The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part Eight
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" is a twice weekly series. Check back every Wednesday and Friday for the latest installments!
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 the office one day, I had just gotten off the phone and my boss, a captain who sat directly across from me (our ‘Air Force anchors’ abutted each other), said “You should work on your people skills.” Ma’am? “You are too gruff. When you answer the phone, you should add ‘Can I help you?’ to the end of your greeting.” My habit was to give my rank, last name, and duty section. So I said to her that since I already told them everything they would need to figure out whether I could help them, I didn’t see a need to ask the question. She shrugged in grudging agreement. I didn’t change my phone-answering habits.
I worked in the Exercises and Plans shop, so coordinating and helping run the annual exercise I spoke of earlier (TEAM SPIRIT) was a large part of what I did for a living. It was at this point called ‘Ulchi Focus Lens’ (though we came up with some other things “UFL” could mean). As the players were arriving from all over the theater, one day a guy I didn’t know approached me and asked if he could stay at my place off base during the event. Negative. Also, how did he know I lived off base? Finally, my place was hot all the time. No AC, and a window unit was not an option because there were security bars in all the windows (a requirement that had to be met for military personnel to be allowed to rent a place). This dude stayed in a big tent. OK, it was on the base and there were other people in it with him. But it had cold AC. I knew this because part of my job had been ensuring all the tents were cool enough for the players to sleep. I mention this because it was just so odd of him to ask.
A lot of other stuff happened while I was in Korea, but that’ll stay between me and the wall.
After ‘Rex Does Korea,’ my next duty assignment was to an Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) base in northwest Florida. I was assigned to a tenant unit (not a SOC activity) there whose mission was training warfighters and running an exercise called BLUE FLAG, which was the control part of Exercise RED FLAG, the annual ‘poke holes in the sky’ event at Nellis AFB just outside Las Vegas. We also wrote scenarios for RED FLAG and trained up intel folks at the schoolhouse.
My old friend Jo was stationed there and made sure she was my sponsor when she saw my name on the incoming personnel roster. A sponsor is the person who helps a member transition to a new base (PDS), answering questions and giving advice on different issues in the local area. Jo mentioned to me in her welcome letter (while I was still at Osan) that “The people speak English down here (after a fashion).” Not sure if she knew I was from around the area, but in any case I don’t have a strong Southern accent. She was not to be my supervisor; her husband was. He was a desk-bound pilot who ran the operations shop. We had many different specialties in that school: Operators, intel folks, an Army shop, and even a couple JAG guys (lawyers). Teaching war is complicated.
For the first several months, I didn’t really have any idea what my job was. It was a new activity, and my boss, the pilot, didn’t really seem to know what he wanted me to be doing. Not a slam on him; no one really knew what we were doing. So he had me doing all manner of stuff, not much of it to do with my specialty code (intel). And that was fine, if confusing and a bit frustrating. He did get me to help him with issues when he had questions relating to intel guy stuff (he had an actual job and reported to the squadron CO).
The school finally started jelling up and we all figured it out. A new CO had come in, and he called me into his office one day to tell me he wanted me to be his targeting intelligence instructor. We would be teaching in a formal classroom setting, and our students would include officers and enlisted people from all four branches, as well as officers from foreign allies who were sent to us specifically to learn how we did what we did. I will not disparage our allies from the Arabian Peninsula here. But I could.
There was a problem, which I mentioned to the boss when he told me what a big part of my job would be: I had never had any formal training on targeting or weaponeering. Turns out he knew this (of course), and he informed me I would be returning to western Texas to learn it so I could teach it.
This course was intensive and very enlightening. I learned a new side of my business, and it served me well for the rest of my career. Targeting is a very precise business in the modern world, as is weaponeering. The targeting piece is figuring out what to break in order to achieve a given objective. Weaponeering is the part where we calculate which weapons will best meet requirements and how many of them were needed to give us the best chance of success. There is a lot of math. *pats Algebra on my hip*
One day, we took a field trip to a nearby electrical substation. These are a critical part of any nation’s infrastructure, and their design is fairly standard across the world. So we went out there and did a field exercise, learning all the moving parts and what did what. And then we drew up a plan to ensure its destruction to varying levels (to simulate potential mission objectives). That was an interesting day, and the local utility guys were very helpful and cooperative in helping us figure out how to destroy them.
And I met a girl.
We wrote an exercise scenario for the classes we were teaching. These scenarios usually involve a real place on earth, reconfigured and renamed for our exercise purposes. In this case, we created Redland and Blueland, which were separated by the Alpine Sea. This “sea” we created by erasing the Alps and filling the cavity with saltwater. Intel guys are magic! For the scenario to be used in a formal teaching environment, it required a narrative to accompany the images and charts on the screen. Since I had been a major part of creating the scenario, the CO chose me to record this narration, which me and my boss wrote. This meant quite a few late nights because it needed to be quiet to record it and the place was full of noisy people in the daytime.
