There are sets of orders that many soldiers, sailors, Marines, guardians, and airmen sigh about when they first receive them. Sometimes, it’s the unit; other times, it’s the location or a combination of the two. But, some places have a bad rap based on lack of knowledge, and Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia is one of them.

The ‘footprint of freedom’ serves as a logistical and strategic support beam in the structure of  U.S. interests, serving as a hub for forward advancement anywhere north of the atoll. Some sailors may have an ‘ah, man’ moment when they receive orders there because it’s not well known and appears to be in the middle of nowhere. 

Jayme Pastoric served in the Navy for 24 years and recently retired as a senior chief petty officer. During his career, he was stationed at Diego Garcia for a year-long rotation starting in 2015.  He said he had a moment when he first received orders to the atoll but quickly realized after arriving it was an awesome assignment.

“Once you get there, you are blown away by just the pure magic of the place. It is, in my opinion, and a number of people that I’ve served with who have been there, that it’s the hidden gem of deployments,” Pastoric said. “What you have is the postcard tropical island with a million-dollar sunset every night. It’s like if you lived on Gilligan’s Island but had internet, right? Like, you have that tropical feel — beautiful beaches and lush, tropical areas you can explore.”

You can’t bring your family with you, and active duty personnel cannot serve back-to-back rotations, but extensions are allowed. If you are a family man or love city life, this deployment can be trying because you’re gone for a year. But even with all that, there’s a silver lining: it’s a tropical paradise. 

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The coral atoll is approximately 38 miles tip to tip, just above sea level, with a maximum elevation of 22 feet. The base was built by Navy SEABEES in 1971, first starting as a remote radio operation and then a naval operation that can support thousands of personnel, including a touch point for naval fleets operating in the Indian Ocean.

No one shares a room while stationed at Diego Garcia. Each room is furnished with a refrigerator, microwave, telephone, TV, alarm clock, and a private shower. Officers and Chiefs have rooms with kitchenettes. There is an officers club, chiefs club, and a robust MWR that people can swing by for food and entertainment as well.

The area falls under the British Indian Ocean Territory laws and administration, so there are some differences to be mindful of. One of the laws is that every living creature on the island — coconut crabs, feral donkeys, and lizards, to name a few — is protected. 

So when the planes resupplying the grocery stores arrive, there is typically a mad rush to stock up your personal kitchen before supplies run out. 

No spear fishing is allowed, but fishing is. Pastoric said Diego Garcia is the place to be if you want to get in some trophy fishing in the tropics. Everything from wahoo to snapper to tuna fish can be caught around the atoll.

“They’ll send you out fishing for like four hours, right? You’ll come back with a number of fish, and what you do is you go to the grill, and you just have a celebration. Someone brings the beer, someone brings the chips, and someone brings the fish.” 

Snorkeling provides a great way to experience the hundreds of species living in and around the coral of the atoll as well. But similar to small town USA, Diego Garcia only has a few options to entertain: an outdoor movie theatre, a gym, and places to drink. 

“There’s a saying there. You go to Diego Garcia, and you come back a drunk, a hunk, or a monk,” Pastoric said. “So yeah, you go there, and you either drink a lot, work out a lot, or you go there, and you get really religious or reach a state of zen.”

Pastoric managed the American Forces Network Diego Garcias radio and television and served as the public affairs officer for part of his time there. When he wasn’t working, he was on the beach reading Ernest Hemingway books.

As with most tropical environments, there can be a lot of rain. Though hurricanes aren’t as much of a threat, earthquakes to the east or west can put the atoll in the path of a typhoon, but it is a rare event. Pastoric didn’t recall having to shelter in place due to tropical storms either.  

T-shirts are a sign of morale-boosting activities while stationed at Diego Garcia. Whether it’s a beach-based 5k run or a triathlon, civilian and active-duty sailors usually go home with a handful of t-shirts they earned from different activities throughout their year of service at the atoll. 

“If you try to go and collect all the T-shirts from the year, from all the events, and then people would just take those and make a blanket out of it,” Pastoric said. “I don’t know what the t-shirt budget was over there, but it had to be enormous because they were printing t-shirts left and right. They have a t-shirt for everything.”

You can’t take your vehicle with you, but you can bring your bike or use the shuttle that runs around the base. Active duty sailors qualify for a variety of special pay. Examples include basic allowance for housing (BAH), overseas housing allowance, family separation allowance, and hardship duty pay. Remember, unlike your other deployments, Diego Garcia isn’t a tax-free zone — but you can still bank some serious cash! 

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