WASHINGTON — As Dillon Agnew drove his car north on a sweltering summer afternoon in June 2021, he saw that the Mojave Desert stretched out seemingly in all directions.
The Soldier had just left a Denny’s in Barstow, California, and cruised past the gas stations and neon motel signs before he got on the desolate, two-lane road that leads to Fort Irwin.
His heart sank.
Agnew only saw coarse desert and small clutters of houses until he came upon a wooden banner bearing the words “Welcome, National Training Center,” with an AH-1 Cobra helicopter display perched above.
Single and in his mid-20s, Agnew enjoyed attending theater productions and night life. He didn’t see any semblance of a vibrant city near Fort Irwin.
“It’s about 31 miles and 45 minutes of nothing,” Agnew said of the drive through San Bernardino County. “So, I was a little disheartened.”
He knew that his new assignment would be more than a normal adjustment.
Located in the middle of the Mojave between the Calico Mountains, the California installation sits two hours from Los Angeles and 180 miles from Las Vegas. Although Agnew grew up in Southern California, he still found the dry temperatures stifling.
Isolated from civilization, Agnew found little to do in his free time at the desert installation. Soldiers assigned to Irwin often find activities limited to the post’s bowling alley, bars or making the commute to Barstow. Others simply stay in their barracks rooms and only leave to go to work or the gym.
So he buried himself in his duties as a medic; bonding with troops in training center rotations.
Weeks later, one of his supervisors asked him to become his unit’s representative for Irwin’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers, or BOSS program. Agnew knew little about the group other than it planned some social events for Soldiers.
Single Soldiers stationed in remote locations often struggle with feelings of isolation and depression. Sometimes it can even lead to suicidal thoughts. According to an April 2022 Government Accountability report, troops stationed in remote locations attempted to take their own lives more than other Soldiers.
The problem extends beyond the Army. According to the National Institutes of Health, remote locations have seven times the suicide rate of those living in urban areas.
“A lot of people haven’t experienced remoteness like this,” Agnew said. “You can look [around] and see the same brown mountains. And that can weigh on you.”
The Army started BOSS programs in 1989 to broadly improve the lives of Soldiers and boost unit morale through recreational activities and life skills classes. The Army believes that if it encourages Soldiers to take part in BOSS, it can retain more of its talent according to the service’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation website.
The events vary from kayaking, camping and museum visits to volunteer efforts and attending professional sports games. Each of the 67 worldwide BOSS programs hosts indoor and outdoor activities, many unique to the installation and the region. For instance, the program at Fort Wainwright, Alaska offers classes on preparing vehicles for winter while the Fort Irwin program takes Soldiers on hiking trips in California’s national parks.
BOSS also offers Soldiers the opportunity to voice quality of life concerns through their chain of command. The program supports the notion that a happy Soldier equals a more combat-ready Soldier. In the last fiscal year, more than 242,000 Soldiers participated in about 2,000 events. Camp Humphreys, South Korea has the largest participation with more than 119,000 troops actively taking part in team and morale building activities.
However, Agnew, who previously served as Fort Irwin’s BOSS president, said maintaining and building Soldier morale at remote locations like Fort Irwin can be a delicate challenge.
Something as simple as the Wi-Fi service suffering an outage can be devastating to single Soldiers.
The Army News Service spoke to Soldiers at two remote locations, Fort Irwin and Fort Wainwright, Alaska to learn how BOSS programs tackle recruitment challenges and how they give Soldiers an escape from everyday duty. And they tell how sometimes, the programs save lives.
“I think [BOSS] is really essential to how a young Soldier forms their opinion, not only about the Army, but themselves,” said 1st Sgt. Brian Samaniego a BOSS program member. “It helps not only their unit’s cohesion and morale, but you get that person out of the barracks.”
Braving Alaska’s endless winter
Thousands of miles north at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, Spc. Adrian Gonzales, recalled one December evening when he nearly ended his life.
The long winter nights ate away at him in the first few months that he arrived at the far northern installation, nestled in the Alaskan interior, 190 miles from the Arctic Circle.
Soldiers must prepare for Alaska’s harsh cold and ready themselves for possible frigid weather injuries, including frostbite and hypothermia.
As a gate guard at the installation, he got swept into spiraling depression. During most winters at Fort Wainwright, the sun only rises for short periods, leaving the region in darkness for up to 16 hours.
