Anchorage Boasts Only Known 'Ice Cream Support Squadron'
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Sep. 21, 2005 Rich Owens takes great pride in his role as the "owner/commander" of Kulis Air National Guard Base's "Ice Cream Support Squadron" here.
Rich Owens, owner of the Anchorage Tastee Freez restaurant, is also the "commander" of the "Alaska Air National Guard Ice Cream Support Squadron." Owens, after developing close ties with the Kulis Air National Guard Base community, became the Alaska South Central area chairman of the state's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve organization. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Owens bought Tastee Freez ice cream shop and restaurant on Aug. 1, 1994, near the base, which is home to the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing. He didn't know anyone from Kulis then, but 16 days later that would change. Three of his friends were in a Cessna 172 that crashed near Anchorage.
"The 210th Rescue Squadron, which is part of Kulis ... happened to be at a training mission right across the inlet over here with a C-130, and they ended up getting there about five minutes after the plane went in," he said, pointing toward the site. Two of the Cessna passengers died, and the rescue squadron saved a third.
When the survivor wanted to thank her rescuers in person about a year later, Owens accompanied her. Only then did he start to recognize the members of the search and rescue squadron as they would come in for chili dogs and ice cream. This proved to be the start of Owens' and his store's growing relationship with servicemembers.
Earlier this year, Owens was invited to the retirement lunch for Brig. Gen. Gene L. Ramsay, commander of the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing from 2002-2005. He made plans to present Ramsay with a certificate and a dessert-for-a-year punch card.
Owens said this was his first military retirement lunch. He tried to get an officer working at the lunch to present his gift to the general, but the officer told Owens he was expected to do the honors himself. He was one of the last presenters behind multiple units and squadrons and he had no prepared remarks.
"So I got up there and said, 'General Ramsay, on behalf of the Ice Cream Support Squadron at Tastee Freez, I'd like to present you with this dessert-for-a-year punch card. In light of the busy schedule you have, we're actually giving you three years to use your 12 months up,'" Owens said. The audience erupted into laughter, he added.
When he returned to his seat, an officer sitting with him said Owens needed a patch for the "squadron." And so the Ice Cream Support Squadron was born.
Owens said he went home that night and sketched a design of a Tastee Freez ice cream cone in between the phrases "Alaska National Guard" and "Ice Cream Support Squadron." Today, it's available as an informal uniform service patch and on blue and black T-shirts.
"(The T-shirts) are done so they can be worn under their uniform," he said. "These have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan," where, he explained, they are a piece of home for deployed Alaskan guardsmen who have frequented the ice cream store.
Owens said profits from the sale of the T-shirts and patches at his store will go to a family support group at Kulis.
The relationship Owens said he has with the men and women of Kulis Air National Guard Base transcends shirts and patches.
"It's kind of like the mutual admiration society," Owens joked. "They get to do a lot of things that I would have liked to have done, and we can provide support for them and their families. I think that's probably the most important thing that we can do -- let them know that people in the community appreciate them."
He said that most people don't understand the magnitude of Kulis or the jobs of the men and women who work there. As an informal liaison between the base and the community, Owens tries to highlight what's happening on base.
"If there's a retirement or promotion (and) when they had their big inspections last year -- they did very well -- then that kind of stuff shows up on the sign out (in front of the store)," he said. The store also provides ice cream for special events like picnics and kids' Christmas parties.
The store, its staff, and the guardsmen have become like family over the years, he said.
His support for the troops has grown over the years also. Today Owens serves as South Central area chairman for the Alaska Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. He has even signed a statement of support under the national ESGR committee's 5-Star Employer Program. The statement declares, in writing, that an employer will adhere to the tenets of the federal law regulating treatment of guardsmen and reservists.
ESGR provides information on the rights of guardsmen and reservists and their employers when they are called to active duty. The organization also offers assistance in settling disputes between servicemembers and employers regarding those rights.
While Owens' support to the community remains strong, his store could lose its base. Kulis is on the base realignment and closure list recommending that it move across town to Elmendorf Air Force Base. President Bush sent the list to Congress Sept. 8 for final review.
Although many details have yet to be decided and worked out, Owens said Kulis' servicemembers have told him in jest that they would attach his Tastee Freez store to the list of essential services that would have to move with the base.
But such a move isn't necessarily in the cards, Owens said.
"I would generally say that one (store) is enough. It kind of depends on what happens," said he noted. "We kind of joke about it. We've grown so close that we kind of do view (the store) as more of an essential-service issue, and so we'll see what happens."
Whatever happens, the Tastee Freez Alaska National Guard Ice Cream Support Squadron will continue to provide its frozen support, Owens said.
"Even when they move across town, I don't think that will change," he said.