Saturday, May 14, 2016

Breaking the Camel's Back

The story of a half-assed military career.

One of the secrets for a successful life is to know when a once good situation has changed so much that a person needs to immediately begin looking for the first available exit. Dedication to an organization and tenacity to see things through when the going is rough are nice elements to the character of a person but there are times when things get so utterly crazy it's best for someone to cut their losses and run like hell. That sentiment is true for a whole manner of things but my story begins in the early 1980's.

When someone says they have only a fuzzy recollection of their high school years the tendency is to think such a person spent a good part of it smoking weed in an isolated corner of the campus. Unfortunately, for me I cannot claim that reason as to why I spent the entire four years of that segment of my life totally oblivious as to what I would do once I graduated. Long story short, I simply did not have a clue about anything from continuing my education or what kind of job I might be able to find.

Circumstances surrounding my childhood helped with that lack of direction but by the time I started my freshman year in high school by all rights I should have had some sort of plan. But it wasn't until my junior year, with adulthood fast approaching, that I have the barest recollection of being worried about what I would do after graduation. Somewhere around that time I discovered two of my buddies had joined the National Guard and would be attending basic during that summer and then return the next year after graduation to finish up their training. Needless to say, with nothing else in the works, it didn't take those two long to talk me into joining.

While in hindsight it was a crappy plan, and in fact I didn't go to basic until after my own graduation, at least it had me doing something. In someways I had always figured time in the military would play a part in my life but never once during any of those ill-conceived daydreams did I ever consider becoming a weekend warrior.

So, barely a couple of days after high school graduation—truly an overblown ceremony in this day and age—I found myself aboard a plane heading out to Fort Bliss, Texas. It was there that I endured both basic training and Advanced Individual Training, the former teaching the sorry ass collection of recruits I was part of how to be soldiers, and the latter teaching us specialized jobs like MANPADS crewman, Vulcan Gunner, or Chapparral crewmen. Aside from the usual antics of recruits, my time at Fort Bliss was fairy normal considering all the kids the officers and NCO's assigned there trained during those years. The incident that stands out in my mind was that when our training cycle began in July my unit was issued warm weather PT uniforms which consisted of a thin t-shirt and old style gym shorts. By the middle of September though the weather during the mornings had turned decidedly cold forcing us all to huddle together in tight packs in an effort to stay warm. Of course, as we shivered in the cold, the DI's (Drill Instructors) watched us from inside their warm office belly laughing at our suffering.

When I returned home to South Carolina the National Guard seemed the best decision I had ever made in my short life. During those all too brief Saturdays and Sundays, I got to play soldier and hang out with others, who if they didn't fill a similar thrill at the required activities at least played along, well, that's mostly true.

Just a few months after I returned from Fort Bliss a couple of guys and myself were tasked by the first sergeant to go set up tables in one of the armory's classrooms for a meeting. When we opened the door to that room it was almost totally dark because all the window blinds were down. Naturally, one of us flicked the light switch on to find the entire floor covered with about fifteen to twenty of our fellow weekend warriors laying on the floor sound asleep.

It goes without saying our arrival was not welcome by any of the sleeping individuals. In fact one of the guys on the floor, the principle of a nearby elementary school no less, had some rather harsh words because we were disturbing his beauty sleep.

“I will personally put my foot up each of your asses if you don't turn the goddamn lights back off and leave this room immediately!” This stalwart leader of the community and guiding light to a couple of hundred of children and humble teachers said to us. Mr. Nasty Mouth Principle was quickly backed up with grunts of semiconscious acclamation from the other guys in the room with him.

It was clear, at least to me, that the collective mass of those individuals trying to sleep could have gotten quite nasty towards us three lowly privates unless one of us had quickly turned the situation to our advantage.

“Okay, but First Sergeant Bennett told us to come in here and setup tables. He'll be here in a couple of minutes to have a meeting with the platoon sergeants.” One of the other two said to the now alert group of men suddenly finding a reason to get off the floor.

