The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part Seven
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.
Another thing happening in the European theater then was the ‘Bosnia problem.’ The world was changing a lot in the early 90s, and Yugoslavia was changing along with it. Violently. And in the summer of 1994 (and again in early 1995), I was sent to northern Italy to work temporarily at a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) near the Adriatic coast. If you look at a map, you’ll find this is just to the south across the Adriatic Sea from southern Croatia and from Bosnia. We were definitely ‘in theater.’
A CAOC is designed to be a place where host country and other NATO personnel work through their own issues and coordinate with the other nations’ forces to accomplish the mission. And that works to varying levels, depending on many factors. The U.S. had a small facility (a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility or SCIF) on a former parking lot where we could do certain U.S.-only things, and to which only cleared U.S. personnel had unfettered access. I was assigned to this concertina-surrounded steel trailer. It was called “The Box,” and I worked as the Watch NCO when I was on shift. It was a 24/7 operation, as all Watches are. We worked a 3-2-2-3 schedule, alternating between 12-hour shifts on mids and on days. It might sound rough, but we had that 3-plus day break every 10 days. Pretty good deal really, considering the grim nature of our business there. War wears on a person.
One function of mids was to brief the American O-6 in charge of the U.S intel function at the CAOC at 06:00 each morning. My direct boss on this deployment was an Air Force captain, ‘Jo,’ who worked at HQ USAFE, and whom I had met a few times (though I had never worked with her) back at home. Jo always attended the morning briefing to the boss because she was our boss and he was her boss. She was an energetic, intelligent person with a rapier wit. She didn’t filter a lot, but her charm and acerbic tongue made her one of my favorite officer-type people.
One day we (“we” meaning “I”) were briefing the colonel about the past night’s activities. Shockingly, one of the belligerents had said they wouldn’t do something and then did it. This happened a lot. As I was talking about this, the colonel jokingly said ‘the check is in the mail,’ and I chimed in with ‘I was only holding the joint for a friend.’ Jo said ‘Or the biggest lie ever, which is “I won’t come in your mouth.”’ I somehow managed to finish the briefing without losing all military bearing. But I was laughing inside. And how. Just ‘Jo being Jo,’ as it were. We would meet again.
The first time I drove down to Italy (I went on three separate business trips there from Germany, and I always drove), I immediately discovered that I loved the country. It remains one of my favorite places on earth, especially the northern region of Veneto. And Venice is my favorite city in the world. I would move there tomorrow and for the rest of my life. During my 23 years on active duty, I traveled from one place or another to Venezia more than I went home on leave. A lot more. I like Italy.
Also that first time I was there, the 1994 World Cup (that’s the soccer thing, kids) was being played. I had become friendly with the night desk clerk at my hotel, and on the night of the final between Italy and Brazil he invited some pals to watch the match in the hotel’s breakfast area. That game (and Italy’s championship hopes) ended in a penalty shoot out, the last kick of which was an errant shot by a well-known Italian player who was a local boy. Some of those guys had met him. This is when I fell in love with the Beautiful Game. The emotion and exuberance of those guys reminded me of watching my Broncos lose all those Super Bowls.
My Watch crew decided we would still go out after the match. The Italian guys had lost interest (along with the will to live). It was maybe 21:00 or so, a time when the service industry in Italy (or at least in that city) was usually open for business. The World Cup is a different animal to the Super Bowl or the World Series. Especially when you’re in the country that won. Or the one that lost, as we were.
Almost every place we went looking for some food (or at least a drink) was closed. It was the first time I’d ever been in a country that had collectively gone into mourning over a World Cup loss. We finally found one little mom-and-pop osteria that was still selling food and beverages. Otherwise, it was a ghost town. Amazing.
I’ve never been in a country when it won the World Cup, but I reckon it’s a bit different then.
After I was back at Ramstein following my second (and final) TDY to the CAOC Box, USAF Captain Scott O’Grady (call sign “Zulu”), flying with the “Triple Nickel” out of Aviano AB (also in northern Italy) was shot down on a ‘routine’ night mission over Bosnia. He ejected safely from his F-16, but landed in hostile territory. Zulu put his training to good use and evaded the enemy in a harrowing 6-day ordeal which ended when a USMC Combat Search and Rescue mission extracted him and returned him to friendly territory. The United States military is very good at what it does.
A couple months after Zulu’s downing and recovery, I was assigned to a TDY at Aviano, home of Zulu and his wingman on that fateful mission, Captain Robert Wright (call sign Wilbur). Zulu was long gone from there, but Wilbur was still flying and doing his duty. As it happened, I ran up against a quadrennial reenlistment while I was at Aviano. The tradition (at least in the Air Force) is that an enlisted person can ask any officer he or she wishes to render the oath of enlistment to officially symbolize one’s renewed commitment. This invariably takes place before a U.S. flag and the two members are in uniform. Note well: It truly is symbolic. That first oath was the one that mattered. And it always will.
I asked Wilbur to reenlist me on that occasion. I genuinely liked the guy, but I would have asked him anyway because he had been Zulu’s wingman. He reported actually seeing O’Grady’s F-16 being hit and breaking in half. He instantly and enthusiastically agreed to come in to the squadron on a day he wasn’t on the flying schedule just to comply with my request. There’s a bit of an honor code to this stuff, but he could have said no. They all could have. No one ever did if they were in town, but I’ll never forget Wilbur doing that for me. #AimHigh, brother.
