A Memoir: Part Ten
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" has been a twice weekly series. Here are all the previous installments!
Part One -- Part Two -- Part Three
Part Four -- Part Five -- Part Six
Part Seven -- Part Eight -- Part Nine
Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force
There was a ‘Special Duty Assignment’ open at RAF Molesworth, at the Joint Analysis Center (JAC, which is the USEUCOM JIC, but I’ll let you figure that out). This was not going to come up on the regular assignment listing; it wasn’t secret, but you mostly have to lobby for special duty. As I said, I wanted to stay in the U.K., so lobby I did. Convinced my career counselor in San Antonio that I should be the guy to take the job, and Bob’s your uncle. I was staying in England, and only an hour down the road from where I was.
I was again Superintendent of a section, this one of about 100 personnel. I did not directly supervise any of them, but was responsible for all manner of administrivia for all of them. My boss was a GS guy who was a retired Navy O-5 (Commander), and many of the people in the section were squids. A few of these were CPOs, which is the same pay grade as mine (E-7). Through these guys, I became a regular with the Chief’s Mess (affectionately known far and wide as ‘the Goatlocker’). I loved those guys. The Navy senior enlisted corps runs things very differently from the Air Force’s, and I learned much in my year at this position. Remember the CPO from Subic who put us up? That’s just how Chiefs do. Best people in the world. And in another throwback, one of my pals in the Goatlocker had been serving aboard CG-57 when it picked us up from Luzon. We hadn’t met back then. We refugees were given the crew berthings; they were staying in their duty spaces.
It is possible for some people to be inducted into the Goatlocker honorarily. Because I worked with a lot of Chiefs and was friends with them and many others, I asked if I could go through the initiation (they don’t call it hazing, but it isn’t an easy thing) that all newly selected CPOs must endure. To do this, one has to first sit for an ‘interview’ with the Goatlocker. These people were my friends, but they were CPOs first. This interview was a pretty intense grilling. They approved me and I got some recommendation letters. The final step for non-Navy personnel is getting the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON, an E-9+) to approve one’s application. It is serious business, as it should be. You get to wear a CPO rank insignia for the rest of your life. A new MCPON had just been selected, and after I had written my own request and sent it to him along with the recommendations from the Goatlocker, he issued a blanket disapproval for any non-Navy personnel for that year. So that didn’t happen. It was probably something I said. This happens a lot.
One day, a young Marine in my section asked me where Ghana is on the ‘horse’s head.’ I know where Ghana is, but the horse’s head thing was completely new to me. If you look at Africa on a map, it resembles a horse’s head, nose down as if it is drinking water. All those years and it never occurred to me. So thanks for that one, Marine. Oorah.
One of my Chiefs got promoted to E-8 (Senior Chief), and they pin on right away. It’s called frocking. They have to wait until their number comes up to get the pay grade, but are immediately wearing the new rank. I couldn’t have responsibility for an enlisted guy who outranked me, so I needed a new job. The enlisted leader of a few sections (including mine) didn’t have a lot of choices for me. He didn’t want to put me in a lower position in the same section I’d been leading for a year. I didn’t want that either. It would have awkward to say the least.
There was a new activity on base I had heard murmurs of but didn’t really know much about. It was called the Intelligence Fusion Centre (in Support of NATO) or “IFC.” Someone mentioned to me that I might want to give it a look. I cleared it with my boss and my enlisted leader, and scheduled an interview with the CO of the IFC. The unit had not reached initial operational capability (IOC) yet and was still manning up and doing all sorts of other things to prepare. They were already supporting ‘boots on the ground,’ which was the mission of the IFC. My interview with the CO went well and he hired me to work in the counter-terrorism section. The year was 2006. So if anyone tells you NATO doesn’t work terrorism problems, they are definitively incorrect.
After years of teaching and leading people and doing administrative work, I was to be an intelligence analyst again. I was in the twilight of my career and couldn’t believe my luck at getting to just be an analyst again. It was a fantastic feeling. I worked with some outstanding people from all over Europe in addition to the Americans who worked there. In all cases, we were a mix of civilian employees and military members. The last two years of my career are my favorite time time on active duty.
The IFC was initially (and temporarily) set up in an old B-17 hangar left over from WWII. One of our guys, a Navy LTJG, (O-2) used to ride an old Vespa to work on nice days. There were very few parking spaces, and he insisted on using a car space to park that silly little scooter. It was irritating, even though I rode my Harley often and it didn’t interfere with me (I parked next to the hangar out of the way). One day, me and another American guy were outside and saw his Vespa taking up a spot. The lot was full. We decided to move his little machine and lifted it and set it near my real bike. That little dude was absolutely furious. It was so cute.
