Daily Archives: November 16, 2009

Alan Alda, what hath thou wrought?

Back when I was in my tween/early teen years I was obsessed with all things military.  Part of that included being a huge fan of the TV series MASH.  Towards the later years of the show’s run it was both in syndication and producing new episodes allowing me to catch multiple viewings ever day.  My close proximity to both the New York and Philadelphia (and let’s not forget WWOR) television markets gave me access to three, four or even on some occasions FIVE episodes to watch every day (remember, this was pre-cable TV when we ‘only’ had 10 or so channels).  It didn’t matter that I had seen every episode dozens of times and new them so well that I became discriminating about which network I’d watch the show on since some would cut slightly more of some shows in order to cram in an extra commercial, I never got bored with the show.

Fortunately, that phase passed but I wasn’t aware of how much that show influenced me until much later.  It was then, years after I had first joined that I realized that I had unwittingly internalized some of the Hawkeye Pierce character.  The Quixotic stands, the pranks, thumbing my nose at authority all kind of fit.  Now, I don’t want to make this more than it is.  I always had an anti-authoritarian streak (which, oddly enough, goes away once I have the authority) and have been what my mother would describe (generously) as a ‘mischievous’ side but when the realization hit me (I think as I was in Bagram, listening to helicopters whirl around while lounging in my Hawaiian shirt).

Allow me to provide an example of what I’m talking about.

Back in 1989, I was a newly promoted E-5 (Sergeant) and I hated the army.  That was OK, however, because my enlistment was coming to an end.  I had been accepted to attend the finest university in the country so everything was good.

Then I got word that I had been selected to attend the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC).  It was required for all new non-commissioned officers and was 30 days of all-army stuff, all the time.  Quite frankly, I wasn’t too anxious to attend because it just seemed like a pain in the ass.  Besides, I wasn’t going to do this army thing very long so what was the point of sending me?  Slots to get into this school were fairly hard to get so it seemed to make sense to send someone who could actually get something out of going.

Finally, there was a regulation saying that you couldn’t attend a military school if, upon graduation, you had less than 180 days in your enlistment.  A quick calculation revealed that if I went to this ridiculous school I would have exactly 182 days until the end of my enlistment.  Surely, my chain of command would see all of this and realize that it was senseless to waste a spot in this class on me, right?

Well, no.  They said I had to go.

I said I didn’t want to and found out that there was actually a procedure (there’s one for everything) to decline a school.  Ah, brilliant!  So I walked into the orderly room and told them that I wanted to decline going to PLDC.

‘But, why?’ The sergeant behind the desk asked.

‘Because,’ I replied ‘I’m getting out of the Army and it’s a waste for me to go.’

‘Well, ok.’  He said.  ‘But, you know you’ll have to sign a Bar to Reenlistment.’  (Which means I wouldn’t be able to reenlist in the army).

‘So, if I say I don’t want to go to this school because I’m getting out of the army, you’re saying my punishment is not being able to stay in the army?’  I was beginning to feel like I was in an Abbott and Costello routine.

‘Well, I guess you could put it like that.’

‘Where do I sign?’

Now, I should have known it wouldn’t end there.  I went about my happy way and a few days later was told the First Sergeant wanted to see me.  Uh oh.

So, I had to explain my situation again while she tried to feed me the company line.  We were getting nowhere fast, going round and round.  I explaining that I was getting out of the army and her telling me that I was on the list to go to this school (We mustn’t change the list!).  Finally, in a fit of exasperation she said:

‘You can’t say with 100% certainty that you’re getting out of the army.’

To which I replied ‘First Sergeant, I’ll sell pencils on the street before I reenlist in the army.’

And with that, she knew she was defeated.  She let me go with a ‘You’re the worst NCO I’ve ever met in my career.’  I’m sure that wasn’t true.  I had only been in the army for 3 years by that point and I had met lots of NCOs worse than me.  But still, that seemed a bit harsh.  I wasn’t incompetent, after all, just a slacker.

Shortly thereafter, fate smiled upon me.  It was time for the NCO of the Quarter boards and I was submitted to compete by the agency I worked for (I was in a unit in Washington D.C. which had strange lines of command between who you worked for and who had responsibility for you otherwise).  And after some studying, I had the pleasure of receiving an award and certificate announcing that I was, in fact, the best NCO of my unit.  Mysteriously, my First Sergeant was away the day I was given the award, which was a shame but I was comforted in the fact that my name joined the honor roll of previous winners on the wall right outside her office.


Of course, five years later I did, in fact, rejoin the army (bars to reenlistment not being worth the paper they were printed on) and so it’s a lot less clear who has ultimate bragging rights in this conflict.  But, I’ll take it as a win.

Now, had I not watched so much MASH, I probably would have just gone to the stupid school and made everyone’s like just a bit easier.  So Mr. Alda, I hope your satisfied with yourself.  I am.