Monday, June 13, 2011

Under The Wire?

I made a comment in a previous post about my work suddenly realizing that I was going to be gone for three weeks and then subsequently getting piled-on by the various projects on which I am working.  One project manager's comment was along the lines of "what; you thought you were just going to sneak out under the wire on us?"  I chuckled because I've made my intentions clear every week since October, 2010 when I submitted my 2011 vacation forecast.  This situation reminds me of when I got out of the Air Force back in 1989.  That was one time where I really did sneak out.

Allow me to preface this with a quick comment.  While the following description of my final months in the Air Force is somewhat less than complimentary, I don't want my patriotism or pride called into question.  I am proud of the role I served and I have the utmost respect for those serving today.  I'm the son of a proud Air Force vet, a proud Air Force vet myself, and the proud father of an Air Force vet.

I spent my last few years of active duty stationed in Austin, Texas at Bergstrom Air Force Base.  The 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW) was headquartered there and I was assigned to the Electronic Warfare Systems repair shop in the 67th Component Repair Squadron (CRS). The 12th Air Force Headquarters was also at Bergstrom and while I was assigned to the 67th TRW/CRS, my assignment there was really a personnel placeholder for a covert joint service operation that was managed on the Air Force end by the brass at the 12th AF HQ.  A few details on the many operations we performed were described in a previous entry.  There are plenty of other stories to tell, but I've worked hard to put that world behind me. The reality is I got to a point where I had just had enough.  My outlook had faded from a mindset of a patriotic kid who felt like he was quietly serving the greater good, to one of a man who realized that he was but one in a handful of pawns tossed into the covert Central American theater at the whim of distant bureaucrats who never saw the implications of their decisions, or of our actions.  I had been at that work for three years.  I was older and wiser. I was done.

Better Attitude, Before I "Failed the Test" - 1987
As part of Uncle Sam's security protocol, operatives like myself were required to submit to random drug tests and quarterly psychological profile screenings.  The only thing random about the drug tests was the dates. The selected participants were always constant.  I never feared a drug test because I was squeaky clean.  The psych profiles were another story.  The questions were seemingly random and appeared to have no bearing on the state of my emotional health or mission readiness. Questions such as "do you like flowers?" and "what's your favorite color?" were sprinkled in with other inquiries, many of which often included details from events which took place during recent field activities. I figured they asked those to let us know they knew what we were up to.  Whenever a psych profile was scheduled, I would get a call in the morning ordering me to report to the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) building that afternoon.  I knew then to drink lots of water.  Anyone who knows the Air Force knows that regular calls from the OSI do not equate to the recipient having many friends.  The OSI were like the secret police who investigated everything from bounced checks to espionage.  As such, the general Air Force population steered clear of them.  Before each evaluation, the proctor would read a statement; the same statement every time. Like the pre-flight safety announcement performed by airline flight attendants, I could recite the pre-psych statement verbatim.  After this statement was read aloud, I was always asked if I had any questions before we proceeded.  I always responded with a "no", we proceeded with the evaluation, after which I would leave the OSI building wondering what the hell they could have possibly gathered about me from that crap.

Last Flight - 1988
On this particular day, when I was asked if I had any questions, I responded that I had just one; "How do I fail this test?" "Do you want to fail this test?" was the reply. "I think I've had enough." I paused and added "No; I'm done."  I remember that like it was yesterday. The proctor just closed the book and said we were finished.  I headed back to my shop with a knot in my gut and the phone there was buzzing before I arrived.  As I entered the foyer, a guy in my shop named JP looked at me and said "who the hell did you piss off?"  JP was a career E4 buck sergeant with almost twenty years of service, who wore Air Force issue birth control glasses and sported a Joe Friday haircut.  By comparison, I had been in less than seven years and held a line number to be promoted to E7 Tech Sergeant. I wasn't a genius, but I was good at my job and particularly adept at taking tests.  I actually studied for promotion exams.  Back then in the Air Force, points accrued for promotion included scores from tests over general Air Force knowledge as well as specific job knowledge. The overall promotion scores were also heavily weighted on time in service and time in rank.  Given that fact, if guys like JP ever bothered to spell their name right on the test form, they should have been promoted long before I ever was.  JP was a ROAD (Retired On Active Duty) burnout who was just biding his time to retire at twenty years of service.  His job in CRS was to answer the phones, monitor the supply locker, and keep the snack bar stocked.  I ignored his comment and and he repeated it "who the hell did you piss off?" and added "your secret squirrel snitch friends have already left three messages for  the Captain."  Captain Pacheco was a piece of work too and the stories I could tell about him alone could fill an entire blog. I just shrugged and continued to ignore JP as I made my way to the snack bar.

