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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Wrong Stuff

I've told some of my old military stories, but only the funny ones. There are more in the repertoire, to be certain. There are also some that just weren't that fun to live through, which I've put off talking about to...well, to anyone really.

I realized on a long think recently that I should probably unbox some of these stories. I can't just tell the funny truths, I have to tell the hard ones as well. I have come to a point where I realize that my son, in idolizing uniformed “good guys”, could take a path he just isn't suited for. You see, there is a very strange, very fucked up paradox I have lived through...yes, the good guys can be good guys, while working in a very fucked up and not good system that doesn't just allow bad apples, it amplifies their effect, their ability, and often their audacity. I really have no idea how to explain this to him correctly at this stage of the game.

Even though the tone of this story, and some others, is negative, I have to say that I'm still proud of my having served, and proud of those serving...but that isn't a blanket forgiveness for assholes. Part of my reason for going down this road is to try to figure out how to tell culture stories without painting with too broad a brush. Still, I'm starting with this story; it is likely my roughest. It was the coffin nail, I think. This was the time when I learned that in a rank-structure system, doing the right thing is truly, frighteningly difficult at times. I was never as quick to do said right thing while in uniform.

My first three years of service were the reason I didn't re-up. My last year in was enjoyable, for a multitude of reasons, really. I matured a bit, which helped immensely. The lying sack of shit I had for a direct supervisor was sent elsewhere, which changed the shop culture a great deal. I had gained enough rank that I really only answered to one superior at a time, instead of being the dumping ground for every E-5 and up's bad day. But there was one more factor that made life uncomfortable in that shop. Many of the other members of the team righteously hated me. This is the story of why.

The topic of today's story is racism, that abhorrent condition that just won't fucking go away, no matter how stupid its practice. I despise it. That's not just a cool thing to say, a correctism, it's an active feeling I have, born from the echoes of my past, concern for my friends, and the fact that in any way I've ever looked at it, it's just a fucking unnatural, nurtured, created hate.

I've discussed racism with Little Danger, and it disgusts me that he even has to be aware it's a thing. He has as much understanding of how someone can hate others as I have of the mathematics of quantum physics. I never want him to witness that kind of hatred, and yet, he lives on planet Earth. It'll happen.

Well, that's far too much preamble, so here we go.

It was my first year in the Air Force. I was still making a lot of really dumb choices, and failing to be self-sufficient. I was a really young 18.

I had a friend in the squadron that had arrived a bit after me; she and I had gone through basic at the same time, and tech school in the same place and time as well. It was natural for us to continue chatting and being friendly. She was also a hot redhead, which drew the attention of a good number of other airmen. Well, there was a day that I learned that not all of that attention was positive.

I was in a car with three other guys from my shop, heading to the chow hall for lunch. The topic of women arose, as often it did. My friend was mentioned, amongst the general discussion of various ladies' potential as a sexual partner. Someone said a thing.

To this day, I don't have a clear memory of who said it. I have a strong suspicion based on further experience, but no honest memory to rely on. If I had, my life at that time would have been much, much easier.

I was in the back seat, as was Airman B. Airman K was in the passenger seat, Airman H driving. And dammit, I don't know who, but someone referred to her as a “N-word-loving bitch”, with a heavy implication that her willingness to date someone other than a white man made her unsuitable to be touched. I was shocked, not just because it was said, but that laughter was the response. I got quiet, turned a bit red, and made my way through lunch. I don't remember anything else about that day, which makes sense given that the rest was normal.

Fast forward a week, and said friend was being friendly with these guys, and there they were, all laughing as if nothing had been said. As if nobody had condemned her for absolutely nothing that made any sense to me. I tried to do the right thing, weighing my options and actions, but not understanding yet that we do not operate in a vacuum, nor do our best intentions.

I told her what was said, letting her know that none of the aforementioned boys wanted to be her friend. That much had been made clear. I still feel like I should have done so, because I think she needed to know that she was being talked about as subhuman. But I really wish I remembered which one had actually said it, because life, through no fault of my own (on this item, at least), was about to take a fairly dramatic left turn, not just for me, but for Airman B as well.

