Cowboy Blob's Saloon and Shootin Gallery

I'm not a real Cowboy, but I play one in the movies.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Not yet...for me, at least

Tomorrow night I can finally feel right about commemorating Patriots' Day. You see, on that fateful day 4 years ago, I had just finished watching the Armed Forces Korea Network's taped broadcast of Monday Night Football on Tuesday night. I had a good beer buzz going, snug in my off-base contract housing apartment. The game had just finished and I changed the channel to get the news before bed, only to see an airliner crash into the first Tower. I don't know how old that footage was, but when the second airliner hit, it was live.

I knew we were at war. I knew I was going to get recalled to base shortly. When my phone didn't ring immediately, I turned off the TV and went to bed. Thankfully, the beer let me get some sleep. Whether it was through incompetence or wisdom, the powers-that-were didn't launch the general recall until early the next morning.

I awoke clearheaded and alert, knowing I was in for a long day. I was the last one into the office; most of my NCO trainers and their airmen trainees lived in the barracks on base. The big TV that usually displayed exercise messages was tuned to CNN and everybody was quiet, attention rivetted to the images on the screen. The emotions playing across the trainees faces ranged from fear to anger to shock. They'd just arrived at their first operational assignment after almost 2 years of training and now their nation was at war, apparently against an Islamic terrorist foe thousands of miles away. Most of them were Korean linguists; some would have transferred to the infantry if you'd have given them the opportunity. We oldtimers explained that the last time we went to war, the commies up North went paranoid ape-shit; they'd need to remain vigilant right here to ensure that paranoia didn't turn into a shooting war and to recognize it if it did.

I examined my own future; I was a long-in-the-tooth Master Sergeant with no over-arching ambition (or talent either) to be senior management. I was the best Korean cryptolinguist in uniform that I knew, but I knew I had limitations as a Senior NCO. If I had been in the unit I'd left the previous December, I'd be preparing our attached unit to deploy to the theater of combat, possibly even deploying myself. I still had no pending assignment, but a return to DM was not in the cards. Neither was a follow-on to another airborne unit which would later deploy for the war. No, I would eventually get orders for Fort Meade MD, the great big holding bin for chairborne rangers. I'd been there twice and got pretty cool jobs each time, but I was an E-5 and E-6 on those occasions. I'd either return to the shop that would use my language skills (and destroy my chance at promotion) or drop me into an analyst/manager position and destroy my will to live. On top of that, I'd be returning to a high-cost-of-living area, where I'd not be getting flight pay, but still making mortgage payments on my house in Tucson. And there was no way I was selling that house!

Making the decision to retire was both difficult and easy. I'd just finished the Senior NCO Academy Correspondence Course, really the only thing keeping me from making E-8. I really was learning leadership and management shit--I just didn't like it. I was just programmed to try hard and never considered quitting until then. The easy thing about deciding to retire was that I could! STOP LOSS had just been clamped on everybody, but Exemption E applied to those retiring from remote, unaccompanied tours. I had 22 years in the day after 9/11, two more than I needed, so I put my papers in.

Back to September 11...after spinning our wheels at the recall, I was sent home to pack a bag and grab my "fear gear." The bus had an armed escort; our Security Forces guys were ferocious...they lived for this, but must have been mildly disappointed that no jihadi terrorists sprang from the Korean alleyways to attack us. The base commander had ordered all those housed off-base in "Air Force Village" to move on base for fear such a concentration of Americans would be a target. Those living on the Korean economy were not affected. After a few days in a single room the Dorm Manager had wangled for me (some families were camped at the gym or the high school for a night or two), I was allowed to return to Air Force Village, which by then sported a beefed up entry control point and many, many concrete barriers. All those families living in the buildings facing the street were moved out to the base, but I had an inner apartment and could stay, immune from RPGs, I guess. I was happy; the dependent yard ape population was reduced to nothing and I got to keep my Korean DSL connection instead of having to use the American contract dial-up on base.

American commanders went out of their way to out-prepare/out-paranoid each other. On my first tour, there was a Korean curfew because of fears of NK infiltrators; now there was an American curfew that the off-base merchants didn't like one bit. "There's no enemy in Korea!" Meanwhile, every time a swarthy foreigner blew his nose in the direction of one of our installations, reports were broadcast and relayed and rumors generated. The curfews remain, with many Koreans hating us because we're warmongers and more hating us because we don't spend as much money downtown when we're at war.

So, that's why my remembrance of 9/11 is a bit off the average American's kilter.


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