One veteran’s thoughts on being patriotic in the face of conflict.
How do you maintain your patriotism when surrounded by peers who don’t share the same values? How do you work within the system to effect positive change? These were some of my challenges as I served in the Air Force. I joined the Air Force for all the right reasons, I served on active duty for all the right reasons, and I remained in the inactive reserves until honorably discharged for all the right reasons. I am a veteran. And on this Veterans Day, I wanted to share my story of my patriotic struggle in the Air Force.
Code Of Conduct (DOD Directive No. 1300.7)
I. I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
II. I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command I will never surrender my men while they still have the means to resist.
III. If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
IV. If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
V. When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am bound to give only name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.
VI. I will never forget that I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.
Family Tradition of Service
I first put on an Air Force uniform in the fall of 1984 when I started college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on an Air Force Reserve Office Training Corps (AFROTC) scholarship. I remained in the Air Force until I was honorably discharged in the spring of 2006. In one form or another, I was in the Air Force for 21.5 years, about half of my life. In that time, I learned a great deal about patriotism. When I first started blogging about my Air Force experience, I said that I would have more to say when the time was right. Today is Veterans Day, and the time is right.
My family has a tradition of military service. My grandfather served in the Army in WW2, my father served in the Army in Korea, my uncle served in the Navy in Viet Nam, and my brother served in the Army. On my 18th birthday, I registered to vote and registered for the draft.
Air Force ROTC At MIT
I grew up a poor kid in a rich town, and I knew that if I wanted to go to the college of my choice, then I’d have to pay for it myself. So I applied for ROTC scholarships in order to attend MIT. I was awarded scholarships from the Navy, Army, and the Air Force. If I had accepted the Navy scholarship, then I could have freely choose my course of study. The Army required me to pursue a degree in a technical field. And the Air Force was even more specific, limiting my major to electrical engineering. I concluded that I had the highest chance of actually doing work related to my degree in the Air Force. So I accepted the Air Force ROTC scholarship and was off to MIT.
While at MIT, I learned that I was very good at the things that were valued highly by AFROTC: organization, discipline, public speaking, leadership. As a result, I rose to positions of leadership within the AFROTC corps of cadets, serving as cadet commander my senior year.
Unfortunately, I also learned that I didn’t exactly enjoy electrical engineering. If I could have chosen my major, I would have chosen computer science. Other degrees that interested me were mechanical engineering and civil engineering. My scholarship was limited to electrical engineering. There was, however, a way to change majors. If you were selected for pilot training, then you could major in whatever you wanted (presumably because you’d be flying, not doing engineering). I also learned that if you wanted to make the Air Force a career, then the best path was to be a pilot. So I applied for, and was awarded, a pilot scholarship. I was the only pilot candidate in my class.
Ironically, by the time I was awarded the pilot scholarship, it was too late to change majors and graduate in four years. The summer after my sophomore year, I attended AFROTC field training at Plattsburgh AFB in New York and Initial Pilot Training (IPT) at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Flying is an expensive hobby, and I couldn’t afford more than a couple of lessons before IPT that summer. If I had failed to complete IPT, then I would have been in breach of my AFROTC contract. Going back to a non-pilot assignment was not an option. I would have had to drop out of college and enlist in the Air Force to pay back my scholarship. So no pressure.
I successfully completed IPT, returned to MIT, finished up my EE degree, and graduated in the spring of 1988. Then the waiting began. For decades, ROTC graduates have had to wait – up to a year – for an active duty assignment. During this time, you are unpaid. It’s difficult to interview for a job if you know that you have to leave sometime in the next year. Some of my classmates opted to lie to their employers, who otherwise might not have hired them. I took my “year off” to live an work in Finland, where I met the woman who became my wife. My mother is from Finland, and much of my extended family lives there. I was fortunate that I had a degree that allowed me to get a job during this time. Not all ROTC graduates were as fortunate.
In the spring of 1989, I was called to active duty. I started undergraduate pilot training (UPT) at Reese AFB in Lubbock, Texas, class 89-08. There were about 30 of us in our class and only two or three engineers. Most of my classmates had been flying for years and already had their private pilot licenses. Several had multi-engine ratings. A few were private pilot instructors themselves. With only my IPT training under my belt, I was at a severe disadvantage.
I have always considered myself to be patriotic. I entered the Air Force in order to pay for MIT, but I was determined to be the best Air Force officer that I could be. Being a pilot not only gave me (in theory, at least) the freedom to major in anything that I wanted, it also opened more doors in the Air Force than any other career path. At pilot training we were taught that there are two kinds of citizens in the Air Force: (1) pilots and (2) second-class citizens.
