I was sitting in my son’s room waiting on the balky laptop to get to the start page and staring at the ceiling fan got me talking about the old way of doing main rotor tracks. While I had never used the old method of standing beneath the blades as they whirled away at 100% and using a long stick with chalk to identify the blades in need of adjustment, some of the older salts in the unit were well-versed in this archaic – and amusingly dangerous – method… one of which was our crotchety and old First Sergeant: 1SG Slade; the other, SSG King – my first platoon sergeant.
Note: the language contained in this – and many other blog posts – is often colorful with profanity. I would love to be apologetic in advance, but that isn’t my style… at least, not here. This is the blog of a retired NCO: we swear sometimes, but understand setting, context, and audience… you’ll be ok.
After finishing Advance Individual Training (AIT) at Ft. Eustis, Virginia in late July 1996, I found myself assigned to… somewhere… within the 25th Infantry Division (Light). I say “somewhere” because, on the day where our unit sponsors were to show up to claim us from the Replacement Detachment where all the new soldiers arrive to the Division, no one came. Four of the five of us were confused – this was our first duty station and we were completely clueless about what was going on. The fifth guy – another crewchief who managed to PCS (Permanent Change of Station, or reassignment) from Korea to Hawaii – was only mildly irritated… after all, one more day of sitting around wasn’t breaking his heart.
On my way to get another can of Royal Mills iced coffee, the sight of a green flight suit striding purposefully towards me caught my attention. This guy carried himself with profane authority and looked like a stand-in for Tom Skerritt.
He saw the subdued Aircraft Crewman Badge on my chest and stopped. “You a 67T?”
I looked at the leather nametape. I had already noted the Staff Sergeant rank on his patrol cap and gone to the position of parade rest, but I needed a name to properly address this gruff NCO. “Yes, Sergeant King!”
“How many of you are here?”
“Five,” I blurted, confused.
“Get ‘em down here – I gotta get you fuckers to the hangar before thirteen hundred.”
I sprinted up the stairs, hoping that everyone was still in the area and not wandering around. “HEY! There’s a Staff Sergeant downstairs that wants all of us down there now!”
We piled all of our things in his Bronco II, found seats and headed towards the hangar on Wheeler Army Airfield where I would spend a total of six of my next 20 years in. Pulling up, SSG King gathered us around the back of the hangar, overlooking the flight line of UH-60A’s and proceeded to divvy us up to the other two NCOs that had showed up. Pointing to me, he muttered: “You. You’re with me. Welcome to Bravo Company 2/25.”
Just like that, I had done something that was mythical to those of us in AIT: I had bypassed the obligatory stint in a Maintenance Company, sweeping the floor and doing whatever menial tasks until being permitted to touch a helicopter; I had gone straight to a Flight Company.
I later found out that SSG King’s reason for expediting us out of Replacement was due to his frustration with the Battalion’s glacial and bureaucratic process of moving crewchief from Maintenance to the three Flight Companies. Rather than follow the rules, he found out through his NCO network when the next ones were arriving on the island and snagged us before anyone realized what was going on.
None of that really mattered to me, though. I was one step closer to the goal I had set a year before; I was going to fly. Reality set in quickly, however – being the newest enlisted person in the unit had placed me dead last in the order for beginning my flight training. Undeterred, I set forth to learn everything I could about my new job.
The hallway for the offices in our corner of the hangar formed a right angle, with our door diagonally from our 1SGs office. I learned to move quickly when his door was open – 1SG Slade faced his door and dodging him was akin to movement under fire: “I’m up… he sees me… I’m down.” Minimizing exposure reduced the likelihood that he would notice dull boots or some other infraction of AR 670-1, the almighty Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia.
One October day, I had almost cleared his door unnoticed when his gravelly voice stopped me: “C’mere, shithead.”
1SG Slade used that term for pretty much every lower enlisted he was responsible for. In retrospect, it was a term of endearment – the only time I had ever heard him address any E-4 or below by name is when they had truly pissed him off. My first conversation with him started out that way, only to have him ask about my day and casually segue into stories about his first days as an AH-1 crewchief in the waning days of the Vietnam War.
This day wasn’t much different. “How’s thing going, Private? You start flyin’ yet?”
