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Club keeps soldiers on post
Rocky's combats DUIs
Col. Todd Buchs
On weekends, Army Pfc. Keith Smith used to drive 45 miles to Savannah to find a nightclub with hip-hop music, single women and a bar open well past midnight.
The 24-year-old soldier would often have too much fun to make it back to the barracks. “There’s been times I went to Savannah and had to sleep in the car because I didn’t want to get a DUI,” the New Yorker said.
But now he can do his drinking, dancing and lookin’ for love just blocks from his Fort Stewart billet, without even leaving the Army post.
Deciding too many soldiers were dying behind the wheel after partying out of town, Fort Stewart commanders spent $300,000 turning a defunct sports bar on the Army post into Rocky’s, a bar and nightclub that aims to mimic the after-hours party scene of Savannah’s hippest spots.
Knowing booze and dance tunes wouldn’t be enough, commanders also eased security restrictions at the post’s front gate to encourage civilians — namely women, who get free admission between 10 p.m. and midnight Fridays and Saturdays — to party at Rocky’s, which opened in November.
“We never want to glamorize alcohol, but we’ve got to be realistic about this,” said Col. Todd Buchs, garrison commander. “If we know they’re going to drink, let’s provide a safe place for them to drink so we know they’re going to be alive the next morning.”
Traffic deaths among soldiers have alarmed the Army since soldiers began returning home from Iraq in the 2003-04 fiscal year, when the number of soldiers killed in car crashes jumped 28 percent over the previous year. A total of 434 Army soldiers have died in wrecks outside combat zones since October 2003.
Alcohol was a factor in the deaths of at least seven of the 13 Fort Stewart soldiers killed on the roads in fiscal year 2006, Buchs said.
Fort Stewart has gone more than 150 days without a traffic death. Buchs said Rocky’s has helped extend that streak.
“It’s an innovative step in recognizing where their risk is,” said Lt. Col. Laura Loftus, chief of the Army’s Driving Task Force at Fort Rucker, Ala., which monitors soldier traffic accidents.
From bowling alley beer taps to cocktails at the officers’ club, the serving of alcohol on Army posts is nothing new. But with Rocky’s, Fort Stewart is trying to stay on top of trends to draw in troops.
Commanders at Fort Stewart, home of the 19,000-soldier 3rd Infantry Division, noticed troops had little nightlife nearby. Fort Stewart had one sports bar that shut down after the war began, and its bingo nights and Western-theme dance club, decorated with John Wayne posters, did not exactly appeal to troops raised on video games and hip-hop.
Neighboring Hinesville has a few bars and clubs, but they close at midnight on weekends. The real party was in Savannah, often described as a mini-New Orleans for the promenade of bars and clubs open until 3 a.m. on its cobblestone riverfront.
At Rocky’s lights above the dance floor flash to the beat of a sound system loud enough to vibrate the candlelit tabletops. The main bar area has 18 flat-screen TVs and 10 video-game kiosks that are networked so troops can play head-to-head in shootouts. There is also a mini-theater where troops can watch DVDs on a 120-inch screen with surround-sound speakers.
“I was thinking, it’s a bar on post, it’s got to be run-down or something. But when I got here, I was surprised,” said Pvt. Rodney Webster, 21, of Dodge City, Kan., who is a repeat customer.
One of the greatest challenges Fort Stewart faced with Rocky’s: Only 9 percent of soldiers here are women.
“You’ve got to have the ladies,” said Staff Sgt. Tim Brinson, 28, of Thomasville, an Army truck driver who moonlights as the club’s deejay. “If the ladies don’t come, there’s no reason for the guys to come.”
Post commanders realized this and decided to give Rocky’s civilian customers, male or female, easier access through the gates. Instead of having to park their cars at the gate to register for a pass, civilians can request a special pass to Rocky’s from a gate guard, show a driver’s license and drive on through.
Fort Stewart has issued at least 1,000 Rocky’s passes since the club opened.
“We had to weigh the force-protection risk vs. the risk to our soldiers of drinking and driving,” Buchs said. “Is it a risk we’re willing to accept? Yes.”
On a recent Friday night, women accounted for about 40 percent of the nightclub’s customers.
Jessica Kunkle, 19, of Ludowici checked out Rocky’s with her friend Veni Thelin, the wife of a Fort Stewart soldier. (Rocky’s allows patrons 18 and up, but only those 21 and older get a wristband allowing them to buy alcohol.) ”I’m looking to meet people and have a good time,” Kunkle said. “I don’t think it feels like you’re on an Army post.”
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