Veteran’s Voices: From the UK

03 December, 2014

Veteran’s Voices

This is the first of a 3-part interview I will be posting over the next couple of days.

As I have been blogging over the past year, my blog has become different, and so much more than I ever expected out of it, when I started, just one short year ago. A lot of this is due to the interactions I have had with other bloggers. One thing that has become apparent, is that my blog is a terrific opportunity to examine issues, and express what I am passionate about in a non-biased manner.

One of the things that I am passionate about is the experiences and plight of veterans. When I speak about veteran’s issues, I don’t want people thinking, “Oh, that’s just an US issue, because they are constantly at war,”. My ambition is to interview veterans, and their families all over the world, and bring their experiences and opinions into focus. My goal is to interview at least 30 veterans in the next year, from all over the world, and all areas of conflict, covering any actions I can since the the 1920’s. I realize our vets are getting older, and some of these folks won’t be around to interview for long. If you know any World War 1 or 2 vets, please send me a comment. I would love to interview them, and will do whatever is necessary to make the interview comfortable for them.

I do not have an agenda with these interviews. I start with a set list of questions I want to ask, but experience has shown that the answers will sometimes lead in interesting directions. I always tell my interviewees there are no right or wrong answers, I simply want to know how they feel, what their opinion is. I may or may not necessarily agree with those opinions, but I think they deserve a voice. I want to give a strong voice to that veteran who may feel he or she has been abandoned by his government or even the civilians he swore to protect. I want to give a voice to that veteran who is too proud to ask for help, or too confused by red tape to figure out how. For that same reason, I don’t overly clean up any language that is used. A few words are modified, but I try to express the essence of what the interviewee is feeling and saying, at that moment. Honest answers are powerful, and I hope my readers feel that power when they read these interviews.

My first interview is with a couple of bloggers, who, prefer to remain anonymous for this interview. I will refer to them as Carl & Quiona Thomas. Carl is a Royal Air Force veteran of the UK, who served in the 1970’s – 1980’s. Qui is his wife of approximately 14 years.

?: Carl, let’s start with what you are comfortable with telling me about your time in service. What branch or units were you with, what time period did you serve, what foreign missions were you involved with, that sort of thing. Of course, anything you are uncomfortable sharing, that is fine. Tell me as much as you are comfortable sharing…

Carl: Comfortable, eh? I was born into a forces family, so joined at age ZERO. I upset my father by joining the RAF when I was 17, as the food was better. I served 12 years before military changes in policy made me “surplus to requirements.”

Postings? I lived in a suitcase, name it and I’ve probably been there if it is a UK forces base.

I walked into a recruiting office and said, “Learn me a trade.” The very smart looking guy behind the desk said, “Like what?” I said, “blowing shit up, sort of trade.” He said, “Take our test, and we will see.” It was a three hour test regime I had to take, including an IQ. I didn’t even know what one was, but I scored in the “upper echelon,” whatever that meant. Physical dexterity was being shown a shape in metal that they then mixed up. Lying on the guys’ desk, was an inert 9mm Browning. I shut my eyes, field-stripped it, reassembled it, and clicked the action. His comment? “Passed!”

Anyway, if I had known all that was going to happen, I would have joined the Navy, instead.

As for rank? My stripes were on Velcro. Reason? In the RAF it don’t matter much about rank, only what you know. The higher you go, the higher the responsibility. So I alternated between Sergeant and Corporal, having upset more than a few senior ranks.

?: What were your initial motivations to join (that than to P-O the parental unit?) Were there any strong family reactions at the time, to your decision?

Carl: If we were on Skype for this, this would be a scream. I might even have gone to video to give you a bigger laugh! Motivations? I wasn’t good at school stuff and liked guns and things that generally go boom so the forces seemed to be the place to go and play with them.

Family was a tad upset. Hell no, they went BALLISTIC!

It wasn’t until they found out what trade I finally enlisted in, did they see the funny side, bearing in mind my penchant (not) for all things technical.

? Do you have any specific memories of good or bad leadership while you were in service, and how did you cope with it?

Carl: All officers suck, but in my time, I only came across two that didn’t suck too badly. Both were ex-rankers (enlisted, for my US readers), and both from PRACTICAL trades, my trade.

SNCO’s basically left me alone, because I had acquired unusual skills, and as said, in the Air Force, if you are useful, they use that, and NOT (as my assessments constantly said) “Carl Thomas has a deep mistrust of rank.”

Only, it wasn’t a mis-trust, just a dislike of anyone who thought they deserved respect, and hadn’t earned it. My service nickname was predictable – REBEL. Job knowledge, excellent, Attitude, bloody awful!

I dealt with some US Marines, knew a few. Good lads. Problem was your “each person has a specific trade”. One undoes the nut, the other guy, the bolt. RAF training, you did them all. So, when working with the US, I tended to upset the status quo a bit. I actually got thrown off a US base once by some drip of an LT. He didn’t like being told, F@#$ off, stop pestering me, I’ve got work to do, SIR. Even then, I knew the power of the word “Sir” and he was constantly stopping me as I “overstepped my trade boundaries.”

At best, I gravitated towards cooks. IF you want anything, ask a cook. Intel, a decent steak, equipment, barter was good currency, as was “favors.” They knew people, and I got what I needed in a “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours,” sort of way.

Ahh, but you asked how I coped with bad leadership. In the RAF I just ignored it and did what was right. Later, I did what was right, having first (and very blatantly) removed my Velcro stripes, giving them to whomever I had upset, thus saving them the bother of demoting me.

