Coming right out of high school I really had no idea what I wanted do with my life. I had decided that being an auto mechanic was out, and hanging out with my friends didn’t present many advancement opportunities, not to mention the pay sucked. The Army seemed a viable option for several reasons: 1) It gave me a few years to think about what I wanted to do; 2) I would get trained in something that I might want to make a career out of; 3) I would have money for college when my enlistment time was up; 4) I got to serve my country. True, there was the possibility that I could have to go fight in a war and possibly get killed, but it still seemed to be a win-win scenario to me. You gotta hand it to those Army recruiters, they’re good. I don’t know why I decided on the Army specifically. It probably had something to do with my dad having been in that branch of service as well. I signed up to join the Army in September of 1980, although I didn’t actually leave for basic training until January of 1981. This allowed the Army to guarantee me where I would be stationed and what my MOS would be.
… I’m sorry, “MOS” stands for “Military Occupational Specialty.” Unless you actually served in the military, you would probably not know that. You see, the U.S. military loves to refer to nearly everything by acronyms whenever possible, much as the IT (Information Technology) industry does today. Quite often R&D (Research and Development) for new technology is done with government funding to investigate possible military uses, so I guess that’s not too surprising. Maybe the IT guys who create all those acronyms do it as a nod to the military for helping them out; or maybe a lot of them are former military guys who are used to using acronyms for everything. Whatever the case may be, in consideration of those who may be unfamiliar with their meanings, I will attempt to define any TLA (Three Letter Acronym), AFLA (Another Four Letter Acronym), or AFFLA (use your imagination) that is used from this point forward. Now that that’s been cleared up …
Since my mother immigrated to the United States from Germany, a good part of my family lives there. I thought it might be great to actually meet some of them. So I had the army guarantee Germany as my permanent duty station. Based on the results from the slew of tests my recruiter had me take, I qualified for pretty much anything the Army had to offer. I really had no desire to be a front line soldier if that could be avoided, so that option was out. Somewhere along the line, I decided on a communications MOS that involved intercepting and decrypting German voice broadcasts. That way I could also have the Army teach me the German language and I would actually be able to talk to my relatives if I got to meet them – bonus!. This MOS required a SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) security clearance, which my recruiter told me was even higher than a TS (Top Secret) clearance. Silly me, I always thought top secret was the highest level of secrecy. I mean, isn’t that what the “top” is for? If it’s not, then just what is it supposed to be referring to? I guess you need to have an SCI clearance to get the answer to that. Can’t help you there – I never got mine. I never went into the MOS I was guaranteed, nor did I ever make it to Germany. And it all went back to a mistake I had made a little over three years earlier, when I was in 10th grade.
I’ll admit it, in my younger days, I did use marijuana – and yes, I did inhale. I don’t mind saying this because I know there is a government record of it. There is also a record of it at my high school. You see, back in 10th grade, I got caught in school with a bag of marijuana. That’s a long story in itself, so maybe I’ll discuss the details in a future blog. The bottom line is, the police were never involved, so my high school was the only place that had a record of the incident. When my Army recruiter asked me if I had ever used illegal drugs, I was honest and told him I had used marijuana back in high school. He asked if I had any police record because of it. I told him I was sure my high school had a record of it, but not the police. He advised me that if I got asked about it at the recruitment center, I should just tell them I never used it. As he forewarned, I was asked; and I answered as recommended.
When basic training wrapped up for my unit at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, everyone received orders for our AIT (Advanced Individual Training) assignments; everyone except me. No one there really knew why. I was at Fort Jackson an additional month or so before I received a letter explaining the reason. I was told I did not pass the background investigation for the SCI clearance because during my interview at the recruitment center, I did not admit to having used marijuana in the past, and that the SCI background investigation, disclosed that I had. The letter went on to describe (with some inaccuracies) the incident. I was told that I could write a rebuttal or add any other corrections or comment to their findings. I wrote a letter not to deny having smoked pot, but to correct the inaccuracies in how they said it all came down. If there was going to be a permanent government record of this somewhere, I at least wanted the facts to be presented correctly. Because I could no longer stay in my selected MOS, I was given the choice of getting out with a general discharge or selecting a new one. Part of the reason I went in the Army was because I didn’t know what I wanted to with my life. Basic training hadn’t helped me get any closer to figuring that out. The last thing I wanted to do then was get out and…and…and…getting out just wasn’t an option. So, I looked at what else was available in the communications area. I saw “Air Traffic Control Tower Operator” and thought that sounded like it could be a good career. The request was reviewed and approved. Although My MOS had changed, I was told that the guarantee to be stationed in Germany still stood. But as the course of events would unfold in the months to come, that wouldn’t be the case.
I had just started my ATC (Air Traffic Control) training at Fort Rucker, Alabama when the civilian air traffic controllers went on strike. President Reagan in return, declared their strike illegal and fired all of them. Subsequently, many military air traffic controller who were up for reenlistment, opted instead to get out and take one of the many newly available, and much better paying civilian ATC positions. This left a big hole in the military ATC positions – a hole that needed to be filled. Shortly before completing the ATC training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, I received orders assigning me not to Germany, but to the 7th Signal Corps USACC (United States Army Communications Command) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Included with the orders, was a letter explaining that there was a clause in my contract that gave the Secretary of Defense authority to override any guarantees that were made in the contract if it was deemed necessary. In other words, there was no guarantee. I guess I should have read the fine print.
