Special Actions had so many diverse, small programs, it was hard to keep track of them. A lot of them were connected with disciplinary actions: the Weight Management Program, Unfavorable Information Files, the Control Roster that monitored the base’s problem children. It was always a problem, so many programs to keep track of. When Essien Monroe stepped into the position a few months prior to the inspection, she took a look at the mess, metaphorically rolled up her sleeves and firmly pushed me out the door.
“I’ll take care of this, Lieutenant. Just give me a couple of months and don’t bother me.”
Essien Monroe had a potential double whammy against her in the bastion of military might. She was a black woman, a tech sergeant, the first female NCO-in-charge I worked with. As with the officers, the numbers of women enlisting had ballooned in the seventies, and it took time for them to climb in the NCO ranks. She was strong, intelligent and so fierce she scared me. She was fierce about her blackness. After she’d been at Carswell a few months, she changed her name from Monroe to an African name she’d researched as a likely family name. I didn’t understand, and I didn’t try to understand. I only reluctantly shifted to the multisyllabic African name, which my memory has stubbornly refused to make room for. Part of my lack of understanding had to do with the annoyance I felt with friends who decided to change their names to “better express who I am.” You are who you are, I would think. Your name doesn’t express you. (This, despite a childhood spent flirting with other names to replace the wimpy “Cheryl” I had been cursed with.)
Middle age is a less righteous time than youth or old age. As the latter approaches I need to hurry to make my apologies for my youthful judgments. Perhaps that’s why I write, to say I’m sorry to Essien whose true last name I can’t remember.
Before the inspectors came, I spent two weeks doing self-inspections, saving Special Actions for last. As I’d expected, Essien had done a remarkable job with the neglected programs. Unfavorable Information Files had been purged; Control Roster was up-to-date; the Weight Management Program was actually being managed. It wasn’t till I got to the LODs that I found a problem.
An LOD was a Line of Duty determination. If someone had an accident resulting in injury significant enough to require time away from work, we had to determine whether the injury happened in the line of duty. That didn’t mean it had to have happened while the individual was at work. After all, we were always on duty, 24/7. As an example: A person injured in a traffic accident going to the mall on Saturday would normally be considered in line of duty, unless a police report charged the person with causing the accident by running a red light. Then we’d have to hold an investigation. A determination of “not in line of duty” could subject the member to reimbursing the government for medical care, as well as possible disciplinary action, with potential long-term impact on someone’s career and finances.
I found over a hundred LODs that hadn’t been processed, some over a year old. I felt a pit open up beneath me. Essien looked defiant. “I just haven’t had time to get to these yet.”
When everything is top priority, everything is hot, how do you find time to do everything? I didn’t blame her.
Yes, I did too blame her.
I carried the pile of unprocessed LOD determination forms to my boss. My tension regarding the upcoming inspection was intensified three times in him—probably more. Let’s face it: I was a second lieutenant, a baby officer. So what if my section failed the inspection? Nothing would happen to me except I wouldn’t be so bright and shiny. I would feel tarnished and second rate, but I would still make first lieutenant on schedule.
I placed the pile on Captain Rush’s desk, knowing he was the one who would be most affected by my failure (Essien’s failure!). When angry, which was seldom, he wasn’t a yeller, but the type who expressed himself in clinched teeth edginess. Now, he brandished his words like a knife blade. I’ve erased his initial comments from my memory, but I don’t think they were complimentary to either my character or my family background. Finally, calmer, he washed his hands of the problem, throwing it right back to me. “Okay, Cheryl. You take care of it. Go to Legal, confess and take your beating for dumping a hundred late LODs on them.”
I gathered up the forms, said “Yes, sir,” and left humiliated, terrified, guilty, angry. If there was any practical way I could dump the cases back on Essien and say, “Your problem. You fix it,” I would have.
