The Pragmatic Volunteer
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!
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.