In military circles, “NATO” is often said to mean ‘Nothing After Two O’Clock.’ The IFC did not resemble this remark. We put in whatever hours were required to support our customers. They were often getting shot at, and we were dedicated professionals who were there to make sure they had as much information as possible so they could stay safe out there. I don’t Facebook much, but I created an account during this time. Most of my ‘FB friends’ are still guys I worked with at the IFC. And mostly European. Very cosmopolitan.
So I married this girl.
We chose a Saturday afternoon in summer, and it turned out to be an actual warm day. This is not a certainty in East Anglia, as any day might be cool and / or rainy. We got a beautiful day. Is there a God? I’d have to say yes, I believe there must be.
The ceremony was held in the county council office in a city near The Girl’s long-time home village, where her parents still lived. The place was over an hour from my PDS, but I invited the Goatlocker and a lot of them accepted and turned up. This included the JAC’s Senior Enlisted Leader, the Master Chief. We had to walk quite a way to get to the place, and she was on crutches at the time. I loved those guys. There was only one person there in a military uniform. Me. I wore my service dress uniform because The Girl asked me to, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for her. Nothing.
This was my favorite moment in uniform. Ever.
There was also a Scottish guy in a kilt, but I don’t want to talk about that (or the ‘upskirt’ photo someone took of him).
We had put together a CD filled with music we wanted to have played at the Council venue (and at the the reception in a pub later). After we were done with the formalities and as we crossed the threshold to the veranda outside, hand-in-hand (I know, I know: PDA. Bqhatevwr), Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” started playing. The Girl had secretly worked with the people at the office to make sure that song started immediately after I kissed the bride. Just brilliant. She is my favorite human.
We honeymooned in Brighton, but that’s a different memoir. And a different Brighton.
During our 5 years together in the U.K., The Girl and I traveled quite a lot. When one lives next door to Europe, one has easy access to a lot of fantastic places. We took great advantage of this. We went to Venice many times (and a few other Italian cities), Barcelona, Prague, etcetera. And of course, we traveled the British Isles quite a lot.
We spent Saint Patrick’s day in Dublin one year. If you get the chance, I cannot recommend this experience enough. Dublin is a wonderful city, and St. Paddy’s Day is an incredible experience there. The Confession Box is a tiny pub that was packed, had a live 3-piece folk ‘band’ hanging out, and really know how to pour the black stuff.
We went to Edinburgh where I had haggis every morning at the breakfast the B&B provided. While there, we went down to Stirling where William Wallace was involved in a battle at a bridge you might recall from some movie or other. We also visited (and climbed up) The National Wallace Monument. Another thing I highly recommend. Aside: Did you know the tartan worn by Clan Wallace in Braveheart isn’t a real Scottish clan tartan pattern? It was created specifically for the movie. Also, at the gift shop at the foot of the crag on which the monument is situated, there was a large statue of William Wallace. He apparently looked exactly like Mel Gibson. Because that statue was Mel Gibson.
We went to Padstow in Cornwall, which is a beautiful coastal place located on the southwestern edge of England, and which has the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. Well, tied for best with Apalachicola oysters. In Padstow, we also met a celebrity chef called Rick Stein, who was one of my favorite TV chefs at the time. We didn’t know beforehand, but we went to one of his many places in town and found out he’d be there for a book signing soon. So we bought his book and stood in the queue to get him to sign it. There was a Jaguar parked outside with a vanity plate meaning “Padstow,” and after he signed the book, as we turned I said “Nice car.” He smiled wryly. Made my day.
Of course, we also spent a lot of time in London. Living an hour by train from there was a pure joy. If I had never been to Venice, London would be my favorite city in the world. We did most of the tourist things (because The Girl is very tolerant of my Yankee exuberance), and we went to quite a few shows in the Theatre District, the West End.
Tim Curry was playing the lead in Spamalot at the Palace Theatre, and his run was ending at the end of the year. So we set a date to get down there and see it before he quit. As I said, we went to quite a few shows (not only in London), and we saw a lot of Shakespeare’s plays among others. But for me, Spamalot was the most fun I ever had at a stage production. It was hilarious throughout, but the finale was glorious. Curry is there on the cross, and the cast started singing “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” The entire audience sang along. It was a marvelous moment, and one I shall never forget.
And on that particularly high note, I end this telling of that part of my life. I hope that you, dear reader, enjoyed it. And more than that, I hope you take away that though life will throw challenges at every one of us, keep at it. Everyone has bad days. Or bad weeks or… whatever amount of time. And sometimes it is really, really bad. But if you survived it, you won. Get up and get back out there. There’s stuff to do!