Airman B took leave for a vacation, blissfully visiting family. Airman friend-of-mine, despite her thanking me and promising she wouldn't say anything so as not to get me in trouble with people I had to work with, went to our 1st Sergeant. I don't think I disagree with that choice now, but at the time...well, it was the last day I would think of her as a friend, which was more to do with what followed.

The First Shirt hated racism every bit as much as I do, but had a whole hell of a lot more first hand experience with it than I. I was a skinny white boy, and he was not. He also had absolute authority to investigate and punish whatever the hell he wanted to. I did not.

Imagine my surprise at being ordered to his office. Now, I had some reason to be concerned about that, as I was never the perfect airman, but I couldn't think of any dumbass thing I'd done recently, so cue nervous walk to the “principal's office”.

He grilled me. I got a lecture about proper conduct, and a dressing down I couldn't understand. Then he asked me who said it, and he quoted the exact phrase that I'd only shared with my friend, so I definitely clued in to why I was in the room. I was honest though, and told him I didn't know who said it, just wanted to pass along that things weren't as friendly as she thought.

So the First Sergeant threatened me with prosecution. He told me he'd put me under an Article 15 as if I had said it. I made the point that if I had said it, or condoned it, I wouldn't have told her about it. He was unimpressed and undeterred by that minor point of logic. Against his anger, it could not stand.

My memory did not improve after several more minutes of haranguing and threats. So, in a masterful stroke of investigatory genius, the First Sergeant brought Airman H and Airman K into the room with me.

He told them what I'd said to her, right in front of me. The temperature in the room rose, and I felt the taste of fear I had become accustomed to in school days, sensing an impending ass-beating from a bully. And so a discussion ensued, wherein everyone denied saying anything. The First Sergeant kept up the heat, telling us that we would all burn if we couldn't tell him who said it.

So Airman K and Airman H said it had to be Airman B. But he wasn't there to say otherwise. I was pretty sure one of them was lying, but again, I just didn't remember. I tried to stay silent; surely the word of two was enough.

It wasn't. I was informed in no uncertain terms that if I didn't sign the statement that the First was writing, that I would be prosecuted as well. That I would be labeled racist and drummed out of the service, even though I was the one who did the right fucking thing. It struck me that he didn't want the truth, he just wanted an ass to nail to a wall. I will likely never hate anyone as hard as I did the First Sergeant at that moment. I matured a mile in a minute, and not all in the right way. I resolved to always just keep my fucking mouth shut.

I signed the goddamn statement.

Writing that still hurts. It wasn't who I wanted to be, and it damn well wasn't the lesson that the Shirt should have taught. My honesty wasn't good enough for him, and so I sacrificed it on the altar of self preservation. I've never forgiven that First Sergeant, and I'm fairly certain I still haven't forgiven me.

People wonder how good people can do nothing. It is often a conditioned response. Threatened with loss of livelihood, or even jail, people can be forced into some pretty shady corners.

I'm pretty sure that now, in the same boat, I would have come out swinging and demanded a lawyer advocate before saying a goddamn word more. But at 18, with the consequences so very large, I just didn't see a way forward.

Airman B lost a stripe on his return, damned by three of his fellows. I was ordered by my direct supervisor not to speak to him, so I couldn't even offer a fucking apology, much less an explanation. In our last days on that base together, he would tell me he forgave me, and understood the shitty position I'd been put in. But he also told me that he had wanted to kill me in those first few months, and was glad that he hadn't. Well, that makes two of us.

This was one of maybe a dozen tales of bullshittery I got to live through in my military tenure. There was the time I almost lost a hand to incompetence and fuckery, the second time I clashed with that same First Sergeant, a time I lost a stripe of my own due to that aforementioned lying sack I worked for. I'll tell these tales at some point, I'm sure, but I think we've yanked enough skeletons out of this closet for the day.

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