Being an executive officer is difficult, challenging, and sometimes fun, but dull as canned corn to describe. Execs experience few personal triumphs on the job; success is measured simply in how smoothly the boss’s day goes. As the exec of the Personnel Data System directorate at the Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center, I spent my time juggling, trying to catch the ball that was about to smash on the floor, while keeping all the others in the air. Most of my time, I puzzled over abstruse technical writing, feeling stupid and incompetent. At least I hadn’t lost my pristine ignorance.
One day I got a call from a woman whose father had died. She was trying to find a list of his medals to put in the funeral program and obituary. She said, “I called the Decorations Department and then Retirements, but they both told me they couldn’t help me, that they didn’t have the records. So I called Records, and they said they don’t have them. Someone suggested I call you. You’re probably not the right person either, but I don’t know where else to go. We need it today.”
Ah, the ever-popular, bureaucratic, hot potato game. My turn to pass it on—quick before I get stuck with it! “I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t keep records on retirees here. They’d be at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.”
She sighed. I heard another voice in the background and her response, “I’m trying, Mother. I’m trying.” Then back to me, sounding weary but resigned (she must have known the game too), “I see. Can you give me the phone number there?”
I flipped through my rolodex for NPRC’s number. I’d been there once for an orientation tour. It was a seven story building covering a city block. They would require her to fill out a form, which would then go into a queue with all the other forms they received. It would take her weeks to get the information she wanted. Of course, in the scheme of things it wasn’t really as important as the project I was struggling though; it was due to the commander before close of business and needed work. Cheryl, you idiot! When are you going to get your priorities straight? I grabbed the hot potato back. “Look, you have enough on your plate today. I’ll see if I can get it for you.”
As it turned out, I got the information with no trouble. I knew the civilian in charge of Air Force records at NPRC. Fortunately, she was in her office and sympathetic. She personally went into records and found the information we needed. The grieving daughter began to sob when I called her back and read off her father’s decorations. For five minutes, I let myself bask in the glow of self-satisfaction. Finally, something I know how to do! Then I forgot all about it.
A few weeks later, the Center commander received a letter from the woman who’d called me, expressing appreciation for the help I’d provided her and her family. He sent it to me with a handwritten note: “Good work! This is what I like to see in my officers!” Good work good work good work. I felt as happy as my dog Tippy wagging her stub of a tail to my “Good girl. Who’s a good girl?” After three years, I’d finally impressed the general.
“My father was always proud of his Air Force service,” the woman’s letter concluded, “The Air Force has a reputation for treating its members better than any other military branch. I know now this is true. Captain Duncan is an officer who helps make the Air Force the proud service it is.”
Her signature block ended with “Major, US Marine Corps.” Impressing the general—that was easy. Better still, I’d impressed a marine!