Unfortunately, the belief that you are a first-class citizen comes with the twisted notion that the rules don’t apply to you. This is why pilots consider themselves mavericks. I was disillusioned to discover that our instructor pilots systematically taught us to lie, cheat, and steal. We were taught how to fudge expense reports to get the most out of them. We were given written tests, and then the instructors would leave the room and remind us to “work as a team,” which was code for “cheat, but don’t let us see you cheat.” If one student failed a test, it made the class and the instructors look bad. But the worst part was the lying.
During one of my solo flights, a rare situation occurred. The tower called “hot air procedures,” which meant that the air was dangerously thin and everybody had to land. We had never even practiced these procedures in the simulator, but I had the checklist strapped to my leg. Landing speeds were higher, flap settings were different, and everybody had to end their sorties immediately. While I was entering the pattern, I was simultaneously flipping through my procedures book trying to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do and in what order. I would have to overfly the runway, pull a 360, and land. The problem was that I didn’t see the plane in the pattern in front of me. He was already in the pattern and had the right of way. I was supposed to climb, circle, and re-enter the pattern. The other plane was piloted by my friend Chuck, who was (and is) a better pilot than me and recognized what was happening. He rocked his wings back and forth to make himself more visible. Thankfully, I noticed him at the last second, went to full throttle, and climbed out of the pattern and out of his way. As you can imagine, there are rules for reporting near misses, and this definitely qualified as a reportable incident. But reporting looks bad for the class and for the instructors. So we were encouraged to bend the truth about what happened. The truth is that both of us could have been killed that day.
Another student that year wasn’t as fortunate. He was flying a T-38 with his instructor pilot and was on final for landing. As you approach the runway, you are not supposed to descend below minimum descent altitude (MDA) before seeing the end of the runway. If you “bust the floor” and go below MDA, then you run the risk of landing short of the runway. On this occasion, the instructor pilot allowed the student to go below MDA. His plan was to teach his student a lesson, to dramatically take control of the aircraft and go to full throttle to demonstrate why busting MDA is dangerous. Unfortunately, it was a hot day, the air was thin, and there was not enough time to recover. With the instructor at the controls, the T-38 hit the ground short of the runway and started sliding on its belly at a slight angle, dirt flying over the canopy. The T-38 has a zero-zero parachute system, which means that you can bailout at zero airspeed and zero altitude and still survive. The instructor decided to stay with the plane. The student decided to bail out. Even with the zero-zero parachute system, the student’s parachute failed to deploy in time, likely because the plane was sliding at an angle. The student died in his instructor’s arms.
Five of us banded together in an attempt to rise above the problems that we saw in pilot training. We called ourselves the Regulators. Standing up for the patriotism that we believed in, fighting to do the right thing (e.g. not to lie, cheat, or steal) felt like a losing battle. Only one of the Regulators graduated from pilot training.
Half of my class – including me – didn’t make it through pilot training. I was again fortunate to have an electrical engineering degree from MIT to fall back on. But I felt even more fortunate to have escaped pilot training with my life.
I bounced back from pilot training and was given the coveted assignment of working at the Electronics Systems Division (ESD) at Hanscom Air Force Base (HAFB) in Bedford, MA. I worked in the E-3 Advanced Warning And Control System (AWACS) System Program Office (SPO). Our job was to upgrade certain electronics systems on the AWACS, a modified Boeing 707 with a huge radar dish mounted on top that acts as a flying aircraft control tower.
As it turns out, officers in ESD don’t do actual engineering. That work is left to civilians and contractors (such as MITRE). My job was contract management, trying to make sure that the Air Force was getting a good bang for its buck. And there were a lot of bucks at stake.
Just like in pilot training, I felt like I was a salmon swimming upstream at HAFB. Several experiences stand out for me.
Junior officers get assigned all of the unglamorous routine tasks, such as stocking the office refrigerator with soda from the Base Exchange (BX), couriering documents (I once flew from Boston to Seattle to Boston, having spend only 45 minutes in Seattle), and performing other additional duties.
