Remember Kelly the intern? The girl who pawned off that assignment on Steve and I? This is the story of how Kelly tried to play army, and accidentally pushed the domino that would one day bring an end to this stupid game.
I was given a rare assignment from the top where I was to interview an incoming command sergeant major. I think that this was one of the ways that Maj. Dwyer tried to renew my motivation. To her credit, she never stopped trying to figure out how to get me to rejoin the group, even though too many things had happened by that point for me to ever trust any of those people again.
Regardless of her motivation, it didn’t matter to me. This sergeant major, unbeknownst to Maj. Dwyer, was the replacement for the previous sergeant major who had very nearly cut my career short after the basketball incident. For me, this was a chance to erase a mistake. This was to be a symbolic victory, one of me redacting some of the lesser flattering portions of my permanent record, if only in my own mind.
And, yes, by this point I was done with trying to earn accolades or ‘bring it home’ for the PAD. But I was absolutely going to try and play politics, even if I didn’t quite know how. Besides, why should Struck be the only one to do it?
I arranged the interview and arrived at his office at the appointed time. I was pleasantly surprised when I went into the sergeant major’s office. He was remarkably relaxed, friendly, and very open. You never know what kind of personality you’re going to get when you do these interviews. Some of them glare at you for the entire interview and don’t give you anything to work with, but every now and then you get somebody who is agreeable and makes your job much easier. Fortunately, this man was the latter. Perhaps it was because he was new to the installation, or maybe he was just a nice guy.
In the interview, the incoming sergeant major talked about his expectations for the installation. He lauded the troops and their performance in recent campaigns. Even though it was boiler-plate command messages that we learned ourselves in AIT, there was a genuine air of sincerity with this guy. After we were done with the interview, we started talking about other things. We talked about Tiger Woods. We talked about family. This guy was genuinely nice. He even let me grab a few jelly beans from his candy jar. When it was over, I was happy to have met him and happier still to have been given the assignment.
After writing the article, I sent it to him by email as he requested. He responded to me later that day, asking me to hold off publishing the article until he returned. Apparently he had a TDY overseas, and was needed elsewhere for two weeks. He took issue with a few of the quotes I put in the article, and he wanted to basically dictate how it would be written. I was a little irritated about how he took issue with his own quotes, but whatever. I was still happy to oblige.
Kelly, however, did not agree. She was now the head of the news staff, and all articles had a process in which they needed to follow. First, you were to write the article. Second, give it to one of your peers to edit. Make whatever changes were necessary, then pass it over to Maj. Dwyer for final approval. She would rarely have anything to say, so after that you were to pass the article off to Kelly, who would decide where it fin in the next week’s publication.
Three days before everything was supposed to be sent to the press, she came around looking for the article. I told her that we couldn’t release it because the command sergeant major wanted to hold off until he returned. Kelly was not impressed with this answer. She gave me a little lip about cooperation, but I told her once again she was not in my chain of command. Besides, this was a direct order given to me. She was just going to have to wait.
As any good sport was apt to do, Kelly went and tattled to Maj. Dwyer. I explained to Maj. Dwyer that the sergeant major did not want me to run the article. I showed her the email backing this up, and she seemed to relax.
But Kelly was not finished, she came in a few hours later and talked with Maj. Dwyer again, and Maj. Dwyer came back to me saying that I had to turn the article over to Kelly. She assured me that Kelly wasn’t going to run the article, but that she simply needed to check the size of it just in case it was given the green light. I sighed. Can we please just hold off until he contacts me again? PLEASE? But Maj. Dwyer ordered me to send the article, so what recourse did I have? I sent the damn article.
Naturally, there it was on the front page of the paper that Thursday. Bottom fold.
A few days later, I received an angry phone call directly to my desk. It was the big dog, and he was less than pleased. I tried to explain to him what had happened, but he did not seem to be in a listening mood. He hung up the phone on me. I slammed the phone down. I was furious, but above all else I was hurt. Here was yet another attempt to do something right, and it just felt like I was doomed no matter what I did.
I was pissed at my commander for letting a civilian tell me what to do. I was pissed at the army for being so stupid. I was pissed at everyone around me. It seemed like all they wanted from me was insubordination and bad news. Even when I followed orders they managed to find a way to screw me. What the fuck did these people even want from me anymore? Everything I did was wrong, even when I followed protocol!
About a month later we were all on a TDY to Fort Monroe, Virginia. Maj. Dwyer and SSG McDonald didn’t seem to expect much out of me during this exercise. Half of the time, they wouldn’t give me anything to do. They just let me sit in some corner somewhere and play on the internet or with my phone. I was fine with the arrangement.
One day Maj. Dwyer and SSG McDonald told the rest of the troops to take one of our vans and leave for the day. Since I heard them clearing out the building, I knew something was about to go down. I took a seat in an office and I waited. Maj. Dwyer and SSG McDonald entered at the same time, the former looking cautious and the latter looking disgusted as usual. They both stood in front of me silently, then Maj. Dwyer produced a piece of paper. She wordlessly placed it on the table in front of me. I didn’t look at the paper; I continued to look directly at Maj. Dwyer.
