Aiming High in the Air Force: 2006, Part One: Moving Up and Out

As 2006 opened, my friends brought me along to a New Year’s party on the Strip, to help get my mind off everything that had happened over the past year.

New Year’s on the Strip

The weekend, of course, brought new challenges to the brand new year. My dorm room shared a bathroom with the room next door, and my neighbor and I hosted a small party in my room. He, unfortunately, had too much to drink. When he insisted on trying to drive one of the girls back to her dorm, two blocks away, she and I both told him that he wouldn’t be driving anywhere that night, and took his keys away to make sure of it. His thinking process was clearly impaired, because his response was to dive headfirst off the second floor balcony at the end of the hallway where our dorm rooms were located.

Fortunately, he flipped during his fall, landing on his back, so he didn’t crack his skull open on impact. He also landed on gravel, which helped soften the impact, and because he was so inebriated, his body was relaxed, which helped prevent serious injury.

I didn’t know this for certain at the moment, though. With my background as both an Eagle Scout and a First Aid instructor, I immediately sprang into action. I ran down the stairs, and started checking his injuries. I told the girl who was with us to get a blanket from my room, and started treating him for shock by elevating his legs slightly and covering him with the blanket, once it arrived. There didn’t seem to be any bleeding, but I had no idea if he’d suffered a spinal injury in the fall.

Air Force firetruck (image courtesy http://www.barksdale.af.mil)

I braced his neck between my knees and told him not to move, just in case, while I called 911 on my cell phone. I explained the situation to the emergency operator, who connected me with military emergency services on base. Within minutes, a firetruck pulled in front of our dormitory, and the firefighters–who were also in our squadron, all of whom I knew on a first-name basis–came over to relieve me on first aid duties, while I filled them in on the details.

Soon, an ambulance arrived from the base hospital, which was located in Area III, and my neighbor was loaded aboard, strapped onto a back board with a neck brace. As he was taken away, I gave my statement to the Security Forces police Airmen–whose dorm also happened to be across from ours. It wasn’t a pleasant end to the evening, but it could have been far worse.

I went to the base hospital the next morning, to check on my neighbor. After I walked into his room, he immediately asked me what had happened, and how he got there. He apparently had no memory of the night’s events, and no one had told him anything, so I filled him in. I warned him that our commander would doubtless be talking to him, and that he needed to be ready for the consequences; the base had seen a rash of Alcohol-Related Incidents–or ARIs, thanks to the military’s obsession with acronyms–in the past several months, and having another one in our squadron would not put our commander in a good mood.

On Monday, after returning to work from the morning’s PT, I was called into my superintendent’s office. Given past history, a sinking feeling descended in the pit of my stomach. Had she found a way to penalize me for my neighbor’s drunken foolhardiness? Fortunately, it turned out, no. Instead, my commander was on the phone, and after having been briefed on the weekend’s events, he wanted to hear what had happened directly from me. I told the story to him. He thanked me, and commended my quick action and level-headed thinking.

My neighbor, I later discovered, was given an Article 15. He received a suspended demotion and was ordered to begin attending an Alcoholics Anonymous group; if he had any further problems over the next 90 days, the demotion would take effect. As long as he could stay out of trouble for the next three months, he would, effectively, get a slap on the wrist.

Back at work, I had a new supervisor. This new supervisor was an old instructor of mine from tech school, who’d transferred into my flight about six months after I had, but had been placed in a different section up until this point. After New Year’s, the leadership in my flight was shuffled, and sergeants from each section switched positions. Toward the end of January, my supervisor received a call from the Security Forces office, asking him to bring me over. Neither of us could figure out why they wanted to talk to me, since the issue with my neighbor had since been resolved.

My relationship with Megan, it seemed, had come back to bite me. Almost as soon as I entered the building, I was locked into an interrogation room. Apparently, while we were visiting the family that had adopted Megan’s daughter, one of their credit cards went missing, and soon had $4000 of charges added onto it. When the family confronted Megan, she pointed the finger at me; they then contacted the base to take legal action against me.

I can understand their position; they didn’t know me at all. Unfortunately, this was the first I’d heard of any of it. The interrogation lasted for hours, and stretched long into the night as they tried to get me to contradict myself, and tried to poke holes in my account of the events of that trip to California. I remembered that Megan had been using a credit card to pay for nearly everything during the trip, but I’d assumed it was hers.

At one point, they placed a copy of the credit card statement in front of me. I noticed some familiar names in the list of charges: they matched up with numbers that had been dialed from Megan’s phone! I thanked God for detailed billing on my phone bills, and brought this to the attention of the investigators, telling them about the $900 bill Megan had run up almost immediately after being added to my cell phone plan. I took them to my dorm room, allowed them to search to their hearts’ content, and provided them with a copy of the phone bill.

