My first assignment after being commissioned was Strategic Air Command’s Headquarters in Omaha Nebraska. We were stationed at Offutt A.F.B. for a little over six years. While other Lieutenants rotated to exotic locales and padded their resumes, I was frozen. Frozen in time, frozen in the harsh Nebraska winters and frozen in a career greatly outmatched by the springbutts I served with from Stanford, Purdue and UCLA. We were all proud members of the “bottom three,” 2nd, 1st Lieutenants and Captains. We were the salt mine workers for the twenty-four flag level officers who lived in the mansions on Generals Row of the old Ft. Crook now known as Offutt AFB.
Separately, the enlisted ranks had their own world. Their “top three” culminated in Chief Master Sargent and were treated like gods. We, the “bottom three” of the Officer Corps rowed the slave ships. My job was to assist all of SAC in the transition to a new multi-billion-dollar space system. While my colleagues were gaining a war chest of medals, I bought a business suit and quietly disappeared from the official Air Force. I joined a silent world. A hidden world. Hidden from the public, our families, our friends. It was hidden from most of the Air Force as well.
When I wasn’t on travel somewhere around the globe, I was piecing together a master’s degree, completing Squadron Officers School and whatever additional duty the Wing Commander sent down. I was commissioned in 1979, at the height of the cold war. I was a December baby meaning any promotions would come after everyone else in my year group. I was proud just to be on the bus.
1979 was the largest year group the Air Force ever commissioned. While the Air Force needed a boatload of Lieutenants and Captains, they would need precious few Majors and Colonels. Because we were in a fight for our careers, because it was a fight to even have a career, we all made sacrifices. Of the thirteen junior officers I served with on that first assignment, all were “passed over” for promotion to Major except myself and two others. I was grateful to make it out of the bottom three alive. The others were weeded out with no retirement, maybe a few bucks in severance pay or . . . they joined the enlisted ranks in the hope of someday making it to retirement.
The new space system I helped integrate into SAC’s Intelligence empire was truly revolutionary. It provided critical information on Soviet nuclear capabilities. The Cold War was burning, and no one questioned its importance. My job required me to learn how the government acquires multi-billion-dollar systems. As often is the case, it’s not just about buying new bright shiny objects. This is more about building than buying. You are building something that’s never been attempted before. You are going to make mistakes, costly mistakes. The job is to learn not to repeat too many of them. The task was bigger than me and required untold hours of not only myself but the staff I hired. The Senior Master Sergeant responsible for all our new construction often remarked, “the only difference between an inmate and the NCOs who work for Captain Z, is that the inmates have more stripes.”
One of my main jobs was to hire a new workforce to operate a completely new technology. Old and dated systems were being replaced and the existing workforce would need to retrain, retool or leave. I recruited computer programmers, systems analysts and image scientists from both inside and outside the Air Force. Because our new system was our Nation’s top priority, I could rob other Commands and divert the best talent on my authority alone. As you might guess, this did not sit well with the non-SAC Air Force.
The person who finally replaced me in Omaha was “Jeff”. He was a young Captain, a targeting officer by training and a damn good one at that. A year before I met him, on a major bombing competition, Jeff earned his spurs. Select B-52’s launched from their bases in the United States and flew to a remote set of targets someplace in the Egyptian desert. When SACs premier B-52 crew missed their target by almost a mile, Jeff was called on the carpet. You might think that accuracy with nuclear weapons is not such a big deal. In SAC it was. It’s what they train for.
Junior Officer’s like Jeff rarely got to brief the Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command. This Four-Star who ran SAC was responsible for all the nuclear warheads we had. When Junior Officers briefed the SAC Commander in Chief it was usually a plum. A perk for the less than one percent who’d would later get an early promotion. Jeff would get no early promotion. Far from it. This briefing was no plum.
Jeff was the one elected to tell the big, big boss that his targeting was spot on but the General’s decorated bomber crew missed a pivotal aim point by over a mile. The fault was crew error, not the targeting or route plan. While Colonels and One-Stars jumped to hide under their chairs, Jeff proved that the targeting was dead on. The Four-Star bought it. In the Intelligence Community, Jeff was a hero, an instant celebrity. For the operational bomber crews, Jeff was a marked man. Jeff’s fame also meant I could finally leave Omaha.
