Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Being an Officer...a Black one.....is sometimes hard.

[Howard Rollins from "A Soldier's Story"]

Sometimes being an Officer is difficult....not because of hard tasks, short timelines, or all of the worries involved in the care of your Soldier's, but the aura of professionalism and objectivity that you must display at all times. There have been many times that I have wanted to make a comment, yell, cuss at someone, or otherwise let my personal feelings be known about a subject, but unfortunately I could not because of my position. Let me tell you about two incidents that bothered me in particular.

I was in Dallas Ft. Worth airport waiting to catch a flight on the last leg of my TDY trip to help a returning unit at Ft. Sill. As I went to my gate, I saw 4 Sailors in their black uniforms gathered at the gate...one was large and white, the other three were black. There was very little room, and many of them were standing intermingled with civilian airline passengers. As this was close to Christmas time, I figured they were on a break from IET and were heading home for Christmas Exodus. None had rank on their sleeves, so that confirmed my suspicions that they were in initial training. As I approached the group I heard a lot of loud talking, laughing, and a lot of profanity. In particular, one Sailor was on a cell phone talking to someone about some sort of exploratory obstetrics he was going to perform on his "baby mama" when he got to the "crib". A lady was standing nearby with a baby in arms and what apppeared to be a 5 or 6 year old boy. She looked bothered by all of the commotion. I was particularly embarassed because the loudest and most vulgar one was black, I was also embarassed because they were military acting in an unseemly manner. (I was in civilian clothes as I traveled)I walked over to them and said,

"Hey guys, would you mind watching your language and keeping it down a little? There are a bunch of kids around here."

There was an instant mood of irritation that came over the whole group, but nobody said anything. The particularly large white Sailor looked at me and said,

"Look man, we're in the military...we talk like that, it's just part of it. We defend your right to free speech so don't try and stop ours. (give me a break you little boot camp punk I thought....) If you don't like it go somewhere else!"

At this point, the top of the pot boiled over, but I kept my cool. I reached into my pocket and flipped open my wallet and said,

Okay Sailor, if you want to play the military game that's fine with me. My name is First Lieutenant Smith, I'm giving you a direct order to quiet down and cease with the profanity. When you wear that uniform you are supposed to set the example, not act like a bunch of reform school rejects. I want the language cut out..NOW! Understand me?

There was silence in the group of Sailors and silence from most everyone at the gate. I waited for a moment and said,

"I'm not sure how they do it in the Navy, but in the Army when an Officer gives an order to a Junior Enlisted man and asks him if he understands, the Enlisted Man responds with 'Yes Sir, or No, Sir'..what's it going to be?"

There was a lackluster chorus of "Yessirs" by the group. With that I turned away and walked toward my gate which was the one next door. At about that time, the Sailor who was slouched in the chair continued with his conversation and said,

"Nothin' man...some punk ass nigga complaining about us bein' loud"

I wheeled around and said,

"Come here."

His eyes got wide and he walked over to me with the phone at his ear. I said,

"Hang up that phone."

He hung it up and stood there looking at me. I could tell he was trying to muster some composure because his boys were watching. I said,

What position are you supposed to be at?

Suprisingly enough he snapped to attention. I leaned in close to his face and hissed at him....

"I was enlisted for 13 of the 16 years that I have been wearing this uniform, and never did I act in a way in public, in uniform, that brought disgrace to my country, my uniform, my good name, OR my race. You better square yourself away, and I mean RIGHT NOW. Don't you EVER refer to a fellow service man as a "nigga". You aren't back on the block, Sailor."

The attitude he had before was gone, and he looked like exactly what he was, a young, scared, skinny, immature kid.

I asked him for his unit of assignment, and I demanded his military ID, I wrote down his info and told him that I was going to contact his unit commander. (I never did, I thought about it but changed my mind.)

When I gave him his ID back he turned to sit, and I barked at him and said,

"Get out of that seat and let that lady sit down."

She politely declined, but mouthed the words,

"Thank you."

to me as I turned to go. Many people that were watching either smiled or nodded to me as I left....except a young lady who was wearing a Delta Sigma Theta tee shirt. She shook her head disapprovingly and rolled her eyes at me as I walked on. I looked back and she was walking over to the group of Sailors still shaking her head. I wondered what she was saying....