Before the end of the day, I was informed that I was out.  Not out of the Air Force, but out of the organization that reported up through the 12th Air Force to the NSA. It took me over a year of qualification exams and profiling to get in and with one simple response to the test proctor, I was out.  I would be fully assigned to the 67TRS/CRS Electronic Warfare Systems Repair team.  No longer could I disappear when I felt like it without accountability to my superiors.  Before this day, they knew only that I was into something that they were not allowed to ask about because despite their lofty security clearances, they didn't have the need to know.  "Need to know" was a powerful phrase in the Air Force and I used it to cover my ass many times.

I successfully dodged JP's cynical comments, but I couldn't ignore Captain Pacheco when he summoned me into his office.  He had a vague idea of what I had been up to and was always playing the cool pal kinda guy trying to get me to talk about it.  It drove him crazy that one of his resources could simply disappear without accountability.  I never told him anything.  I never told anyone in my shop.  I never even told my wife. I only told my father in an attempt to earn his respect knowing that he once had lived in a similar world and I thought it might build a bridge of commonality between us.  My previous need for confidentiality no longer mattered to Pacheco. He knew for sure that I was fully one of "his guys" now.  Even though my clandestine horse was never very high, I was clearly knocked off of it.  Everyone in my shop knew something was different, but I couldn't explain it because to do so would lend credibility to the rumors and divulge details that at that time, were not to be discussed.  When I was debriefed by the brass at the 12th AF, it was made clear to me that although I was now on the outside, I was still accountable for confidential information.

"Regular" Air Force Rotten Attitude - 1989
I found myself back in the "regular Air Force" and I found that it was unbearable.  With the exception of some older guys with Vietnam combat experience, most of these people had no clue just how big and how busy the world really was. The things that the leadership considered important enough to use to burn their underlings boggled my mind.  Their "big picture" was like Blackberry screen compared to the reality they never saw.  The general attitude from the people in my shop towards me was similar to that received by the burgeois from the proletariat class in Ayn Rand's description of post-revolutionary Petrograd, Russia.  Nevertheless, I sucked it up.  I only had one year left in my re-enlistment, I had skills valuable to the civilian world, I had college, and I had my drive.  No one shooting at me? No more pin cushion treatment from pre-deployment inoculations designed to prevent indescribable third world diseases? I could do a year with these people standing on my head.

It was around this time that my father had begun to succumb to the effects Parkinson's Disease, which were exacerbated by a lifetime of heavy drinking and from smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes.  I attended his retirement ceremony at a defense contractor for whom he had worked as a design engineer for almost 25 years.  He was only 53 and was being medically retired.  For all his fatherly shortcomings, he was a brilliant engineer who held numerous patents and had a citation of accomplishment which mentioned him by name and was personally signed by President Lyndon Johnson. It was at this retirement ceremony that I was exposed to the employment potential that my training, background, security clearances, and perhaps most importantly - my last name - offered me.  I was already out of the covert Air Force.  I knew when I returned to Austin that I wanted out of the game altogether.

By 1988, Ronald Reagan had successfully bankrupted the Soviet Union and peace was breaking out all over the world.  The Berlin Wall, an icon of Soviet imperialism, would fall shortly.  As such, the Air Force found itself overstaffed and was seeking to shed personnel from its bloated ranks.  A program called Palace Chase was enacted and was designed to allow qualified Airmen to separate the service early with an honorable discharge.  Members selected to participate would be required to serve twice their remaining enlistment time in a Guard or Reserve unit.  The trick was finding a unit near my home that had an open slot in my rank.  As luck would have it, I found an Air National Guard unit in my home town that was understaffed.  In fact, I had toured this very unit as a Cub Scout when I was a kid.  It was still operational and their equipment was probably no more advanced then than it was when I was there with the Scouts.  I quietly completed all the paperwork, submitted my package to the Air Force, and waited. This was in January, 1989.  By mid February, I learned that I had been approved and that my separation date was April 3rd.  I wasn't just happy; I was giddy.  In less than two months I would be a free man.

You've read all these paragraphs and might be wondering what the hell this has to do with the title "Sneaking Out".  Maybe it will all start to come together here.

After doing the things I did and seeing the things I saw, the regular Air Force no longer held my interest.  It was a job.  Our shop and the mission of the entire 67th TRW had pretty much been rendered obsolete.  Pilots were boring holes through the sky in early 1960's RF-4C Phantom jets that were older than many of the aircrews inside them.  At the end of the fiscal year, the Wing Commander actually had all the jets taxi day and night up and down the three mile long runway in what we referred to as an elephant walk to burn up the unused fuel reserves so they would get the same funds next year.  Although we weren't aware of it at the time, in a matter of years, the entire base would be torn down and converted into a commercial airport.  The majestic, elevated, circle-shaped 12th AF HQ building with all its secrets and underground operations centers was turned into a Hilton hotel. When a base has no operational mission, the focus shifts to beautification and Bergstrom was no exception to this rule.  If it didn't move, they painted it.  They literally painted the grass green one winter to impress some visiting General.  What rational person ascends to the rank of General and doesn't understand that grass might not be green in the winter?  But I digress. My role in the Air Force had gone from one that was highly complex and mission critical to one that was little more than what the TSA is today - a return of the Works Progress Administration.

