Monday, May 31, 2010

Special Ed. - Life in the military, what can it "really" be like? Suicidal?

Years ago, back in the late 70s, I was in the Air Force stationed at Strategic Air Command (SAC) base at Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Washington. We supported the pilots, as all Air Force did, they were the God's, we lived for them, everything revolved around them. I had a secret security clearance for Nuclear weapons.

At that base, we worked on or in some way, supported the B-52's that the pilots flew, and the KC-135 fuel tankers that refueled them and other birds. We could launch from the Alert Facility, three B-52s or BUFs (Big Ugly Fuckers, and don't let them tell you it stood for Big Ugly Fellow, because it didn't), and one tanker, up in the air during an alert, within 12-15 mins. That was what our job was, we all supported that. Well, I also supported the PJs (parachute jumpers), the ParaRescue guys. Those guys rock! If there is a firefight and guys are down, these crazy bastards will fly, jump, swim, SCUBA, run, whatever, to rescue those downed airmen.

There was a guy we all knew who lived in the barracks, what we called, "The Zoo". The job, the shop where we worked, was called, "The Farm". And I may or may not have been a part of a group known as, "The Brotherhood".

But enough of that. That, for another time.

Back to this guy, let's call him, Dick. Dick was much like the rest of us. Just a guy. A guy who had to work every day, who had to take orders, follow rules, do "the job". Some of the rules seemed rather banal to us. Mind numbing. The job was mind numbing. But that was on a normal day. Sometimes, changes came down from management, from the Squadron level, or the base level from "White House", where the base commander worked, or higher up at headquarters SAC, or from the President, our Commander in Chief.

Sometimes those new rules, regulations, orders, were far beyond the pale for us. But we lived to get through the day, to do our job, to party when possible, to count our days to the end of days; to become a "two digit midget" (under 99 days to get out); to actually, see civilian life again; to experience, freedom. We thought, jail was better, because then, you were restrained by bars, laws, armed guards. But we, we had to go back each day, voluntarily; we had to leave, knowing we would have to come back the next day. And they next morning, we would indeed get up, get ready and go back to the Farm and do it all over again.

Most of us handled it. Some of us couldn't. Like the guy that waited till his wife went to work that day, then sat in his living room and set up a shotgun and blew off the top of his head. She found him that was, when she returned with groceries.

Or the guy that entered the back gate one night, drunk, was getting hassled by the gate guards until he snapped and started beating the crap out of one of them and the other shot him, killing him.

So, some of us apparently couldn't take it. I did. It wore on me too though.

We had a commander of our squadron, who happened to be black. It didn't really matter one way or another, except, we all thought he was an idiot. As isn't really unusual, we liked the second in command better. But he didn't seem to be kind of an empty vessel. To us anyway. But we managed, we put up with it.

So one day I go to work. I'm in the shop and mid morning, we hear, that everyone needs to stay at work, no one is to leave. Lock down. It would seem that Dick, finally lost it. He was in his room on the 3rd floor of the barracks, someone said he was playing with his 9 shot .22 cal revolver. His door was open, he was just hanging out, drinking, fooling with it. Then something got to him and he went to the barracks "day room". The barracks is separated, a hall on either end, and in between its got a large room usually with TV, maybe pool, or other games and chairs, overstuffed ones frequently.

Dick walked into the day room and there were two guys, kicked back, watching TV. Dick raised his gun and put two bullets into the set, then walked out and went back to his room. It turned into a "thing". They cleared the barracks. The SP's (Security Police) were called out, the LE's (Law Enforcement) were called out. Dick, stayed in his room.

When we heard about it, none of us could believe it. But we knew Dick, and knew he wasn't a killer, just tired of all the bullshit like the rest of us. We all wondered all the time just who would snap next, or when it might happen. There seemed to be a high rate of suicides at the base and we just assumed it was part of the package.

It was a high stress place. We were the "Best in the West" of the bases and we were going to keep that rating. The job itself was stressful. We were under constant surveillance. They said even our home phones downtown would be intermittently monitored. National Security. We had to go to "Golden Flow" (urine testing) once a month.

We were under the HRP or PRP programs (Human, or Personal, Reliability Programs). To do our job, you had to have two people who knew the job, had the clearance and the rank necessary. If anyone asked you a question, even a General, you could tell them to go to Hell if they didn't have, the need to know, the security clearance, and proper credentials. Something I did, at least once to a very pissed off General. When he told my boss, a Tech. Sgt. at the time, he told the General to go to Hell too, politely, and that, was the end of it. Interesting life.

