Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Corpsman Chronicles XVIII: Don't bring a chair to a gunfight
Snow last Monday evening, some warm days and some cool days since then, a bit more rain, and a possibility of snow tomorrow (Wednesday, May 8) evening. Springtime in the Panhandle of Nebraska.
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Alexander Pope, 1711; Edmund Burke, 1790.
Last time (time before?) I talked about how E-5's could become Duty Section Chiefs of the Day at NAS Oceana Medical way back in the good ol' days.
I also mentioned the E-5 Mafia, and how some of us were given the opportunity to excel as Chief's of the Day. It wasn't uncommon at all for E-5's to direct and supervise small groups of junior sailors, but it was fairly uncommon for E-5's to be in charge of a duty section. It was a bit of a challenge, but that was okay. Challenges are all part of the deal.
All in all the military is pretty good at providing the opportunity to learn and grow leadership skills. It's a hierarchical system, but that doesn't mean that one guy is in charge and tells everyone else what to do. Down to the smallest and most junior level, if you've got two E-1's cleaning shitters, for instance, one of them will be in charge and learning how to lead.
In some sense, being the Duty Section Chief of the Day at the NAS Oceana Medical Clinic wasn't a whole lot different than being in charge of another guy while cleaning shitters. There are more people and tasks to manage, and the scope of responsibilities is larger, but most of the leadership techniques are the same. You've got a mission to accomplish and a framework of boundaries within which to operate, and the trick is to nudge everyone toward mission accomplishment while keeping them coloring inside the lines. There are a zillion different ways to get there. Some paths are perfect, some are perfectly terrible, and most are serviceable but need work. It's a process.
During one of my first watches as COD, an interesting leadership challenge arose. It was a quiet evening as I recall, and we had no patients in the building. Several of us were gathered around the front desk shooting the shit. In addition to myself, there was another HM2/E-5, who was a squadron corpsman like me. We were TAD to medical but actually belonged to A-6 or F-14 fleet squadrons. There were two or three other corpsmen as well, an E-4 and a couple of E-3's I think. They belonged to the clinic. The mission for all of us as a duty section was to operate the clinic's emergency department appropriately, so the distinction between us TAD guys and the folks who were permanently assigned to the clinic didn't matter. Nevertheless, two of us were different than the others, and that's all you need for an "us versus them" atmosphere to develop. That kind of friction could potentially be a problem in accomplishing the mission. This was rarely a problem, but it was something I had to keep in the back of my mind.
Anyway, there we were shooting the shit, and from out of the blue the other E-5 started talking about abortion. It didn't take long to realize that he was a bit of a zealot on the subject and felt a strong desire to convert others to his way of thinking. Some of the others in this situation were both female and junior in rank, and that combination makes for a perfect leadership pitfall.
So as COD, what should I do?
It was actually a pretty easy decision to make. Such an argument could only interfere with the mission, and would not support the mission in any way.
I took a lighthearted stab at derailing the topic.
"Okay, that's enough of that. How 'bout them Mets?"
But the E-5 wanted to stand firm on his First Amendment rights. He really had a fire burning to convert the heathens!
"Okay," I said, and gestured toward the tiny COD office. "Office."
Behind closed doors I told him that the topic was off limits, that it would interfere with the smooth running of the duty section, and that he had no First Amendment rights while he was on duty. He wasn't pleased, and tried to argue a bit, but was bright enough to realize that he wasn't going to win and that it was a stupid hill to die on. He was pissed, and I suspect he held a bit of a grudge, but that's the breaks of Naval Air.
That's leadership for you. Some pretty big challenges can come out of the blue and seem pretty innocuous. If handled correctly they turn out to be completely innocuous. If handled sloppily they can cause problems. Figuring out how to handle such situations is more an art than a science. It takes some trial and error and experience, and along the way you're going to make mistakes. Fortunately, when you're in the military you're living in a leadership lab. You get to observe a lot of leadership experiments, and if you pay attention you begin to figure out better ways and worse ways to do things.
To set the stage, here's one version of bringing a chair to a gunfight.
