On a Crusade

[Part Three]  Ironically, the only major issue I brought back to Electronic Security Command was from the happy base of Iraklion. The Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS – pronounced exactly as it’s spelled) provided schools for military children overseas. At Iraklion, they ran an elementary and junior high. Because of the small number of teenagers, it was not feasible to provide a high school on base, so these students were boarded at the American School in Athens. That’s their seal to the left.

            This arrangement satisfied everyone. Athens was a half-hour flight or an overnight boat away, so kids could come home for holidays and parents could show up at the school at any hint of trouble. The American School was private, run on a European model, and provided these military brats with an excellent education alongside the children of diplomats, archaeologists, and entrepreneurs. It even provided college-level courses. Plus, parents and teenagers didn’t have to put up with one another on a daily basis during those impossible years. Everyone was happy. Then DODDS decided it would be more cost-effective to send these children to Spain, to the DODDS high school on Torrejon Air Base.

This was the crusade I’d been looking for, the rescue of a dozen high school students. It took me over six months to resolve the issue. First, I had to convince my own leadership at ESC that it was a problem worth going to the mats for. Mr. Bond was happy to support me in this, as long as he didn’t have to be involved. He had his own crusade, trying to get more base housing at San Vito. He also had the general’s ear, and the two of us briefed him together, backing each other up on the two problems. It was the first time I’d met the ESC commander. At first he didn’t seem very interested over an issue involving school kids.

“After all, umm . . .” He glanced down at his notes. “. . . Cheryl, the British do it all the time, send their kids away to boarding schools, sometimes thousands of miles away.”

“Yes, sir. But that’s not part of our culture.”

He nodded. “Okay, you can pursue it, but you’re going to have to give me lots of ammunition before I go to USAFE [United States Air Forces in Europe] and DODDS.”

For several months, I researched studies on education and childhood development, got information from the schools in Torrejon and Athens and compared them. I devised questionnaires for the families at Iraklion, compiled data, sent messages, was on the phone almost daily to USAFE, Iraklion, or DODDS. I would not let the interest flag. I wasn’t a knight in shining armor, more an obnoxious little terrier that had gotten hold of something and would not let go.

Part of the problem was that since ESC didn’t own any bases, we had no clout with DODDS. USAFE was the command they dealt with. In Germany, I’d met Bill, the civilian USAFE liaison to DODDS, and discussed the issue with him. He was onboard from the first but had a hard time working his way up the brass-heavy leadership chain at USAFE. Finally, after months of my yapping and snapping about this issue, Bill persuaded the USAFE vice commander to visit Iraklion. That’s all it took. The general listened to the complaints of the people there as if they were brand new to him and announced grandly that he would take care of it. With the weight of USAFE’s command leadership pressing against DODDS, they rescinded their decision within weeks of the school year that would have sent the Iraklion children to Spain. I was as relieved as if we’d diffused a bomb ready to go off. EOD, that was me—Educational Ordinance Disposal.

One of the things I did whenever I was reassigned in the Air Force was ask myself if there was any issue at the base I was leaving, in which I had personally made a difference. Of all the (few) things I accomplished at ESC, this was what I was proudest of: that I kept ten to fifteen teenagers closer to their parents and in a good school. In the scheme of things probably not nearly as important as the other work I did. But I took on the big dogs. I had the support of others because I was willing to do the fighting. I can look at it with the certain feeling that without my involvement, it would not have happened. Maybe a small victory, but it was mine.

That’s part of the reason I felt so hurt at the response that came to us from Iraklion. A message sent from the commander there worked its way down to me several weeks later—about the time a bunch of kids would be unpacking in their dorm rooms in Athens, greeting friends from the previous year. The message was sent to HQ USAFE. ESC received a courtesy copy, though courtesy seems a dreadfully inappropriate word here. In fulsome terms, the colonel thanked USAFE for all it had done to resolve the school situation, “especially in light of the fact that our own command structure made little attempt to help us.”

I went raving into the Director of Personnel’s office, waving the message at him. “Have you seen this, sir? How dare, how could, I can’t believe, it’s just—”

“Calm down, Cheryl. Don’t take it personally. The general’s not pleased either and has already placed a phone call to Iraklion. He had a few choice words for the colonel there.”

That just didn’t seem enough, but there was nothing more I could do. The ingrates—after all I’ve done for them! I hadn’t exactly expected a parade in my honor (though it would have been nice and well-deserved), but at least a thank you, certainly not a slap in the face. All that work, all the effort. How could I not take it personally?

Like the elephant, I do not forget my grudges. A few years later, in another assignment, I got to know a captain, a woman with whom I hit it off instantly. We recognized the crusader instinct in one another. We were quickly on our way to a deep, lasting friendship. Over lunch one day, I discovered she’d once been assigned to Iraklion, had arrived a few months after my trip there. She’d been the commander’s executive officer.

“What a beautiful base,” I said. “Nice assignment. I used to work for ESC too.”

“ESC—man, they were useless! They did nothing to support the folks they had out in the field. Nothing!” She began to tell me about the DODDS crisis. I recognized the passion in her voice; it was the same passion I’d had about it. I said nothing, didn’t interrupt to tell her all I knew about it. I listened as she inveighed against ESC, which had abandoned the base to the mercy of DODDS’ cost cutting.

“Our headquarters wasn’t even interested. So we had to rely on USAFE. Still,” her voice turned from outrage to triumph, “We let them all know how we felt.”

“You wrote that message.” It was a statement, not a question.

She nodded. “You saw it? It pissed the ESC leadership off, but it was worth it. It was true and someone needed to stand up and say it.”

“You wrote the message.” I set my fork down and calmly, coldly said, “And I was the one who spent six months getting everything together, all the stuff our commander needed to get USAFE involved, when DODDS wouldn’t pay attention to us. We hammered at USAFE for six months before they would do a damn thing. So yeah, they came in and played rescue at the end, but only because we wouldn’t let go of it. So, you wrote that message.”

“Yes.” She took a sip of water, then began to pick through her salad greens.

That was the end of our friendship. She could not bring herself to admit she’d been wrong. And I could not bring myself to forgive.

[Captain, 1987; 1990]


About admin

Cheryl Dietrich (nee Duncan) is the author of the (as yet unpublished) memoir "In Formation: What the Air Force Taught Me about Holding On and Manning Up." She comes from the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. A Greek major at the College of Wooster (Ohio), she spent a few years living in Greece before attending Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. As a hospital chaplain she re-examined her faith and decided to leave the ministry. She entered the Air Force as a four-year stopgap but forgot to get out. Twenty years later she retired as a lieutenant colonel. With her husband and one spoiled dog, she moved to Asheville NC and began to write stories, essays, and memoir.
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