Over the years, I’ve often heard someone comment that some “troubled youth” they knew should join the military. . . so, they could grow up. This comes from people who don’t know much about the military.
Today’s military is an unforgiving place. A dishonorable discharge from the military is a tar that doesn’t wear off. There are few second chances if you screw up. Gone are the days of working with you and rehabilitation. It’s easier and cheaper for the military to boot out the lost youths. Not exactly the stuff to highlight on a resume. The military is the last place you want someone to go and “grow up.” The military is a serious place, and the “profession of arms” is our nation’s highest calling. Most jobs are incredibly complex, and those who are selected carry tremendous burdens. The responsibilities are more profound than in any other profession. A few months ago, a drone strike in Afghanistan went horribly wrong. The Pentagon is trying to compensate the families who lost children in the strike. What if the error was the result of some “troubled youth” finding their way? The military is hard enough. Keep your troubled kids at home. You fix them. When we need to blow shit up, I prefer bright, emotionally stable people.
With the year end holidays over, I hopped another flight from Andrews AFB back to Montgomery, Alabama. In the last semester, we got a whole new group of seminar students. Gone were my running buddies, but the new seminar crew seemed likable enough. Just not enough for me. Maybe I just wanted the ten months to be over. I missed my family. While I distinguished myself the first semester, I barely passed the second. “They wouldn’t call it the minimum if it wasn’t acceptable.” That’s a bit harsh. I enjoyed my time at the Air Command and Staff College. I learned a tremendous amount. I graduated in June 1993. This was my nineteenth year in the Air Force. I was thirty-seven years old. But then the Air Force decided I would need to “pay them back three years for my 10 months of schooling. When I committed to go to Air Command and Staff College, the Air Force was waving any payback requirements. By the time I graduated, they had changed their mind. Now I was stuck; I would need to remain on active duty for three more years. So much for retiring at the twenty-year point!
After Air Command and Staff College and back in Virginia, I was selected to attend yet another school, the Defense Acquisition Management College at Fort Belvoir. This was a great school and only three miles from our house. This twenty-week course prepared acquisition professionals to manage large development programs. The courses covered everything from systems engineering to contract management. Diploma in hand, I was now qualified to manage military programs up to $1 billion. Yes, you read that right, billion with a B. Thanks to the NRO, I’d already learned most of this stuff on the job, but now I had the formal training to back up my street cred.
You might recall my story of the Air Force chief master sergeant who retired after twenty years on active duty. I met him in Omaha shortly after he retired. He was working for a defense contractor making the big bucks. He had made it to the top of the enlisted ranks and retired at 38 years old. His new Corvette sported the vanity plate, ‘38 & Gone.’ Thanks, Air Force. I wanted to retire, but I would need to serve two years past my twenty-year point.
You’ve got to love irony. In my twenty-first year, my fifteenth as an officer, I was selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel. If I accepted the rank, it would mean an additional three years. Also, I was living on borrowed time; the longer I stayed on active duty, the more likely it was for me to be hit with an assignment. The NRO held a lot of clout with the traditional Air Force, but at some point, the bigger Air Force wins.
War Story 946. Before the Lieutenant Colonel’s promotion board, everyone eligible needed to update their official portrait. I needed an 8×10 B&W glossy photograph of myself, just like the hundreds I’d taken of military officers twenty years ago. But there was a small problem. An expensive problem. The Air Force had decided to change their semi-formal and formal uniforms. The Air Force uniform I had was designed back during World War II. A bluer version of the old Army uniform. I loved that uniform. I loved it because it still fit. The new coat however looked like a cross between a Delta pilot’s uniform and a cheap Navy knockoff. Gone were the shoulder rank insignia, replaced with ruffled silver bands around the cuffs. It looked out of place and totally lacking in tradition and convention. The bigger problem was the cost. I would need to shell out $300 for a suit that I would wear a total of one time. The only way to justify the cost of the damn coat would be to die. Then at least, it would be dual use.
“Doesn’t he look swell in his new coat?”
“What were those stripes around his sleeves?”
“Was he in the Navy?”
As I searched the coat rack at the clothing sales store on Bolling AFB, I noticed three other majors eyeing the same coat. My coat. With sideways glances and nervous smiles, we were all drawn to each other. We all felt the connection. Brothers in arms, literally. Or at least, brothers in the same sleeves. Four majors, one coat, and four back-to-back appointments at the Pentagon’s portrait studio. We bought the coat together and split the cost. I can’t remember who kept the coat. But I can remember the Air Force changing back to the more traditional uniform the following year. “In any large bureaucracy, there’ll always be assholes and idiots who outrank you.”
Once you are selected for promotion, you don’t ‘pin on’ until your line number is called. When you pin on the rank, you incur a three-year payback commitment. I was torn. Who didn’t want to be a lieutenant colonel? I certainly did. My line number was 1712. That means 1711 majors would pin on before me. Because I was commissioned in December, I would receive one of the highest line numbers in that year whenever I was promoted. When your line number came up, you could pin on the rank. For several months I watched the numbers slowly creep towards mine, but it was slow going. For the first few months, not a single line number was called, then less than ten. Then, the Air Force, in their infinite wisdom, decided they had enough lieutenant colonels. So, they canceled the following year’s promotion board altogether. Now they had another full year to ‘slow roll’ my year’s promotions. At my twenty-second year point, I was still hundreds of numbers short of pinning on. My commitment to remain on active duty because of Air Command and Staff was complete. But I was still at least a year away from pinning on. Wait another year to pin on, then incur another three years. I chose to retire. I was 40 years old. I had served twenty-two years and two months on active duty. “40 & gone.”
During my time in the Air Force, I was honored to be awarded a few medals. An Air Force Commendation medal for just taking pictures. An Air Force Meritorious Service medal from the Strategic Air Command for single-handedly winning the Cold War. Three, count them, three Defense Meritorious Service medals. One for the work I did during the Persian Gulf War, another for things I’d better not say and the third for living to tell my story. Not exactly Audie Murphy, but I did my bit.
Before you officially retire, you can use up any unused leave. I had 90 days on the books. I took the leave. The official leave slip, the one sent to the personnel office, listed a small flyfishing store in rural central Pennsylvania as my emergency contact phone number. I also wrote, ‘Don’t call my wife; she won’t know where I am.’
Out of the War Story 1. After a few weeks of fishing and wandering the hills, farms, and small towns of rural central Pennsylvania, I decided to call Lillian. I was in a small hamlet known as Spruce Creek. Spruce Creek was made famous by President Jimmy Carter fishing there. From the looks of the town, it didn’t go to their heads. At the bar-slash American Legion, I sat drinking a beer and eating one too many french fries from one of those red plastic baskets used throughout diner land. I asked the bartender, “May I borrow a phone?” I didn’t have a personal cell phone back in 1996, and the CIA had promptly taken back my shoe phone. The hamlet of Spruce Creek has one road leading down a valley from the North, and the same county road leads you out of the valley going South.
“Which way you headed?” the bartender asked?
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Well, if you’re headed north, there’s a gas station about eleven miles up. If you’re traveling south, you’ll need to go about twelve miles.”
“You mean there are no phones in the town of Spruce Creek?” I asked.
“Nope, the Mason’s got a phone once but decided to get rid of it.”
“Why’d they get rid of it?” I asked.
“Because there was no one else in town to talk to.”
I drove south.