The Lost Art of Troubleshooting

Me - USAF - July 1992
Me – USAF – July 1992

Today is the fourth of July — recognized here in the United States as “Independence Day”. This is another of those “holidays” that make me cringe internally. There’s the obligatory flag-waving  and over-the-top displays of the United States flag, the parades with people praising military veterans with far too much gusto, and the incessant American need to blow things up. Yes, I am not fond of this time of the year.

I have a denim jacket that has a ton of patches on it – mostly my old squadron patches, and a few of the patches from my time in the Boy Scouts. On the jacket is an American Flag – put there because I did serve in the United States Air Force for eight years. Looking back, I served because there were no other options available to me. I failed my way out of college. I had trouble holding any kind of job. I bristled at any attempt to place me under authority. In short, I was a “bad-tempered, irresponsible little shit” — in the words of my late father. Eight years in the United States Air Force smashed all that out of me. I learned that authority was not necessarily a bad thing, and when applied appropriately – it could literally help place someone on the correct track in life. Please, don’t get me wrong – this did not happen overnight. The first two years of my career were littered with Letters of Counseling and Letters of Reprimand. But my work ethic was next to none. When I had a job placed in front of me, I did my best to complete the task as accurately as I could – and would only ask for further instruction when any other available option and resource available to me had been tried. I didn’t see it in that manner – I merely wanted to get the job finished, and show my superiors that I could be left alone to my own devices. I was still bristling at any type of Command Authority being placed upon me.

In my second year, I was working the late-night shift at the telephone switchboard. I spent a large portion of my nights reading and writing. In between, I answered calls from people around the base wanting to be connected to an off-base number. I rarely paid attention to the numbers – I just plugged the corresponding connection cord into the patch panel, dialed their numbers and released. I wound up in front of my section Chief one morning for placing “976” numbers over the course of a week. My Section Chief expected me to deny what happened. Instead, I walked in, quoted the section regulation that I was responsible for what happened during my shift and stated I was ready to take my punishment. That was the moment that I started to grow up. That was also the moment that my Section Chief believed in me enough to move me over to the Data Center. In six weeks time, I knew the operations of the UniSys mainframe nearly as well as the very experienced civilian UniSys maintenance crew that were there to keep the system running. Soon, I was made a shift leader, and giving more responsibilities, such as learning how to operate the newly installed digital backup power system that was installed in my second year there.

I still got in trouble from time-to-time. I had other issues with Command Authority, and did my level best to keep the starched career-military people away from my troops. I was deemed as “unconventional” and “odd” by folks like this — and honestly, promotions boards tend to view people with my attitude as “unreliable” because I did not follow rules. That is still true to this day. I do not worry about the rules, I stress over the results. As I told the individuals on my shift several times — “Let’s not worry about the way we are supposed to get it done, let’s make sure it works. We can work around whatever we do later, so that it ‘fits’ what Command Authority wants. Let’s make sure it works first.”

I left the Air Force in 1994. We did not part on great terms. There are a lot of people that I still view as being assholes because they could not see beyond the regulations to notice that the responsibility should come first. Or as mentioned in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies on more than one occasion: “…they are not really rules, merely guidelines.”

Since leaving the military, I have made a semi-decent career of being an out-of-the-box trouble-shooter for computer systems. But people who think outside of the rules and regulations in order to obtain results are looked down upon even more so in corporate America. Its not really about solving problems, its more about following the rules. And yes, that meant that I got in more trouble as a result. At one job, I mentioned several times that the current computer systems that were in place would not handle an added VOIP service because of their age – I was told that I was not knowledgeable enough to know the difference. And when the VOIP service did not work out-of-the-box, I was cussed out by the company’s President in front of all the individuals working there, and told that I was the reason that the company was circling the drain. I had only been there eighty-eight days at that point. I quit ten seconds after the company President shut his mouth. I was their only Information Technology worker at that time.

When I hear people thank me for the time I spent in the service, I bristle inwardly. They may thank me for wearing the uniform, but that’s all they are thanking me for. It did not take a ton of resolve to stand there at the MEPS station, raise my right hand and recite my oath:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Its not a really tough oath to take.  I removed the last part of “So help me God” because I did not say that part. It doesn’t nullify the oath for me. If you think it does for you – then you say it. However, less than ten percent of the United States population will ever raise their right hand and take this oath. When I hear people thank me for my service – what I actually hear is a different statement:

Thank you for serving (so I or my kid or my spouse or my family members didn’t have to).

