The new chapter
Holding the orders in my hand, I realized I was now a staff sergeant—well, sort of. Joseph Salmon was a staff sergeant, as per the mistype, but the intent was there, by God. It was meant for me, you see?!?!?
I also received a phone call that day. “Where is your packet for BNCOC?” my schools NCO asked.
Normally the Basic Non-Commissioned Officer Course is for E6s and is required for promotion to E7—a far, far cry for me. Still, commanders get hammered from higher for not having all of their NCOs with schools completed; so there’s always pressure to get you in and through with these military schools as soon as possible.
“Umm, I’m not sure sergeant,” I said back. “Am I scheduled to go, now?” My slot had been placed on hold since the snafu.
“Yes, you start on Monday.”
“As in THIS Monday? The 12th?”
Wow, being Thursday, I could tell this would take some paperwork finagling.
Three blog posts of things occurred to get my schools packet done on Friday, including a PT test, a sergeant major’s signature, and “standing fast” in the hallway of my company for quite a bit while the training room alphabetized the morning’s PT test results.
Luckily, Fort Hood had an NCO Academy, so getting ready would be minimal. A lot of troops have to travel to another post, bringing with it all manner of additional travel paperwork and tickets and such…no fun. Furthermore, the BNCOC curriculum had undergone the same softening as had our E5 course. No longer do BNCOC students live in a central barracks. It’s a “gentleman’s course,” meaning students return home every day.
That makes a HUGE difference. Our old E5 and E6 courses recreated a basic-training atmosphere. There was yelling, cleaning, rigid silence, rules for eating, etc. It was a bit of an initiation to make you “earn” the new stripes on your collar. That was all gone, supposedly to focus more on teaching rather than hazing.
We would see.
My phase 1 of BNCOC would be three weeks. Phase 2 would require travel to Fort Meade for the job-specific portion of the training. Holy crap! It would be the very first session of required Army training I had ever encountered which would focus on my job. That too would be three weeks.
So here we go, another aspect of Army life to document for you: time at military school.
More to follow. It’s been an interesting week.
The Quest for Stripes: Paradise Regained
Luckily the personnel service battalion (PSB) was just a few blocks over—easily traversed in the shiny 2005 Hundai I’m sporting nowadays. I slowly eked around the normal overfull parking lot across from the PSB, trying my damnedest not to get side swiped by the overzealous Fort Hood drivers. Most cars have panels and headlights busted or dented—signs that everyone eventually hits someone. I still to try to avoid accidents, although I know the inevitable will eventually come.
By the time I hit the front doors, it was 1546, just a few minutes shy of the normal “We’re not taking any additional customers” routine. There, of course was no one at the info desk at the front, so I had to make my way down the hall for a clip, poking my head in each door to see if there was any signage present that could speak to the purpose of those particular clusters of desks.
After three rooms, I found a stoic specialist, staring through entering customers to the clock on the far side of the doorway.
“Yes can I help you?” she exhaled, weakly. It was a bit like the final breath from an ailing terminal case. The inflection was that of disappointment and loss–almost tragic. Dead to life–worn out, hardly breathing…all at 19. A shame.
“Yes, I’m here to get my orders for staff sergeant,” I said. The first statement is always a waste. If you start to tell your story, the desk jockey tunes you out after the first 13 syllables. If you succinctly spit out your actual purpose, the clerk assumes you’re an idiot and tries to correct your obviously wrong assumption for being there.
“Sign in and put down ‘update ERB,’” she replied. People update their ERBs (enlisted record brief) when they need to list new awards, or when they find mistakes in their assignment history or some such. It’s a standing joke that ERBs are chock full of mistakes—we think admin soldiers are required to edit in mistakes for job security. Sort of like how that IT guy just never can get the email fully working, all while collecting a hefty check, sporting sneakers and sweats.
I, however, knew I wasn’t here to update my ERB.
“Shouldn’t I see someone in ‘Promotions?’” I asked, motioning over to the sign at the far end of the room.
“No, put ERB,” she said, already in that lean to the left that says, ‘Move! I’m trying to help the person behind you.’
So I did and put my name down. There were only four or five other soldiers in the few rows of seats arrayed before a 13-inch TV broadcasting Judge Mathis. Party A claims Party B burned a child with a curling iron. Party B says the child picked it up herself. Back and forth. The other waiting soldiers were busy looking at their paperwork or the clock. The room had the tense frustration of a car-shop waiting area.
