In a suburb, about a 30-minute drive from Arkansas’s state capitol, situated in a green, forested, hilly area, you will find an Air Force base. It is not among the biggest bases you will find, but it is pleasant to look at; near the back gate, you will find a couple of the base’s parks, built around a large and small lake, respectively. Residents enjoy fishing, camping, picnicking, and walking down various paths at these parks. One might sit at a bench next to a small pond off the small lake, and reflect on the animals, plants, and water that can be seen there. I often did. There is a whole lot of pleasantness that can be seen around the base, like this. Peaceful, you might consider this place. Pretty, even.
To enjoy the sights-at least with any frequency-however, you must be a member of the US Air Force. Specifically, you must be a member of the either the 314th or 19th Airlift Wings. I’m not sure what life is like for a 19th Airman; sounds like they have a lot of exercises, Group PT, etc. They also frequently deploy, being a part of the Air Mobility Command. The 19th is also the host unit of the base, and all base services are run through them; the D-Fac, the Post Office, the Gym, the Personnel Center, etc. I can’t be sure, but they seem to enjoy a great deal of comradery in that wing, and their airmen seem generally happy. I could be wrong; I was never a 19th Airman. I was 314th.
When I arrived at the base back in February of 2012, I was super nervous; all these Senior NCOs and Officers walking around! Surely, I would do something awkward, and they would devour my soul! Except… they didn’t really seem to care that I was there, surprisingly. No, they seemed more concerned about going about their daily business than messing with me. A drastic change from BMT or Tech School. As I’ve talked about in the past, my then-girlfriend’s family picked me up out of Tech School, and drove me to the base. When I first arrived, I was supposed to be greeted by an individual called a “sponsor,” who would show me around the base and tell me about stuff. He wasn’t there. Instead, they were going to send an NCO. That NCO was sick. So they sent this other NCO, who showed me my room. I watched him walk straight through the grass outside the dorms, and I was shocked; you don’t do that! Except that you do, because only MTIs and MTLs care about that shit.
My dorm was one of the nicer ones, I suppose; I was in a suite with four rooms, and three other people. Each room had its own bathroom and furniture, and out in the common area, there were couches, comfy chairs, a kitchen area, and a tv with cable. Across the common area from me lived my first roommate from tech school, who gave me a big hug when he saw me, heh (I will always remember my introduction to him; I was being shown to our room, he saw me down the hallway, and came running at me, yelling, “STAY AWAY FROM MY ROOM!” He did not want a roommate, lol.) So the living arrangement seemed nice, but when I went back to my dorm, I didn’t really see anyone else or talk to anyone else… Especially when I got internet.
The first weekend there was a four-day weekend, the first couple of days of which my girlfriend and her family were there… and then they left. And I didn’t know what to do with myself for the next two days, because everything was so much more spread out, here; at Tech School, there was a mini mall-like place a very short walk away from the squadron, with a food court where I could buy a beer, and a Game Crazy where I could buy games. There were also more people I knew that I could interact with, if I wanted to; after I initially saw him, my former roommate made himself scarce. So I watched some DVDs on my computer. Probably also played my 3DS.
The first day of work, I was very nervous and shy, and had a bunch people be like, “ya better not be!” I awkwardly got to know some people, and kinda warmed up to them. I was still very much in my robotic state from tech school for the first few months, however. If I recall correctly. That first year… things seemed reasonably okay in that office. Most people had a sarcastic, snarky sense of humor about them, and nothing seemed like a huge deal. Some of the NCOs and Senior NCOs seemed really grumpy-snappy, but I wasn’t incredibly worried about that. I was also reasonably happy because of the ex… which I’ve gone over many times in the past. The point is that everything seemed new and bearable still. I wouldn’t find out until the next year what that office was all about.
My first bit of hostility came from our first First Shirt. Before he was our shirt, this guy was a quality assurance guy, and they were right down the hall from us, so we’d already seen quite a bit of him. He came down and chewed us out because I was apparently wearing inappropriate headgear with my blues while raising the flag (we didn’t know; we’d been allowed to wear that headgear in tech school). He informed us that at this point in his career, he’d already been thrown up against a wall, I think for less?
As a first shirt, he was responsible for inspecting our dorm rooms. Before he inspected us, I had already been inspected by a staff sergeant, who thought my stuff looked great. With this first shirt… I was within a couple points of failing the two times he inspected me. Every first shirt that came after never marked me down for anything. I was there for the second time this shirt inspected my room; he went into every nook and cranny, made sure I could reach the top of my blinds, etc. As he put his inspection paper down on my bed, he glared into my eyes. This guy also casually, proudly told us a story once about how he got a guy kicked out, and this was his second person he got kicked out. Very impressive. At the time, I looked at him as a stern, but reasonable authority figure with a bit of a sense of humor. As time wore on, I came to think of him as a bullying asshole.