After work, he retreated to his barracks room, rarely stepping outside.
Then in December 2022, in the basement of a friend’s house, he held a weapon in his hand and contemplated suicide.
Gonzales had grown up in an Army family; his father had served for nearly three decades and he had grown accustomed to separation from loved ones. But even he found the isolation of Fort Wainwright daunting.
“I was breaking down,” Gonzales said. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Fortunately for Gonzales, he called a supervisor who calmed him down. The Soldier soon encouraged Gonzales to join Wainwright’s BOSS program. Gonzales, who arrived at the post in 2022, went on his first volunteer project: collecting trash along the Chena River. He also joined the Soldiers Against Drunk Driving program, run by BOSS members.
The program offers rides to Soldiers who have consumed alcohol in the Fairbanks area. From October 2022 through July 2023, Fort Wainwright’s SADD gave more than 1,000 Soldiers rides.
Gonzales found that the volunteer work gave him a purpose and feelings of accomplishment that he lacked when he confined himself to his dorm room.
“To say [BOSS] was eye-opening would be an understatement,” Gonzales said. He became one of many Soldiers across the Army who claimed the program saved them from suicide.
Suicides spiked at the Alaska installation from 2014 to 2021 with 17 Soldiers taking their lives. BOSS members keep a vigilant watch to help prevent suicide.
The Department of the Army’s BOSS representative Staff Sgt. Cody Mackall said that the program saved his life twice — once following a failed relationship in 2016. A phone call from a fellow BOSS member asking him to volunteer for a charity event prevented him from committing suicide.
Sgt. Matthew Ruiz, who grew up in a conservative Latino household in Arizona, said he had a jarring transition to living in Alaska and the Army. When he first woke up in a plane, the midnight sun in Fairbanks perplexed him.
“I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “It was … mesmerizing.”
Ruiz, a BOSS member assigned to an infantry unit, said the eight months of winter and two months of longer nights can lead to Soldiers isolating themselves. During the onset of the COVID pandemic, many Soldiers retreated to their barracks rooms. At the time, the BOSS program struggled to schedule weekend activities due to the closure of many businesses in the Fairbanks area.
“The things that get into Soldiers’ minds is usually the relationships or the alcohol,” Ruiz said. “[In] this program we try to make Soldiers’ lives better. And we always have something to do.”
Each month Fort Wainwright BOSS Soldiers ask peers to leave their barracks rooms and enjoy the immense Alaskan wilderness. The Wainwright BOSS program has taken troops to Grapefruit Rocks, a hiking area 50 miles north of Fairbanks. Solders have taken ATV rides, fished and went ice climbing.
“[BOSS] allows them to open doors and realize, “oh, I like to ice climb,” said Ruiz.
Although Ruiz said that BOSS participation has risen, recruiting new members remains challenging. The program currently has 180 Soldiers in the program at an installation that serves more than 6,000 active-duty members.
In an environment as isolated as the Alaskan interior, Fort Wainwright boss members understand the importance of keeping Soldiers active.
Sgt. Naomi Herbert, a six-year Army veteran who emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, said members try not to pressure Soldiers to participate, instead they encourage troops to visit to the local gym or bowling alley.
On Fridays and Saturdays, they encourage Soldiers not to wear uniforms and to address each other by their first names instead of rank.
“We’re trying to be an agent for change against depression,” said Herbert. “It is really hard to be here without families.”
Soldiers at Fort Irwin faced similar struggles.
Michigan native finds niche at Fort Irwin
Cpl. Kelly Kribs lived near the water most of her life and spent summers swimming and fishing. Kribs grew up in the riverfront town of Bay City, Michigan, south of Lake Huron.
Life circumstances thrust her toward military service, after working three jobs just to make ends meet.
After travelling to Fort Irwin for her first assignment in November 2019, she heard rumblings from fellow Soldiers about the California installation — none of them good. But several Soldiers from her Advanced Individual Training joined her on the assignment.
Kribs, who had never visited California, initially found the heat and dry air unbearable. Like many Soldiers at Fort Irwin, she limited her activities to staying in her barracks room. Then, other Soldiers told her about the BOSS program as means to get away from her duties as a visual information specialist.
She joined BOSS in mid-2021, and eventually becoming its president, determined to breathe life into a dormant program.