“Bennett, coming in here?” Mr. Principle said clearly realizing that not only was he almost caught sleeping by the wrong person but had missed some important information and was about to be found totally unprepared for a meeting he had to attend. It took a few more seconds for the brains of those guys to digest all the implications of this news. But once it did, they scrambled chaotically around searching for an escape just like BDU wearing cockroaches trapped in a small room.

As the months passed I became a bit of a fixture at the local armory helping out the full-time guys during the normal work week when I had free time. As for civilian employment during this period, I held one of two crappy jobs whose one positive aspect was that they taught me I would eventually be forced to take a different path in my life. Just so I don't have to relive what is truthfully a rather embarrassing time for me, I'll skip the descriptions of those two jobs that took me from the fall of 1984 to the summer of 1986. The one thing I will say is no, these jobs were not in the fast food industry nor did they have anything to do with working at a car wash. As for this new path, I had absolutely no idea what it would look like so I did the simplest thing, I transferred from the National Guard to the active army.

When I transitioned over I had every intention of staying in the active army for the full twenty years, if not longer. Along the way though the Soviet Union collapsed and the leaders in Washington, both in Congress and the Pentagon decided that the armed forces should be drawn down in size. It was the right decision given the reordering of the  geopolitical circumstances but for me it meant another change in direction. I totally stink at interpersonal workplace politics, which meant as positions became fewer the more talented types who could kiss butt without worrying about the brown substance smeared on their noses would ultimately jump ahead of a naive goofballs like me.

So, with my enlistment over in July 1990, I went back home, enrolled in the local community college and for the most part began trying to form a plan for the rest of my life. The other thing I did was reenlist back into the National Guard because since I still enjoyed playing soldier and the money given the time involved was unbelievably easy. Even though I was just a peacetime soldier after having served active duty the trials and tribulations of weekend drills and the annual two-week summer camp was something I could do standing on my head, at night, during a torrential rainstorm, while singing Margaritville. At least that was the case when I first returned to the Guard, as the years went by that situation began to change in unexpected ways.

My life progressed pretty much as expected from 1990 to 1995 with me graduating from community college in 1992, getting a real job soon after that, and culminating with me getting married 1993. Even after getting married the Guard stayed pretty much the same except that I transferred from the air defense unit in the upstate of South Carolina down to one in Columbia. It was during this time the Guard was slowly getting weird.

At first the changes were reasonable and mainly revolved around senior leaders in the local units making sure that if a soldier was supposed to be at drill, that trooper better damn well have his ass there wearing a decent looking uniform and mildly polished boots. Now if there was a civilian job conflict with drill weekends the units use to work with that soldier allowing him or her to make it up during the week helping the full time guys and gals. Eventually even that commonsense approach slowly changed with the unit first sergeants or commanders giving long-winded lectures at formations telling us that your employer was required by federal law to give a person time off so they could report for National Guard duties be it drill weekends or the annual two-week summer camp.

That was absolutely correct, except that I can report first hand that both civilian bosses and coworkers can become quite upset when that requires the former to juggle shift scheduling and the latter to give up their precious deer hunting time so they could cover the person who was away playing weekend warrior. As my troubles mounted for that reason, I learned that while patriotism appears to run miles wide here in the American South, its actual depth is quite shallow.

The Guard only made this situation worse by ramping up participation in events that required a weekend warrior to do extra drills during the same month, extended drills that could go four or five days, extended summer camps going up to three or even four weeks. I will never forget the surly and disgruntled look on a particular boss's face when I told him my National Guard unit was going to Fort Irwin, California for a summer camp that would last twenty-five days. Thankfully, I had already taken my vacation that summer, and my boss also understood my wife was an attorney, which prevented him from getting really stupid. Federal law is supposed to protect weekend warriors from any possible reprisals from civilian employers for doing the required duty but that's simply not how it works in reality. When you add the glories of living in a “Right to Work State” that adds elements of medieval serfdom for the common worker, you get a perfect brew of legal vagueness that makes any supposed protection nearly worthless. Simply put, if a boss gets irritated at a worker for being in the Guard, he or she can essentially cook something up to get rid of them. The same goes for hiring, discounting all the Guard/Employer partnership BS, with a few exceptions most companies will bend themselves into pretzels to avoid hiring members of the National Guard. From my own personal past experience anyone who says different is either a liar or a fool.