Statistically speaking, most members of the military come from very poor origins. They go here so that they can accrue monies to go to college — and thus be able to compete within the marketplace for a job. And to be completely honest, an individual with a military background gets a far greater consideration from me when applying for a job. Not because they served, but because I know what serving did to change them into the individual that they are today.

Yes, today – we here in the United States celebrate the birth of this nation. Its an interesting experiment in Democracy. Lately, we seem to disagree far more vehemently than we ever have before. My oath of enlistment states that I will obey the orders of the President…I don’t get to add to that. When I hear people say that the current President is not “their” President – and thus they do not have to respect him, I only hope they never put on a uniform and go to a front-line combat area, where they may pick and choose which fellow soldier they would protect and work with based on that individual’s politics.

In a a manner of speaking, I am digressing a bit…rambling if you will. Of course, those of you that read me are aware that I do that. So let me drag this back to where I was headed…

We spend a ton of time with “country-oriented” holidays here in the United States. And yes, I like the freedoms that I enjoy here as a citizen. There are other aspects that I do not care one bit for — the political and social divide that exists throughout the United States; the knee-jerk social reactions that gets far too much amplification from “social” media; the way we marginalize people based on what they believe, the pigmentation of their skin or who they choose to love. What I hate more is the manner in which none of this will be solved in regulatory passage, Supreme Court rulings, or in loud, over-the-top protestations. Its only going to change when we start to treat one another as equals – regardless of our differences.

I looked beyond the rules and regulations to find solutions that kept information flowing into my command structure. Troubleshooting is not about following the rules….perhaps we need more troubleshooters….

Paganism, the United States Air Force and Me – My Story [Part Two]

“Pagan Support Group”

Quite honestly, it was the oddest group of folks I had ever encountered at a single time.  Not odd as in eccentric though.  It was the oddest set of belief systems I had ever seen assembled in a single spot.  The predominant members were Wiccans of various Traditions throughout the United States.  They numbered close to two-thirds of the individuals there.  Included in the group were various Ceremonial Magicians (a group of people I had never encountered before), a Mambo Priestess (voudoun), and a few eclectic Pagans (German citizens to boot).  The idea of the group was to meet and talk with each other at meetings once a month.  Over time, the eclectic Pagans disappeared.  I am not sure if it was the language barrier that sent them along or if they thought that this wide-ranging group of Pagan beliefs were just a gathering of flaky Americans.  The self-appointed leader of the meetings continued talking about how we – the Pagan Support Group – needed to get the Ramstein Air Base Chaplain’s office to provide us with space to hold worship services.  When this leader started setting forth the number of “Wiccans” that were asking for the worship services as the total number of individuals that were part of the Pagan Support Group…  Well, Predictably, all of the Nine Hells broke loose among the group.  Many of the non-Wiccans, particularly the Ceremonial Magicians, did not approve of being lumped into a Wiccan pile.  Particularly one that was increasingly to be the flavor of this particular individual.

The Power of Three

Somehow, the concept of triads and threes becomes a big part of my Life.  I cannot explain the entirety of that – however, the “Pagan Support Group” splintered into three separate groups, while still maintaining a presence at the Vogelweh Recreation Center as a single group.  The document you see to the side here, is the document that names Request for Waiver - Non-Chaplain Personnel Certification - 8 Dec 1992SSGT Nathan Crisp as the Lay Leader of the group he claimed numbers for.  Furthermore, it provides Chapel Space on Kapaun Air Station for the group to hold religious rites.  That was the first official time that the United States military offered space for a Pagan religious rite on a military installation.  During this time, I attempted my usual role of peace-maker.  I kept a connection between all three groups, and tried to get them to see reason towards trying to find common ground to work together.  I attended the first ceremony with Nathan’s group.  Nine people attended (including myself), along with a reporter and a photographer from a German paper.  Four days later, I went to one of the local Army Kasernes (Tank barracks) for a ceremony that was held in a motor pool garage – unsanctioned by the military.  This was for the other Wiccan led group.  Two weeks after that particular ceremony, I attended a Ceremonial rite in the middle of the woods – again, unsanctioned by the military.  The day after that rite, I went to a house where I attended a ceremony held by a group that had driven to the Kaiserslautern area from the Fulda Gap area near the East German border.  It was here that the two page centerfold pictures for the Stars and Stripes article were taken, along with the accompanying interview.