The feature presentation is a simple story, at least from my perspective. As for the other main players, the story wasn't simple at all. It's been more than 35 years though, and it's far to late to ask any of them to chime in, so you'll only get my take here, or at least what I remember as my take.
Seems like it was in the evening, after sunset but before bedtime. It was probably summer, because that year when I was an E-5 and began standing COD I returned from a deployment in May and was back into the Airwing deployment cycle in September.
A youngish sailor rolled into the Emergency Room with his wife and a couple of little kids in tow. They lived in base housing. Sailor and wife seemed a bit spooled up, and the kids -- probably two and four years old -- were in jammies and carrying blankets. The young sailor wanted to talk to the duty physician because he "was having problems."
We got the sailor checked in and pulled his chart. He mentioned that he was leaving for the boat in the morning and had been arguing with his wife about having to go.
This was far from unusual. Every time a deployment was about to begin there would be at least a few sailors trying to find a medical route to dealing with the stress of pending separation. It's a very hard thing when hubby/daddy has to go away for months at a time. There's no easy way to get through it. The solution is pretty simple -- everyone in the family just has to suck it up and do the best they can. It's not always clear how to do that though, and some people can find themselves facing a problem which they can't figure out how to surmount. When flailing about in a panic, usually at the last minute, getting "a note from the doctor" can seem like a good idea. "Dear Warship Captain, Johnny can't go on deployment because medical reasons. Sincerely, Doctor Navy, MD."
Of course it can't work like that. The deploying unit has a mission, and everyone attached to the unit understands that the mission comes first. In the case of a carrier battle group, at least back in those days, you're talking about 10,000 guys deploying for six months or more. Every single one can think of a reason they'd rather not go, and every single one knows that they wouldn't really be missed. Someone else could replace them, others would step up and carry their load. If 10,000 guys decided to bail, though, the mission would fail, and Mission is a very Big Thing. For a number of complex reasons, most guys simply can't stomach the thought of allowing the mission to fail. At a more immediate and personal level, most sailors simply can't abide the notion of letting their shipmates down.
Don't get me wrong, sailors aren't locked into a mission-before-all-else mindset 24/7/365. It's not all chest beating and bleeding red, white, and blue. Deployment offers adventure and fun, too, and that's factored into everyone's cost-benefit math as well.
In reality, all sailors get tugged in a lot of different directions when deployment approaches. It's never easy, and for some of us it was much harder than for others.
One of the duty corpsmen took the fellow back into the treatment area. In a few minutes she fetched the Doc, a Lieutenant Commander Flight Surgeon who was also a rated Naval Aviator. An F-4 guy. The Flight Surgeon and corpsman disappeared into the treatment area, and we spun the wife and kids into the waiting room adjacent to the check in desk.
A few minutes later a base security vehicle screeched up to the entrance, lights flashing. A pair of enlisted (E-4 and E-5) MAA's charged in, looked around, saw the sailor's wife through the window of the waiting room, and dashed toward the door.
"EVERYBODY STAY PUT!"
Yeah, like that was going to happen.
I should probably say a few words about MAA's and the MAA force. Masters At Arms are the navy's police force; they're more or less like beat cops. There is an MAA rating, just as with other specialties like corpsman, jet mechanic, boiler tech, etc. At sea and ashore, however, the MAA force is (or was back in the day) augmented by other non-MAA rated sailors, usually on a TAD (temporary duty) basis. Most divisions or squadrons would be tapped to provide a dozen or so sailors to the MAA force every 90 days or so. The best I could tell back then, about one in 20 sailors who wore a badge were actually rated MAA's.
Does that mean anything significant? Probably not. I had to deal with some real klowns and keystone kops in the MAA force from time to time, but to be fair, MAA's had to deal with some real worthless shitbirds at medical from time to time. It's also true that in 99.9 percent of my interactions with the MAA force the guys and gals wearing the badge were completely professional.
So anyway, the two MAA's charged into the waiting room with me -- the Clinic COD and Head Man In Medical at the Moment -- on their heels. As they crashed into the waiting room they were yelling conflicting orders at the distraught and now frightened sailor's wife.