For me the straw that broke this camel's back came in 1997. Up to then I had more or less successfully dealt with all the vagaries that had become inherent to serving in the peace time National Guard. Sure, there were several incidents involving both my civilian employers and my wife that left both upset with me. At the same time, the various National Guard units I belonged considered me a person they wanted to keep because I was showing up on time and meeting the required standards. I will admit though, civilian life was taking a small toll on my weight which put me on the “Fat Boy” program at few times forcing me on short term diets.

But it was in 1997 that I finally told the Guard I wasn't going to play the good trooper anymore. Without going all convoluted with details that might just confuse I was involuntarily transferred to a new unit because the one I belonged was grossly over strength while the one receiving me was desperate for warm bodies. The new unit knew I did not hold the required MOS (Mission Occupational Specialty) to perform the job they assigned me, they said that would be corrected at a later date.

Which I took to mean prolonged training sessions during monthly drill weekends, or a quicky qualification course held at a summer camp. I had earned two other MOS's both of those ways since leaving the active army and wasn't opposed to doing it again. Full disclosure here, by 1997 I had a two year-old son and my marriage at the time was running into some difficult waters, so while I was still willing to play the game my first priority was to my family.

That's not what my National Guard unit had in mind. As summer camp for that year approached, my section sergeant, truly a good guy, called me into his office for a meeting. (I'll paraphrase the actual conversation to cover some privacy and avoid needless detail.)

“Sergeant,” he said pushing a folder filled with paperwork towards me, “we've scheduled you to attend the radio repair course, it's sixteen weeks long so you will have to explain the situation to your employer.”

Screw my baldheaded, dickless, anal retentive boss at that time, all I really heard him say was that the course, which I really didn't want to take, would have me away from my family for four months. When you added the usual bureaucratic in-processing time and out-processing, I was looking at maybe another two weeks added to the four months. Given my marital situation at that moment, I might as well gone ahead and hired an attorney and filed for divorce. It was then that I felt that one last straw hit the back of the smelly, obnoxious and grossly overloaded camel.

“No staff sergeant,” I said politely, “ I will not go to this school. I have family considerations and I will not endanger them for the National Guard.”

While my section sergeant was a decent guy, he was totally dedicated to the Guard, to the point that by all rights he should have gone active duty but that is something I will touch on later. Needless to say, my open but polite refusal totally screwed with his brain.

“You know we can't keep you in this section unless you get qualified,” He said back to me.

“No disrespect staff sergeant, but I didn't choose to come to this unit, I was forced. I'll gladly transfer out to another to avoid this situation.”

As they say, my refusal went over like a lead balloon, or a submarine with a screen door attached. While I wasn't officially on any type of shit list, I had certainly become persona non grata to just about everyone involved. My opinion during that time, and even now, was screw the bastards if they couldn't take a joke. I wasn't about to make my family pay the price so a bunch of weekend Rambos could live out their leadership dreams.

The story doesn't end there, yeah I transferred to another unit and once again found myself surrounded by weekend warriors that by all rights should have gone active duty if they truly wanted to realize their dreams of military glory. What I found interesting though was their complete obviousness to the fact that their over devotion to National Guard duty was screwing their civilian lives.

One guy who worked in a retail store came to drill one weekend totally flabbergasted that his regional manager had given him a bad job review. Now this particular individual eagerly volunteered for every extra weekend drill, even the extended ones, and was constantly putting in and getting various active army schools and training courses that took him away from his civilian job for additional periods. The fact that he was quite a smart person but couldn't connect his bad civilian job review with his weekend warrior zealotry just made me shake my head in amazement.

The example that takes the cake belongs to his best friend. This guy was like me in that he worked a demanding factory job at the time which usually had him on twelve hour shifts. Add to that to all the extra Guard duties he volunteered for, just like his best friend, that at times kept him away from home for most of a month. It all came to head late one Sunday evening when he returned to his home only to find his wife standing outside with a suitcase telling him to go check into a motel. 