In talking to my coworker and friend, Craig (his real name because names have been changed only to protect the innocent), we realized, if we could just go talk to Dick, we could talk him down. But we weren't allowed to leave the shop.

Then we got the news that our Commanding Office had called him on the phone in his room. He tried to talk Dick down, but his reply was, "Fuck you, you stupid, black bastard!" Then slammed down the receiver and shot the phone several times. Now really, we didn't take this much as a racist comment, but rather an accurate one (he WAS black after all) and as for stupid, well, again it just seemed accurate. We actually laughed about it at the time, because, well, we all agreed, he WAS a stupid bastard, in our opinion and we cheered that someone actually had the brass ones to call him on the carpet about it. But then we started to really get worried.

It was getting on about 11am by this time and we heard that the City Police of Spokane, the city SWAT team, the Sheriff's office and the professional hostage negotiators from downtown had arrived and had set up shop in the ground floor of the barracks. I asked, why the bottom floor, and was told, that's where the pool table is. I was also told that base security, who had no experience with this king of talk down, negotiating kind of stuff, would not let the professionals who knew how to handle this kind of thing, any where near Dick. Who really needed them to be near him.

At this point, Craig, our friend and coworker, Dan and I were all getting upset because we knew Dick could be talked down. Now we were pissed off, because we knew where this was headed. You could feel that they wanted this to end badly. That was our feeling at the time anyway. Otherwise, why wouldn't they let hostage negotiators in?

We tried not to think too much about it, but news was buzzing all through the squadron. Then, about 1:30pm we got the word, it was over. At first, we felt elated, but the silence erased that pretty quickly.

It seems the base waited long enough, they wanted to move. The off base Pro's were still on the first floor, playing pool, being pissed off themselves from what I heard, when the base sent two SPs up the outer staircase. Its made of a metal frame like a fire escape but we all used it daily. Well, I didn't as I lived downtown with my wife, but Craig and Dan did. Craig was down the hall from Dick.

So it seems that when the two SPs were going up the stairs, just at that time Dick had decided to come out the top floor. When he saw two fully geared SPs heading up the stairs at about the second flight, he panicked and pulled off a few shots. He hit one SP in the wrist and the other, squeezed the trigger on his M-16. It was in full auto mode. He emptied the clip in an arc across the path where Dick was standing, hitting him in the head and chest. The event was over.

We got this news, and we just stood there. The guy that came into the shop to tell us, just stood there a moment, then turned, opened the door and walked out. Our Shop Supervisor, Pete, turned disgusted and said, "They didn't need to kill that boy! If he'd have wanted to hit someone, he would have, he was a crack shot with that gun. He wasn't trying to hurt anyone!"

A little later Pete just told us all to take the rest of the day off. So Craig and I headed over to Craig's room in the barracks. He was going to get some things and spend the night at my house. He didn't want to sleep in the barracks that night. When we got there, we got out of the car and walked over the grass to the stairs out side as we always did. About the second floor up, we realized, when we saw how the wall looked so different, that this was where the standoff ended. We had known that, we just were so wrapped up in our thoughts, it didn't occur to us until we saw it.

We could see the arc of bullet holes. The blood, pieces of bone, brain. Not a lot, but enough. We never slowed down, but went in, got his things and headed back out down the inside stairs.

And that, is the story of another kind, about a guy named Dick, another kind of hero. Just a guy. Just a guy who couldn't take it anymore.

We have those now, today, happening in the military. People who are living in harsher more difficult situations. And they can't take it either.

The New York Times said in January 2009: "Including the deaths being investigated, roughly 20.2 of every 100,000 soldiers killed themselves. The civilian rate for 2006, the most recent figure available, was 19.2 when adjusted to match the demographics."

American troops are taking their own lives in the largest numbers since records began to be kept in 1980, several years after the story I just told happened.

According to the Air Force times in March 2009: "The Air Force lost 38 airmen to suicide in 2008, a rate of 11.5 suicides per 100,000 airmen. From 1987 to 1996, there was an average of 13.5 suicides for every 100,000 airmen. Of the airmen lost in 2008, 95 percent were men and 89 percent were enlisted."

This story was for those who didn't survive. Who possibly didn't even fight. Who just couldn't handle it. We talk a lot about the heroes, but sometimes we forget tot think about the others, who served, who couldn't survive, and took another way out.

But in the end, here is to all those who served, in whatever capacity.
They ALL deserve our humble thanks, gratitude and support.

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