Despite all this, there was a light at the end of my tunnel.  I had taken refuge in the best place a guy could go when there's no real mission; mid-shift. Mid shift was great.  The midnight to 8:00am hours sucked, but I got used to them.  The beauty of mid-shift was that nobody of any importance was ever around.  Any officers on mid-shift were usually fuck-ups, who were sent there to keep them out of site of the important people.  They shared the same micro give-a-shit attitude the rest of us did, so we got a long well.  On day shift, the guys in the shop sand blasted and repainted the curbs around the building and the bumper blocks in the parking lot.  On mid shift, we played laser tag and used the hoists in the equipment bay to fly us around, adding a third dimension to our fun.  On day shift, there were morning formations with roll calls and uniform inspections.  On mid shift, I gave all my guys a four day work week and we rotated the Mondays and Fridays so everyone (except me) got a three day weekend now and then.  The only drawback to mid shift was that any official Air Force business such as medical appointments, finance issues, training, etc. had to be conducted during day shift hours.  That was a small price to pay for the freedoms we enjoyed on mid shift. I made it clear to my guys that if word got out, they would all work the same five-day week that I did.  My guys weren't stupid. They kept their mouths shut.

One evening, I arrived at my shop at 11:55pm and found a large, overstuffed envelope in my in-box.  I peeked inside, saw that it was my separation packet, clutched it tightly, and ran to the latrine to check it out closer.  In it was a stack of papers to be filled out, signed, stamped, and processed before I could carry them with me to my out-processing session on April 3rd.  I hadn't told anyone that my Palace Chase request was approved. When I mentioned that I was considering applying to the few people I ever talked with, they all dismissed it because I had been paid a hefty re-enlistment bonus a few years before.  That bonus notwithstanding, my freedom was granted and following the instructions in this packet would seal the deal.

When most people either separate from the Service or transfer to a new base, they usually announce it to the world and take their last two weeks off to tie up loose strings, get their packet filled out, signed, stamped, and processed, go see all their friends in other base shops, and generally goof off.  These last two weeks usually culminate in a going away party/cookout with an appearance by the squadron Commander, a plaque, and a photo of an RF-4C, the border of which is signed by the guys from the shop.  Everyone was always glad to see them go because for the previous month, well we ever heard from them was that they were short timers and how great their next base was going to be.  There was an old saying that went "there's no base better than the one you just left or the one you're going to". I chose a different path.  Rather than blab to the world about how short I was, over my last two weeks, I would get off shift in the morning and quietly visit the various offices to get their sections of the separation forms stamped and signed. I scheduled all my appointments for 8:00am, so I had an excuse to be gone when the day shift zombies showed up to pressure wash the bricks or begin whatever other menial babysitting task was at hand that day.

Eventually, April 3rd rolled around.  It was the first Monday I looked forward to in years. I needed one more document signed and that space on the form was for my Squadron Commander.  The Lieutenant Colonel who was in command at the time was never in her office on Monday mornings.  I knew who got in when because I was there overnight to see them arrive in the morning.  The person who was there that morning was a butter bar second lieutenant who held the lofty title of "Section Commander", whatever the hell that meant.  He was a VMI graduate who spent four years in an abusive, heavily disciplined collegiate military officer training environment.  Now, only a few months into his commission, he was completely disillusioned by the "real" Air Force, its relaxed discipline, and by the apparent lack of a clear mission at his first "real" assignment.  Despite all that, his hair was razor short and his creased uniform was textbook perfect with his rank, name badge, and his only service ribbon perfectly placed. I saw him sitting at his desk through the blinds in his window and knew this was my chance. I popped into the nearby latrine to check my uniform and buff my boots.  I wore a camouflaged battle dress with the trousers bloused over the boots.  Every latrine had a full length mirror and a shoe shine kit; especially in the Commanders' section of the building. I popped out looking just a little spiffier and knocked on his door.  I know I took him by surprise, not for knocking, but for knocking once; just one single knock, which was the formal military custom.  I knew that being fresh out of VMI, he would appreciate the military discipline. Look, I spent the last six months avoiding command asses at almost any cost.  If kissing up to one now would get my paperwork signed, I was more than willing to pucker up big time.  On his response, I entered, closed the door behind me while maintaining eye contact with him, took two steps towards his desk and stood at attention. "Sir, Sergeant Wilson reports".  His face lit up like a Christmas tree. I didn't salute him because we were indoors.  If I had, he probably would have stained his pants.  I stood at ease when he said so, extended the sheet of paper to him and said that I needed a commander's signature to complete my out-processing.  He looked over the form and said he wasn't sure if he had the authority to sign it.  My heart was sinking, but my brain was rushing.  I mentioned that it was my understanding that in the Commander's absence, the Section Commander has oversight over administrative matters. Yeah, I pulled that one out of my ass.  I added that the Commander signature and stamp were all I needed to be able to wrap up my departure.  When I said the word stamp, his eyes lit up again.  He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a brand new, still in-the-box rubber stamp and ink pad. He was like a kid finally getting to handle a new pocket knife under dad's supervision. "I think I can handle this".  He scribbled his name and proudly slammed his stamp on the form below his signature.   It read:

