Thursday, May 11, 2017

It Cost More Than a Fiancee

"Can I put your name down to help with Friday's bake sale Private Burt?", the Master Sergeant asked. I said no, and consequences of that answer continue to affect my life to this day.

A Dear John letter two weeks before began a series of long workdays with no days off, coming early to the swing shift and staying late. I did not seek solace in work, but rather intellectual exhaustion. I would leave when my mind was clear to concentrate on emotional functions and simple considerations about the complex landscape of love, especially unrequited love. I wandered Misawa Air Base in the wee hours of the morning for solitude. Dawn usually failed to shine light on the problem, so I would lay aside thinking and lay down my body for a few hours of sleep.

After about two weeks I made a decision to work through the next break and subsequent work days. The first day of the work schedule began on a Friday. To signal the beginning of the end of this self-imposed grind I decided to spend that upcoming Friday morning on the shore of Lake Ogawara searching for washed up treasures such as driftwood and polished stone.

Two days before that planned lake hike I was working during the day shift, sitting in civilian clothes at an 80-column keypunch mindlessly creating database cards. Two Staff Sergeants in my group were working at their desks when the Master Sergeant in charge of Operations walked over. For those unfamiliar with the rank structure for enlisted folks, I was a Private First Class (E-3) with about 18 months of experience, the Staff Sergeants (E-6) had roughly 10 years in, and the Master Sergeant (E-8) had nearly 20 years of service. An E-9 is the highest enlisted rank, so a Master Sergeant is high in the chain of command. The difference between an E-3 (me) and E-8 (him) was almost the entire span of a standard career, so for several reasons the Master Sergeant's position and rank deserved respect.

He turned first to the others in my group (who worked on day shift) and asked if they would mind working a bake sale on Friday morning. He indicated that he already had enough volunteers but he wanted to have them available just in case. They agreed. He then turned to me (who worked the evening shift) and asked if he could put my name down for the bake sale. I said no. He paused, then asked why not. I said that I was going to be on the beach looking for driftwood. My co-workers were telling me with their hands and eyes to wave off and just say yes. Steel set the Master Sergeant's jaw and gravel ground in his voice as he said, "I could order you to be there." I simply responded that if he ordered me then I would work, but he had offered me a choice and I chose to continue with my plans.

Throughout I was respectful and non-combative. And I knew it did not matter. Even after being there less than two months it was apparent that this particular person was political, expecting to be surrounded by yes men. Agreeing to be a backup for the bake sale would have kept me from trouble. Indeed, as a backup I might even not have to attend the sale. All these thoughts flooded my mind when he asked his original question, and I chose simplicity itself by offering a straightforward answer. And I knew it did not matter, or rather, I knew it would matter to him because he would likely take it as an affront to his authority.

On the Friday after this exchange I arrived at work in the early afternoon to begin the swing shift, and my mentor --- one of the Staff Sergeant's present on that day --- informed me that I was to start working the day shift on Monday. When asked why he said that the Master Sergeant thought I was a trouble maker and wanted to catch me in the act. It was also clear that this change was in direct response to my no. I was unconcerned and thrived on the opportunities afforded during the day shift. It was clear that I was under scrutiny by the Master Sergeant, but that burden was his; I stayed light and transparent. After one month my mentor asked if I wanted to go back up on the evening shift. I told him I would be delighted but that I was curious about the change since the Master Sergeant had not caught me making trouble yet. The answer, given in hushed tones, was that I was making the day shift look bad. I was naive enough to be completely shocked because I had only done my job with vigor. No matter, I would go back to the relative solitude of the swing shift thinking --- again, very naively --- that the consequences of daring to say no had been meted out and checked off.

Almost immediately I began to see effects of the Master Sergeant's political character and others with a like mind. I had been recommended for promotion within the first weeks of arriving, but the Army was currently limiting advancement to E-4 so I had to wait, along with tens of other soldiers who had also been recommended. Several weeks after the original punishment on the day shift, all the other E-3s were suddenly E-4s. The Army had opened the floodgates that month and all E-3s who were already recommended for promotion got it. Trying to understand why I had not heard of this, I surmised --- again, oh so blessedly naive and idealistic --- that the chain of command had not gotten a chance to communicate with me. When I went to work that afternoon I waited patiently, but when no word came I asked about it since I had met all the criteria for promotion. My mentor had no answer then, but a few days later he reported that I would not be promoted in this wave because my recommendation had been held up by the Master Sergeant. That cost me several months of pay and seniority.

More consequences were in store. For instance, I was passed over again for promotion. However, it was my request for an extension to stay in Japan that plumbed the depths of office politics. Extensions were almost automatic, but even so I submitted my paperwork as soon as I was eligible. Weeks went by without any word. Inquiries at headquarters were brushed off with variants of "don't bother us; we are working on it". Months later I received orders that when my tour in Japan was done I would go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Far from working on my extension, they had buried it and lied to me. Now that I had different orders, they were almost smug as they shrugged off their inaction. I sought an audience with the commander and executive officer through the chain of command and heard advice not to proceed because the extension stall was deliberate and political; I would not win. Winning, however, was not my only objective. Drawing out a frank discussion was the primary aim, but even that did not happen.

I lost the battle and their war. Although the executive officer stated that he would see if I could be extended, when I took emergency leave in the month before my tour ended I was told to stay in the states. Specifically, go to North Carolina. I had been forced to leave all I owned in the world save a few clothes in a duffel bag. I left behind a car, good friends, a great job, a wonderful environment, travel, and a new fiancée. I never saw the friends again or traveled in Japan. The job in Fort Bragg was an order of magnitude less fulfilling. I gave the car to my fiancée, but a little over a year later I had lost her forever as well.

All this because I stood against false loyalty and futile politics.

I lost their war but I gained much more. I suffered and there is no dismissing the losses as unimportant, yet the lesson was powerful and welcome. That "No" to the Master Sergeant set in motion a series of events where I bore a cost which purchased a life that treasures truth as an end unto itself, a shield of protection, a source of inspiration, and the basis for meaningful, fruitful relationships.