Saving the rod and gun club: The fight for the last US military facility of its kind in Europe
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 2, 2018
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Volunteers passionate about hunting, fishing and sport shooting are trying to save the last standalone U.S. military rod and gun club in Europe.
Many are military personnel and members of the Kaiserslautern Rod & Gun Club, where they often spend their weekends in the woods near Pulaski Barracks, honing rifle and shotgun skills.
When not shooting, they’re fixing equipment, running programs and doing hundreds of hours of volunteer work in support of a club that has been in a state of disrepair and neglect in recent years.
The 86th Force Support Squadron at Ramstein, which oversees the club through its Outdoor Recreation department, has been ambivalent about its future. About two years ago, the club stopped accepting new contracts for privately owned firearm storage, sparking rumors of closure. Officials with the 86th Airlift said at the time no decisions had been made but they’ve done little since then to promote or invest in the club.
Base officials said this summer they were still assessing the facility’s fate, expressing concerns about costly fixes to old infrastructure and club access that depended on a German forest service road lease set to expire in 2020.
But since then, wing leadership has turned over and the new commander, Brig. Gen. Mark August, has asked for a new analysis of the issue, Ramstein officials said.
At stake is a place, volunteers say, where servicemembers can safely sport shoot while out of uniform, without the hurdle of language or cultural differences. The club also provides access to training courses required for a German hunting license and gun ownership in Germany, and a place authorized by U.S. military regulation to store personal weapons.
“We have the facilities for it. We need the support,” said Brandon Cowell, an Air Force reservist and contractor at Ramstein who serves as the hunting coordinator of KMC Outdoorsmen, an organization that’s part of the Hunting, Fishing, and Sport Shooting program in Germany and open to anyone interested in outdoor sports and conservation.
“We have paintball, archery, shotguns, rifles,” he said. “I mean, you can’t ask for a greater weekend for somebody who loves the outdoors or just enjoys sports shooting.”
A steady decline
During the height of the Cold War, when about 500,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed across Europe, military rod and gun clubs were widespread.
At one point, there were at least 30 operating on U.S. bases, many of which have since closed as forces have drawn down.
In Germany, the Hunting, Fishing, and Sport Shooting program was integrated into and funded by base recreation departments, officials said. The Army in Europe oversees and regulates the program. At bases that don’t have their own recreational ranges, the Army maintains local agreements for use of military and host-nation ranges on a limited basis.
At Wiesbaden, for example, Outdoor Recreation arranges shooting about once a month at the U.S. military’s nearby Wackernheim training range, with the caveat that “military requests take priority.”
Baumholder has its own trap and skeet range and a pro shop. But Kaiserslautern is the only rod and gun club with its own building and ranges, separate from other Outdoor Recreation facilities.
The Kaiserslautern gun club and its ranges are in the woods behind the Air Force’s Vogelweh area and the Army’s Pulaski Barracks.
The 1966 building looks like a hunting lodge. On the main floor, chandeliers hang from a vaulted ceiling with exposed wooden beams. Mounted antlers and animal skulls hang above the brick fireplace. Sport-shooting trophies and plaques on display hark back to busier days.
Calvin Churchill, an Air Force retiree who’s worked at the club since 1990, said that in the ‘90s, “this place was up and running like you wouldn’t believe it.”
There were just as many Germans as Americans for customers. Families turned out for events, such as Easter egg hunts, and commanders with stars on their shoulders often took turns at target practice, Churchill said this summer, while paging through club scrapbooks full of yellowing newspaper clippings and old photos.
“Back then, you could just drive up here,” Churchill said. “There were no fences on Vogelweh. Then 9/11 hit and that just curtailed everything.”
After 9/11, the Germans couldn’t bring weapons on base. Access at the time was on a paved road through the forest via a gate on Vogelweh, near the shoppette traffic circle. Club usage also declined as military personnel deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said.
From that point on, the story of the club’s decline gets fuzzy. Two people associated with the club for years say things went downhill after the Air Force took operations over from the Army’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program.
But Air Force officials at Ramstein said they have no record that the Army owned or managed the club.
Under Air Force management, the club in the early ‘90s lost some of its range space to the service’s Combat Arms mission, the mandatory marksmanship training for airmen.
Fernando Rondon, a retired soldier and Vietnam veteran who’s worked as a volunteer instructor and range officer at the club since 1984, said volunteers have kept the club afloat.
“If it wasn’t for volunteers, this place would have gone to hell,” Rondon said. “The volunteers, we’re fighting to keep it for our military, because they can come on weekends to practice their fighting skills, shooting and all that stuff.”
When winter began to thaw earlier this year in Germany, volunteers sprang into action at the Kaiserslautern Rod & Gun Club.
The five-stand range was in disrepair, and the trap and skeet ranges were only partially working because of malfunctioning equipment, said Air Force Maj. Nathan Waters, president of the KMC Outdoorsmen.
Volunteers fixed the machines and restored the ranges. They painted, pulled weeds and mowed grass. Local Boy Scouts helped repair the trail through the woods at the archery range.
