Sometimes I’ll mention that I’m a veteran and someone will say “Thank you for your service.” I always feel inclined to look over my shoulder to see who they’re talking to because it can’t possibly be me.
I joined the Air Force in the spring of 1981. My original plan was to go in with a “guaranteed career field” in electronics, take the specific job that has the longest school (translating into the most electronics training), and parley that into a good job after my tour in the Air Force.
For various reasons stemming from my childhood, I have always had self-confidence issues. Because of that, when I got to the facility in Columbus where they did the physical and whatnot to get me signed up the recruiter there was all, “Hey, I know you asked about electronics, but here’s this field, would you consider…” “And if you sign up for six years rather than four, it comes with a promotion to E-3 on graduation from Basic and a $2500 bonus on completion of technical training.” (That sounded like a lot back then.) And I let myself get talked into a different field. At the time it was called “Voice Processing Specialist.” Later the name was changed to “Cryptologic Linguist.”
Worst. Mistake. I. Ever. Made. And that’s saying something.
I completed basic training OK. I was a bit annoyed at “wet fire” that I came four point, just four points, shy of shooting “expert” and earning my Expert Marksman ribbon. (I was supposed to have a second chance at the end of technical training, but the range was down at the requisite time so I never got the chance.) And it wasn’t until well after I graduated that the coin dropped and I realized why I’d failed the “red line” inspection which prevented me from earning “Honors Graduate.” (I smoked the academic portion, can say with all due humility.)
“Voice Processing Specialist” called for training in a foreign language. I ended up with Russian. At that time, the Air Force preceded its foreign language training with a 6 week intensive English Grammar class. It wasn’t intended to teach “how to speak gud” or the like, but rather to learn the language of describing grammar so that when I went to foreign language training no one would have to explain what a dative case or a subjunctive mood were. This class was taught at Lackland AFB, the same base where I went to Basic. I did well in that course. Then we went to the Russian language course. This was during a short period where the Air Force wasn’t doing it’s Russian Language at Monterey, CA, but instead…at Lackland Air Force Base. 47 weeks of Russian Language. I started off really well, tapered off a bit, but still remained strong through the end.
And then…and then, technical training at Goodfellow AFB in…at least I got out of San Antonio…San Angelo, TX.
Another six…or was it eight…weeks then I finally get my first duty assignment. RAF Chicksands between Bedford and Hitchin in England. It is here that I start learning what a horrible mistake I made, not in joining the Air Force, but in getting involved in that particular career field. It wasn’t so bad here. This is where I first learned that I had a “perceptual problem.” Never mind the details but one of my tasks was to set two pieces of equipment to the same settings. I’d call my superior to report that one of the pieces of equipment was not working and he’d point out that I’d transposed two digits on a setting.
About the third time this happened I realized that there was something wrong and a lot of the difficulties I’d had with math when younger suddenly made sense (note: I overcame them and in college later accumulated enough credits for a math minor, then continued in graduate school–you don’t get a degree in physics being weak on math).
In retrospect, and looking back I think I had poor leadership at that station. Had I had some good NCO leadership to get on my ass and kick me in the right direction things might… well, no use worrying about it now.
Two years in England and I rotated stateside. There was where the full weight of my mistake came to roost. In England, I was able to banter back and forth with some of the other operators and…it helped get the work done. In the stateside assignment there was none of that. Just sit and wait and… Did you know if you report suicidal thoughts they strip you of your security access?
For someone prone to depression that was a bad combo. Poor APR’s (“Airman Performance Reports”) leading to a designation of “not eligible to reinlist” (don’t threaten me with a good time). In the end I accumulated the “We don’t have any reason to court martial you” awards: AF Training Ribbon, Longevity Service Award, Overseas Ribbon Long Tour, and Good Conduct Medal. A truly undistinguished “career.”
And, as it happened, the military specialty proved to be of no particular value in the civilian sector. My clearance might have been but see above about losing security access.
I look back at my military service and what I feel is largely regret and guilt. Yes guilt. Other folk who’ve served went in harms way. I was always nicely safe. Friends, other vets (only ones whose opinion really matters in this case. That’s just the way it is and I’m not going to apologize) tell me that I signed on the dotted line, went where I was told, and was ready to go into danger if so ordered. Maybe. Doesn’t really change the way I feel.
I have been asked from time to time if I’d go back. Well, first they wouldn’t have me. Second, there’s my daughter which has to weigh pretty heavily in any considerations. But if those two were resolved, I think I would. I sometimes feel as if I have unfinished business there. As it is, that will have to wait for another life if there is such a thing. I would hope so, anyway. If things have gotten to the point where putting me back into harness is a serious consideration then things have gotten very bad indeed.
But if it comes to that. “Here am I.”