As the end of my NATO deployment to Zagreb approached, I became anxious. The Air Force still hadn’t named a replacement for me. It was part of my job to get replacements as our people’s tours ended. I’d been successful so far—except for my own position. The tasking fell again to HQ United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), so I began making almost daily phone calls to the Director of Personnel, a Colonel Douglas I’d worked for in the few months I’d been assigned to the headquarters.
USAFE finally provided the name of my replacement. That was the good news. Colonel Douglas said, “Now you may have to stay a little beyond your tour of duty there, Cheryl, a couple of weeks, say. The major replacing you is married and his wife is at a school right now. They have some little kids too. When she returns we want them to have a few weeks together before he leaves for Zagreb.”
“Will she not get back before the end of my tour date?”
“Well, yes, but then they’d only have about four or five days together.”
I’d only had two days of official notice before I had to leave my home, which I didn’t bother to mention to Colonel Douglas. Instead I said, “But sir, by regulation I can only stay on temporary duty 179 days.” Air Force policy at that time limited deployments to 120 days if possible, but I’d always known that wasn’t going to work in my case.
“But you could volunteer to stay longer, Cheryl.”
I took a deep breath. “No sir. I’m not going to do that.”
“Well, think about it, Cheryl.”
The days dropped off—not quickly but steadily—until I was a week away from my departure date. The daily phone calls with Colonel Douglas had become more and more difficult. He cajoled, then pushed, coerced, threatened to have me involuntarily extended for a month if I wouldn’t volunteer for an additional two weeks. I kept refusing and usually ended these calls wanting to cry. My own major command was betraying me.
Six days to what should be my last day, I made the usual call. Colonel Douglas started up right away (he’d stopped the cajoling part days ago). “The Ramstein wing commander insists we give his guy more time with his family before he goes. This is short-notice, you know.”
I snorted, but not into the phone. And whose fault is that? You’ve known about this tasking for months. But I didn’t say it, just swallowed and gave the speech I’d practiced all morning. I spoke directly and honestly.
“If it were just me, sir, I would volunteer in a heartbeat. This is a great job, great people, and I’m rolling in dough with all the temporary duty allowances.”
I meant it. I loved the job. I loved Chris and Christine and Frank who worked with me. I loved my Army bosses and coworkers. I loved the folks from the other services and all the different nations working one very worthwhile mission together. And I’d actually started thinking, along about the time the crocuses began to pop through the dirty gray snow, that I could learn to love Zagreb and its people.
The colonel started to say something, but I interrupted him. “Just hear me out, sir.” I stared out the window to the Wall of Shame surrounding the old UN headquarters, looking for courage there. “It’s not just me. I’m a commander. I have a squadron at Spangdahlem that I’m responsible for. How would I tell my flight chiefs, my NCOs, my bosses, that I’d volunteered to stay away longer?
“More importantly, sir, I have a family too. I have a husband who has supported me cheerfully throughout this deployment. You’ve met Lynn, sir. He’s been counting every day, because the only guarantee he’s had from the get-go is that I would at least be home in 179 days. How do I tell him, ‘Oh honey, I decided to stay a couple of extra weeks so this other family can have more time together’? I understand you can extend me involuntarily. If you do that, I will salute smartly and do as I’m told. But I cannot, I will not volunteer.”
He was silent so long I began to wonder if we’d lost the connection. But when he spoke, he said mildly and with determination. “You’ve made your point, Cheryl. Your replacement will be there in four days.”
I went out for a cigarette after that call, exhausted from the emotion of it. It had finally hit me that what seemed obvious to me, so obvious I didn’t have to mention it, the colonel had completely forgotten: I too had a spouse who suffered because I was gone and whom I longed for every day.
Air Force men were expected to come with the appropriate spouse and family adjuncts. But I was a woman. The Air Force preferred its women single. But it was a new world.