After a while, they just left me alone.

?: It was my experience, and I assume this may be true for any service person, where, despite whatever your motivation was for joining, you say, “whiskey, tango, foxtrot, what am I doing here?” Or, “dang, this is a cluster@#$%.” Did you have 1 or several moments where this became abundantly clear to you, and if so, how did you cope?

Carl: Nope, None, NEVER. I knew nothing else, you see? ClusFk was normal to me. You’ve got to remember I was raised on military camps, attended military base schools, and usually ended up eating their food! Forces brat, to forces, and thought I’d peg out forces, too. In my blood, 4th generation forces.

There is always the question, “WTF am I doing here, but usually after some mess up with travel, equipment, food, or a jerk-off who thought he was in charge.

“Hurry up and wait” peed me off a bit, but in general, I was well-suited for the transient lifestyle and as home had always been where I lay down, the disruption meant little to me.

Cluster FK’s happened, guys died, you learned to make acquaintances, not friends.

How did I cope? Only one thing comes to mind.

My best friend got killed. Someone else’s fault, too. I went to see his wife as soon as I came back, only she had been moved out of married quarters within 7 days. Some shitty officer was there moaning about the state of the house. I clouted him, and he went down. The padre saved my skin that day, by going to see the CO to explain what had happened. The jerk-off was posted; I lost 7 days pay. Did I feel bad? Nope.

?: Was there ever a time when you felt you were insufficiently trained for a situation you found yourself in, while serving? And, again, how did you cope?

Carl: Yep, all the time. What you learned in basic was NOTHING LIKE REAL LIFE. What you learned in trade training was also equally useless. You learned as newbies/sprogs/green, or whatever, to ASK QUESTIONS, and who, among the brethren, knew the score. Those who were afraid to ask didn’t do well. Those who questioned and got better, did.

That’s a difficult one to answer, though. At what point DID I feel I was fully trained?

Know what used to upset me more than anything? The blind, “follow me, boys” leadership that some commanders expected.

The enlightened listened to the quiet words of their knowledgeable brethren, not the wet-behind-the-ears, or gung-ho leadership.

Thus, later on in life, such restraint served me well when working in or without a fire support team. Thinking your way through a problem, BUT still falling back onto acquired training if things got too complicated, or too fast to work out. For example, “Incoming!”, hit the deck, get under cover. That’s the training, and it’s automatic. Then you work out what to do using risk assessment (protecting your hide) as your guide.

?: Now, one for Qui: I am assuming, from my calculations, you guys met, probably two or three years after Carl got out. As a civilian, before Carl told you he was prior-military, did you pick up on any tells that he was a former service person? Was there anything about him that made you say, “Yep, this is a military man.”?

Qui: We met in 1989, so I never knew him when he was in the Forces. I don’t think there were any tells that I would have picked up on, probably because my background was so vastly different from his (ie. I’d lived on civvy street all my life and my Dad only did National Service.) However, for years, I had written to lads who were serving overseas, and the guy in front of Carl in line, actually picked my letter out of the box when he was in the Falklands.

?: Now, Carl, your blog frequently parlays that you don’t particularly trust your government. Personally, I think this is a healthy response to any government. Do you think your experiences and time in service affected the way you see the government more so, than if you had remained a civilian?

Carl: Absolutely. I lost friends to a politicians’ whims. That, I don’t forget. I saw how they treated the dependents of the fallen, the injured, and their kids. I definitely won’t forget that. I was forced out by a change in government policy into a shit-world of weakness. I loathe civilian life. To cow tow to anyone is not in my nature and all the civilians around me seem to. The whole civilian system is weak, with no structure, no loyalty, and no respect. And this is all because of the government, and the POLITICS OF MONEY.


Thank You

So, today I was at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital and feeling a little sorry for myself. I had been there most of the day. To get from one area of the hospital (like Primary Care, vs. the labs/xray/pharmacy) you have to go through a long weird tunnel that seems to be a mile long, and over the course of the day, either by virtue of doc deciding I needed more tests or making a mistake in putting in my prescriptions, I wound up making that journey four round trips. By the last trip, in my mind I was thinking, “stupid VA. Can’t get anything right! I’ve got stinking pneumonia again and they keep causing me to repeat this trip? Really?”

And then, I saw Him.

He must have come out of a different elevator a little further down from where I had entered the tunnel. That’s the only explanation for how he just appeared in front of me. He was an older gentleman, maybe a Korea or Vietnam era veteran. I saw the walker first. Then I noticed he had two prosthetic legs, both starting at the knees. He was also pushing an IV pole with what appeared to be blood hooked up. He was trudging the same tunnel I was. Suddenly, I felt very guilty for feeling sorry for myself. As I passed, I said, “Afternoon, Sir.” He answered with a bright smile and said, “Well, hello, Missy, how are you this lovely day?” I couldn’t help but smile. He could have been your or my grandfather, and his spirit lifted mine. I wouldn’t swear he wasn’t just the angel I needed. I find myself just a little teary writing this.

I’ve always had a great deal of respect for any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who came before me–especially those folks who served during combat. Today, seeing that gentleman in front of me, that respect re-doubled. May I always strive to show the grace he showed me.

If you’ve read this, and haven’t thanked a vet, today, please, do. If you have, maybe think about volunteering at your local VA? Who knows, maybe you’ll run into your angel in a lonely hallway, too?