I handled one additional duty which was anything but routine. In our office, there were several safes for storing classified (secret and NATO secret) documents. Every day, the security officer is supposed to check each safe to make sure that it is locked and that no classified documents have been left laying around. Unfortunately, somebody arrived in our office one morning to find secret documents sitting on top of one of the safes. My job was to conduct an investigation. I interviewed all of the parties involved, including the security officer. The investigating officer is required to read Miranda Rights to all parties being investigated. When I read the Miranda Rights to the security officer (who was senior to me), he was noticeable nervous. My investigation revealed that the security officer had not done his job on the day that the secret documents were left unattended. He had not properly checked the office before leaving for the day. According to the regulations, the consequences should have been that (1) the materials in question get declassified and (2) the officer at fault gets court martialed. A court martial is a legal proceeding with consequences, some severe, some not so severe. The guilty officer was not going to prison, but he would have a permanent black mark in his record. I followed the regulations and submitted my written report to the colonel in charge of our office. The colonel refused to accept my recommendation. He directed me to back-date the report and change it so that there would be no consequences to the guilty officer. The colonel was a former pilot. As members of the military, we are required to obey the lawful orders of our superiors. But what if you believe the orders to be unlawful (as I did)? I tried to fight this battle, but I lost. I submitted a compromise report that the colonel ultimately approved, but I also separately documented what I believed to be improper activities that had transpired. I still have a copy of the memos I wrote explaining my actions.
On another occasion, I got to participate in an AWACS training missing to better understand the electronic systems we were working to improve. During that flight, the air traffic controllers were junior officers like me. Although they were to be controlling F-15s and F-16s on a training exercise, they were not required to have experience as ground air traffic controllers. And the pilots knew this. As I listened in on the headset to the vectors that the AWACS controllers were relaying to the fighter pilots, I was struck by the fact that the controllers were not giving the pilots correct information. When the controller I was working with ended her shift, I asked her about this. Her reply was that the radar dish (the main sensor on the AWACS) rotates so slowly (about once every 10 seconds) that you pretty much have to guess where the fighter jets are at any given point in time. So there was a lot of real-time guesstimating going on. Lovely.
Later, during a meeting with Boeing, we were arguing over the specifications for another sensor that had response times measured in milliseconds. Why, I asked, did we care about millisecond response times, when controllers in the sky rely on the one-blip-every-ten-seconds radar for vectoring pilots, and even then they have to guess at the planes’ location? I was never a popular person when technical specifications were being discussed.
I often found myself fighting an uphill battle to do what was right. It was frustrating and exhausting. One day when my frustration must have been particularly evident, my boss said to me, “Erik, you can’t fight city hall.” To which I replied, “Sir, I’m going to fight city hall until the day I die.”
In the defense acquisition system, an officer’s clout is directly proportional to the size of the budget he manages. And “manage” is synonymous with “spend.” If you don’t spend money allocated to your program, then you loose it in the next fiscal year, and your clout decreases. One year, there were rumors on Capital Hill that President Bush was going to announce a spending freeze for the Department of Defense during his State of the Union address. At that point, our office was negotiating contracts (primarily with Boeing) worth about $80 million. If budgets were frozen, then none of the projects could be completed. By doing a change order, contracts can be quickly finalized with an agreement that the details will be worked out later. Since change orders involve more risk for the contractor, they come at a higher price. So that day, there was a crowd outside of the legal team’s office as ESD workers and the Boeing representative lined up to sign change order after change order. That day, our office spent $120 million. I was flabbergasted. These were contracts that we could have secured for $80 million, but we wasted $40 million to rush them through. As it turns out, President Bush did not freeze defense spending that day. And guess where the rumors about the spending freeze originated from? Boeing lobbyists in DC. I reported this event to the fraud, waste, and abuse hotlines at all levels of the military: Hanscom, Air Force headquarters, and the Pentagon. As far as I know, no action was ever taken. The only consolation for me was that the money was going to Seattle. At least it wasn’t being put in a huge pile in the parking lot and burned. But I think our standards should be higher.
One of the things that the military taught me is that nobody is in charge of your career except you. If you wanted an award, you had to nominate yourself. If you wanted an assignment, you had to make it happen. All officers wrote their own performance evaluations so that our bosses didn’t have to.
My frustrations with the system ultimately led me to apply to law school, so that I could single-handedly fix the defense acquisition process and end $10,000 toilet seats once and for all. At some point, I concluded that the best way to serve my country was not as a military officer but as a civilian lawyer working to fix broken laws. I’m still working on that.
I am reminded of the great quote from Winston Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” So I often say that while the military needs nobody, everybody needs the military. As broken and frustrating as the military can be at times, it’s still essential. Every Veterans Day, I think about my own experience in the Air Force, and how it challenged me to think about what it means to be patriotic. I served in the Air Force and took an oath to defend the Constitution and the values for which it stands. I am proud that I served until honorably discharged, rather than resigning my commission when faced with politics and policies with which I disagreed.
I love this country, and I wish that everything about it can continue to improve. It is the hope that keeps me going. Happy Veterans Day.
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