I’m still on the mailing list, so I was one of the first to receive the news: the Olmsted Scholar Class of 2017 has just been selected. Six Naval Officers were chosen for the program, wherein they study a language for one year at the Defense Language Institute and spend two years earning a master’s degree in the home country of the language they studied. I was a finalist for the Olmsted Scholar Class of 2013. There about were ten of us, and up to about four of us would be chosen. I remember when I received the rejection email on my personal account, and when I relayed it to the waiting ears of a Ready Room full of junior officers. I also remember the moment that the rejection for the application was most likely decided upon.
It was a phone interview. I didn’t like phone interviews, because I couldn’t rely on the non-verbal cues to determine whether I was talking into oblivion. I had heard that, in previous years, they flew out the finalists to DC to have a face-to-face interview with the board, but that year, no dice. At the time I was a Naval Flight Officer aboard the E-6b Mercury, a flying command and control nuclear deterrence platform that is based on Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The E-6b—The Mighty Merc—is a white, Boeing 707, outfitted with communications equipment and is often mistaken for the EA-6b Prowler. I was in the middle of the interview with an Air Force General and three Air Force Colonels, when one of them asked me, “So will you be transitioning to the Growler?”
The Growler is an updated version of the Prowler.
“I’m on the E-6b Mercury,” I said, putting emphasis on the Mercury. They responded with 10 seconds of silence. I like to joke that my rejection for the scholarship was a result of my correcting their mistake. It was at least the first strike. Then for some reason I thought it was a good idea to tell the General that I had started doing open mic comedy in Oklahoma City, an extension of the entertainment I was performing for my squadron at the Dining Ins and Dining Outs. I told him that it’s easy to make junior officers from the squadron laugh because we all knew each other. I wanted the challenge of trying to make strangers laugh, too.
“How’d your first time go?” the General asked.
“A lot of junior officers from the squadron came,” I said. “So it went well.
The General laughed.
But one too many mentions of stand up comedy wasn’t the wisest choice when applying for a prestigious military academic scholarship. I hadn’t slept well the night before, so I couldn’t quite think like I wanted to. I lived in the 5th Avenue Lofts, which are a block directly east of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial and 100 yards west of the train tracks. I was reaching the end of my time in the squadron, so I wasn’t deploying as much, and had more time to realize just how loud and disruptive the trains were that came through the city four times a night, sounding their horns as a safety precaution but at a rate and a volume that felt like it was personal. I had remedied the issue by buying cheap insulation from Home Depot and lining my windows with it, wearing ear plugs at night—not the gun range ear plugs, those kill, man—and buying a white noise machine, putting it on high, and placing it within inches of my head. The ear plugs drowned out the white noise machine, and the white noise machine combined with the insulation drowned out the train, not completely, but just enough so that the noise of the train infiltrated my dreams but not enough to wake me up.
But not enough to sleep well. Time off the road should have been rejuvenating. I was exhausted instead. During the phone interview, I could feel the chances of my earning the scholarship slip away in direct proportion to the more than three cups of coffee churning through my system and the subsequent pressure on my bladder.
It certainly didn’t help matters that at one point during the interview I used the word “Freedom Fries” when providing political and diplomatic context as explanation for why I wanted to learn French and study at The Sorbonne in Paris.
“Colin, Colin,” one of the Colonels said, interrupting me. “Lemme just, uh–”
The reason that I was applying for the Olmsted scholarship was to get out of Oklahoma and off the E-6b. I had flown nearly 2000 hours in three years and was ready for a change. I was tired of it. Also, I was bored. The job of an E-6b NFO is not an engaging one, at least not in the way that I was striving for. It’s a hard and dull job, which is a deadly combination. The Olmsted was my way out. I wanted to study the romance languages in France or Spain. In doing so, I would be changed, I would be better, and I would bring that self back to America, ready to educate the main land. It turned out to be a good thing that I was not selected, because if I had been, I would currently be serving the Olmsted’s six-commitment after its three year tour, which I know now would not have jived with my current ambitions of speaking truth to power while sporting a peach fuzz half-beard.
Oh, Freedom Fries: you retrospective saviors of xenophobic origins.
My ambitions to do something different says as much about me as it does the job I was performing, serving on the E-6b Mercury and as an NFO. As the saying goes: a pilot is a pilot. An NFO is something else. A lot of the pilots in the squadron who had an issue with the E-6b community had at least a baseline interest in flying. The NFOs…yeah. I think some NFO’s were sincerely interested in the work that we did, and god speed. But many were not. The flights are long—10 to 12 hours at a time—the required knowledge dense and not relatable, and the mission, though important, is the equivalent of playing with Monopoly money: we never responded to anything real world or real time. Also, I got the feeling that our role on the airplane wasn’t respected. While I was a trainee, all NFOs on the Merc were assigned to complete an “Off Duty Pilot” syllabus in which we assisted the pilots with their air refuels. In theory, this seemed like a good idea. In practice, it was not.
During these air refuels, the flight deck already had two to three pilots in addition to two flight engineers, all of whom were well versed in the ways of air refueling that NFOs were not. At best, our Off Duty Pilot efforts didn’t hurt them. At worst, we were a distraction. NFOs never acted as ODPs on deployment because the NFOs, the pilots, and, I’m certain, the administration, knew that it wasn’t necessary. So why was this syllabus created? The rumor was the powers that be in Pensacola were wondering why they were sending trained aviators to the Merc if we never stepped foot in the cockpit. Oklahoma responded with the ODP syllabus. So it was all for show. I appreciate Oklahoma’s efforts to keep me in my job, but it also made me feel as if my job was more obsolete than it already was. My job was my job, not something else. If what we did in the back of the plane indeed was important as we were told, then why should we be given extra duties that may distract us. If what we did wasn’t important, than why was I here? And why would I continue to stay?