Attacks, Slurs, and Overt ‘Friendliness’

Shortly after these ceremonies and interviews were done – those of us featured in the paper became mini-celebrities in our duty sections.  At my weekly Dungeons and Dragons gaming session – my DM used the paper centerfold (published – fittingly enough – on October 31st) as a DM Screen.  There was no hiding my beliefs from the nearly two-hundred people I worked with in the ATOC (Allied Tactical Operations Center) Command and Control facility.  There was also no hiding what I was from the general military community either.  I was pushed by several soldiers in the mail facility, and told that they would be glad to beat me into Hell.  Reports of this to the Security Police were dismissed as “people just playing around”.  My vehicle’s windows were smeared with shoe polish with slurs such as “Satanist Asshole”.  Other individuals mentioned in the article were physically assaulted while sleeping in their barracks – their attackers were hidden in masks and thus unable to be identified.  Letters to the Editor in the Stars and Stripes appeared with each of us named as people who should be run out of the military.  My supervisors’ supervisors started to take a particular interest in what I did with my personal time, as well as nitpicking areas of my military bearing that had never been questioned before.  In short, we had all made targets of ourselves through our actions.

Practicing Pagans -- Stars and Stripes -- 13Oct1992 -- Page 14 Practicing Pagans -- Stars and Stripes -- 13Oct1992 -- Page 15

My End of the Story Eventually Comes

Over time, many of us felt enough pressure to leave the military – or had inflicted enough minor infractions (mine was missing a formation) to be processed out of the military.  We were not the point of the spear in our drive to get acceptance for Pagans in the military.  The thanks for that goes to people like A1C Lorie Johnson, who had fought to get the start of acceptance started through their actions in the early 1980s.  Those of us who continued that fight into the early and mid 1990s, attempted to take their actions to the next step.  And there are many Pagans who have come after us – the Pagans that are part of the military force today.  Today, Pagans are afforded a lot more ability to practice openly.  As a singular instance, the picture here is the Stone Circle used by the Pagans at the United States Air Force Academy – Falcon Circle.

Yes, I was part of the group that received the first official permission to hold worship services in Chapel sanctioned space in the United States military.  We were not the last either.  I am glad to know that many, many more groups have been given that permission.  I am saddened, looking back, that we could not keep our group from the in-fighting, arguments, disagreements, and power struggles.  But despite all of that – we banded together long enough to get the regulations to work in our favor.  We created something that opened the gateway for others.  In the movie moneyball, the Red Sox owner tells Billy Beane that when innovators arrive – the first ones to break through the wall get bloodied and beat up, while those that follow do not have that happen to them.  We got bloodied and beat up.  By outside aggressors, as well as ourselves.  But I look at the legacy that all of that left behind – and I believe it was worth it.  The entire experience changed who I was.  I realized that crusades can be done quietly too – that an individual did not need to grab the flag, charge into battle, get surrounded, and then wave the flag hoping for allies to rally to it.  It took a lot of beatings and getting surrounded, but I learned.

Oh, and One Last Thing

…we did win the right to put what we wanted on our dog tags.  I have no idea what happened to mine.  I may have given them away to someone or lost them in a move.  They might even be in a box out in the garage somewhere.  I had mine changed two weeks before they processed me out of the Air Force.  I wore those fuckers proudly on my way off the base and over to the airport.  When I changed into my civilian clothes in the bathroom – I was not about to spend an entire flight back over the Atlantic in a military uniform – I wore those dog tags on the outside of my shirt, where they could be seen plainly.  If I was going to suffer and be drummed out of the military over my religious belief…I was going to wear it proudly as the scarlet letter it was then.  I was proud to have served in the United States Air Force for a little more than eight years of my life.  I am far prouder to be the Pagan I was then, and the Pagan I have become now.



Paganism, the United States Air Force and Me – My Story [Part One]

Occasionally, I hear from Pagan folk in the military.  Typically, they have heard that I am former Air Force, and want to see if things were different now than when I was in the Armed Services.

1986 – My USAF Basic Training Photo

I joined the Air Force in 1986.  When I got my dog tags issued to me in Basic Training, I was asked for my religious preference.  The purpose of this was to determine what last rites needed to be provided for my corpse-ified self in the event of my untimely (or timely – but that is a completely different thread of thought) death.  I honestly did not care what went on to my tags, so I left it blank.  I was raised by Protestant parents who did not go to church.  I was interred in a Catholic boys’ school for purposes of high school education.  Naturally, my rebellious teen-aged self was not about to enter either on to the list.  Its not a compulsory field on the document, so I just left it blank.