The Air Force had found in Jeff another person willing to work the twelve – to thirteen-hour days, seven days a week I was used to.
Welcome to my world of “marginalize your family early so you can focus on your mediocre career.”
In the month or so of overlap that Jeff and I shared, I learned another important reason Jeff was going to replace me. My bosses understood the toll this assignment took on Lillian and the kids. Jeff was smart, articulate, but most important, he was single. Being single also meant my bosses harbored a small bit of envy toward Jeff’s lifestyle which often morphed into resentment. As a single captain, Jeff had cultivated numerous investments, owned a small apartment complex and drove a shiny new red corvette every year! Jeff was the epitome of an Air Force Officer, well built, good looking and the confidence of a rock star. It also seemed that he dated a new Rockette every month and was known to fly off to Tahoe or Vegas for the weekend.
We all hated Jeff.
Jeff was also a practical joker. As a going-away present, he had the NCOs duct tape me to a chair and soaked me with a firehose. Omaha’s winter water was freezing, and the firehose hit me full force. When my lungs could no longer suck air, they stopped, I think my heart stopped too. It took me two years to get even with Jeff.
Fast forward to 1986 when we were finally reassigned. The Pentagon. I didn’t actually work at the Pentagon but that was my story and I’m sticking to it. I still traveled way too much and a birthday or anniversary at home was the exception, not the rule. Lillian had finished her degree in mathematics. Now employed by a small D.C. “think tank,” she was writing satellite orbital code and image compression algorithms. She did this in on a Cray supercomputer. When she explained the details to me you could actually hear the grass growing in our yard. Because of her, we could now afford a house in an older but nice neighborhood in Alexandria Virginia very close to schools.
As it happens, Jennifer and Jason befriended two children each of their ages in our neighborhood. So, while the kids played, the parents, Phil, Susan, Lillian and I partied more often than we should. Phil was a dentist. Not a particularly good dentist, but a dentist with a stable practice. Phil had a “minimum is acceptable” philosophy. He was also rich by our standards. Our mortgage, car loans and the orthodontist took all our money and then some. Phil worked a hard five and a half hours for a grueling four days a week. I on the other hand had managed to cut my hours down to less than twelve a day and only five days a week. Whatever would I do with all that time off. Lillian suggested I take up sleep.
Phil had a new corvette. Of course, he did. His was yellow, brand new and it rarely ventured outside the neighborhood. Now you might think I didn’t like Phil. This was far from the truth. Phil taught me how to mix gin and orange juice and freeze it in a thermos before our children’s Saturday morning swim meets. That was brilliant! It made the five-hour competitions a real treat to watch. Encouragement and praise came easier as the thermos emptied. Cheers!
So, the trap was set. Jeff had a trip to D.C. During his trip, Lillian had convinced him to come to dinner. Maybe we should just take the bastard to Chuckie Cheese I said. Steadfast, Lillian replied, I like him, and you need to be nice. “What-ever,” I said. Now Jeff knew we were struggling to make ends meet in the high-cost world of D.C. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was so lost in his Rockette world that he just didn’t understand. I had to fix him! So back to Phil and his corvette I went. I borrowed Phil’s newer and faster yellow corvette.
When Jeff came to dinner, the driveway was full. He needed to park his rental car on the street. That was because MY new shiny yellow corvette covered all of the driveway. As luck would have it, as the gods would have it, a light snow was falling as is often the case in mid-February in DC. When Jeff showed up, I met him at the door. He wouldn’t come in, instead, he was transfixed by MY newest possession. Apparently, MY corvette was six months newer than his and had that turbo thing. Jeff was impressed with words of praise flowing from his mouth.
Just then, Jennifer and Jason ran outside, snow falling, below freezing. They wore the old coats they had long since grown out of. With their coat sleeves 5 inches shorter than their arms, they shivered. They shivered because they stood barefoot in the snow. Looking straight at me, looking straight at Jeff, they said in shivering unison, “Daddy, do you think we can get some shoes this winter?” Jeff looked at me and he looked at the kids. He realized I had him.
Jeff and I remained friends for twenty more years. In 1991, Jeff led the targeting efforts for all Special Forces Command operations during the Persian Gulf War. He still drives a new corvette.