Of course, I learned this at the next weekend drill where he and several others were on the advance team that would leave a couple of days ahead of the main part of the unit for a five day exercise. That guy was in tears telling me that over the intervening month he had been forced to look for an apartment and move out of his house all the while dealing with his own bosses at work while begging his wife to let him come home. The guy didn't have a frakking clue. Yeah, he and his wife divorced several months later. No joke intended, the last time I heard from that individual he had developed a drinking problem.

You might be surprised to learn that all this happened before 9/11 and the resulting cluster fucks that became the Afghanistan and Iraq quagmires. I will not go further to describe how National Guard demands grew exponentially after that, nor how divorces, civilian career crashes, and even suicides followed in the wake. I retired with twenty-one years in 2005, with only my retirement paperwork being put in one month before my unit received orders for deployment saving me from going overseas with them.

The funny thing in all this is that I once had a lazy ass civilian—who not only never served but never even considered joining the military—question my decision to retire. After a few words explaining that while I hadn't given as much as some Americans, I sure as hell had done a lot more than most I punched the guy in the face. Personally I know violence is never the answer, but damn, that felt good.

To be perfectly honest, I've been out over ten years now and there are times I still dislike civilians as much as I did when I was an active duty soldier.


Pixel Peeper said...

Dedication to an organization and tenacity to see things through... <-- Yeah, those are nice and admirable qualities, but when it comes down to it, it's you who has to make your life work out. No matter how much time and care you invest in your job, your employer/boss will never give you anything in exchange other than a paycheck.

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: Very true! I've been out over ten years now and the typical weekend warriors who throw everything away just to be deployed overseas amazes me. It's almost like they have no conception that the active army exists. Of course, this ultra-workaholic attitude exists in other places as well.

Funny thing about this post, it could have been several pages longer. The one side story I left out was that after my last unit received orders to go overseas they made everyone go through the deployment out processing, including me. At one point during the procedure I sat down at a table with a full bird colonel who upon learning my list of three MOS's joyfully exclaimed I could write my own ticket in Iraq, as if he was a job recruiter for relaxed, cushy jobs in Europe or the Caribbean. I about told the guy he was the most stupid person I ever encountered.

Nasreen Iqbal said...

I never knew much of anything about National Guard. This was therefore both informative and entertaining. It put you through a lot!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Undoubtedly, the National Guard has changed dramatically since the '60s, when so many guys joined it in a last ditch effort to avoid being drafted into the regular Army. The term Weekend Warrior was a disparaging one back then, and was mostly used by the RA soldiers to describe the guys they considered draft dodgers. The way the Guard has changed since then is amazing. No WAY those guys and gals are weekend warriors anymore, and they haven't been for a long time. I never thought I'd see the day when so many Guardsmen and women were routinely sent into combat, and for so many tours. One combat tour in Nam for my husband was horrible enough; being sent back into that kind of hell multiple times is beyond horrible.

Beach Bum said...

Nasreen: Yeah, I tried to give a small taste as to what use to go on and how it was when I retired. Long story short, if I had it to do over again I would go Air Force. In fact, I skipped a meeting with an Air Force recruiter to go ahead and go active army.

Susan: Yeah, I added the story about the guys sleeping in the classroom to show how it use to be back in the 80's when the Guard was still under old style rules. It was the downsizing that mostly caused the Guard to be pulled into a more stricter mindset. Which was what absolutely had to be done, but like the experience with my section sergeant wanting me to attend a four month course, and the two other guys who were willingly wrecking their civilian lives, the Guard has long since been in the habit of asking way too much.

In fact, a few people have asked me about joining the Guard since I retired and I am honest with them by saying if they really want to serve they should immediately go active duty. The problem with employers alone is enough to show the hassle is not worth the effort.

The Bug said...

I work for a collection agency & we're pretty good about not penalizing folks for their service - BUT a big part of a collector's income is the bonus they earn. And they don't get a bonus if they're not there to make the calls. If I were a guardsperson I would definitely avoid a commission/bonus type job!