Right around mid-1987, I discovered the wonderful joys of the Bulletin Board Services.  Essentially, this were computers hosted over a phone line in someone’s home.  It was through these BBSs that I came into contact with the concept of Paganism.  Three local BBSs were my typical stomping grounds for discussions on topics that ranged from abortion rights to religious perspectives to whatever else you could dream of.  Every once in a while, folks from these BBSs would get together somewhere in the local area and spend time together in a face-to-face manner.  Many of my life-long friends I met this way.  I have lost track of some of those folks – but I still retain friendships with many others.

USAF Stateside

Reading through a few Pagan books, I came to realize that my life-long reverence for Nature actually had a name – Wicca.  Or so I had thought.  There were some aspects of Wicca – particularly the ritual aspects – that did not appeal to me.  But the fit was close enough.  I started practicing with a local coven in the north Dallas area (which was quite a drive from where I was in west Fort Worth).  In 1988, I went to the Consolidated Base Personnel Office (CBPO for short – think of a huge building that handles the Administrative functions for personnel all over the base.  Sort of like a HUman Resources department for military folk), and request that my dog tags be reissued with the notation that I was “Wiccan”.  While Wicca was described in the Chaplain’s Handbook, it was not listed as one of the religious choices for dog tags at CBPO.  I queried the Chaplain’s office for assistance over my request.  The result of my simple question was a new SBI check (Special Background Investigation process – this is done for individuals holding Security Clearances in the military) being processed against me.

One evening after I had gone to the Chaplain’s office, there was a knock on my barracks door.  On the other side was a member of the Office of Special Investigations – the folks who clear military personnel for security clearances.  He came inside, and started asking me questions about my interest in Satanism.  I was confused.  I was interested in Wicca, not Satanism.  Our conversation was in an extremely adversarial tone.  When I left for my assigned duty location (I worked deep nights), I found my supervisor waiting for me.  Apparently no one on my shift wanted to work alone with a Satanist.  So my supervisor was tasked with working with me for the night – he was an evangelical Christian.  Over the course of a very busy evening, he talked with me about my new-found beliefs.  Again, the conversation was extremely adversarial.  The end result was my being moved to a different shift, where my three co-workers were all evangelical Christians.  Needless to say, my three straight days of working with these folks resulted in being a nightmare for me.

I didn’t change my beliefs though.  Instead of being open about what I believed, I learned to just let my fellow shift workers talk about their beliefs – and I just put my head down and did my job.  The result of this was fairly predictable.  I learned more about the UniSys 2200-level mainframe than anyone else I worked with.  If there was trouble in the system – I was typically asked to come and assist in fixing the equipment.  Slowly, the stigma of what I believed took a back seat to my knowledge of the system.  And I relaxed…and told one of the newer folks what I was one evening.

The next morning, I was asked to hang around and wait for the Branch Officer to come in.  I was dirty, my uniform was wrinkled, and I obviously needed sleep.  So when I heard all this – I knew my appearance wasn’t going to help me.  He pulled me and the female airman into his office and brought us both to attention.  he asked her to repeat her allegation.  Again, the claim I was a Satanist came out.  I was asked to respond – I pointed out I was a Pagan.  The major then made a statement I will never forget:  “Airman [xxx].  I don’t care if Sargeant Van Hook is worshipping the Cooling units on the processing floor.  He comes in, does his work, knows the systems nearly better than the Civil Engineers that are here to repair parts of the system.  I would advise you to look towards achieving a similar work ethic here.”  I figured I was off the hook.  Except that I was asked to stay.  When the door closed, the Major expressed sympathy for my position, but noted that I needed to keep things professional while on shift.

Eventually, I received orders processing me for an overseas assignment.  I again brought up my request to change my dog tag status.  Again I was denied.  And I moved on to Sembach Air Base in Germany.

USAFE Germany

Arriving in Germany, I found myself completely cut off from other people that believed as I did.  Or at least that’s how it felt.  My co-workers were friendly.  The people that lived in the same stairwell in Base Housing were extremely stand-offish.  But eventually, I found an advert in the local English paper that helped soldiers and airmen find local events to attend and socialize at.  The ad read along the lines of being a meeting of Pagans, Wiccans, and others of a like-mind, but referred to this group as a “Pagan Support Group”.  I had reservations of what it was about – seeing something similar to an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting.  “Hi, I’m Tommy and I’m a Pagan.”  “Hi Tommy!”  The meeting was held at the Recreation Center just down the street from where I lived…so I did what any military person would do:  I went on a recon mission for the first meeting.  I found where the meeting was to be held, and I spent time doing anything I could to watch the people involved.  What I found, both shocked me and made me very happy that I had come along.