DeAndre Jackson, 2Lt, USAF
67CRS Section Commander

Now it was my pants that were in danger of being stained. I shook the Lieutenant's hand, executed a perfect about face, stepped out of his office, and then exhaled deeply.  I sat in my car afterward, repeatedly examining the stack of paperwork to ensure I didn't overlook something.  It was all there. I was done.  I showed up for my out-processing appointment and watched patiently as the young admin Airman went through my stack of papers saying to himself "yep, check, yep, yep" as he sifted through each of them.  This was the pre-PC era and I'm pretty sure I could have forged the signatures and no one would have been the wiser.  There's no way I could have duplicated those stamps though and seeing Lt. Jackson get to use his new toy was almost worth the brown rings I had around my ankles after burrowing my head so far up his ass.

When the admin Airman was finished with me, I joyfully handed over my military ID card to him.  He said to keep it because after all, I was still "in" until midnight.  He gave me a stamped/addressed envelope and told me to cut my ID in half the next day and mail it in.  I shook his hand, grabbed the "Surviving in the Civilian World" pamphlet he gave me, left the building, and drove off the base.  I returned to Austin the next week to handle the sale of my house.  The phone line was cut, but the answering machine was flashing rapidly.  The messages were all from my old Air Force shop.  "Sgt. Wilson, this is Sgt. XXX, the guys on the mid shift said you weren't there last night. Is everything ok?  We'll mark a day of leave down for you unless you have a medical waiver."  That was the nicest of the messages.  Several messages later, the message tone from Capt. Pacheco was quite different. "Sgt. Wilson, In accordance with AF regulation blah blah blah you will be listed as AWOL if we don't hear from you today."  Management really didn't get it.  My direct reports knew where I was.  I told everyone I cared about on my last night.  Their jaws all hit the floor and they seemed genuinely bummed.  I thought it might have been because I was a cool supervisor, but then figured it was probably because they all realized the would have to start working a full week.  Interestingly enough, no one with any authority in the shop (or in the squadron for that matter) believed my guys when they told them I was out.  In their mind, there was no way that I could just sneak under the wire like they said I did.  But in fact, I did.

I stopped at a neighbor's house to say goodbye and used his phone to call the shop.  I spoke briefly with one of the few people there who I considered a friend and told him where to find the Airman Performance Reports (APRs) I had written on my guys.  I didn't want them to get screwed by a poorly penned APR written in haste by someone who didn't know them or their accomplishments.  Before he hung up, I heard him say "Uh oh..." and then I heard "Sgt Wilson, this is Capt. Pacheco. Do you care to explain yourself?"  I replied "Hello Angel."  I was a civilian now, I figured I had the right to address him accordingly, and I wasn't about to say "Mister".  I added "On April 3rd, my ID card was destroyed and the Air Force issued me a DD Form 214.  I must be OUT."

I hung up the phone and left for Dallas.  It was exhilarating driving past the base for the last time.  I had two sons and a wife to support, no insurance, no job, a house to sell, and a car payment to make. Despite all of that, I felt totally free and completely unburdened.  Only eight months before, I had set my sights on a goal that nobody believed I would really even pursue, much less realize.  I was fully aware that despite all my planning and forethought, there would still be numerous unknowns that I would just have to deal with as they came along.  I believed that was fully prepared to handle whatever the road threw at me.  Sound familiar?

I didn't get a party, I didn't get a cookout, a plaque, or even an autographed RF-4C photo.  Most importantly, I didn't care.  I got OUT!  I headed up to Dallas to join my family, to find a job, and to find a home.  I had plenty of employment prospects and with almost two full months of leave accrued, had a steady paycheck to see me through. The job I ultimately took was with NEC as an Associate Engineer in a new but emerging technology called cellular telephones.  I loved the work and was especially proud of the fact that I got the job despite the fact that nobody at NEC knew my last name.  The rest as they say, is history.