Leadership Lessons: Air Force Clubs are a tradition worth supporting!

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Air Force Clubs have a very proud history which dates back to when "clubs" were first established by Army regulation in 1835. Originally clubs served as dining facility (messing). It wasn't long before clubs became the natural hub of Army social functions and official events, like promotion and change of command ceremonies.

Over the past 50 years, the "club" has evolved more to just a place to eat lunch. It has been inextricably tied to Air Force traditions and growth as a Service. Clubs evolved to meet Commander's needs and in the process became the "glue" which increased the social cohesion and esprit de corps among Airmen and their families. Units instill a sense of identity and built a sense of belonging at the Club.

Indeed today the Club is a special place where "Airmanship" in its most enlightened form is discussed and practiced. There simply is no other physical structure, place, or organization in which all the threads of being an Air Force member come together to create dedicated and motivated Air Force professionals as in the Club.

Clubs embody the essence of military tradition and reflect a proud warrior heritage. The Club serves as the single location where a young officer of junior enlisted member can meet with senior leaders in a non-threatening environment away from stiff and formal protocol. Senior leaders can mentor and pass down Air Force traditions to future Air Force leaders, both in peace and war. If clubs were taken away, the Air Force would lose a key and very valuable component of the "whole person" we try to grow over an Airman's career through mentoring and professional development.

A number of lifestyle and organizational changes have swept through the Air Force as a national institution over the decades, and they have altered the way most Airmen today view the club's role in their lives. For instance, over the past twenty years, the Air Force has increased its focus on families and shifted its view on alcohol consumption and healthy eating. The number of married versus single Airmen has increased. At the same time, recent budget constraints have put pressure on clubs to be more profitable even as the Air Force right-sized and executed successful retrograde from overseas contingency operations. Often busy Airmen and their families, faced with multiple deployments, did not have the time or money to enjoy the club as much as during the Cold War when most of the Air Force was a garrison force. Partly as a result of expeditionary operations and institutional changes, Club membership rates have drastically declined across the Air Force to the point where only 15% Airmen on average are club members.

To address these challenges Air Force leaders have tried to change the club's image by offering healthier menu items and events Airmen and their families can enjoy. At the same time, clubs competed head-to-head with a growing number of on and off-base restaurants and entrainment businesses. In many cases clubs could not compete with them effectively due to government-imposed restrictions, such as pricing guidance, opposition to new programs, and supporting official functions instead of providing regular membership programs, which were more profitable but not necessarily supportive of Air Force warrior traditions.

In this challenging environment many clubs reduced services, collocated, consolidated, and struggled financially. Oftentimes they operated at a financial loss in order to provide the warrior culture which was a key part of Air Force life. However it appeared the club had become irrelevant to many Airmen although it was always supported by senior leadership.

Leaders today need to create a clear philosophy which encourages Airmen to support Air Force traditions such as the club. It is imperative leaders at all levels set a positive example and emphasize that clubs serve as the center of the Air Force's social fabric, and that it is a key place to learn and demonstrate Air Force Core Values. Moreover, clubs are the cornerstone of the entire Non-Appropriated Fund (NAF) quality of life program. The non-appropriated funds that the club generates and pays for (or subsidizes) the Youth Center, Child Development Center, Library, Outdoor Recreation, Golf Course, Bowling Center, Auto Skills Center, base swimming pool, Arts & Crafts Center, and much more. The money made in the club fuels Services programs which take care of our Airmen and their families.

That's why supporting the club is a professional responsibility of all Airmen. It provides a forum to preserve and enhance a variety of military traditions, while making Grand Forks AFB a better place for our teammates and their families to live and play.

Your demonstration of leadership support, regardless of rank, is needed to re-kindle the long standing traditions of camaraderie, belonging, and sense of community that have conventionally been built through Air Force Club participation.

Join me in making Grand Forks AFB a better place to live and work! Give the club a chance, you'd be surprised at everything they have to offer! You'll also be supporting the mission and forging a strong link which binds us all as Airmen through our Core Values and support of time-honored institutional activities like the club.

I look forward to seeing you at the club!