"UP AGAINST THE WALL!"
"ON THE GROUND-ON THE GROUND-ON THE GROUND!"
With a pair of terrified children clinging to her legs, the woman snatched up a chair and brandished it at the MAA's while backing toward the corner of the room.
The MAA's were still yelling, the children were howling, and the woman's fear turned from flight to fight. She was prepared to defend her kids.
The MAA's increased the volume of their shouted and still conflicting orders and began to move closer to the woman.
The woman shuffled back, kids wrapped tightly around her legs, and raised the chair as if its solid metal and vinyl construction were actually pipe cleaners and tissue paper.
I'd moved to the left of the MAA's and was more or less even with them, facing the woman. We were only a long step away from her and her kids. As she raised the chair the E-4 MAA closest to me began to draw his revolver.
For me at least, time slowed down to a crawl. The sound of shouting and crying became muted. My eyes locked onto the woman's face and I saw beads of sweat actually popping out on her forehead and upper lip. My peripheral vision blurred and faded.
I didn't weigh any options or make a decision. I strode forward two steps and wrapped my arms around the woman, then shuffled all four of us a couple of more steps back into the corner of the room.
"Easy. Easy. Easy."
I could smell the stink of the woman, perspiration and beer and stale cigarette smoke. She felt like a bundle of quivering steel cables. My knees were pressing the kids against their mom's legs. She still held the chair in a striking pose, and her arms were vibrating in tension.
"Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy."
My record was stuck.
My hearing began to return, and I realized that the MAA's records were also stuck. They were still shouting conflicting orders.
I turned my head slightly and saw that the E-4 had his piece out and pointing at us. Part of my mind noted that the muzzle appeared to be much larger than a .38. Larger than a .45 even. Really big. Maybe a 20 mm. Shit, maybe a 40 mm.
At this moment it was crystal clear to me that I had the woman under control and that her fight reflex was passing. The MAA's, who had also defaulted to a fight reflex, were now both pissed and a bit embarrassed. They stopped shouting.
I had a very strong urge to begin shouting. I was very concerned about the revolver pointing at me and was an instant from completely blowing my stack because these two fucking rent-a-cops were fucking things up in MY FUCKING CLINIC!
When the words came out of my mouth they really surprised me.
"Please step out of the waiting room."
There was a pause for a couple of heartbeats, then the E-4 began to holster his piece.
"And ask the Doctor to come in."
Now here's the amusing part. I have no idea what happened to the sailor, his wife, his kids. I don't know if he hit the boat the next morning or if he was granted a pass. I don't remember if we sent them home or referred them for further treatment at the Naval Hospital or elsewhere. I don't remember what happened with the MAA team. I don't remember why they were after the woman. I'm reasonably sure that no one was arrested or placed in custody. I do remember talking at length with the Air Station Officer of the Day, and I remember the agony of writing a dozen or so log drafts before committing a final version to the big green log book. To the best of my recollection, I don't think the situation ever rose to the level of being an official big deal.
Having heard the story, a lot of my peers -- especially those in the E-5 Mafia -- wondered why I had interposed myself between a "crazy dependent whale and a third class with a gun." In those terms, it didn't make much sense.
On the other hand, having been there in that moment, everything I did seemed to be the right thing to do. The situation was extremely dynamic and multifaceted, and possible outcomes were rapidly springing into and out of existence. When I stepped in I did so without consciously working through an if-then-therefore piece of logic. It just seemed the right thing to do in that moment. In retrospect I think that as soon as I stepped into the line of fire the possibility of anyone getting shot evaporated, and I'd like to believe this was the outcome I was trying to force. If I try very hard I can almost convince myself of that. It's more likely, however, that my actions were less altruistic and more territorial. Perhaps I was the alpha male in that clinic, and perhaps I judged that the two MAA's were challenging me. Perhaps the primeval part of me couldn't let that stand. The sapiens part of me possibly bent my course toward protecting the woman and children rather than attacking the MAA's, but, well, it's all just speculation about a moment that happened nearly four decades ago.
It's a memory. A good memory all in all. Fun to think about.