I had three captains working for me. A young man I’ll call Jimmy Parides had been there longest when I arrived. He was a good-looking, clever guy with a smile so charming he was forgiven a lot. He was very talented but preferred schmoozing to getting his hands dirty. Still, he schmoozed really well and was always good for a laugh. A Greek-American, Jimmy had a way of listening to information and instructions, then repeating them back, cheerfully interspersed with enthusiastic Greek exclamations.
“Yes ma’am. Take the package to the colonel and wait for his signature. Σκατά! I’m on it!”
Anyone who didn’t know Greek would think he was delighted to carry out my every command. I however knew that he was cussing me out, “shit!” being the mildest of his expletives. Most of the time he told me, in melodious Greek syllables, to do obscene things to myself. All said with that charming smile of his. He did it well, in every confidence that his smile and expression would be taken at (can’t resist) face value. The hidden curses seemed to be more a game than meant seriously. I got such kick out of it I let it go on for weeks. But ultimately, reluctantly, I decided I needed to put an end to it
I stopped him one day as he was leaving my office. “Ah, Jimmy.” He turned around in the doorway. “Did I ever tell you I lived in Greece for three years before I got into the Air Force? And that I speak some Greek?”
He looked uncertain for a moment. “Umm, how much, ma’am?”
I turned my lips up into what I hoped resembled the mysterious archaic smile of ancient Greek statues. “Λιγάκι. Μόνο λιγάκι.” A little. Just a little.
“Ah.” He flashed the smile. We both laughed. I waved him out the door. He never cursed at me in Greek again. Not to my face.
He went on temporary duty to another air base for a month. While he was there, an NCO from our major command called to say he’d heard that Jimmy had gotten drunk in the Officers Open Mess.
“And?” I said.
“What are you going to do about it, ma’am?”
“Was he detained by Security Police? Arrested? Is the local commander or supervisor there concerned and doing anything?”
“No, ma’am. I just heard this from a civilian I know there. But he was drunk!”
“Wow, that’s a first—an officer getting drunk at the O’Club!”
I laughed it off. He hadn’t done anything illegal or against the regulations, or all that unusual. I hated the nanny attitude the Air Force sometimes took toward its members, especially overseas. I figured if our folks were old enough to be given guns and planes to operate, we should trust them with their personal lives, including an occasional overindulgence in alcohol. Jimmy returned as insouciant as ever. I never bothered to talk to him about the call I’d received.
A year later, he asked my permission to volunteer for temporary duty at a different base. I gave it. Soon afterward I got a call from the same deployments NCO at the major command.
“Major, you must be kidding. After the last deployment he went on? Remember, he—”
I interrupted with a flippant, “Sometimes you got to give people enough rope to hang themselves.”
I got the call from his temporary commander one Sunday night a few weeks later. Jimmy had gotten really drunk. He had driven back to billeting, hit a parked car, and left his own vehicle sitting in the middle of the parking lot. When the Security Police found him, he was chugging beers in his room. One of them said to him as he stumbled to his feet, “Sir, you’re drunk.”
Jimmy said cheerfully, “No shit, G.I.”
A DUI was serious stuff. The judge advocate got a copy of Jimmy’s records from his cadet years at the Air Force Academy—information which wasn’t available to supervisors or commanders. He’d had a drinking problem there and had been sent to rehab. Then I noticed on his first evaluation report as a second lieutenant, Jimmy had been marked down one space, from “Outstanding” to “Excellent.” It wasn’t necessarily a red flag. Some supervisors would mark down new lieutenants to get their attention at a point when it wouldn’t hurt their careers. Still, I tracked down and called Jimmy’s first supervisor to ask what generated the markdown.
“He had a drinking problem. But we sent him to rehab and he shaped up then.”
“Did you know he’d gone through rehab at the Academy just a year before?”
Silence buzzed over the phone line for a moment. “No, I didn’t. I assume he’s had another problem?” He sounded as sad as I felt.
The deployments NCO called me again. I expected a triumphant “told you so” from him but instead he sounded awestruck. “That thing you said about giving him rope. You were so right, major. I’m sorry for doubting you. How did you know?” His admiration fed my ego, but only momentarily. Underneath it all, I felt guilty.
Third strike and Jimmy was out of the service. I never made the mistake of thinking he wasn’t responsible for his own actions, but I knew I had treated his problem too cavalierly. I hadn’t made the time for him. Maybe if I’d talked to him or checked into his past, maybe if I’d refused to let him go, maybe if he’d stayed home with his wife and baby and friends, maybe maybe maybe . . .