“Sergeant Salmons?” asked a vibrant sergeant, eyes open and alert. Not that he was overly so, but in the hum-drum, quiet vacuum of a thousand unattended insignificant yet career-stopping clerical errors, his outward confidence was downright inspiring.
“Yes. I’m here to get orders for staff sergeant, I have my extension contract.”
“Ohhh,” he paused and looked at my paperwork. “You’ll have to see someone in promotions. Umm, come this way.” I looked back to the specialist at the desk, who was still boring a hole in that clock just outside.
Thank God he didn’t make me sign back in and start over again. The time was 1555, probably past the “Come back tomorrow” envelope. But, I was in this to the bitter end.
“Sergeant?” my escort asked one of two cackling women in the corner. “This NCO says he needs orders.”
“Orders?!” the matriarch barked. She was an E7, probably the section sergeant, rotund and not in Iraq. That said volumes. “Why you need orders?”
“I made cutoff for February and extended to meet the remaining service requirement,” I replied. My time with the issue had taught me a bit about the process. I was completely and fully within the regulations.
“How long you extend for?” she asked, narrowing her eyes, her mind churning. Usually, this was the part when they found a way to defer the work of helping.
“I extended for one month, which will give me the 12 months needed.” My patience was beginning to buckle, and as I said it, I realized my choice of words might set off a defensive response.
“No, see? You need 13 months. You should have extended for two months. Who told you you need 12 months?” There it was, covering fire, allowing her to withdraw from the engagement.
“My retention NCO worked it. He did the math and had me extend for the month,” I replied, playing the retention NCO card (i.e. someone who does this sort of thing a lot).
“I bet he did!” she began to laugh with her friend. “I bet he did do the math! Ha ha ha ha ha!”
“Look, sar’nt, where’s your promotion packet?” the second sergeant in the corner asked.
I had no idea. After I submitted my initial paperwork, the packet entered ‘the Army system.’ How would I know where the damn thing was? “Isn’t it here with you?” I asked.
“If it isn’t in that box right down there, then we don’t have it,” she said, curtly. “Hey, check that box, see if sergeant…”
“…If Sergeant Sal-mons is in there. If you not in there, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“He’s in there,” said the soldier who was asked to search through the pile. God bless that woman!
“He’s there?” the matriarch said, disbelieving.
“Yes, sergeant, he’s on the cover letter.”
That sent the E7 and her friend flipping through piles of paperwork. “Oh there he is!” the friend said after a few pages. “When did you make cutoff?”
“February 1st,” I said.
“Well, tell you what sar’nt,” the E7 said. “I’ll work the math again and look at it, but you really should have extended for two months. If you qualify, you’ll get your orders. But if you’re even one day short, you need to extend for another month.”
With that, I left for home a few years older.
It took two days, actually, but returning to my desk through the day Thursday, I found a set of orders cut for SSG Joseph Salmon. I assumed it was really for SSG Joshua Salmons (me), since ‘Joseph Salmon’ had my social, the sneaky bastard.
Finally and almost, your author has been promoted. All I have to do is go back to the personnel service battalion and convince them to change my name. THEN it will be official. I also have to carefully watch my pay, to see if they bothered to issue the orders through the proper channels.
And there you have it, folks, what it takes to get promoted in the Army. The path to E7 is wrought with even more politicking and paperwork, so no thanks. I’ll stay put.
The Quest For Stripes:
Part 1 – Prologue
Part 2 – Starting Over from the Last Place We Started Over
Part 3 – Catching Up
Part 4 – The Long and the Short of It
Part 5 – The Rest of the Story
Part 6 – The Return
Part 7 – Paradise Regained
The Quest for Stripes: The Return
So, all that work toward staff sergeant and nothing to show for it? Bummer.
I talked with my dad, a navy veteran of 28 years, about the situation, and he turned me on to the possibility that I could extend my enlistment to meet the time requirements.
At first I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do that, as it would extend me right into stop loss for another year in Iraq (Jan. ’08 being my planned date, and March-ish being the time when they would lock people down). However, since a) I was now aiming high for the Air Force and b) they are going to up our deployment schedule anyway, I figured there was nothing to lose in extending and maybe getting that promotion after all.
