Back when the Strategic Air Command ruled the skies, days in the air often ended with martinis at the Officers’ Club.
The O-Club was where the men who ran the Air Force — and it was almost always men — made friends and made deals. And they brought families or dates in for fancy dinners or Sunday brunch. O-Clubs, and their counterparts for enlisted members and noncommissioned officers, were the hub of military social life.
“It was like a country club,” said retired Brig. Gen. Paul Cohen, a former commander of the Nebraska Air National Guard and longtime club member at Offutt Air Force Base. “People didn’t go to play golf; they went to do business.”
The O-Club culture has faded over the past 20 years as more officers have moved off base and more high-quality restaurants have opened in the community. But mostly, it’s because the tolerance for heavy drinking has faded, both inside and outside the Air Force.
That era ended for good at Offutt last month, when the dining room at the Patriot Club — the modern name for what used to be the Officers’ Club — closed its doors, a victim of changing times, dwindling membership and big financial losses. Eight employees lost their jobs, including one who had worked there for 40 years.
“I grew up in the clubs. It was devastating to me,” said Lt. Col. Monique “Sherry” Graham, commander of the 55th Force Support Squadron, who came from a military family. “But it comes time when you have to make a fiscally responsible decision.”
Graham said she made that decision after the Patriot Club dining room lost $130,000 in 2017 and faced similar losses in 2018. Membership revenue fell sharply last year after an option was dropped that let members automatically charge dues — $5 a month for retirees, $8 for enlisted members and $20 for officers — to their credit cards each month.
“Fifty-six percent of our club members walked,” said Tom Fahrer, the Support Squadron’s longtime deputy director. “People voted with their feet.”
The evolution of the clubs began about 20 years ago. Until then, the military branches contributed funds to run the clubs, viewing them as an important part of their operations. They built morale. And people from different units got to know one another.
“You got more done in a couple of hours on a Friday night than you did all week,” Cohen said.
They were the epitome of military class. In 1976, for example, the SAC commander hosted a reception for Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.
“It’s been a long time since we hosted anyone of that magnitude,” Fahrer said.
To save money, the services stopped funding the clubs, which forced them to become self-supporting. As a result, many bases, including Offutt, merged their clubs and opened them to all service members.
“Here, it never worked well,” said Cohen, who retired in 1995. “The enlisted folks didn’t want to socialize with the officers, and the officers didn’t want to socialize with the enlisted.”
Post-9/11 security measures made it more difficult to bring civilians into the clubs. But the biggest factor was the widespread change in attitudes toward alcohol.
“DUIs became a career-ender,” Cohen said. “A lot of things change. Now you can’t party the same way. You don’t, because we know better.”
On-base clubs like the Patriot Club had to raise prices to make up for the loss of alcohol sales. Over time, they stopped serving breakfasts, dinners and even Sunday brunches.
The town grew around Offutt, too. Neighboring Bellevue had about 3,000 people when SAC moved to the base in 1948. Now, it has more than 50,000.
“We have 112 restaurants within 5 miles,” Graham said. “We can’t compete with those on the outside.”
In recent years, she said, the club has relied on catered special events to support itself. But those, too, have dropped off. Income from special events fell from $240,000 in 2013 to $74,000 in 2018.
“With numbers like that, you have to be smart about what you’re doing,” Graham said.
The club’s last effort was the hiring of a new manager in March. She added new events and specials, like “handbag bingo” and a Friday evening seafood buffet. Nothing worked.
“She tried everything,” Graham said. “It was too far gone at that point. We weren’t going to give up. We wanted to make sure we had tried.”
When the closure was announced in October, she braced for a backlash, especially from the core of retirees who still showed up each Friday for the lunch buffet. It never came.
“It was a lot of silence,” Graham said. “We’ve not recorded any formal complaints.”
The tradition isn’t ending completely. The Patriot Club is being renamed the Warhawk Community Center, in keeping with the 55th Wing’s new “Warhawk” nickname. Community rooms, and even the dining room, are still available for events. But units will need to find their own caterers.
“It’s almost a seamless transition,” Graham said. “Everything else is carrying on as before.”