I worked with the legal office a lot. The officers there were a curious hybrid, part lawyer, part officer—but mainly lawyer. My friend Linda was more Air Force than most of them, but then she’d grown up through the ranks. The lawyers recruited into the Air Force had only two weeks of officer training, emphasis on how to salute and wear the uniform. They were a different crew, with a uniquely narrow mindset, but I never found an Air Force lawyer I didn’t like—and wasn’t afraid of.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to face the colonel’s infamous temper, just his deputy’s more phlegmatic response. Major Lahiri sat stolidly and silently at his desk, thumbing through the LOD forms. At last he looked up. “Well?” was all he said, looking at me quizzically.
“Well, sir, once again, I’m sorry these are so late, and of course, we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” I started to get up, but he motioned me down.
“Oh no, you don’t. We’re going to go through these right now, and you’re going to help.”
I had a ton of things waiting for me, but I swallowed and nodded. For two hours, Major Lahiri and I sorted through the cases, figuring out which were straightforward enough to make a line of duty determination without an investigation. I was considerably more liberal in my definition of “straightforward,” but he didn’t let me get by with it, scrupulously putting any with the slightest question into the investigation pile. He made me wait while he completed the legal office section of each form. About twenty required investigating officers. Special Actions would have to find them and appoint them and suspense them. There was going to be plenty of yelling about the difficulty of making a determination after so much time had elapsed. The oldest one had to do with a car crash in Kentucky fifteen months ago. Still, we could close the case on most of them.
I gathered the LODs up and thanked the major. He grunted in response but stopped me as I was walking out the door. He didn’t look up from the papers he was going through. “Incidentally, we’ve got a discharge board coming up and need officers to serve on the panel. Can I count on you?”
Discharge boards and courts-martial panels—the Air Force’s equivalent to jury duty and equally unpopular. Getting officers to serve on them was one of the Judge Advocates’s greatest headaches. I’m sure if they could have figured out a way to make Personnel appoint the panel member, they would have.
I responded with fake enthusiasm. “Why, sir, I’d be delighted. You realize of course that you have a perpetual volunteer.”
He looked at me and smiled, a long narrow smile. “Yes, I rather thought so.”
I took the LODs back to Essien, who looked humiliated, terrified, guilty, angry and something else—ashamed. The shame of an over-achiever who’d failed. I realized what it was only later when I saw the same look on my face in the restroom mirror.
“I want to see the letters appointing investigating officers tomorrow.” She bit her lips and nodded. “Then I’ll need your ideas for how we’re going to avoid this problem in the future.”
Silently she handed me a paper on which she’d already typed up a simple new procedure for tracking LODs. It looked good. I gave it back to her. “Fine.” I wanted to say something more to her. I wanted to tell her I understood. She was just human and could only tend to so much. But I was still too angry, and the look in her eyes seemed to say, back off, stay away. Maybe that’s what I wanted to read in them.
The day the Shark inspected Special Actions, both Essien and I were on edge. The inspection checklists ran into a book of pages. So many things to look at there, so many different regulations, so much potential for problems. But Essien impressed the Shark. Unfavorable Information Files, Control Roster, Articles 15, weight management, selective reenlistments—program after program was brought out, laid open, the details of discipline and personnel standards compared to the papers on file and the computer rosters. And he found nothing wrong.
Finally came the words we’d been dreading. “And now, tell me about your Line of Duty determinations.” Time for the feeding frenzy.
The silence in the office was palpable. The Shark couldn’t have missed the look I gave Essien or the look she responded with, both looks quivering with anger, fueled by blame on my part, defiance of hers, guilt on both parts. Essien wasn’t going to speak up, so I did.
“Actually, sir, we have had problems with our LOD program.” I couldn’t resist another angry glance at Essien. “But we’ve identified them and are fixing them.”
Another century of silence, then the Shark closed his notebook. “Okay. Suppose I just don’t mention the LOD program in my report?”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. Essien said nothing.
He got up. “Thank you all. I think that’s all I need to see then.”
I never told Essien how much I admired her, what fantastic work she did, what a great job she did cleaning everything up. I knew she couldn’t do it all in the little bit of time she had. I never told her she was my hero.
[Second Lieutenant, 1981]