I cooperated with them as best as I could. Once they reviewed the bill, and compared it to the credit card statement, it quickly became obvious that the charges were made at the same time as the phone calls to those companies. The tone of interrogation quickly began to shift. No longer were they trying to get me to confess or trick me into incriminating myself; now, they were taking my testimony to build a case against Megan. Meanwhile, I was beating myself up inside for being such a trusting fool.

Finally, after 10 p.m., my supervisor got them to release me. Before he switched over to our job, he’d once been an Air Force cop as well, and he pushed to get me released as soon as it became clear that I hadn’t committed the crime, and was guilty only of poor judgment in picking my girlfriend. My supervisor drove me back to my dorm, and told me that I could come in a few hours later the next morning.

I called one of my coworkers, who had left an angry voicemail because I’d agreed to come over to fix her computer that evening and never showed up. I explained why I hadn’t come over or returned her calls. One thing I miss about military culture is that, for the most part, we’re extremely loyal to and protective of one another. My coworker became so enraged by what had happened, she was like an angry mama bear, and wanted to know, Right Fucking Now, where Megan lived, so that she could go over and beat the living hell out of my now ex-girlfriend. I assured her that such a response would only serve to get her in trouble, and that we should let the police handle things from that point onward.

As things began to cool off, I realized I was going to need some extra income to cover the cell phone bill that Megan had saddled me with. I could barely afford to pay my debts already, so the additional burden was a bit extreme for me. I could have pursued redress of the debt in the courts, but I was ready to wash my hands of her. Besides, the mistake of putting her on my cell phone plan actually ended up giving me evidence that I needed to help prove my innocence, and $900 was a small price to pay to avoid a stay in a military prison.

I also wanted to upgrade my computer, which was a good six years old at this point–ancient, by computer standards. That, too, would require a fair bit of money, as I was essentially looking at building a completely new system. Since I was going to be spending a fairly significant amount of money at the Las Vegas Fry’s Electronics store, with my commander’s approval, I applied for a part-time position at the store. I was hired, and began working as a cashier–or, in their terminology, a Customer Service Associate.

The position at Fry’s offered the additional income I needed to get a handle on my bills, and the employee discount helped with purchasing the parts I needed to build a new computer for myself. Unfortunately, I was also being worked almost continuously, seven days per week, between my two jobs, and it quickly began to take its toll on me.

Airman Harlan, 2005

By late February, I had been working at Fry’s for about a month, and had made a sizable dent in my debt and had amassed most of the parts I needed to upgrade my computer. As my flight gathered in formation for a squadron training day at the same camp area where we’d held the bivouac at the beginning of November, the first sergeant came over and spoke to me.

“Harlan,” he said. “You got it.”

I had no clue what he was talking about. “Got what, shirt?” I asked.

“Turkey,” he said. “Orders just came down.”

I was stunned. Orders? I’d almost forgotten about the transfer request I’d submitted, months earlier. As soon as the morning formation was finished, and my colleagues had congratulated me on getting the assignment I’d requested, I went to my desk and pulled up the Personnel Office’s web site. There it was, in black-and-white: I was going to Turkey in July.

Then I noticed something else. My rank was listed not as Airman, but as Airman First Class. I double-checked. My date-of-rank was listed as that same day. I not only had orders getting me out of Nellis, I had my old rank back! I’d known I’d be putting it back on soon–it was ten months in-grade to go from Airman to A1C–and I had a uniform shirt that still had my old rank sewn on, ready to go, in my office. I just didn’t expect it to already be The Day.

I was elated. My supervisor called up the squadron headquarters office, to confirm my promotion. After getting off the phone, he looked at me, then the grin he was trying to suppress broke through.

“Put it on,” he said.

I nearly leaped for joy. I put the shirt on, and he stepped over to my side. He grabbed my arm with his left hand, cocked back his right, then slugged me on my “new” stripes. My coworkers did the same, following the tradition of “tacking on” a newly-promoted Airman’s stripes. Before long, my entire squadron had joined in. My arms were sore and heavily bruised, but I couldn’t have been happier.

A few weeks later, I quit my job at Fry’s. I told them that it was because of the orders I’d received, and that I needed time to prepare for the move, which was partially true. The real reason, though, was because I was being overworked, and they kept putting me on shifts that were extremely difficult to juggle with my primary job on base.

As I began outprocessing, my flight’s superintendent retired. She came back a few weeks later in a new civilian position that she had helped to create before retiring. I thought that was an obvious conflict of interest, but nobody asked my opinion. At least she was no longer in my chain of command, and soon enough, she’d be out of my life entirely. As our flight leadership shifted once again in response to the vacancy, another sergeant transferred in, and like my most recent supervisor, he was also one of my instructors from tech school.

The time of my departure was quickly approaching, and I was becoming extremely busy with outprocessing. Soon, I would be leaving Las Vegas behind me.

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