So if the pilots seemed to like flying, the NFOs only tolerated their jobs. I’m not sure how many senior officer NFOs were in it for the love of the game, though that is an argument that could be made about any job. Still, though, there is something disappointing about pursuing a career in the military in the home of the free simply as a means to an end, being committed to the outcome the job rather than the process of it. The government paycheck, putting in 20 until retirement, the prospect of making command. It may be inaccurate or unfair to put that perspective on the senior officers that I served under, but I think it’s accurate to say that I would have turned into that type of leader had I stayed in and pursued the command track of the Merc. Not all senior officers were bad. In fact, many of them were insightful or caring in ways that surprised me.
At one all officer meeting, our Skipper, an NFO, stood at the front of the room and admitted to us that our mission was different, that it could often feel unimportant. I was floored, by him thinking that but mostly by him saying it out loud. I had thought that most senior officers had bought-in to the system, and if an ounce of them didn’t, that they wouldn’t admit to their subordinates the thing that the rest of us were thinking. I was impressed, too. I would follow that skipper to the ends of the earth, which we could probably fly to in the E-6b, as long as there was a refuel, and as long as the pilots did the fucking refuel themselves.
My skipper not have had the same impression of me. It was measured at least. At my out-chop brief, this Skipper said to me that he got the impression that I “didn’t really care.” On the positive side, he said I was a great source of moral for the Ready Room, that every squadron “needs” a guy like me, and that I was a good dude but also a “strange cat,” which I also took as a compliment. But it’s his comment that I “didn’t care” that seems to stick the most with me, perhaps because I know that there is a part of it that is true.
It’s not that I didn’t care. Not exactly. It’s that I struggled to find a purpose in our mission or in the job I performed to support that mission. I strained for it. But I couldn’t find it. I mean, I cared about my sailors, I cared about my peers, I cared about getting the job done and doing it right, and I cared about performing the mission even if I didn’t care about the mission itself. But it didn’t interest me. My heart wasn’t in it. My mind wasn’t, either. And I have thought over the years about what I should have said in response to the skipper, that I should have responded with the above, which would have been fair. I also thought about giving a defensive response: that I flew nearly 2000 incident-free hours, hundreds of more hours more than any other junior officer in the squadron, that I did my duty, and took care of my sailors, and that I was tired from those nearly 2000 hours, and didn’t have the energy or the time to posture to the front office in the brief interim between when I was flying and I was back at home, that if I was able to properly perform a job that I didn’t care about that said less about me and more about the job I was performing. But I didn’t say that. I don’t really think that, either. And though there’s a small part of me that feels that way, I’m able to reason that side of me away. I don’t think I actually said anything in response to the Skipper when he told me I didn’t care. I just kind of gave a smirk and said something like “Huh.”
I had a year left in the squadron when I began my application for the Olmsted scholarship, and when the results came out, and I wasn’t selected, I was two months past my rotation date.
When I was in the running for the scholarship, I couldn’t pencil in any other orders for my shore tour, so I was looking for orders nine months after the fact. Needless to say, close to nothing was available. I could go to Millington or Pensacola. I didn’t want to go Millington. I didn’t want to go back to Pensacola. One afternoon, while eating chips and drinking beers at a Mexican restaurant in downtown OKC, my XO called me. He told me that they had a hot-fill for a billet at the Japanese Naval Academy in Japan, that I would study Japanese for a year and then live in Japan for two years. Said he needed to know by the end of the week. The job wasn’t the Olmsted scholarship and it wasn’t a Romance language, but it seemed similar. It wasn’t in Oklahoma, so for that reason it was the same. I told him yes. Am I sure? He asked. I was sure.
The language training and subsequent time in Japan was more challenging than I could have anticipated. The Olmsted Scholarship would have had it’s own challenges as well. That’s the nature of all jobs. That’s the nature of life. I thought that the answer to satisfaction was right around the corner, and it’s true that while certain life decisions promote or decrease satisfaction, you can’t get away from yourself, the person who is living those decisions. I was right to leave Oklahoma. I was right to try for the scholarship. And I was right to take the job at the Japanese Naval Academy. They didn’t work out like I thought they would, but I put in my time, and I completed the mission.
I could have focused more on my job in Oklahoma rather than on my ambitions to leave, and though it took me a while to find my place in the squadron, eventually I did. I wasn’t the best trainee, but by the time I was qualified as an NFO, I had earned the proper level of respect from the other aircrew in the squadron. I would earn the title of Mission Commander and of NFO Instructor. My ground job was okay. Not the best, but okay. I was an assistant Division Officer with B-Rob, another pilot and junior officer. Especially once I was qualified, I worked fucking hard on the airplane, especially during exercises. I remember having the specific thought that I could go toe-to-toe with any NFO in community when it came to doing an exercise, perhaps because that was one of the few times that I felt engaged in the work.
And even though my phone interview did not go well, hey, at least I tried, and at least I showed them what I was about. If they didn’t like it and if I could have been more on point than I was, so be it. Even though I didn’t earn the Olmsted scholarship, they must have thought I deserved it, at least up to a point. I was a finalist after all. So they must have recognized that I maintained at least a baseline value as a junior officer. They wouldn’t have realized that without the recommendations of my superiors, so my squadron must have realized that as well. And even though it’s better that I didn’t receive the scholarship, and it may not have been the best choice for me, I really wanted the scholarship at the time, and I believed I deserved it. And I’m absolutely right to think so.