Painful Story Number 2

A fellow Lieutenant and a Sergeant First Class from Troop Command paid me an unexpected visit at the J1, and were asking questions about volunteers for a deployment. There were some questions that I didn't know the answer to, so I decided to call the J-3 for further guidance. I was standing by one of my NCO's desks and I said,

SGT (name omitted), do you mind if I use your phone?

He nodded and I picked up the handset....the handset was not plugged into the base. He informed me that he used a headset instead of the handset. So, I hit the speaker phone button, and nothing happened. He said,

Hold on, Sir. This thing is screwy, I have been trying to get the DOIM people to send someone up here to fix this for a while, the speaker doesn't work unless you unplug it. As it is, I have to nigger rig this thing just to be able to receive calls.

A hush fell over the work area. I stared at him in utter dis-be-lief. He looked back at me, and apparently didn't realize what he said. The LT that was standing next to me stiffened and stared at the Sergeant incredulously. Some other Soldiers nearby seemed to be holding their breaths. I said,

"Have you lost your mind, Sergeant? Where in the hell do you think you are, and who do you think you are talking to?"

The reality of what he said set in...he turned bright red, and it appeared that he had bitten into a persimmon. He said,

"Oh my GOD....Yes Sir, I did lose my mind....I'm so sorry..... it..it..it..it was a slip of the tongue."

I shook my head and told the TC Soldiers to come with me to my desk.  I said nothing else, but later on the Sergeant came to my desk and again apologized profusely, and stated that he hadn't realizzed what he said.  He told me,

"Sir, where I am from that phrase gets tossed around so much nobody thinks about it.  That's why I left, and I don't want you to think I'm a hateful person, or I don't respect you.  That just slipped out and I am so ashamed."

 I accepted the apology and I told him it was over, but I admonished him to delete that word from his vocabulary, I also told him that he needed to be more aware of his environment as an NCO. I also told him that if he had Soldiers of different races under his supervision in the future that he would REALLY need to think about how people perceive him. At that point I considered it to be over.

A more Senior NCO(name also omitted)...who is also an ass-kisser. Later came to me and tried to get me to talk more about it. He asked if I was going to counsel him, or report it to the IG. (Give me a break) I told him that I wasn't going to, but I had talked to him. The Senior NCO kept saying things about the guy being a "redneck" and a "typical Southerner". Of course that was followed by a soliloquy about how he was raised to be "color blind", how his friends looked like a bag of M&M's, and yes....how is "best friend in high school was black." He also said that if he were me that he would counsel the guy and run him over the coals. I simply answered that it was over and I wasn't going to escalate the situation. With that he eventually left and I got back to work. For some reason I am more distrustful of the Senior NCO than I am the Sergeant who "nigger rigged his phone".


Qusan said...

How, precisely, do you nigger rig a phone?!?! I haven't heard anything that ignorant in a very long time.

M said...

Came over here from LaShawn Barber's blog. Enjoyed reading your posts. Even though those kids were obnoxious, and they probably felt 'picked on', what you were actually trying to do is help them be better people. I hope they remember that lesson.
You're a great American, sir, and I'm proud that we have people of your character serving in the the Military.
God bless.

Master Gunner said...

Retired Army MSgt here. In reference to the airport incident, you did exactly the right thing that too many officers and noncoms probably wouldn't have done. I salute you for your actions, but Sir you really should have reported that one sailor to his commander. Good luck in the future. Airborne All the Way!!

Bert Saucedo said...

I am the father of a U.S Army Infantry spc. 1-41 who just returned from Taji, Iraq. I spent the year in fear for his life but I am very proud he serves with men of your caliber. The Army taught him respect and honor and with officers such as yourself he has good reason.
May God be with you.

John Wright said...

You did the right thing, in my opinion. You are also right to be more distrustful of the NCO than the Sergeant.

I linked to your anecdote from my blog, because I wanted to make the point that servicemen like you are the norm, not the exception. The standards of military courtesy are something civilians would be wise to follow.

Anonymous said...

I got here from Mr. Wright's blog.
As a former Coast Guard petty officer I must say that if I had more leaders like you, I'd have gone for my 20.
thank you,
Dean Steinlage

Anonymous said...

Outstanding story.

I wish that more of the officers I served under had been half as professional as you.

Keep up the excellent work.

Dust I Am said...

Language identifies the man and also the civilization. Thanks to John C. Wright for pointing me here.

Anonymous said...

God bless you, Sir. Thanks for expecting a little more from our enlisted men.

-SGT Greenwood