A Memoir: Part Nine
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" is a twice weekly series. Check back every Wednesday and Friday for the latest installments!
Part One -- Part Two -- Part Three
Part Four -- Part Five -- Part Six
Part Seven -- Part Eight
Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force.
In early October, we were advised the Wing would be deploying KC-135 and support personnel for combat operations out of several forward locations. We were sending one intel troop and one communications security (COMSEC) specialist to each of them. We were running out of intel people who were qualified to perform all aspects of the daily flying mission, and I recommended to my boss that I be one of the intel folks deployed. She was hesitant, arguing that I was new to the unit and to the mission. I mean, my last job was teaching people how to do harm in an academic setting. This was the opposite of all of that. The lady was smart. In fact, she was a nuclear physicist (and now holds a Ph.D). I countered that though I was new there, I had been an intel guy for a long time and was familiar with the requirements of supporting flying operations. I don’t know if my ‘I’m good enough, doggone it’ convinced her or if it was the fact that it was either her or me, but I was deploying. We had no one else.
The first place myself and my COMSEC section leader were sent was Rhein-Main Air Base. These folks were assigned to the intel flight because we shared security needs, and we all worked directly with the aircrews on mission support. The flying squadron also ran a piece of their planning activity in my vault, but they were not subordinated to my flight.
At Rhein-Main, there were no spaces save an old vault in a condemned building awaiting demolition. The vault was in the basement at one end of the facility. There were several other rooms one walked past to get to the vault. Many windows were out and there was mold and mildew everywhere. It was odoriferous. But the vault was secure enough and had an approved type of door, and we had a modern GAO-approved digital combination lock installed before we started storing classified in there. The things we had to go through during those few days to ensure we adhered to proper security procedures would make a certain failed presidential candidate laugh and email someone for a glass of iced tea. And since the things we had to talk to the crews about were classified, the crews (and on one occasion, several American reporters – that was tricky) had to come to our stinky vault to take their mission briefs. So they all got to experience the love of that nearly-subterranean palace we worked in.
Since TSgt COMSEC and I were the lone specialists in our fields, we were busy. We worked the flying schedule. That is, we went in before missions to brief the crews and we went in again to debrief them when they returned. Both of us, every mission. I had managed to acquire each of us rooms to ourselves in the old (also condemned, but not in nearly as bad shape) billeting building we were assigned. This was because we would be napping and moving around at all hours, and other people had more regular schedules. Still wasn’t fun, but at least no other fucker was snoring during my naps.
After about ten days, we were sent to Souda Bay on the northwestern portion of Crete. Great! Another exotic island for me! Yeah. Our mission didn’t change, and there were still just the two of us. The things we do for you people.
We moved from Frankfurt to Crete on one of our KC-135s. The minimum crew aboard the aircraft is three: A pilot, a copilot, and a boom operator who is also the loadmaster. On this transfer, in addition to moving all the personnel and equipment needed to do the job at Souda, we had receivers scheduled along the route. These were C-17s doing missions in Afghanistan. C-17s need a lot of gas, so we were heavy. Within scant pounds of maximum allowable loadout for flight operations. The boomer was nervous. Between and a couple feet behind the two front crew seats, and with the boomer’s station on the starboard bulkhead, there was a steel ‘jumpseat’ which pops up from the deck and is locked in place to support an observer. On the takeoff from Rhein-Main, I was in the jumpseat and on headset. As we gained speed and approached the end of the pavement, I could sense Boomer’s nervousness, but he remained silent. Finally, as it looked like that red line might get crossed by rubber (which would be a VERY BAD THING), the pilot calmly said “Rotate.” Boomer immediately, and I mean before the pilot had the word all the way out, said “Thank God.” He was nervous. So was I, but he knew to be. I was just freaked out. And the front wheel left the ground and everybody lived ever after. Or at least after.
Our receivers had overestimated their fuel needs and only took about half the load we had taken aboard for them. Makes you think, huh? Had they been able to be more accurate, we’d have been able to “rotate” in a normal fashion and Boomer wouldn’t smell so funny. But militarying ain’t easy.
I did get a chance to go into the boom pod while Boomer was washing the windshields of those Globemasters. Might as well. There was nothing else to do and the in-flight movie sucked. It was incredible. Getting that close to another big jet in the sky… it is a thing to behold, I promise you. Still think we should have force-fed them that extra gas they made us bring, though.
When we got to Crete, we were too heavy to land because we still had all that extra fuel aboard. There are a lot of rules about that shit. You can’t just spray out jet fuel from cruising altitude traversing various countries who allow you in their airspace. That's what makes chemtrails! So the driver asked Crete to allow us to dump the stuff in the Med. That was an unpopular idea with the tower, so we flew in circles around that part of the Sea for an hour and a half. Can’t spill it in the ocean, but it’s alright to burn it. Greeks, man. We. Are. Sparta!