I ran into Wilbur years later at a base exchange. He was an O-6 and had graying hair by then. Responsibility has a way with follicles. We chatted for a moment and went our separate ways again. I miss that life sometimes.
The AIS was part of a larger group designed to be a quickly deployable force responsive to the requirements driven by HQ. As such, the squadron was subordinate to an Operations Group. One day, the AIS’ First Sergeant approached my desk and told me to follow him: The CO wanted to see me. Oh. Shit. I was being called on the carpet and had no idea what I’d done. I had some guesses, though. As ever.
The commander was a very calm man who was also a very devout Christian and who I never heard say a curse word. He took being a Southern Baptist very seriously. If I had to describe his manner in terms of someone you might know, I’d go with Ben Carson. Lt Col ‘Carson’ knew of me, but we’d never met beyond a handshake after he first became the CO. But the First Sergeant knew me. We’d had some experiences in Italy in the past year and we spoke to each other almost every day. Top knew me, and everybody knew I was not shy about throwing out the odd naughty word (and worse). You could look it up. I can be decidedly NSFW. A feature, not a bug.
Lt Col Carson said ‘I know you to be a man who speaks your mind, Rex. The group is standing up a planning function with representatives from every squadron. I want you to be our squadron’s voice at the group.’ This is my second-favorite moment in uniform. Ever. At least while I was actually wearing a uniform at the moment it happened. I walked into his office pretty damn worried, mostly because I am vulgar and he was very much not. As it turned out, he assigned me to represent our entire unit in a newly created function because of my refusal to eat every ounce of bullshit thrown at me. It was a proud moment is what I’m saying.
My next assignment was to Osan Air Base in the Republic of Korea. A 12-month solo gig in Korea is something every lifer knows is going to come somewhere along the way and most dreaded it (including me). Toward the end of the Ramstein tour, TRIJtM had taken the kids and moved back home. We needed a minute. I was about 4 months out and didn’t have an assignment yet when they left. There was no animosity; I had been gone a lot and we’d grown apart. I missed the kids. Shit happens.
You’ll recall I’d been to Osan once before. But this time, I lived there for 13 months. South Korea is one of those places where you go to make E-5 by arriving as an E-6. This is true across all services and all nations I ever heard of. You go to a place that parties that hard, you might end up demoted. I was an E-6 when I got to Osan AB. That I also left there as an E-6 probably helped influence me to actually believe in a higher power. Hell, I’m lucky I survived.
When I arrived at Osan, I just assumed I would be required to live in a shared barracks room with some other fucker who would get on my tits all the time. I knew as an E-6 I would be allowed to have a vehicle. I did not know I was authorized to lease a place off base. So I leased a place off base. I did not drive. Look at your favorite video source online to find out why. Koreans drive like Honey Badger.
The place I rented was the top floor of a 2-storey house in the middle of the ville. The old couple I rented from lived below on the ground floor because it was their house and they were smart people. This flat was affordable but it was unbearable in the early evenings in summer. As a consequence , I spent most of the evenings that summer out. Maybe that wasn’t the only reason I spent most nights out, but it influenced it. It was fucking hot in my place. First stop was always a place called Happy House on Aragon Alley. Songtan was mostly ‘juicy bars,’ where women (employed by the bar) would hang out with G.I.s for a few minutes or more, so long as the men were buying these thimbles of orange juice for them. In a surprise twist, ‘juicy girls’ are never drinking alcohol. Happy House didn’t do the ‘juicy girl’ thing. I had actual friends there. It was also a great place from which to ‘watch the parade go by,’ the parade being the corps of juicy girls going to their places of employment on the main drag.
One night when I walked into Happy House, there was a fellow sitting at the bar and as he was speaking to the employees, I noticed he had what sounded like a German accent. I struck up a conversation with him and we became fast friends. He worked as a contractor for a company back home and had been sent to the RoK to help an affiliate of theirs there do the precision engineering stuff the Germans are known for and the Koreans… were not, at least not back then. Fritz also had a company car (a Hyundai, but it was nicer than any Hyundai I had ever seen). Riding places with him increased my certainty that my electing not to drive there was wise. Honey Badgers everywhere.
Fritz was making a lot of money and he enjoyed spending quite a lot of it on talking to juicy girls. A juice cost around ten dollars (for reference, a beer was under two bucks). I bought exactly two juices for the girls during that tour, and both were for friends who were having slow nights. And it must have been payday in both cases. So I’d go into juicy bars with him and he’d get the girls over (they loved to see him coming because everybody likes getting paid). Juicy girls loved to do what we called ‘going Hangul secure,’ which means if they didn’t want G.I.s to know what they were saying, they’d speak Korean. Fritz and I didn’t care about that, but we had a lot of fun going ‘German secure’ on them when they did that. ‘Ai! Speakie English!’ LOL, ok. You too.
I took a few days off and traveled to Jeju-do (Cheju Island), which is situated off the southern tip of the Peninsula. One day I went to see a waterfall the place was known for. The water wasn’t very impressive because it hadn’t been raining much. As I was leaving this feature, I encountered a group of young schoolchildren who were on what I guessed was a field trip to see the thing. Apparently, none of these island children had ever seen a white person before. I was mobbed by all of them. They had to touch me to verify this new thing was actually real. It was charming. There were two adults with them, and the one who appeared to be the teacher gave me a look that said ‘This happens a lot. Sorry, hope you don’t mind.’ I smiled at her. This is the only time I ever recall that happening. I hadn’t much believed it was a real phenomenon. It is.
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.