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Air Force clubs -- use them or lose them

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- First Friday at the Pacific Coast Club. What a great night! The place was packed from front to back. In the ballroom, the base came together to celebrate our promotees for the month of February. Soon after the enlisted lounge was packed wall to wall with family, co-workers and friends, celebrating some of the Air Force's newest senior master sergeant selects. Then, out of nowhere, the 381st Training Group packed the officers' lounge for a very spirited run on the crud table. If that wasn't enough, the Pacific Coast Club staff reloaded the ballroom for a Call of Duty video gaming tournament with a DJ and karaoke in the enlisted lounge to cap off the night. As I looked around and saw laughing, playing, and fun being had from one end of the PCC to the other, I thought to myself, "Why isn't the club this much fun every Friday night?"

The truth is that clubs are struggling Air Force wide. Five years ago, 23 percent of our active duty force belonged to the club. That number is 13.6 percent today. At Vandenberg alone we lost 111 members during the last fiscal year. Reasons are varied: de-glamorization of alcohol, the economy, operations tempo. Either way, the bottom line is that our clubs are in trouble and membership dues are what sustain them.

I've routinely heard people say that they aren't club members because they don't go to the club enough or they don't get enough in return to offset their monthly dues. It is true that there is free food for members on Fridays and members always get a dollar off their lunch buffet. But I'd like to ask you to look at membership in another way. I have been a club member since 1992 when I enlisted in the Air Force. Soon after enlisting, I commissioned and as a brand new second lieutenant at Keesler AFB I was "encouraged" by my squadron commander to be at the base club at least a couple of nights a week. While at the club, I met and made many of my friends and got the opportunity to network (socially and professionally) with base leaders who I may never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. Do I get enough free meatballs every Friday night to make up for my monthly membership fee? Probably not, but I'll continue to be a member and pay my dues because you can't put a price on our heritage. And you can't buy the kind of networking, mentoring and professional development I've received at the club anywhere else. But most of all, I will continue to be a club member because tomorrow there will be another wide-eyed Airman 1st class or second lieutenant showing up to a club on a base somewhere who deserves the same opportunity.

Even if you still choose to look at club membership as a financial decision, the maximum dues paid by captains and above are $20 per month. All other ranks pay less to include our E1-E4s paying a mere $3 a month. Also, beginning in April 2013, the Air Force Food Transformation Initiative will literally "transform" how we offer food and beverage at the club. We are partnering with the world-wide food service company SODEXO to improve food quality, variety and availability to our members and all club customers. With food transformation you should see new aesthetic designs, gourmet-style menu selections and increased operating hours at the club as well as the golf course, bowling center, and fitness center.

Call this a sales pitch if you want... I prefer to call it an impassioned plea to help save an important part of our Air Force heritage. If you are a club member, thank you. If you are not then I challenge you to go to the club and talk with someone about becoming one. Our annual membership drive is going on now through the end of the month. There are lots of great incentives if you sign-up now. I also ask you to contact your unit's club advisory council representative and ask them about what's going on at the club and how you can make an impact. I look forward to seeing you out there soon, whether you become a member or not.