I still cringe thinking about the first time I went on base. I commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in Summer of 2014 before starting medical school and excitedly went to visit an Air National Guard Base to check out the uniforms and explore. I gave the military police a long story about how I just joined and what my intentions were on base and handed them my reservist ID. He appeared unamused by my itinerary of what I hoped to accomplish on base and when he saluted me I just smiled, waved and awkwardly drove away. UGH. I didn’t know any better.
In hindsight, I feel like it was no surprise that I made a total fool of myself visiting a base for the first time. Military bases are for the most part off limits to the general public, and it is hard to know what questions to ask or what websites to research if you’ve never had exposure to the military life. Additionally, pulling up to the gate and being stopped by military police with their large guns and police dogs is intimidating to say the least. To save you from making the same mistakes I did, I’ve compiled a brief list of do’s & don’t’s for going onto a military base
Prior to your Visit
Going on base for the first time shouldn’t be a spur of the moment decision. Prior to going research the base online and try to find their “visitor’s information”. Some base websites aren’t up to date but you should be able to find the contact information of an operator who can put you through to the visitor center. Some important questions to ask is which gate is available to visitors and what the hours of the gate are.
Once you have a good idea of where to go to get on base, make sure you have base access. Military bases are currently doing 100% ID checks which means you have to have a valid non-expired license to get on base. You either need to have a military ID, military orders, be accompanying someone with an ID or orders, or have special privileges (i.e. being sponsored on base for an event). Additionally you will want to make sure you have your vehicle registration and proof of insurance for the car you will be driving. If you are driving a rental be sure to keep your rental agreement handy.
In your research, make sure you know what you are or are not allowed to take on to base. Military installations are currently considered “gun free” zones unless you are law enforcement or base security. If you do have a firearm you typically have to alert security and check the gun into the armory. Some bases may have an alcohol ban, for instance after a fatal car crash involving an intoxicated military member caused a alcohol ban at all Japanese military installations.
Approaching the gate
Follow all road rules as you approach the gate. You will want to drive up slowly. If you are driving onto base at night, be sure to turn your headlights off as you approach the gate otherwise you’ll be blinding the military police who are waiting to check your ID. Once you get to the entrance, roll down your window and hand over your ID and the IDs of anyone else in your vehicle. Be sure to hand your ID card so that when the military police (MP) grabs it it will be facing the correct direction. Fun fact: handing over your ID upside down is considered a sign of distress, and the MPs will stop and question you even if you unintentionally handed it in the wrong direction. They will scan your ID and if you are an officer they will issue you a salute. Even if you are in civilian clothes, you should return the salute as a courtesy. Only the driver (if an officer) is expected to return the salute even if there are numerous officers in the car, if a non-officer is driving the car the MPs will usually attempt to direct their salute at the officer in the car.
You are subject to a vehicle search when entering base. Although this has never happened to me, it has happened to my coworkers. They may just ask some additional questions and peer into your car or they could ask you to step out and do a thorough search.
Rules of the Road
Now that you’ve been granted access onto base be sure to follow the rules of the road. Don’t speed! Most roads on military bases are between 25-35mph and the Military Police are very vigilant and will pull you over and ticket you (regardless of rank). Aside from being ticketed, depending on your violation there could be a number of disciplinary actions including losing driving privileges while on base depending on how fast you were going. Be sure to always wear a seatbelt and don’t use your cell phone unless your car is equipped with bluetooth capabilities.
Pay attention to the other cars on the road for clues on what to do. You may be on base when Reveille or Retreat are playing. These are songs played overhead which are part of the ceremony in raising or lowering the American flag and cars are expected to pull over until the end of the song. Some bases may have temporary road closures for instance if there is a road that is close to the flight line, there may be red lights to signal cars to stop if planes will be landing shortly.
Where to go on base?
Navigating on base can be difficult because maps may not be updated and some routes may not be identified via GPS. Also various roads on bases could be restricted to certain traffic and gates may be open at certain hours. While at the visitor center ask for a map and directions to base amenities.
The BX (Base Exchange):
This is a department store that sells a variety of items including clothing, furniture, electronics, home goods, etc. Depending on the BX they can have pretty extensive displays for designer brands (Clinque, Murad, Victoria’s Secret, Yankee Candle company) at discounted rates. Another benefit to shopping on base is there is no sales tax which means you save on your overall purchase even if you are paying full price. In order to make a purchase you need to be in uniform or have a military ID.
The BX is usually a part of a strip mall, which typically includes a food court, a dry cleaner, a barber shop and a uniform shop. From the bases I have visited it seems that you can find the same fast food chains on every base including Burger King, Popeyes Chicken, Charley’s Grilled Subs, Subway, & Taco Bell. Some bases will also have an optometrist, nail salon, or other local specialty shops.
This is the base grocery store. Shopping at the commissary saves you money as prices are very competitive because products are sold “at cost” and the commissary works directly with the manufacturers of the products to set the price. This means the prices frequently fluctuate but usually always are well below the cost of what the item would cost at a civilian grocery store. There is also no state or local food tax, however the commissary does add on a 5% surcharge Word to the wise, the people who bag your groceries and/or carry your groceries to the car for you work for tips, so if you want to utilize this service be sure to have cash to give!
Every base has an Officer’s Club or Enlisted Club which is a restaurant and bar that is geared towards those of similar rank. This helps prevent fraternization between officer and enlisted personnel. These clubs can also be used for social get together’s or special events (ex. Dining Out at COT)
There also plenty of fun things to do on base. Many bases have movie theaters, bowling alleys, swimming pools, Skeet Shooting, and golf courses. You usually can also find outdoor rental equipment which can include anything from kayaks, to lawn games, to camping equipment. A good resource on every base is the ITT office or the “Information, Ticket, and Tours” office which provides information and discounted tickets and admission to local attractions as well as popular vacation spots (Disney World, Sea World, etc).
You can also find several gyms which may offer basketball courts, racquetball courts, and group fitness classes. Some bases have several gyms that are geared towards different types of workouts, such as gyms that contain more free weights vs those that offer more of the group classes.