Why have an Air Force club?

by Lt. Col. Todd R. Alcott
86th Force Support Squadron commander

As an Air Force officer charged with the responsibility of leading morale and welfare programs for Ramstein, I often get asked, “Why should I become a club member?”

What used to be an unwritten rule of military professionalism is now a matter of personal choice. To add, I often meet eligible patrons who do not maintain membership. As I investigate why, I find that most do not understand how clubs receive financial support or why supporting clubs is an important value to our Air Force culture.

A little history lesson first. Club members used to pay pennies on the dollar for services and U.S. taxpayers subsidized club labor, utilities and construction — a member could literally get premium service at bargain prices. During the ’80s, Congress passed legislation requiring clubs to be self-supporting and added regulations on how club revenue can be utilized.

Ironically, it was our Ramstein Officers’ Club that provoked the Department of Defense to create new regulations governing morale and welfare programs and construction. What started out as a simple renovation turned into a multimillion dollar debacle that initiated a Congressional inquiry. Years later, our club continues to carry the “gold plate” stigma, and incidentally, has also hindered significant progress toward investing in newer infrastructure.

From today’s view, we are now perplexed at the thought of our club being gold plated, and from a customer’s perspective, I can see how a person can be negatively swayed by the aged appearance. However, it is our club and the club we inherited, and I assure you that looks alone are not the true heart of our operations — the heart of all our morale programs is our people and our promise to deliver outstanding customer service.

Our clubs, like any business, depend on profit in order to open their doors. Our average, employees make $11.61 an hour, and 98 percent of our food is shipped from the states, which adds to our operational costs and member prices.
I feel it is important to be candid with customers on the costs of conducting business so everyone understands what their money buys. However, the idea of just supporting a business is not the reason I am compelled to be a member of our Air Force clubs.

What people probably don’t realize is that when they decline membership, they are also declining our Air Force traditions, our core values and our established culture.
Imagine our Airmen graduating from Airmen Leadership School being told, “Sorry, you do not get a graduation ceremony because our club is closed and because your Air Force forefathers chose not to support clubs.” Unfortunately, we are almost there; clubs are already being closed. Many clubs are being solely supported by Air Force retirees. Most authorized patrons make the decision to not pursue membership based on their personal choice, not for the greater good of our Air

Sure, we could use commercial establishments to celebrate Airmen and NCO graduations, change of commands, quarterly and annual award ceremonies, volunteer and promotion ceremonies, commanders’ calls, official luncheons and dinners, Air Force balls, and birthdays, etc.

However, we will pay higher prices and we will become just another customer with zero functions guaranteed. Clubs are still part of our Air Force heritage. If we lose our clubs we risk losing the ability to retain our culture and we will assume a greater security risk by operating our traditions at off-base establishments.

Here are some more, hopefully, compelling reasons to be part of our club at Ramstein. We recently selected Blake Sechrist as our club’s general manager. Previously, Blake was the general manager at the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center’s Romano’s Macaroni Grill. He brings with him world class experience in the culinary arts, and was one of the top three grossing managers for all Macaroni Grill’s worldwide.

Many of you may have met or already know Salimi, also known as Bashkim, the club’s lead waiter. He is a personal hero of mine. He came to Germany from Pristina, Kosovo, after the Kosovo War and has been working in the club since December 2006. He ranks No. 2 in the squadron with the most positive customer comment cards received per person, and he demonstrates daily the epitome of what outstanding customer service is all about. Bashkim speaks seven languages and every person he comes in contact with he treats as a cherished customer.

Come and meet Bashkim or any of our hard working club staff for yourself. Feel free to write comments about any of our fine force support employees who are dedicating their life to serving our military community. We are always listening.
Last, I hope I have offered you some insight into one of our oldest facilities and given you some thought about the importance of clubs. Let’s not give up so easily on losing the Air Force culture and traditions that help make us the most envied and powerful Air Force in the world.

Proud Air Force club member since 1995.