I don’t recall how long we were on Crete, but it wasn’t as long as we’d been in Frankfurt. Maybe six or seven days. But we did get a couple moments of down time. We were in a hotel on a small mountain overlooking the bay – yes, I admit: it was a beautiful view. And the calamari was to die for. The things you people do for us. We took taxis down to the nearby town, which was exciting. Like Korean Honey Badgers with deeper tans.
By the end of October we were back at Mildenhall. Still running 24/7 ops, of course. We would be for a long while. In the coming days and weeks, I rewrote schedules time and again as our spaces were required to accommodate personnel from the Air National Guard back home who had been called up to help in the massive efforts underway against the Taliban and others who had helped al-Qaida attack our homeland. The unit I remember working with the most was the Tennessee Air National Guard. I had always thought of Guard guys as somehow lesser than we active duty folks, mainly because at Bergstrom there had been an Air Force Reserve unit who used to visit our snack bar and they looked like poor facsimiles of Air Force guys. Uniforms, hair, boots… bro, do you even military? But these guys were professionals, and they helped change my opinion of weekend warriors. For one thing, my entire job was to suit up and serve every day. These guys had jobs and families back home and they had to leave all that behind to serve. That has to be a tough life. Tougher than mine. My views forever shifted. Still, I never could get used to their enlisted guys calling officers by their first names. As it happens, one E-6 was the supervisor of one of the O-5s in their ‘real’ jobs back home. Life is funny.
In March 2003 we invaded Saddam’s Iraq for the second time in my career. My unit was again called to action because of our long legs and other assets besides our pretty smiles (which were pretty fucking charming if I do say so). The same month, Tex and I decided we weren’t working out so well. She went back to the Republic, and I lost my mind for a little while. I finally got approved to take a little leave and went back to my hometown. This was the first time I’d ever flown home for leave while stationed overseas. It was therapeutic and sorted me out pretty well. My head cleared and I was back to whatever normal means. Shit happens.
And then in remarkably short order, I met a girl.
One night in my local (this is what British, or at least English, people call the pub they frequent most in their village), a big, easily-angered but mostly not-too-irritating gym rat whom I knew from the pub decided I was macking on this bird he fancied. I was talking to her and this girl I met, but none of that mattered to Sir Charles Atlas. He was drunk. I was wearing a heavy leather jacket and he grabbed it by the collar, lifted me enough so I couldn’t gain traction, and took me out into the courtyard of the pub. I might have been able to do something, but I had no idea he was mad or why he was doing this. He could sometimes be an alright bloke, and I didn’t want to risk making things worse. He knew where I lived. And thick as he was, he was a hard bastard. You wouldn’t fight him.
As we crossed onto the pavement outside the back door, Sir Charles released me back to terra firma and left my back to the big window in the door. The guy knew tactics. Some little dingleberry who decided he was the Gymlord’s personal protector (this happened a lot... Fennies, man), punched me in the back of my head. When I say “punched,” I don’t know what I mean. But it was irritating, nothing more. I stood facing Sir Charles and at that moment, I raised my index finger in the universal ‘gimme a second here’ sign to him. He nodded. As I turned to address this gnat, a very large woman of my acquaintance was grabbing it bodily and flung it into the hedge by the wall. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. And Sir Charles also found it a bit amusing. It broke his rage. So I didn’t get killed and am still here to write this. Lucky you. And luckier me.
I also met Bruce Dickinson (the front man for Iron Maiden) during my time at Mildenhall. He was doing a show about human flight on the Discovery Channel and came to our unit to film an episode. The flying squadron, which was in the same Ops Group as my squadron and situated downstairs from my vault, walked him through various aspects of mission planning and I went downstairs just to say hello. So it was that the guy known as “The Air Raid Siren” flew with a unit which had been known as the 100th Bomb Group in WWII. It was part of The Mighty Eighth. One of my guys even brought his guitar for Dickinson to sign. I thought that was a bit much, but allowed it because, well, I wanted to meet the guy too. I get it. I just don’t ask for autographs.
When my tour at RAF Mildenhall was up after four years, I still had enough time on my current enlistment that I was required to choose another duty station. I did not wish to leave England so I tried to extend at my current assignment at Mildenhall. My CO decided to disapprove my request and called me into his office to tell me himself. He also told me why. I couldn’t disagree with his logic or his leadership. I was disappointed, but that guy has my enduring respect. Sir, I salute you.
Next in the FINAL installment:
Rex Marries a Girl. Tune in for the drama.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.