I was at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, working in Personnel. We were in the midst of a wartime exercise, chem gear, twelve-hour shifts, the whole schmear. I was in charge of the Personnel Readiness Center during the day. When we had a lull in the action, one of the airmen waddled in her chem gear upstairs to use the restroom. She took her purse with her to pick up a snack from one of the vending machines. Chem gear and a purse, the combination sounds funny but the chem gear had no pockets. And yes, the Air Force did have a mandatory uniform purse, designed and produced by Coach, as well as instructions regarding its wear.
When she returned, she was almost in tears. “Someone stole my purse. I set it down in the breakroom when I got my snack. I was just gone a minute and was headed back, when I realized I’d left it. I ran back up.” That would have been theoretical running actually, considering the chem gear included funny clown boots. “It was gone. I didn’t have much money but my credit cards, my ID—oh no, what am I going to do?”
We all expressed sympathy. She sat down at a desk to call the Security Police and make an incident report. I thought about it. I pretended to be Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
“Look,” I said, “Before you do that, here’s something you should try. Whoever took your purse is probably just someone grabbing an opportunity. They’d be pretty nervous, I imagine, afraid of getting caught with your purse on them. If it was me, I’d go right across the hall to the restroom, get in a stall, grab the money out of your wallet, then dump the purse into the waste bin on the way out the door. Why don’t you go check the ladies room? If it’s not there, get someone to check the men’s.”
She was back in a few minutes, waving her purse over her head. “Captain, I could just kiss you!” It was all there but the few dollars she’d had on her.
It worked? My advice worked? I was stunned.
A year later, I was still at Ramstein when Desert Storm blew over. I was working for the support group commander when Tony came to see me one day. He was the tech sergeant in charge of the Personnel Readiness Center. It was just a three-person unit but provided personnel’s main contribution to the war effort, keeping track of skills and casualties.
“Ma’am, I need your help,” he said. When Desert Storm began, they had of course been put on 24-hour coverage, 12-hour shifts for all of them, seven days a week. Desert Storm had ended six weeks ago, and they were still on that shift schedule. “Captain D, it’s killing us. I’ve been to see the major about it three times, but he won’t let us off the schedule. He says as long as the command post is at maximum readiness, we should be too. Of course, the command post is manned for twenty-four hour coverage. I’ve done all I can. Can you help us, ma’am? The major might listen to you.”
I considered that highly unlikely. If I butted in, Major Cantore would just get more stubborn. Besides I hated conflict, not a fighter myself. My instinct was to pacify or compromise—or manipulate. Once again, I had to ask myself what a wimp like me was doing in the military. But Tony looked at me with desperation in his eyes and a disarming hint of hope that I could solve his problem.
I sighed. “Why do you think the major wants 24/7 coverage of Personnel Readiness?”
He thought about it for a moment. “If an emergency popped up in the Gulf at odd hours, we might need to be available immediately to work it. He doesn’t want Personnel to be the place where the system breaks down.”
“Okay, Tony. You know what he wants. Can you work up a plan to take to him, maybe a rotating on-call system, that would give him that but also provide time off for you all. You know, he’s a busy man with a lot of demands on his time. Don’t go to him with just a problem. Take the solution with you as well.”
He stood up, looking disappointed. “Well, thanks for your time anyway, ma’am.”
I watched him leave, his shoulders hunched over, unusual for a man who prided himself on his military bearing. I had failed him. I had just pushed the problem back into his lap. But two days later, he returned, his shoulders back and a smile warming his face.
“It worked. I put together a plan and took it to him. He said it looked good and to go for it! Thank you, Captain. You’ll never know what you’ve done for me—not just solving this problem, but for the future. I’ve got the key now—go prepared with the solution!”
It worked? My advice worked? I was stunned then too. My advice on both occasions seems obvious now, but at the time I felt undeservedly brilliant. Tony went on to eventually reach the highest enlisted rank, and I like to think I helped a bit. For me, it meant that for the first time I wondered if my way of doing things had benefits to offer the Air Force.
[Captain, 1990, 1991]