If 21 years in the Air Force taught me anything it was that there are times when you have to stand up and be counted. There were times when I found myself faced with a choice: Either ignore the oath I swore and play the brownie-points game, or do what was right and take my lumps.
I don’t mind telling you my life was a bit lumpy now and then.
The brownie-points game was easy for some people, Some thrived on it; I didn’t. I was never insubordinate or unmilitary, but I refused to hold my tongue when I knew full well that the Air Force was going to be the loser. Speaking up made life rough at times, but I could always look myself in the eye while I was shaving.
One day while I was a drill instructor in basic training one of my basics came to me and asked me if he had to “buy that dumb yearbook?”
I’d never heard of such a thing. “What yearbook?”
I found out that one weekend while I was off duty someone had come into the barracks, issued forms to my 65 basics, and told them to fill them out. Since he introduced himself as Captain Bleep, they did what they were told. The yearbook cost $18 and would be shipped home, he said. The form said, “Notice! This is an order!” When one of the men asked if it meant a military order, or a purchase order, he was told, “What do you think, trainee?”
My 65 men were standing outside the base PX waiting to pay for the yearbook out of the small pay allowance they received every couple of weeks when my basic asked me that question. I went in and asked the clerk at the counter if it was mandatory they buy yearbooks. He said, “No, if anyone doesn’t want it, all he has to do is tell me.”
I told my men, sent them inside, and sat down to leisurely dispose of an ice cream on a stick. Before I got two bites they were back out.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We all said we didn’t want it.”
A few days later I found myself answering questions in the Operations Office for someone in civvies named Captain Bleep. I told him what had happened. Then I asked a question of my own.
“If you’re a captain, why aren’t you in uniform?”
When he said he was retired I turned to the OPS officer and politely asked, “Lieutenant, why am I answering questions for a civilian?”
The OPS officer had no answer, except that I could go. I knew in a flash that somebody was getting a kickback, otherwise how could the sales pitch have been on the official schedule? I asked the base inspector the same question, the base-wide yearbook racket died, and I was passed over for promotion. Not smart maybe, but necessary.
I don’t blame them for being mad. Multiply 18 bucks by 8,000 basics every 11 weeks. Not a bad haul.
Another time my basics came back from clothing issue, where six of them had signed for things they hadn’t gotten. I took them back, stood toe-to-toe — single stripe and all — with some master sergeant who evidently didn’t understand the kind of leadership training they gave drill instructors, gave him a chance to change his mind, and ...
Back to the base inspector!
Base supply was trolling for time in Leavenworth by selling things out the back door and making up the dollar difference by shorting the troops. A whole lot of people went to prison. By that time the base was closed, I was in Texas, and I had even sewn on my second stripe. Wonder of wonders!
Texas was a breeze. No crooks. Got a third stripe.
Then came New Jersey and a fourth stripe even though the poor crooks actually tried to put one over on me personally. Bad mistake! By that time I knew the system was honest even if some people in it weren’t.
My last overseas tour had been in Iceland, an isolated area. The Air Force personnel manual said that in peacetime a man could not have two consecutive isolated area tours without compelling reasons. Nevertheless, Three Stripe Clerk A gave me a choice — Iceland or Korea. I corrected him. He didn’t want to be corrected so he called Four Stripe Clerk B, who in turn called Five Stripe Clerk C, who insisted I was going.
Once again I could either knuckle under to the crooks or I could use the system the Air Force had set up to keep things honest.
What would you do, Johnny? Choices! Choices! Choices!
Tell you all about it next week.