[Rant] The End of the Officers' Club

Freemon, James P (jfreemon) jfreemon at chevron.com
Mon May 11 09:30:28 CDT 2009

Interesting article, especially for those who spent a career in the military and observed firsthand the morphing of O'Clubs into something akin to "garden clubs." 

The End of the Officers' Club

Bring back happy hour: resuscitating a dying tradition

by Lt Col Glen Butler

Lt Col Butler is currently serving as the Operations Officer, Marine Corps Base Hawaii . This article was his Chase Prize Essay Contest entry. 
There is a lithograph of Marines from various eras wearing the uniforms of their time and gathered around a bar. It was painted by Lt Col R.L. Cody and is appropriately titled "Happy Hour." It used to represent the camaraderie most Marine officers shared with one another during regular visits to their local O'Club. Today, however, Cody's work has come to represent a nostalgic look at a bygone era a bittersweet tribute to a fading tradition of our Corps. Whether Gen Krulak or ADM Halsey was right begs little question; the truth is simply that the O'Club is dying. 

How did this happen? For some, the end of the O'Club's happy hour is not a bad thing and is in line with the master plan that grew out of the infamous 1991 Tailhook scandal in Las Vegas . Shocked and embarrassed by the incident, the Navy and Marine Corps moved to lay the foundation for dramatic, comprehensive changes that would ultimately shape the Services' cultural fabric of 2009. Many of the changes were positive and overdue; however, even with the best of intentions, some of the rudder steers made in the early- and mid-1990s have undoubtedly caused negative impact to today's Marines, sailors, and families. The death of the O' Club is one example. 

After Tailhook the Navy instituted the Right Spirit Campaign, which included the alcohol abuse prevention and deglamorization campaign. Semper Fit was the Marine Corps equivalent and partner program. Both aimed nobly at infusing the Services with plans for healthy lifestyles, equal opportunity, sexual harassment free workplaces, and alternatives to alcohol-inspired charades. Secretary of the Navy John Dalton told an interviewer at the end of his term in 1998 that one of his proudest accomplishments was the deglamorization of alcohol campaign. Although this campaign had many benefits, it quickly became a "demonization" of alcohol campaign, sometimes resembling a dreaded witch hunt, and rapidly scared away junior officers from the club. 

O'Clubs could also no longer sponsor "ladies' nights," offer drink specials, or even advertise happy hours. Military police positioned themselves at the clubs every weekend, and a climate of fear settled onto the club scene. In this setting, as membership and attendance dwindled, the clubs began to transition from active duty social hangouts into retiree and civilian dining facilities. 

In 1997 Gen Krulak visited the captains at Amphibious Warfare School to discuss, among other things, the noted decline in company grade retention rates. A few officers raised concern over the recent closing of the Quantico O'Club, Harry Lee Hall, and the establishment of the new "trimod" multiservice club in its place. The Commandant respectfully told the captains that what was lacking was the officers' esprit de corps from his company grade days. Arguably, the esprit of the captains in the mid-1990s was well intact; what was lacking was an appropriate venue to bond and foster that critical aspect of comradeship. 

O'Clubs across the country followed Quantico 's lead, and with the creation of Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) at about the same time, the focus of the club system shifted from supporting the needs and desires of our corporals and captains into a bureaucratic business most concerned with "making a buck." The last decade saw officer club membership across our Corps dwindle, trimods and their like replace traditional separate facilities, and a generic watering down of the club experience in general. Today, the officers' club has become more of a dining facility focused on catering and buffets, a restaurant for lunch and brunch, than it is an establishment to support the social gatherings and morale-building and camaraderie-fostering events, (such as professional military education (PME) get togethers, and yes, happy hour), for our officers. This is no secret: the transformation that has occurred over the last 10-plus years is well known to all, and in an effort to jump-start the dying club system, the Commandant, Gen James T. Conway, ordered an end to all dues with the hope that it would spur more attendance and interest in the suffering tradition of club gatherings. 

Although this was a welcome gesture and a well-intentioned attempt by our senior leader to save the club, many think it missed the mark. Dues is not the problem; the clubs' focus is. People will always pay for a good product. No one expects or needs the lingerie shows or bottle smashing debauchery of the 1980s or wants an irresponsible return to condoned alcohol abuse. But there are creative ways we can improve the O'Club so Marines young and old will again want to go there, even if they have to pay dues. 