She understood the feelings of isolation new Soldiers experience at Fort Irwin having lived through it herself. Joining BOSS changed her.
“I was that Soldier who was just sitting in the barracks, drinking, playing video games, counting the bricks on the wall, you know what I mean?” she said. “But having that outlet and that opportunity to just … explore is a big deal.”
Kribs petitioned leadership of each resident unit to fund trips outside of the base. She talked about the importance of finding recreational trips for single Soldiers who often found themselves confined to their dorm rooms or frequenting the bars on post. She used the program’s Discord server to invite as many interested Soldiers as he could.
And Kribs began planning for more trips to the surrounding areas in Southern California.
“I'm a very social person,” Kribs said. “Having someone who's outgoing and willing to go talk to people and go brief every single week and walk up to random Soldiers at the bar on post and be like, ‘Hey, are you single? You should check out the BOSS program.”
In only eight months, Kribs, along with Agnew, grew the program from about 100 Soldiers to nearly 900 at an installation of about 4,800 active-duty members.
Originally Kribs said, the BOSS meetings consisted of talks on improving facilities such as upgrading furniture in the barracks or workout programs at the fitness center. Kribs said she would like Soldiers to experience a semblance of life outside of the installation where Soldiers can be themselves and form connections with their peers.
Irwin’s BOSS members have toured Universal Studios, attended a San Diego Padres baseball game and in June visited Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. Soldiers have even went skiing on Big Bear Mountain, a resort that has a top elevation of 8,805 feet and 748 acres for skiers.
Although Fort Irwin lies hours from the major cities, BOSS made trips to Southern California’s attractions more accessible.
“One of the selling points here is … you can go skiing in the morning and watch the sunset on the beach at night with a quick hour and a half drive. Right?” Samaniego said. “And I think making that available to them … and then letting them go on these trips and opportunities really opened up the BOSS program in a positive manner for everyone.”
Private 1st Class Nat Manansala, a 19-year-old Soldier with less than a year in the Army, said that joining the BOSS program provided a welcome introduction into the military. Originally shy and reserved, Agnew said he saw Manansala gradually build confidence and become more social with each bus trip.
Manansala said he didn’t have the best introduction to his first duty station and had to find his own way onto post without a sponsor.
“[BOSS] gave me a different perspective of what Fort Irwin could [be],” said Manansala, who manages the program’s social media accounts.
The program also provides “Boss Buses” where they will take Soldiers to the surrounding towns of Victorville and Barstow to go to the mall, movie theater or restaurants.
Dillon and Kribs spent many months working after hours to plan a regular slate of trips within the allowed 250-mile radius from Fort Irwin. Although they have the support of commanders and senior NCOs, they often must contend with scheduling conflicts with squad leaders, Agnew said.
The core of the program lies in the friendships built. BOSS members said that the trips and volunteer activities let Soldiers from different careers and walks of life learn about one another.
“I have a passion for helping people and helping these brand new Soldiers,” said Dillon who has been a BOSS unit representative, vice president and now president of Fort Irwin’s program. “And [when] I see them on every single trip, I know we’re helping people, giving them a break.”
Private 1st Class Albert Gray, a 19-year-old Soldier from Anderson County, Indiana, initially struggled with the harsh desert climate when he arrived at Fort Irwin in March 2023.
He found himself out of breath during training runs.
The death of his father Jerry, a retired Marine, encouraged Gray to enlist in the Army.
Gray, a combat engineer, joined the program first by volunteering for events such stacking tires for a paintball park. Gray said that he had not been around many people. Attending a BOSS trip to the Santa Monica pier and Long Beach helped him overcome his shyness. Gray became friends with a Soldier serving as a cavalry scout.
“I’ve never been around that many people,” said Gray, who described himself as an introvert growing up. “[BOSS] kind of opened me up as far as my social interaction.”
“It helped with my confidence,” he added.
Agnew said that Gray told a story becoming more and more common among BOSS members. And that’s when, Agnew said, he knows the program has done its job.
“If you come here not knowing anybody and you’re not very social, it’s hard to make friends,” he said. “I think we give people an avenue to make friends.”
BOSS programs give Soldiers the opportunity get away from the stresses of military life, by venturing into the surrounding communities and for a few hours, dissuade feelings of depression and isolation.