“Read it and sign, please,” she said timidly.
I was thinking that they had finally had enough of me doing nothing and decided to contrive some bogus counseling statement, but I was definitely mistaken. As soon as I glanced down I saw the first and the last name of the command sergeant major himself. He had written an Article 15 for Failure To Obey A Direct Order.
An Article 15 is the pinnacle of punishment. They are hard to fight, and even harder to beat. Counseling statements are general warnings, but an Article 15 is for big mistakes. I was shocked that this guy wanted do bring down the hammer on me like this. It seemed to be a bit of an overreaction, especially since the article made him look damn good.
I continued to stare at the paper, wondering what would happen if I refused to sign. I knew there wasn’t much of a chance of me getting out of this situation, but I wasn’t simply going to give in so easily. At the very least, I was going to make them work for it.
After a few minutes, SSG McDonald became impatient and snapped, “Just SIGN it!“
I regarded her with indifference, then turned to Maj. Dwyer.
“You know I followed orders. I followed orders to the letter. I did the interview, I wrote the article, I gave it to somebody for proofing. He told me not to run the article. I told you. I showed you the email. I’m not signing this.”
“SIGN IT!” blurted SSG McDonald with her usual level of volume regulation and self-control.
Maj. Dwyer looked at SSG McDonald as if to tell her to cool off, then turned to me.
“McCollum, we’re not going anywhere until you sign this.”
I pulled out my phone.
“What are you doing?” barked SSG McDonald.
“I guess I’m going to order a pizza.”
Since I refused to sign the document, I was sent to JAG. JAG is a group of military lawyers who have a highly specialized position in the army. They normally only deal with the most serious of allegations. This is where you go when a major incident occurs. I think my two leaders believed that this would put me in my place once and for all.
My case was given to the head of JAG. She looked over the write-up, then looked at me. I was trying to imagine what was going on in her mind. I found myself once again wishing for a separation. I was sick of fighting with everyone and I knew it was only going to get worse. My best hope was that since I did not have an extensive record, they would mercy-kill my career and let that be all.
“So tell me your side of the story,” the officer instructed. Before I proceeded, she insisted that I relax. She told me that I was not in any trouble; she simply wanted to hear about the incident in my words.
I told her about the meeting. I told her about the protocol. She wanted to know why I was answering to a civilian, so I explained. This caused her to have many more questions about the unit itself. She told me to give me the entire story.
I told her everything. I told her about my history with Tim. I told her about the work environment. I told her how even when I did follow orders somebody always found a way to screw with me. She listened intently. I waited as she sat and thought about everything I said. After an uncomfortably long pause, she spoke.
“Sounds like a dysfunctional work environment, but let’s not talk about that right now. Let’s talk about this big, bad man who wants to make an example out of you. This case is a crock of shit, and I will tell him so myself.”
I could not believe my ears.
She explained to me that JAG was there not only to prosecute, but to protect. She said that this was a clear abuse of power, and that is why she took my case herself. Even though my superiors were only following orders, they could have done a better job to explain the situation to him. Regardless, she said it was over.
“So what do you need me to do, ma’am?” I asked.
“I need you to go to lunch and let me take care of this.” She smiled, then playfully made the shooing motion at me with her hands.
I did as I was instructed.
After lunch, I returned to the office and calmly took a seat at my desk. One by one, the soldiers all came back into the office and went about their business. SSG McDonald was nowhere to be seen, but Maj. Dwyer came in and immediately made a beeline for my desk.
“So what happened?” she asked. All things considered, Michelle Dwyer is a nice lady. She just is. I understand why certain things happened while I was there, and times like these I still had to forgive her for being so entrenched in politics. However, I don’t think she knew that she was smiling when she asked. She was probably smiling just because she’s nice, but the smile did piss me off quite a bit.
“Nothing,” I replied, returning her smile in kind.
Then the smile left her face. Finally. I was happy to have a break from those ridiculous pearly whites.
“What do you mean ‘nothing’?”
“Talk to JAG if you want any more details.” With that, I went back to my computer game.
Sure enough, a few days later the Article 15 was rescinded. The guy even called me to apologize. I couldn’t help but feel a little smug at the outcome.
And I made sure to let everyone see it. I went back to doing as little as I could for them. I would stay out on ‘assignment’ for as long as I could, I would take half a dozen smoke breaks , and I would do other petty things like make lots and lots of doctor and dentist appointments to keep me out of the office.
But I knew what this all meant. It meant that SSG McDonald and that dickhead Struck were simply going to keep trying to get me kicked out. I wasn’t sure what kind of behavior would be considered too much, but I knew I was in for a long road. There was no way they were going to let me get a medical discharge if they could help it. Sure, I had won the battle, but the war was nowhere near finished. In fact, a few days later I overheard them talking, and I could hear SSG McDonald very clearly say “He’s not getting that medical discharge.”
So it’s gonna be like that…