Here are a few suggestions: 

Rewrite the rules to allow the use of the terms "happy hour" and "ladies' night," and include drink (and other) discounts. The Corps is collectively smart enough to act like adults without being prudish and should be able to offer incentives for patronage that are not offensive to the average person. End the reign of political correctness and get over the climate of fear that has made us squirm just at the sound of certain simple phrases that are still commonplace outside our base gates. 

This does not mean we abandon the gains we've made in the equal opportunity realm since Tailhook or tolerate unacceptable alcohol abuse, such as driving under the influence. But we need not act like Puritans as our clubs wither away, scratching our heads as if we have no idea why the 25-year-old company grade officers would rather hang out somewhere else. 

Look no further than one of Gen James L. Jones' first White Letters as Commandant in which he stated that although we should not glamorize alcohol consumption, we need not stigmatize it either. He charged commanders to provide suitable alternatives to alcohol, but also to provide creative measures, such as education and transportation, to support those who did drink in moderation advice we have yet to really heed. 

Physically restructure the clubs so that the dining rooms and banquet halls are no longer the primary focus. Since squadron and battalion plaques have been replaced with oil paintings and dice cups with candles, it is no wonder our captains would rather look elsewhere for fun. The Pensacola Aviation Museum Cubi-Point Café (replica of the Cubi Point, Philippines O'Club, with actual plaques relocated from there) is a fine example of how our clubs' "focus of effort" should look, rather than like Applebees or Golden Corral. 

Rethink the way we fund, source, and manage the clubs. Recategorize the O'Clubs so they can receive the necessary funding to survive, and even thrive. And above all, remember that it's not about turning a profit; it's about fostering morale and esprit de corps. 

Give priority to active duty units for social gatherings and PME events, and provide incentives for local units to use the club rather than obstacles that dissuade them. In 2006 an F 14 squadron lost its bid to hold a "Tomcat decommissioning ceremony" at the Oceana, VA, O'Club, because a civilian police group had offered a more lucrative offer to use the same facility. Similar conflicts occur on our Marine bases, where the focus often seems to be on weddings, civics groups, or trade shows at the clubs. Units attempting to hold PME events at the club are charged hundreds of dollars to use built-in overhead projectors, so they go elsewhere. O'Club catering costs have soared to higher levels than most out in town, so change of command and retirement ceremony receptions now often occur in other local establishments or on the flightline because officers don't want to pay the exorbitant costs. And no doubt, with the Commandant's decision to halt club dues, MCCS responded with increased prices to compensate for lost revenue. This will only aggravate the decline in attendance and further widen the chasm between those who continue to support the club and those who have given up on it. 

Focus on the captains. The company grade officers are the lifeblood of the O'Club, and until they want to go back there, the club will continue to fizzle toward its grave. Post-11 September 2001 security concerns and the post-Tailhook awareness and climate notwithstanding, leaders must initiate creative solutions and liberal policies for welcoming civilian guests at the clubs (particularly during social events, such as Friday happy hours) and allow responsible alcohol use and bar patronage while still improving measures to discourage driving while under the influence and other unacceptable alcohol-related behavior. 

Integrate new and innovative solutions beyond happy hour that will encourage club attendance for active duty social gatherings. These could include coffeebars/lounges, poolside burger huts, wood-fired ovens for "build your own pizza" nights, and similar solutions aimed at the under-60 crowd. O'Club pools should have signs that state "swim at your own risk" rather than "no lifeguard on duty pool closed." Officers are big boys and girls and should be trusted as the adults they are. 

Finally, all must remember the reason we have O'Clubs, as mentioned before. It's for the camaraderie, the esprit de corps. Officers from Australia and several other allied nations maintain their own officers' clubs, in similar fashion to our Navy's "wardrooms," as well as the common noncombat deployment bars many units used to set up. This is not the preferred solution, but a club maintained by the officers themselves, if supported, is better than further degradation of the current O'Club facility into a completely dead tradition. 
Many captains today have deployed three or four times to Iraq or Afghanistan and yet have never had a beer with their fellow Marines while on deployment in Okinawa or Thailand or the Philippines or in the Mediterranean as did so many warriors from a generation ago. With no actual frame of reference for comparison, the Marines of today don't understand what they are missing, so it's no wonder they aren't complaining too loudly about the death of the O'Club. Loss of tradition such as this contributes greatly to ongoing company grade officer retention woes and is a real cause for concern. 

It's up to the majors and above to show these young officers our Corps' current and future leaders the overwhelmingly positive things from yesterday's O'Club, with respect, responsibility, and maturity. It's time to bring back happy hour.

> Editor's Note: Recently Camp Pendleton closed its Officer's Club. 

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