A new High Intensity Tactical Training Center opened at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Jan. 29. Although the Marine Corps continues to open fitness facilities at installations around the world, many Marines and their families will see curtailed services due to the budget crisis in Washington. (Cpl. Christopher Duncan / Marine Corps)
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As the Marine Corps continues to tighten its belt, installations are having to find ways to trim their budgets — and fitness centers are not immune. In some cases, that means courtesy towels and satellite television have been eliminated. But other installations have had to curtail hours, eliminate classes and increase user fees for Marines, family members, retirees and Defense Department civilians.
Those kinds of unwelcome changes are likely to become more widespread if even deeper federal budget cuts are enacted through sequestration.
The prospect of deeper cuts to Semper Fit programs and gym facilities hangs over the Marine Corps even as senior leaders push for higher physical fitness standards and the service renovates older gyms and adds new facilities.
That includes a High Intensity Tactical Training center that opened Jan. 29 at Camp Pendleton, Calif. It's the 14th HITT facility constructed at the base, said 1st Lt. Ryan Finnegan, a Camp Pendleton spokesman.
But with an eye toward freeing up money for other programs, the 13 gyms at the base no longer provide patrons with clean towels to use while exercising and officials canceled the satellite radio service that provided background music. But, Finnegan said, "there are no gym closures or reduced hours."
At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, the elimination of courtesy towels was just one in a long list of changes affecting the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. It includes staff cuts, reduced hours at the gyms and recreational pool, the closure of all saunas and an end to base support for the running/triathlon club and Single Marine Program trips. Marines will now have to cover the cost themselves, according to a four-page 2013 "plan of action" obtained by Marine Corps Times.
Locker rental will cost two bucks more. Families, retirees and DoD civilians who want to use the pool, take group exercise classes or hire personal trainers now must pay new daily or monthly fees. Active-duty Marines also will have to shell out money — $3 a day, or $25 for a 10-visit pass — to use the recreational pool.
"The biggest thing is making sure as much as possible is still available to active-duty Marines," said 1st Lt. Tyler Balzer, a Miramar spokesman. He noted that some of the reduced gym hours were taken in the early morning or late at night.
The changes have been in place since Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year. In a memo posted on Miramar's Semper Fit website announcing the changes, Col. John P. Farnam, the air station commander, said more changes are possible.
"The Marine Corps will be experiencing significant fiscal changes in the coming months," Farnam wrote, noting Defense Department budget guidance called for reductions through 2017.
"We have established the most effective means to manage changes to our Semper Fit programs," Farnam wrote, adding he "will continue to evaluate programs, fees and revenue sources with the hope that further reductions or changes will not be necessary." It may be a tough sell to Marines used to having base gyms, pools and programs available at no extra cost. And the idea of having to pay $25 or more a month so family members can exercise is upsetting to many.
"Now wives and family members will have to pay to use the gym. So much for saving us money through base services," said one staff sergeant at Camp Pendleton.
New fees, cuts in gym hours and fewer exercise classes hit Marines in places like Okinawa, Japan, particularly hard because off-base fitness centers aren't easily accessible or have high membership fees.
Already, the towels are gone and fitness equipment is starting to show more wear and tear, said a gunnery sergeant at Camp Kinser, who complained that "the local MCCS has continued to chip away at the readiness of our units here."
"The gym is a very important program for us overseas, as there are no viable alternatives outside the gate," he said. In emails and postings on the Marine Corps Times Facebook page, several Marines questioned the expense of civilian personal trainers, and others suggested how the Corps could make better use of the limited funds it has.
Master Sgt. Matthew Small, an explosive ordnance disposal technician in Okinawa, said extra fees and the loss of TV and towels won't keep him or his family away from base gyms. "The single best way to cut costs without removing programs or services offered at on-base fitness centers is the integration and utilization of properly trained DoD personnel," Small said. "Imagine the benefit a Marine could glean from becoming a personal trainer and using his knowledge to instruct at an on-base fitness center."
Kevin Yates, a Marine at MCAS New River, N.C., wrote in a Facebook post that some expensive equipment — like a "golf swing analyzer" and rock-climbing walls — is not being used. "Seriously, you're going to cut towel service when there is such gross misappropriation happening?" he asked. "Just buy some kettle bells, get some tires … and keep the towels."