“No, First Sergeant. I still have a lot of people ahead of me. CPL B and SGT L say that I should start sometime in the spring.”
Since then, I have come to know the look in his eyes and the reason for the mischievous smile he gave me. I have used that same reaction many times in my professional life for the same reasons. “Is that so…? Listen here, shithead. This is what you’re gonna do. Go up to S1, see Specialist J, and tell her I sent you to get your RFO.”
“Roger, First Sergeant!” I hurried out of the office, not sure what an “RFO” was or why I needed one… in fact, I was pretty sure this may have been one of the pranks like “fetching ten yards of flight line and a bucket of rotor wash,” but… whatever. The repercussions of not doing what 1SG Slade requested outweighed the possible humiliation of being the butt of a joke.
“He wants you what for you…?” SPC J was friendly but professional. “Okay. Wait here while I get it printed up for you.”
My wait was short, and the errand was completed without any fuss or punchline… and, for a few days, nothing came of it. Whatever this “RFO” was, I supposed it was some legitimate paperwork that would sit in a folder somewhere until forgotten or disposed.
I learned that this was far from the case when SSG King caught me in the hall one afternoon as he was making a beeline for our instructors’ office. “What in the hell were you doing, getting your own orders cut?!”
“What orders, SSG King?” I was confused.
“Your RFO – REQUEST FOR ORDERS! The orders putting you on flight status! You realize we have to change everything now because your time has started? You just cut in front of 9 people in line for progression! You don’t have gear… you don’t have an upslip… you are all out of order and we have to hurry up and fix a ton of shit to get you flying before… Gah! Dammit!”
Sometimes, the lightbulb above one’s head is delayed in illuminating, but when it does finally go off, the candlepower overrides all thoughts beyond that which is most important. 1SG Slade knew all too well what he was doing – he figured out what drove me and facilitated me getting one step closer to my goal… even if it meant creating a bit of chaos in the process.
SSG King was glaring at me with my paperwork clutched in his hand. “You. You better not make me regret this.”
“Absolutely not, SSG King.” I was going to start flying – why would I screw that up?
I had to dig out my old flight records… partly out of my need to verify some of the information, but mostly for the nostalgia contained within the frayed folder. The handwriting for familiar folks is still there, along with the out-of-sequence red ink dates and telltale applications of White-Out:
23Aug96 “Assigned to B Co 2-25 AVN” (self-explanatory)
20Nov96 “Commander’s Eval” (what is interesting about this is that the comments on the back of the form capture SSG King’s frustration: the effective date of the RFO was 9Oct96, meaning my time had started much earlier than I had originally thought.)
12Dec96 “Began D/N RL prog” (the official start of my flight training)
9APR97 “Completed NVG msn tng – RL1” (the official end of my mission training under night vision goggles… the final step in one’s progression)
Four months from start to finish… When I started, the only other time I had flown in a helicopter was when I talked my way into a ride when I was in high school; by the time my training was complete, I was intimately familiar with the components of the Blackhawk, the importance of crew coordination, and everything else associated with my job.
In several blog posts, I have shared my motivations, experiences, frustrations, and personal philosophies of those years long ago… “Back when Daddy was cool,” I tell my daughter while my back aches and I look at pictures I have taken which decorate various walls in our house. The fact that I am typing this while struggling to get used to new progressive lenses doesn’t help lessen the longing for those younger days.
However, this isn’t a melancholy reflection of those “glory days”; rather, it is an acknowledgement for the people and the processes which started me on that path and shaped all of us from those days into the people we are today and the lives we have touched along the way.
SSG King and 1SG Slade were not perfect NCOs… according to whomever thinks that “perfection” is a realistic state of being. Each, in their own way, circumvented bureaucracy and “standard operating procedure” to meet their own goals: SSG King needed guys that the Battalion wasn’t giving; 1SG Slade needed to shake things up because he enjoyed chaos and quite possibly saw a lot of potential in me. However, both were perfect in providing a solid example of a strange sort of ethical rule-deviation – knowing how far to push and why.
I now appreciate the meaning in 1SG Slade’s smile that day: properly administered chaos, in small doses, can go a long way; at the same time, it gives one a chance to see what others will do with the challenges that come with it.