedule] is crazy so they may not pull into a port where there is a DFS office to receive assistance."
All this assistance to visiting ships is done in conjunction to MWR providing its daily offerings to the Rota community. Lennon, who also oversees the Liberty Center in Expeditions, does not skimp on the services provided to the permanently stationed service members who utilize the program.
"We have a motto [for Liberty] which is go big or go home'and we never go home," explained Lennon. "We've done so many different crazy themes. I'm a big believer in taking a theme and running with it. Decorations, costumes, and being in character allows us to transport them to a different world so they can forget about where they're at for a minute."
Themes such as Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Scottish Highland games, and more have pulled in all program areas of MWR to create memorable experiences for single service members. The team effort for both DFS and Liberty is what makes Rota MWR special according to Lennon.
"It's not just one person," said Lennon. "If it wasn't for the amazing team the Community Recreation team and MWR team I wouldn't be able to do my job well."
The program has a large impact on the morale of the ship's crew but also on MWR staff. Every staff member mentioned how they enjoyed being able to get the service members off the ship and having a good time.
"We have some ships who have been deployed for several months before coming through Rota," Hasselbring explained. "They arrive looking weary and exhausted. It's such a joy to get them away from the ship and out to the beaches or nearby towns. Anything to get their mind off being on the ship for that long."
Providing these recreational opportunities and support and the morale boost they provide is why Lennon loves her job. She considers herself the "front line" on impacting Sailors' morale.
"My mission is directly impacting the ship's mission and helping their quality of life," said Lennon. "Helping them find ways to relieve the stress of ship life, it is one of the most rewarding things ever."