One day, I was passing Jo in a hallway. She stopped me and told me she liked the scenario, and that I was a great choice as the narrator. I’ve always been a singer, and by now had become pretty adept at public speaking. But if you’re anything like me, the sound of your own voice talking at you is unpleasant. So this was a boost to my ego, even though I hadn’t mentioned to anyone that my voice coming out in the squadron’s theater (our main classroom for the academic side of our mission) bugged me a little. Jo told me my voice was mellifluous. My vocabulary can be described as “adequate;” hers was far superior. But I learned a new word that day. And I was flattered.
One Monday following the Thanksgiving break (most units try to work it so that is a 4-day weekend, as indeed this one did), the CO called the entire unit into the theater. He said ‘There are four buses outside, and all of you are going to board them and go take a urinalysis right now. Do not return to your spaces even to get your cover (that’s a hat). Proceed directly to the buses.’ We were all making tryptophan jokes, but he was looking for someone. He found the person. No, it wasn’t me.
So I married this girl.
My kids were living in my hometown just a 2-hour drive from my duty location, so I had them every other weekend and at other times in what I reckon is a pretty standard custody arrangement. I had become concerned about their treatment by TRIJtM’s new husband. He wasn’t physically abusive, but they had had a couple kids together and he liked his kids more than mine. I suppose this is natural. After all, I liked my kids more than his. I didn’t even know his kids. So I sued for custody. The kids were old enough that what they wanted strongly factored into the judge’s decision. She took them both to her chambers (with a bailiff or someone as chaperone), and reported they both would prefer to live with me instead. And I (and they) won.
I had been promoted to E-7 (Master Sergeant, MSgt), and when it was time for me to choose where I would like to go next, I had two overseas options: Hickam AFB, Hawaii and RAF Mildenhall in England. Easy choice, right? Well, no. A colleague of mine who sometimes acted as the unit’s First Sergeant had been assigned to Hickam (which is an ‘overseas’ assignment for those purposes) and told me of a lot of problems her son had had in the public schools there. Nothing against Hawaiians, but kids are mean and I had been a little concerned that my two ‘haoles’ might have issues with the locals. I had also learned a couple things on my previous trip to the area.
The Department of Defense runs primary school activities in all foreign countries to ensure American children are taught to American standards and in English. These schools cost the member nothing in tuition, so it’s the same as sending your kids to public schools in CONUS. Well, not the same. DoDDS schools are far superior. Hawaii, since it isn’t actually a foreign country, has no DoDDS schools.
So, I chose RAF Mildenhall and was selected for that assignment. It was my first assignment to a flying unit as an intel guy, and I was to be the Superintendent of the Intel Flight. No, I didn’t fix plumbing or otherwise work on people’s apartment buildings. I was the enlisted leader of around 30 people, most of whom (but not all) were intelligence specialists like myself. Our building was new, and the intel vault (a large office space secured in several ways for working with classified information) was still using the old Air Force anchors until we could work out a plan and order new stuff for the spaces. We didn’t have any televisions yet.
One day about five weeks after I got to Mildenhall I was working on some annual individual performance reports and other ‘administrivia’ when my boss, sitting at her desk beside me, asked ‘MSgt Rex, what are you doing right now?’ I told her and asked if I should be doing something else. She was looking at CNN’s web site and said an airplane had just hit the World Trade Center in New York. My immediate thought was ‘oh, some Cessna got blown off course in the canyons again.’ The date was 11 September 2001. As you know, it wasn’t a light aircraft. And neither was the next one that hit. And we got very, very busy very, very quickly.
When my boss asked me that first question, it was just before 14:00 on that Tuesday. We immediately converted to a 24/7 schedule and I would be writing a new duty schedule to cover the shifts. Manpower was an issue since were manned for a primarily day shift operation. I quickly came up with a skeleton and we sent people home with at least some idea of when they would be working. But someone had to man the phones and other devices throughout that first night. I gathered the troops and asked for one volunteer to stay with me (I obviously wasn’t going anywhere any time soon: This is what senior NCOs do) through the night so we could keep the vault unlocked and to be a second set of eyes for any issues that might pop up. A young lieutenant immediately said he would do it. I liked that kid, and he earned even more of my respect in that moment. We worked a 25-hour shift that day. And we would have kept going until the engines shut down. That’s what we do.
As you might imagine, life was drastically altered for American personnel around the world that day. Things I had just been getting accustomed to (because I was still fairly new at that location) changed completely. Force protection measures and duty requirements underwent some incredible changes in a very brief period. These changes would keep coming for a long time afterward, too.
The primary mission of RAF Mildenhall is flying air-to-air refueling (AAR) missions in support of command objectives and to help service NATO allies’ fighters and other aircraft. The equipment assigned to this end was the KC-135 Stratotanker, which was then the Air Force’s most numerous aerial-refueling platform. The same airframe as the Boeing 707, this jet had the greatest range (longest legs) in theater and could also haul a great deal of people and stuff along with all that gas.
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.