Eventually, I recognized that no one who had been there for a long time seemed happy. Everyone seemed drained of their enthusiasm for what they were doing, and had a cynical perspective of most things that were going on around them.
A senior airman had a habit of declaring, “Nope! Still don’t wanna be here!” NCOs frequently grumbled about their Senior NCO and Officer superiors, quite openly. At least they didn’t seem to mind that I was sitting right there and could hear them, anyway. In that way, I developed the idea that anyone outside of our office was a bit of a buffoon, and it was okay-or at least socially acceptable-to mock them when they weren’t around. Either that, or in our office, we were all together; us vs everyone else. Whoever they were complaining about, I bought into the idea that that person was no good, as per these coworkers of mine had been here longer and knew more than me. I was also the golden child that year, somewhat; I tested great, and I stayed out of trouble. Even that strict first shirt put me up as an example of how to be to the other airmen. I still wasn’t always happy, though; I often felt isolated, and homesick. The relationships I’d had in BMT and Tech School just weren’t there, and everyone did their own thing after work (probably had a lot to do with why I increasingly put pressure on my ex to make me happy…)
…I had thought about talking about the people I worked with individually at this point, and had even written like 4 paragraphs, each devoted to a single person, but then I realized that there were like ten or fifteen people left to go, so I’ve decided against that. To summarize, there was: an annoying little shit who was like a little brother that I never had; a strict, vindictive bitch for a supervisor; a laid back supervisor who got booted because he stopped caring; a supervisor who didn’t care-and who at times seemed barely alive-but knew how to play the game, so survived the whole three and a half years I knew him; a ridiculously nice supervisor, who may have been too nice for his own good, but who was by far the best supervisor I had; a goofy, nerdy, nice NCO, who left early on; my 18-year-old roommate from Tech School, who had a fricken’ mouth and got away with murder at times, lol; a nice kid with a pride issue, who wasn’t good at the job and also occasionally got away with murder; a totally laid back dude, who I don’t think ever pissed me off, and who I would have debates with about “who was the man;” a nice girl, but on that was manipulative and inevitably cried wolf; a dramatic, frequently irritating girl, who pissed everyone off but who I thought was relatively nice; a dude who could be cool, but could also be pretentious, lazy, and hypocritical; a dude who could’ve been my favorite person there, if he could get over himself, accept dissention to his preconceived notions, and actually consider what the other person had to say (and lord help you if you got on his shit list); a Senior NCO who came in at the end, and reminded me of Rob Lowe’s character from Parks and Rec. That’s just the people in my own career field that I worked with during my time there. There was a closely associated career field to our own who were in the same office, but I don’t think I’ll get into them. Some of them were really cool. Some of them pissed me off. Some of them did both. So it goes.
Now, I’m not quite sure what exactly made being in that office so miserable for everyone; there were times when everyone seemed to be getting along fine, but things still felt like shit. People have told me many times that since we were Air Education and Training Command, that our culture was way different from regular air force; the term “Airman Eternally Treated as Children” often got thrown around, and kind of made sense in our context. Especially towards the end, we were a small organization, so anything that went a little bit wrong was a big deal, down to a font not being right for the slides at the morning production meeting. Wearing those abu tops was friggen’ uncomfortable, as they’d ride up into your armpits and get all sweaty, but if you got up, you DAMN WELL had better have them on-even in the ludicrously hot and humid Arkansas summer-because appearances or whatever. What might’ve made things worse was that the two airmen who had just come to the office a couple years before us had had to deal with some real anal and shitty NCOs, who didn’t put up with shit from them. So when they saw us not getting in trouble for every minor detail, they got upset. If an NCO is wanting you to take it up the ass, by god, you better take it up the ass and not say anything! And there were still some highly douchey NCOs around when I first got there…
My counselor frequently commented that we seemed to have a lot of time on our hands when I’d tell her about disputes in the office. We did. That was probably a large part of the problem as well, as we’d often be sitting there, bored to death. It was mind-numbing. But we had better make sure that we somehow looked busy! Those taxpayers don’t expect us to just sit on our butts; they expect us to find pointless busywork to do! To me, it felt like being on call, just in an office the whole time, but apparently some thought that we should’ve been constantly pouring over data and records, and innovating the way we did the job (even though no one would’ve payed attention and implemented our ideas if we did those things, anyway. I experienced that at least twice). Not to mention that right over there, the NCOs are talking about the Walking Dead or some such thing for half of the morning… but these new airmen! Ho boy! They’re the worthless, lazy ones! Still, everyone complained that, no matter how high up the chain you got, you had to play the yes man to the next person up on the chain (I even had the commander complain about this once).
