America Supports You: MWR Worker is Troops’ Substitute Mom
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait, Apr. 1, 2008 Troops passing through Camp Buehring on the way to deployment in Iraq can find a little piece of home at the camp’s recreation center, “The Oasis.”
Violet Kelly, a recreation lead with Morale, Welfare and Recreation on Camp Buehring, Kuwait, talks with some civilians in Camp Buehring's recreation center March 10, 2008. Kelly is best known as "Big Momma" to the troops who pass through the camp, as well as to her colleagues. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The comfortable feeling certainly is not a result of the commercial decor. The center sports school-like tile floors, and tables and chairs that likely could be found in many lunchrooms. Stacks of board games and books grace the shelves near the front desk.
Only one thing can give The Oasis the homey feel not even the game table, TVs and air conditioning can convey. That would be Violet Kelly, better known as “Big Momma” to the troops.
“They sort of view me as their mother -- an older figure, a grandmother, mother, whichever way,” she said. “I do think of them that way, as my own children.”
Big Momma, a recreation lead for Morale, Welfare and Recreation, knows all her children, too.
She knows, for example, what a simple DVD of a favorite movie, or sometimes any movie, can mean to a soldier moving forward. That’s why she spent time one day calling out titles and making sure everyone who wanted a DVD got one.
“To me it was just fun calling out the (titles) and seeing everyone interact with them and which one they wanted, which one they didn’t want,” Kelly said. “They just joined right in, ‘Big Momma this. Big Momma that.’”
And like a parent, she tries to treat all her children equally, which means it doesn’t matter what military someone is serving. If they’re in Big Momma’s house when she’s handing out care package goodies, they get some too.
She makes sure they mind their Ps and Qs, as well.
“What do we say to the folks who donated those videos?” she asked when the DVDS were all distributed.
She got the usual reply, a hearty “Hooah!” That’s also how she’s greeted when she walks into the room and asks, “How’s everybody today?” She doesn’t let them off the hook easily, either. If the “Hooah!” isn’t loud or enthusiastic enough, she’ll ask again until everyone catches on, including any civilians who happen to be lingering.
It’s always been that way at Big Momma’s house, she said, adding that nobody gives Big Momma any trouble.
“I’ve not had anyone to give me a hard time due to the fact that if someone gives Big Momma a hard time, somebody else will take hold of them,” she said. “I must say, if I ask them to clean up behind themselves, that’s not a problem. They do it.
“I always tell them, ‘The maid’s going home. This maid ain’t picking up behind nobody!” she added, laughing.
Sometimes the troops do give her a little bit of a hard time, though.
“They always tease me, ‘Big Momma got her lipstick on. Big Momma always putting her lipstick on,’” she laughed. “When you get up in your age, you got to do something! You got to keep your nails done up. You got to keep a little lipstick on.”
Though she’ll gladly tell anyone who asks her age, she often gets disbelieving looks.
“Some of them say, ‘Big Momma, you just don’t look 60!’” she said through a deep, throaty laugh. “I’ve been telling them 60 for three years now!”
Whether her birthday cake would have glowed with 60 or 63 candles on March 13 is of no significance; the troops love her and she loves them.
“You kind of get attached to them, even if when they come in and only stay a week,” she said. “Every troop that comes through here is important to me.”
Kelly has had nearly three years to solidify her role as the troops’ “mom away from mom.” With that role comes the same heartache some mothers on the home front have felt.
“Every time I turn around, somebody will come back and say there was an accident,” she said solemnly. “Some of them I do know. I’ve attended a few of the services for them.”
Kelly’s had plenty of time to get used to the trials and tribulations of military life, however. Her husband is retired from the Navy, which means she’s lived a good portion of her life overseas.
With just two exceptions, she always worked for MWR. Only Australia and Hong Kong didn’t have MWR programs.
“I’ve been working for (MWR) for so many years, until it’s just a part of me,” she said. “It’s hard to give up.”
So when her husband accepted a position with a defense contractor that took him to Kuwait, she found a position with MWR and followed right along. It was another chance to experience a new culture, something she’d loved about being married to the military.
She figures her children loved that part, too. Her daughter, Patricia, must have. She joined the Air Force and is stationed in Korea. Her son lives in California.
For her boisterous nature, Kelly is quiet about one thing from her family’s four-year stay in Bahrain. There they met Marla, who watched Kelly’s daughter, and her husband. “I really don’t like to talk about it much, but I’m very proud of our Sri Lankan family that we have sponsored,” she said. “I’m very, very proud … that they have come from having nothing to having something now.”
Kelly said that even her children send money to help support Marla, her husband and their four children.
“It’s better to give than to receive,” Kelly said. “You know it doesn’t take very much.”
That’s a lesson Big Momma models every day for her “children” in combat uniforms.