So as I'm learning history and theology I'm also a member of the US military. I'm reading my Bible, I'm learning history, I'm assimilating and developing theology...and I'm increasingly troubled. The America I grew up with...the greatest nation in the history of the world, the greatest force for freedom and goodness...didn't exist anymore, at least for me. It was tumultuous and disturbing as I started down that road.
In the Air Force I was a flight line cargo handler. I loaded and unloaded the big aircraft, the C130's, C141's, C5's and just as I exited the organization, the new C17 was starting to show up. I loaded and unloaded bombs, missiles, trucks, jeeps, helicopters, dead bodies in transfer cases, nuclear weapons, pallets of cargo and much else. Southern Air Transport, a front for the CIA regularly came through shuttling cargo across the European theatre and occasionally an odd unexplained passenger.
We also had the glamorous job known by the euphemism of 'fleet service'...meaning we hooked a hose up to the underside of the airplane and emptied the toilets into a tanker truck. Not glamorous but what was interesting was we got to go aboard all the planes. The cargo planes were a daily affair, but we also went aboard Senatorial planes which was enlightening to be sure. They are treated like royalty and their staff people are unbearable prima donnas. Once we told a staffer we couldn't procure the kitchen product he wanted...to go with the steak and lobster being loaded on board. His reply was "I don't give a f--- what you can or can't do. Just get it and now!" So several of us spent the next couple of hours running around the area trying to put together the list for the visiting royalty.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs visited and I was aboard his plane. Air Force One came in a couple of times...the Secret Service wouldn't let us aboard that one, but we were underneath it providing our 'services'. Yes of all my credentials, pumping out the presidential toilet has to be near the top. I don't think the Secret Service/Praetorians assigned to us were overly enthused either.
I got to see a whole lot of things...sometimes I was disgusted...in retrospect I'm thankful for these experiences. I wouldn't do it again, but it's all part of what shaped me. The Secretary of Defense visited a couple of times and since the passenger terminal was part of our squadron, a bunch of us were sent inside to fill the audience as it were. You don't want the Secretary of Defense on television speaking to an empty room. I ended up in the front row and friends saw me on CNN that night when they panned out on the crowd. No big deal, but it was very interesting to watch in person what one of those press conferences is like. It had a surreal quality about it. The impression is not at all what it looks like when you watch it on your television.
Many little things contributed to the experience. There were a couple of occasions when we saw firsthand things being reported on CNN that we knew were not true, plane movements, preparations, official policy things like that. More than once I raised my eyebrows and just filed it away in my memory. Everyone knows, but everyone doesn't want to see. They keep their heads down. If you bring it up, people just shrug…don’t want to talk about it. When you get in trouble in the military it can be quite serious. Most people like the catered life, everything being provided for you, the benefits, the vacation and security. Many want a pension. They don't want to think about what they're doing or why. That was part of my problem. I'm not the type of person they want. I didn't say much but as I went about my day I was constantly thinking about what we were actually doing.
To me it was all perspective. I was in a little tiny squadron detachment at a more or less backwater base on the Adriatic Sea, and when I considered what I was seeing and then if you magnify what's happening across the whole scope of the military and government...it was breathtaking. It was also instructive to watch how a corrupt bureaucracy works. Every facet is trying to protect itself, justify its existence and get its budget increased. It ends up a black hole for funds. Based on what I saw in the realms of cargo handling, flight liner operations, both road and aviation mechanics versus what my experiences and observations on the outside...the military requires 2 or 3 times the number of people versus the civilian equivalent. As I often said, it wasn't hard to be a shining star in the military. I had to fight the lazy bug everyone was infected with. Ethically I was bound to work and consequently I was viewed as some kind of marvel and given responsibility beyond my rank. They didn't like me because I wasn't signing on to the team propaganda, but the quality of my work kept me out of trouble. The quality of my work might have got me fired on the outside, but in the Air Force I was being rewarded.
I won't even talk about the Reservists who used to rotate in. It was a longstanding joke. These folks usually knew next to nothing and had little interest in work. Mind you this was in the 1990's, and I would imagine this particular cultural aspect changed after 11 September. Over the past decade many of the Reservists have more or less became like the active duty and I would imagine many of the worthless ones were weeded out.
Anyway, I got out of the Air Force early. Some were sorry to see me go, but I don't think the officers in my unit or the senior enlisted personnel were. Though my work couldn't be questioned, they knew I was not a team player. I had not signed on to the mission. I clearly lacked esprit de corps and they told me so. I was not interested in the drinking banquets, going out on the town and all the rest. I was not inclined to ‘pal around’ with the same people I could hardly stand during the work day. It's really a wretched culture. At times I tried to be social and not withdraw so much. But it was almost impossible to be around some of those folks. It's harder than in the civilian world. The military operates as a caste system and that stays with you all the time. I spent free time with my Christian friends, but days off did not always correspond and eventually they moved on while I had to finish out my term. It was lonely at times, but also profitable. I cannot begin to communicate the hours I spent reading and studying, drinking tea and walking the medieval streetscapes.
I had always been afraid of committing four years of my life and then waking up six months into the thing, regretting it and being stuck. That's exactly what happened. The Cold War was over and the post Gulf War drawdown was underway. My career field was saturated and I was able to get what's called an 'early out' and I took it. I was honourably discharged, though I would have taken less in order to extricate myself.
I was quite happy to take off that uniform and toss it and my medals into the dumpster. I'm ashamed to have worn it...but it was all Providence. I thought I had tossed everything but later I did find a NATO medal certificate in my belongings. I saved it as a...memento.