So maybe the issue is that the Air Force culture is one wherein you’re not supposed to question the person with one more stripe than you, ever, because they’ve been in the Air Force longer than you have? We just automatically defer to the higher ranking person, regardless of how wrong and/or shitty whatever they’re saying is, because we can’t possibly detract from that chain of command! Essentially, there’s no checks and balances in this system, so General Welsh can declare that the Air Force can look through your private phone for whatever reason it feels like, because airmen have no reasonable expectation of privacy. Also, a commander can order the physical removal of a civilian from a retirement ceremony the civilian was invited to, for any reason he feels like.
Is it archaic? Is it bullshit? Yes, yes it is, on both accounts.
A lot of questionable things happened in that office. A lot of things that, from an airman’s perspective, looked like someone was playing favorites. There was selective memory, selective perception, selective maturity, and selective hearing, by a number of our NCOs. We had an airman threatened that he better not take his complaints up the chain, because there was no point in it. We had that same airman a few years later threatened with progressive paperwork until he was kicked out of the Air Force if he “went behind the NCO’s back again.” We had an airman getting in trouble for reporting when he was threatened by another airman. We had a very nice, politician-like excuse for why all of these things had to take place (and those three things I mentioned happened to another airman). It is what it is.
I’ve talked at length about what happened to me after that first year there, in past blogs. To summarize: some people who seemed cool at first turned out to not be so cool; the office’s perception of me changed drastically from the first year, and I was seen as a troublemaker; I lost most respect for the Air Force’s traditions, customs and courtesies when I perceived that I was no longer being given the respect I thought I deserved; the menial bs and the monotony, coupled with AFPC never sending me anywhere else, caused me to become just as dead inside as everyone else seemed; a lot of road construction happened on base; a lot of issues with finance occurred; etc., etc. After that first year, very little seemed new or interesting anymore. Basically, it just seemed like a lot of bullshit.
I’d say that when one individual in our office became an NCO, I got to know him a lot better; he genuinely cared about his airmen, and tried to help us in any way that he could. I feel that, when he was around, he shielded me from a lot of bs. I can never be grateful enough to that dude. He was probably the best friend I had there. When another dude became an NCO… oh boy… He was already extremely pushy as an airman, extremely idealistic, and ready to make sure that not just he, but everyone around him acted like a perfect boy scout. As an NCO, he finally had the power he’d always wanted, and lost most tack in discussing what he wanted from us (this was the guy who texted me while I was still flying back to base, in order to tell me that I had to come in early on my first day back, with no pleasantry or asking me how I was doing or anything. First contact from him in a month.) His claim is that he “doesn’t want to baby anyone.” There’s a difference between babying someone and treating them like a robot though, dude. Dude can be a really good dude too, and he was frequently my favorite person to be around, but… he has a lot to learn about his approach towards his subordinates. That he may never learn, because it sounds like the current Section Chief is perfectly fine with this approach, regardless of his airmen being miserable. So yeah; that’s a stark contrast in supervising styles between these two.
If it sounds like I’m being highly critical, that’s because I am. If it sounds like I’m still a bit bitter about things that happened, that’s because I am. There are things in these blogs that have been coming for the last three and a half years, and I indict a shitty culture that I had to participate in. Complaints and/or concerns were never met with a reevaluation of the situation, or sole-searching; they were always met with tightening the rope around the neck. There are deep issues within that institution that aren’t going to go away any time soon, or possibly ever, because it’s a society of yes men, of people playing a game, of not taking a bullet for someone getting shot at-in fact, it’s a culture of shoving someone else in the bullet’s way, so you don’t get hit.
Sorry to the people who are still in that I respect. I met a lot of good, honest, and generous people, and this shit isn’t their fault, but there’s also nothing they can do about it, either. To all those good, honest, generous people, I wish the best of luck, and I hope they get all the benefits and good fortune that they deserve, because they are the ones that exemplify what a member of the service is supposed to be.
Anyway, if you go to that base now, chances are that you will be going to the 19th Wing; the 314th has been almost entirely contracted out (or will be next spring, or something). Bless your lucky stars that you don’t have to work in the 314th Group Building. Bless your lucky. Ass. Stars.
…that’s enough bitching for one day.