With a main runway over two miles long, and aircraft traffic that include everything from slow moving helicopters to fast moving F-15 and A-10 jets to heavy cargo jets like the C-5 Galaxy (bigger than a 747) and everything in between, Campbell Army Airfield was the busiest airfield the Army had. I was told that it also handled a wider variety of traffic than any other airport anywhere; military or civilian. The ATC tower and radar positions there were held by an odd combination of Army and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) civilian personnel. Being assigned there was not even like really being in the Army. The facilities were a 24/7 operation, so our work hours would rotate between day, afternoon and midnight shifts every month. This meant there was no mess hall for us. Instead, we all received extra separate rations pay so we could buy or prepare our own meals. We lived in on-base housing more similar to a college dorm than to Army barracks – individual rooms with shared bathrooms and showers. We never had to do PT (physical training) or take our annual PT test. Well, officially, we had to report, once a year, how many push-ups and sit-ups we could do and how fast we could run two miles, which all had to meet or exceed minimum rewuirements. Our buddies counted and timed us, so of course we always passed without any problems. We strictly adhered to FAA regulations – Army regulations were secondary.
I was probably assigned to Campbell Army Airfield because my test scores during AIT were near the top of my class. Two other soldiers who were at Fort Rucker at the same time I was and also had top marks, were assigned there as well. But in air traffic control, making it through ATC training is only half the battle. By FAA regulations, you have to be certified at an airfield before you are allowed to control traffic there without someone looking over your shoulder. This is done because no two airports are alike. Visual landmarks used by the pilots, radio frequencies use, adjacent hand-off control facilities, the physical layout of the airport itself, and many other factors can vary significantly from one airport to another. It was not easy coming right out of training and getting certified at Campbell Army Airfield, but I did eventually get there. Afterwards, I went on to get a radar certification there as well. The Army was planning to combine the tower and radar ATC positions into one MOS, so this was more of a requirement than an option. I liked working the radar side if air traffic control much better than the tower. It seemed a bit less nerve wracking most of the time; but it was still extremely stressful. I always felt that getting assigned to Campbell Army Airfield right out of AIT was like a trial by fire. After two years I had successfully passed the trial. The fire however, had burned me out.
Saber Airfield was the other, much smaller airport at Fort Campbell. It accommodated strictly helicopters and the ATC tower was only available during the daytime hours. One of the primary reasons Saber Airfield existed was so that soldiers assigned to the 192nd ATC company could have an airfield where they could get certified. The 192nd supported the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell. Unlike USACC, they functioned more like a typical Army unit; with morning formations, PT , weapons training and field maneuvers. For field use, the army used tactical ATC tower and radar units that could be set up at ad-hoc airstrips. Most of the time, these locations were refueling sites sites for the helicopters. I transferred to the 192nd ATC company when the four years I had signed up for was a little more than half over. Some of the other controllers at Campbell Army Airfield could not understand why I would want to go to a tactical unit like the 192nd. I however, knew I was not cut out for real air traffic control – the stress was really getting to me. Plus, I actually felt kind of robbed in experiencing real life in the Army. It was like I had gone through Basic Training and AIT and then into a civilian job where I had to just wear an Army uniform, not really be in the Army. I wanted the real deal. Maybe I would regret it, but I didn’t think so.
I found the 192nd to be a much better fit for me. I still had to control air traffic, but on a much smaller scale. What I really liked was there were also additional technical and physical challenges thrown into the mix. I also found that since I no longer had to do the rotating morning, afternoon and overnight shifts at Campbell Army Airfield, I could fit in some college computer programming classes at Austin Peay State University, which had a mini-campus on the base. I figured that might be a good career alternative, since I now had ruled out Air Traffic Control as a career option. I had two opportunities to go overseas while I was in the tactical ATC unit. Events that had developed in Honduras and Grenada necessitated our deployment to both those locales to support the 101st and 82nd airborne units. Unfortunately, I was on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment at Camp Blanding, Florida when we went to Honduras, so I didn’t go. Amazingly nearly the exact thing happened when we went to Grenada; only this time I had volunteered for a TDY assignment at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.
When the time came for me decide whether or not to reenlist, I looked at what other options, besides ATC, the Army had to offer. Because air traffic controllers were still a shortage in the Army, the only other options I had were other fields that were also in a shortage state. This kind of limited my choices. I could choose from infantry (A front line soldier? I don’t think so), an operator for the Bradley Fighter armored vehicle (Hello! I’ve seen what an A-10 can do to a tank…thanks, but no thanks) or I could stay in air traffic control (not an option). Or I could see what the civilian world had to offer. Since I never seemed to be able to use my leave time up as fast as I earned it, it was maxed out at 60 days. Taking advantage of this, I was able to use those days and see what the job market was like back home before I decided whether or not I wanted to reenlist. The Army tried really hard to get me to just re-up. They even guaranteed me that if I reenlisted, I would get assigned to a unit in Germany (Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me). I still had no real idea of what it was I wanted to do for a living, but I knew what it wasn’t, so I was getting warmer. By the time my 60 days of leave time was about to run out, I had discovered that although there was a lot of talk about how rough the civilian job market was, I had no problem finding employment as long as I kept my options open. Plus, I had heard rumor that Chrysler was looking at hiring in the coming months. I decided to take a chance on that and not reenlist. After four years, my Army days had ended. I never made it to Germany; I never even left the United States. But then again, I never had to go to war (although I am classified as a “war time veteran” since I served during the time of conflicts in Libya, Honduras and Grenada) and I was still alive. Civilian life awaited me.
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