Ethics and Unorthodoxy

Two recent conversations got me to talking about both reputation and the “unorthodox” methods which one must frequently resort to in an effort to complete a mission or task at hand. To further illustrate these points, it is fitting to use dialogue from fictional worlds to highlight how the screen may sometimes provide insight and relevance to the real world.

The first is from a cherished but short-lived series: “Firefly.” The scene takes place in the first episode of the only season and serves to introduce a pragmatic – yet entirely evil – Eastern European protagonist, Adelai Niska, and fill in the limited story of Malcom Reynolds and the crew from the Firefly:

Do you know what is reputation? Is people talking… is gossip… I also have reputation; not so pleasant, I think you know…

[A door opens to reveal a man hanging inverted with the implication of sadistic torture]

Now, for you, my reputation is not from gossip. You see this man… he does not do the job. I show you what I do with him and now, my reputation for you is fact, is… solid. You do the train job for me, then you are solid. No more gossip.

I have always found the heavily accented and eccentric villain to be an amusing spin on a well-used stereotype; in this case, his words mirrored my own approach towards training. From a comment on a reblog of “Training for Realism”:

Oh, there is much to say about the benefits of intentionally adding chaos to training. I would tell my students the wrong time to be at the aircraft, change the configuration, AND have the pilots be in a “rush” to see how well they handled shifting priorities and the stress that comes with it. Push them slightly past their limit, then debrief the hell out of it – all with safety in mind.

The folks who came through my training ended up being far more organized and capable than those who were trained by others… and (eventually) appreciative of what they went through. It got to the point where I had kids coming up to me right before I left Hawaii… all sorts of dismayed because they wanted me to do their training.

Me [suprised]: “Why in the hell would you want THAT hell brought upon you? I can be one of the biggest jerks and I can’t stand people who just want to ‘check the block.’”

Kid: “That’s why, Sargent – because people in maintenance talk… and I like what I hear.”

So did I… so did I.

A few folks honestly despised flying with me. I would venture to guess that they took issue with the fact that I held them firmly to Army standards of performance with little regard to their rank or position; as a result, I actively avoided situations where corrections or reassignment for remedial training would be viewed as unprofessional bleed-over from whatever personal opinions I may have held of the person being evaluated. If there was a way to have objective observers in my direct rating scheme (my direct boss, safety officers, or other instructors), I would arrange the evaluation accordingly. Not that I readily allowed my personal feelings to completely influence my behavior; rather, I fully understood the potential and possibility for perception to be used as a counter to whatever ego I managed to bruise, and by taking those precautions, I established an environment where nothing could be left for incorrect interpretation for all involved.

However, I was afforded a lot of flexibility and leeway when it came to conducting the necessary training and evaluations as required. I wasn’t perfect – there were times when I made mistakes and my reputation was jeopardized by my own doing – but part of emotional intelligence is understanding when and why those errors occurred and accepting the responsibility to correct those mistakes as sufficiently as possible.

My style may have seemed harsh at times, but the end goal was always the same – to allow my students to make mistakes in a controlled environment with the worst repercussion being debriefs which could be best described as “thorough emotional and intellectual marathons.” Perhaps it was this which lent to me gaining a reputation through gossip and cemented by fact. I wanted chaos, but more than just for the sheer amusement, I wanted them to thrive in chaos and be effective in the efforts of bringing themselves, the aircraft, and their passengers back home.

How effective was I?

Towards the end of my flying days – when the 2012 sequestration began to whittle away at the operational budgets of many Department of Defense flying-hour programs, I began to realize one of the many problems of an effective training program: if it works, then it can be hard to justify. It is even more challenging to provide unassailable data to the impartial observers who often understand very little of the risks and needs inherent in maintaining competency in high-risk operations, with flight hours being the some of the first things to be trimmed. Safety is often quantified by how many accident/incident-free flying hours a unit performs in any given time, but it is nearly impossible to accurately dismiss luck and/or skill at times. While it is moot at this point to speculate on the tangible results of my training, I can honestly say that I have heard more “there we were” stories from folks I have trained than articles detailing “there they went,” with many of my former students taking my former role and using many of my the tricks and techniques I adopted over the years.  