I walked in to my retention NCO’s office and told him my situation and how I wanted to extend for the two weeks needed to get my stripes for the year. Turns out it wasn’t a big issue. I would just extend my enlistment for one month (smallest amount of time I could extend with…an extra two weeks, no biggie) and my quest for stripes would be complete! Wow, wish someone other than my RETIRED FATHER could have told me about that one.
“Didn’t the personnel service battalion send you a memo saying why you didn’t get your promotion?” the retention NCO asked. He was on loan from another brigade, filling in for our normal guy who had to leave due to a family emergency. This new guy was uncorrupted by our unit’s ways and had an air of logic and forethought about him. I definitely wasn’t used to that.
“A memo? No, I just was told I was f*cked and out of luck,” I replied.
“Wow, sounds like you got screwed.”
“Well, I thought so, but I figured it was just the norm.”
He shook his head (sensing my sarcasm, knowing I probably wasn’t his top candidate for reenlistment) and printed out the one-month extension contract.
“Just get your company commander to sign here…and here, take it down to the personnel service battalion and you’re all set,” he explained.
“Really? Just like that?”
I walked over to the company and waited at the window to see the personnel clerk, who acted as the receptionist of sorts for things needing the commanders attention.
“What’s this for?” she asked.
“I’m extending for a month to get that promotion I missed and need the commander to sign these,” I said.
“Let me see…um, you need a comma after ‘BDE’…her middle initial is E, that needs to go in there…put a ‘th’ after the 4 here, here and here…and put ‘commanding’ after the commander’s name. She’s going to say something and I don’t get beat up for nobody no more. Go correct that.”
So I took my papers back over to the retention NCO’s office in the other building again.
“All set?” he asked.
“No, we have to make some corrections.” I showed him the notes I made in the margins.
“Ummm, okay…” he said, frumping his brow and altering the pages. “It was that big of a deal, huh?”
“Well, you know, one comma today, by week’s end we’ll be communists,” I said, again being a cynical jerk.
A few seconds went by.
“You tell her that my system won’t let me put ‘commanding’ in the commander’s block. Since it’s the commander’s block, we assume that the person is ‘commanding.'” He handed me back the papers and I made my way back to the company area.
“I’m back, here are the changes,” I told the clerk, noting the area that we couldn’t fix.
“I don’t know if she’ll take it. She’ll probably say something,” the clerk replied. I just sort of stood there, implying as strong of an “And?!” that my silence could muster.
“When do you need this,” the clerk offered after a few seconds.
“Soon. I’m supposed to take that to the personnel battalion to get my orders,” I said. You know, for the promotion?
“Okay, come back after lunch sometime.” And with that, she closed the window on me. It was 1108 and I had cut in to their lunch window.
I myself went to get the eats, did some things in the office and returned around 1500-ish, once again to the company area.
“Hi, did the commander sign the forms?” I asked. It was foolish to ask a “yes or no” question to an admin soldier, where “no” means “come back later,” but I wasn’t feeling up for playing the games necessary to finagle and negotiate results.
As soon as she started looking through some scattered stacks of papers on her desk I knew I was in trouble. Since it was supposed to be such a quick fix, I hadn’t returned to the brigade to make copies of the contract (most sections are stingy about letting visitors use their copiers, it’s better to operate from your home turf). A stop off at a few adjoining tables let me know she’d lost my contract.
“I don’t know where it is…” she said. “I don’t want to make you wait while I look for it…”
Translation: It’s lost. Go get another.
Not this time.
“No, that’s okay. I’ll wait,” I said and pushed the issue by continuing to stand in her window. A couple of minutes went by and her soldier returned, who also began to look through random piles of crap.
“What was it again?” she asked.
“An extension contract.” I said, dryly.
A few minutes more passed and they finally came up with it (being a 10′ x 10’ room, I knew the laws of probability would find a hit before the close of business).
“She just needs to sign at the bottom?” the clerk asked. Wow, they hadn’t even taken it to the commander. It had sat there for four hours.
I gave the obligatory “yes” and refrained from making any sort of “read where it says ‘commander’s signature'” sort of comments.
Thirty seconds later, the clerk returned, papers signed. The time was now 1534.
The personnel service battalion closed at 1600. Time was short.
But my day had just begun!
To be continued…