I’ve touched on this topic before, but it’s a deep well and I’m diving back in. Also, don’t dive into wells. They’re dark, cold, generally small and not meant for diving into. That’s a pro tip.
The urge to salute never goes away.
Muscle memory is a bitch. Once during a briefing before “leaving the wire” (fancy words for driving to Kabul from Bagram Airbase, a very, very safe trip) an infantryman in charge of our convoy’s security asked everyone in the convoy how long it takes a repeatable physical action to become muscle memory. In other words, how long do you have to do something before it becomes something you do just automatically?
I’m stupid and I thought it was like seven times or something. But turns out, it’s thousands of times. You have to repeat that same action, like exiting a HMMWV in a hurry, thousands of times before you can just do it automatically. To a seasoned infantryman, aiming a rifle, firing rounds and reloading are muscle memory movements.
For me, opening a beer, touching my penis and writing stupid shit on the internet are muscle memory and not much else, except saluting.
Saluting for anyone in the military has likely become a muscle memory kind of movement. If you spend enough time in the military, retire and then go to work with military people you will feel, at the very least, a physical twitch in your arm when salutes are rendered while walking past a group of people of different ranks.
Sir and Ma’am.
Let’s be honest, and if you’ve ever been around military groups you already know this: there’s a shit ton of ego in the military. Pilots, commanders, Navy captains, infantrymen, all of them exhibit a shit ton of ego. Hell, the fucker slinging my eggs last Tuesday in the military dining facility had a chip on his shoulder.
Ego is important. You want a military that’s sure of itself. You want a military that has its chest puffed out.
I’m not sure where I was going with the whole ego thing except to say that by referring to someone as sir or ma’am is a great counterpoint to ego. It immediately defuses any situation. Everyone talking knows the pecking order and there’s no getting around it. In fact, in my opinion, it’s so much easier than actually remembering a person’s name, it becomes a crutch. It makes you lazy.
After I retired, I knew that I had to change my vernacular, but that shit’s hard. It’s tough when you’re hired on not to revert to the comfortable and easy back and forth of calling people sir or ma’am.
I was even yelled at about an email I sent to a U.S. Army major where I was basically telling him what was going to happen. Trouble is, I started the email with, “Sir.” My boss ripped me a new one.
“Hey fucktard,” he said with the affection only a pissed off boss could muster, “we’re the fucking higher headquarters here. We tell Major Limp Dick the next few days are going to go as follows. He can call his mom and cry if his feelings are hurt. Calling him sir starts that conversation in the wrong direction you idiot.”
Actually, it was a very professional conversation with my boss where he kindly took the time to break it down for me. I don’t think he even once used the term “limp dick,” “fucktard” or even “idiot”. I just like to remember the conversation that way because it’s way funnier if it happened like that.
That said, there may be a few people I work with laughing right now. Fuck you both. They know when I’m flustered, I still quickly slip back, into the sir or ma’am speak. It’s not funny you assholes, shut up.
Walking on the grass:
Grass — the kind that grows in the yard and not the kind George Carlin talked about in the ’70s and was just legalized in Alaska — remains a difficult thing to walk on. Any bit of grass that’s on a military installation can’t be walked on. On the occasions that I do walk across grass on a military installation I can hear the voices in my head, yelling.
“GET THE FUCK OFF THE GRASS!”
Oddly, the voice is yelling just like that too, in all caps. Then, at the end of the sentence, they beat me with the exclamation point. Seriously, the voices throw the dot on the bottom of the exclamation point at my groin and then use the top part like a baseball bat and just wail on me.
The voices in my head are weird, I admit.
Once in the mid ’90s in Korea, as the editor of a weekly newspaper, I ran a photo of a military bomb-sniffing dog that was about to retire and was looking for a home. The wife of some colonel adopted the dog. Later, she told me that for weeks the dog refused to walk on the fucking grass.
Not walking on the grass can be so fucking ingrained in our military heads that even the fucking military working dogs fucking get sucked in.
Another story, this one told to me by a major I worked for in Iraq, is about the movie Blackhawk Down. This major was hard. He had badges for everything. If the Army had a badge for the most badges he would have had that badge. He had so many badges that at the top of his uniform where the badges were displayed it said, “See other side.” He had a lot of badges.
While he was assigned to a ranger regiment that worked with the crew on the movie Blackhawk Down several of the actors enrolled in a ranger familiarization course. Spend a day firing weapons, spend a day rappelling, spend a day doing PT. I’m sure it was just a, “Get these actors familiar with the basics of life as a U.S. Army Ranger” kind of thing. Not too tough, just a taste of what it’s like.
On the first day, the new “rangers” had ranger haircuts, were wearing Army-issued physical fitness uniforms and were standing on the grass outside of the headquarters for the “training” to start.
There the gaggle of actors stood, chilling out, drinking sodas and smoking cigarettes as hundreds of blades of grass were unmercifully crushed to death under their tender feet. They were horsing around. And they were a sergeant major magnet. The ranger unit’s tops NCO, unaware they were actors and not new ranger candidates, lost his mind.
The sergeant major started to lose his shit as he walked up from the parking lot and could only be talked down once the my boss was able to explain the situation to him.
Don’t fucking walk on the grass.
To this day, I feel weird walking on the grass on a military installation. I mean I shortcut the shit out of any walk I’m doing because it’s a stupid fucking rule, but yeah, I still think to myself, “Holy crap, I’m walking on the grass!”
On the spot corrections:
If you’ve never been in the military or around the military let me explain what an “on-the-spot correction” is. You’ll wish the civilian world had it, honestly.
It’s the ability, duty even, for someone to stop someone else and say, “What you’re doing right now is wrong, fix it.”
My best example is seeing a kid, clearly younger than I was (and thus likely lower ranking), at a military shopping facility wearing a shirt that read, “If this shirt is on your floor in the morning, you’ve just been fucked.” Funny shirt, I admit, but not the kind of shirt that should be worn at a military shopping facility. An on-the-spot correction is the ability to pull that individual aside and fix the situation. In this case, it was the ability to make the person in question literally go change their shirt, come back and prove they’ve changed their shirt.
Many times its something much less extreme. Someone walking on the grass is a great example. Even a person junior in rank can correct a person senior in rank if they’re in the wrong. It happens occasionally. It’s the civilian equivalent to telling someone that they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe I think. It’s more a, “Hey, before you embarrass yourself” kind of thing than a, “GET THE FUCK OFF THE GRASS!” kind of thing.
I always tried to be super cool about those minor corrections, ’cause I’m not a dick generally. Even with Mr. “You’ve just been fucked” shirt, I just pulled him aside and didn’t make a big deal.
“Psst,” I said sidling up to the dumb little bastard, “that shirt is wholly inappropriate, so run home and change it and I’ll wait here for your return. ” in my recollection a dark stain appeared in his crotch area as he scurried away. I likely didn’t scare the piss out of him but he came back in a Nautica Tshirt. The shirt was shit but at least it didn’t say fuck.
That shit is hard to stop doing. Dagmar and I constantly correct each other on the spot. OK, that’s a lie. She constantly calls me out and I just mostly ignore stuff ’cause I’ve managed to let it go, but she, and many more I know, can’t seem to do it.