Along with reputation comes the manner in which one goes about meeting the intent of the mission, unit, or Commander. Again, pulling from a movie – this time, “Operation Petticoat”:

Lt. Nicholas Holden: “You’ve gotta sneak up a few back alleys. What you need, sir, is a supply officer who can help you find those back alleys.”

This movie stands as one of my favorites, and – as it turns out – one of the most influential to my once young and impressionable mind. The casting was superb – with Cary Grant paired well with Tony Curtis – but it was the latter’s role of a Supply Officer with ethical standards guided only by self-preservation that made so much sense to me as an adult.

One often hears of the “NCO channel” in the various branches of the military – that network of unofficial connections, favors, and contacts which allow for the facilitation of the official intent to be met. Even writing about this now makes me cringe: it would be far to easy for the reader to instantly jump to incorrect conclusions about lawlessness and capricious circumventing of established hierarchies. In some cases – those which inevitably end up in the news – this is the unfortunate result of gross and dishonorable violations of ethics. In others, they are the transparent machinations which prevent failure, avert delays, and contributes to glowing praises to the more visible beneficiaries of a process they do not realize, understand, or want to know about.

An example of this was the issue of our sister company forgetting to bring the ammunition cans required for a door gunnery at the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) in the center of the island of Hawai’i… and a few hundred miles from the arms room where they left them. These cans clipped onto the side of the M-240 and held a several hundred linked rounds and allowed the ammunition to smoothly feed into the gun as it fired – vital to training which had been planned for months and crucial to the ongoing preparations for the upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

The Battalion Commander had become aware about this issue and was immediately furious but with no crews available to return to Oahu to retrieve the cans. As soon as our sister company had shut down, I caught wind of this issue and the gears began to turn – we had a van about to head down to Hilo for supplies and parts; where most saw routine, I saw opportunity. I made a call to another NCO with the Hawaii National Guard unit based there and, after some quick catching up, made a few inquiries. Finishing the call, I intercepted one of the trusted Specialists from our Maintenance company who was driving the van:

Here’s some cash – this is what I need: swing by KTA and pick up two loaves of taro sweet bread – I have some folks who have never experienced that lovely joy… While you are there, pick up… oh… two or three cases of Heineken…” [Raising hand to stall statements of the obvious about rules on drinking at PTA] “Hang on… hang on… Then, you are going to go directly to the National Guard Hangar – look for a Sergeant First Class [redacted]. He knows you are coming and has ammo cans prepped for you to pick up. Give him the beer – ALL of it – and thank him profusely for me. On the way back, stop at Ken’s… get the Loco Moco – you should have enough left over from what I gave you –  enjoy every bite, and get back safely – Saddle Road is going to be weird when the clouds start rolling in at 1500. Come and find me as soon as you get back. Don’t tell anyone about the KTA… or Ken’s…. nah… tell ‘em – support local businesses.

The clouds are like clockwork… Pohakuloa Training Area, HI, 9Feb2011 (Source: author)

Off they went.

Hours later, after they returned, I quietly hopped in the van and headed to the cantonment area in search of our sister company’s First Sergeant – a respected man who I hated to see fail.

I poked my head into the Quonset hut where I knew he would be. “Hey Top… wanna burn one? Got something you might like…”

The look on the face of the First Sergeant when he laid eyes on exactly four more sets of cans than what he needed (I had anticipated that extras would negate any delays in loading while the crews were changing out) was warming, but nowhere near the slow realization of how effective a NCO network could be – not only in getting a job done, but reinforcing the bonds between mission and personnel.

The training went without a hitch – other than me threatening to bite a gunner when he almost closed my fingers in the feed tray as I attempted to clear a jam during the NVG portion of the training. The Battalion Commander never – to my knowledge – became aware of the solution to a fading point of irritation, and life went on… but the lesson and relationships are never forgotten, even a decade later.

Ethics and the unorthodox… Reputation and action…

Yeah. Good times.

I miss it.

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