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 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.