Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many civilians might sooner tour the Kremlin than be allowed a stroll on a U.S. military base. That's especially so at MacDill Air Force Base, home of the two military commands leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Take the U.S. Special Operations Command. Officers there sometimes escort visitors to the restroom so they don't wander off. But for an elite group of civilians, MacDill no longer seems like the far side of the moon.
MacDill's commander, Air Force Col. Lenny Richoux, has launched a program inviting about 200 Tampa Bay civilians to get an ID card permitting entry to the base without a military escort.
The program, Friends of MacDill, may be one of the largest of its type in the southeast and is aimed at demystifying the work of MacDill. It's also hoped it will help the financial bottom line for the base's two golf courses and five restaurants.
"Some people have told me they've lived their whole lives in Tampa and never set foot on the base," Richoux said last week. "They always wondered about what happens here. So I said, 'Well, come on down and see. This is federal property. This belongs to you.' "
Participants also can bring up to five guests, none of whom require their own special ID card.
But as the fine print often points out, restrictions apply.
All pass holders are fingerprinted and undergo a background check. Some areas of the base are off limits. Visits are limited to daytime. And the program isn't open to just everyone.
Richoux said he has extended invitations mostly to Tampa Bay's civic and business leaders. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, for example, was invited to apply. (She has yet to do so.)
"Believe me," Richoux said, "I don't walk up and down Dale Mabry handing out invitations."
Security experts say the effort is noteworthy in an age in which the pendulum rarely swings toward more accessibility.
John Pike, director of the Washington, D.C., think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said Richoux should be commended for doing what would be anathema to so many in the military.
"Security has separated the military from the society it defends," Pike said. "I don't think that's good. The public needs some direct acquaintance with it. The military shouldn't feel itself walled off from everybody else."
Pike said access helps civilians make informed decisions in the political process.
Many security measures, he noted, are nonsensical, like the reluctance of military brass to list phone numbers on the Web.
Pike asked, "Are they afraid Osama bin Laden will call and ask if they have Prince Albert in a can?"
Timm Sweeney, who runs an international marketing and research firm in Tampa, said he will use his pass to network at MacDill functions often attended by foreign military officers.
He said the program builds community goodwill and poses no threat. "Look at the Fort Hood shooting. … That was one of their own," Sweeney said.
"MacDill has a very good vetting process," he said. "It's not like they're just inviting any crazy on the base."
Civilians haven't exactly been barred from MacDill. Most can visit if they are escorted by someone holding a valid military ID.
Other civilians don't need an escort at all.
Private defense contractors, for example, often possess their own IDs allowing entry. And like many Air Force bases nationally, an "honorary commander" program provides access to a few.
At MacDill, that program has no more than 32 participants.
Richoux said other Air Force installations have programs similar to Friends of MacDill.
MacDill leaders are careful to note that security has not been eased an iota.
It's an especially sensitive topic after a contractor was arrested this month for lying to get housing on MacDill and then illegally storing weapons on base.
"Safety is not compromised in doing this," Richoux said. "Security is a big responsibility, and I don't take it lightly."
Richoux said he got approval and advice from SOCom and Central Command before starting the program, in addition to his Air Force bosses.
SOCom, CentCom and Air Force officials declined to comment for this story.
Aside from golf and five restaurants, folks also can make use of a bowling alley, a skeet range, and MacDill's fitness and sports center, among other activities.
And Richoux plans specific events for visitors. He has already held a New Orleans-style party at his base home. Richoux is a New Orleans native.
In another outing, he invited 25 civilians to ride along on a KC-135 air refueling mission off the South Carolina coast.
One perk stands out.
For a $17 monthly fee, visitors can become honorary members of that staid bastion of the higher ranks: the Officer's Club.
Still, some habits die hard. Asked what in a background check might prevent a civilian from getting an ID, Richoux politely declined to comment because of security concerns.
It's a secret.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.