“We did straight-up manual labor that a lot of us haven’t done since we left the farm,” Cowell said. The transformation was “like ‘Walking Dead’ prior and then now it’s not so ‘Walking Dead,’” he said, referring to the television drama about life in a zombie apocalypse.
To celebrate the reopening of the trap and skeet ranges, the club hosted more than 250 people at a Father’s Day event with the help of volunteers. KMC Outdoorsmen held a pig roast; the shotgun, rifle and archery ranges, as well as both paintball fields, were in use all day.
KMC Outdoorsmen volunteers kept up the work, officially logging 1,815 hours in 2018, Waters said last month. But that number does not include most of the hours volunteers have spent on club operations since June, helping to run ranges, run the shop, do repairs and maintenance during a staffing shortage.
Waters said their efforts saved the Air Force tens of thousands of dollars in equipment and labor costs.
As one example, volunteers repaired the rifle range for the second time since 2013. The $1,000 it cost to fill the backstop with sand was well below Air Force estimates, Waters said. Volunteers shopped around for the best price, arranged delivery and spent a Saturday filling sand bags and shoveling sand into the backstop by hand.
At the recent pig roast, many attendees said they didn’t know the club existed, had trouble finding it or thought it had closed in 2016.
Club access changed in 2015, when security forces stopped manning Gate 14 on Vogelweh. That decision cut off access to the club via a paved road from base.
An alternate access road was leased from the forestry department in Kaiserslautern, base officials said. The entrance to the road is now off base, on a slope near a commercial strip in Einsiedlerhof.
The Air Force says the road lease has been a sticking point in its determination of whether to continue operating the club. The lease costs 2,000 euros — more than $2,300 U.S. — a year and will expire Sept. 30, 2020.
Base officials say there’s no guarantee it will be renewed, noting that the lease road owner has expressed dissatisfaction with the way it is being used and wants customer access to go through the Vogelweh gate instead.
But Bodo Mahl from the forestry office in Kaiserslautern told Stars and Stripes that he is not aware of any problems with club members’ usage of the road.
Waters said volunteers have tried to be good stewards of the road “because it’s the way we get to the club.”
Base officials with the 86th Airlift Wing said no final decisions have been made about the club’s future. Some solutions suggested by the previous wing leadership included moving the club’s functions elsewhere by partnering with a local German range or another nearby military range, such as Baumholder.
But under August, the issue has been getting a renewed look, base officials said this month.
“Ultimately the new wing commander has this on his radar,” said Lt. Col. Joel Harper, a wing spokesman. “Our leadership appreciates the passion of the hunting and sports shooting community and has asked for a renewed analysis of the issue in order to chart a clear course forward.”
Volunteers said the club has not accepted new contracts for privately owned firearms storage since late 2016, even though joint Army and Air Force regulations authorize rod and gun clubs to do so. That’s caused a huge problem for airmen and soldiers who live in the dorms, since they aren’t allowed to store personal firearms in their quarters, volunteers said.
Outdoorsmen like Waters and Cowell say they want a chance to help solve some of the challenges and time to turn the club around.
“We have a grassroots momentum happening here that has everybody excited about this becoming better than what it is,” Cowell said.
So far, those efforts seem to be paying off.
The club in 2017 lost about $30,000, base officials said. As of August, the club was reporting a loss of $4,976, officials said.
The Air Force considers rod and gun clubs to be revenue-generating activities, expected to be self-sustaining and “capable of funding most expenses,” according to service guidance.
The Air Force says club usage is up. Interest is also up in the hunting and fishing classes. A record 21 new anglers graduated from the fishing course in May, followed by 22 more in July, Waters said. The current hunting class of 27 students puts the program on track to graduate 59 hunters in 2018, also a record.
Volunteers maintain it’s hard for the club to lose money, as long as it’s resourced properly. A recent hunting class netted nearly $8,000 for the club: Students paid $200 to take the volunteer-taught course, not including fees for ammunition and gun rental.
“It’s a great opportunity for any outdoorsman,” said one student, Staff Sgt. David Williams, of the chance to hunt in Germany and shoot at the club. “I’ve come over here, done a lot of traveling; been pretty bored missing the outdoors. Hunting, that’s a big part of my life.”
Cowell said the club can help servicemembers that grew up hunting or fishing feel at home.
“Maybe it’s something to do on the weekends,” he said. “They say, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ Well, put them out here. We’re supposed to be proficient marksmen both in the Army and Air Force.
“If you’re only requiring someone to shoot a weapon one time a year, they’re not going to be proficient,” he said. “But if you allow them a place to go without any kind of language barrier … they feel comfortable, the safety is in place, you know the rules.”
Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this story.
Brandon Cowell, the hunting coordinator for KMC Outdoorsmen, aims his shotgun at a flying clay at one of the ranges at the Kaiserslautern Rod and Gun Club in Kaiserslautern, Germany, in May.
JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES