Sometimes Interservice scorn is deserved
Soldier’s Stories often turn into Soldier’s ‘bitching and moaning’ stories! This is one such story of earned Interservice Rivalries.
Traditionally most service members enjoy engaging in inter-service rivalries. We love to hate the other services and deride them for perceived weaknesses and not measuring up our to own branch of service. Sometimes the feelings are more deeply rooted then one’s lighthearted amusement at the expense of the others would expose. Sometimes the antipathy is well founded.
As a young Officer, I was assigned a special duty assignment away from my Battalion at Fort Bragg to serve in Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. It was a typical 179 day, temporary assignment. My orders were quite explicitly required me to use the quick ‘Channel’ flight from Charleston Airbase in SC to Palmarola, Honduras as my means of movement (transportation).
Off to Honduras!
After a commercial flight from Fayetteville, NC to the commercial airport in Charleston, I taxied over and reported in at the passenger terminal only to learned the flight was delayed due to a mechanical issue and told to try again the next day. OK, I wasn’t prepared for that, but managed to haul all my kit over to the Visiting Officer’s Quarters(VOQ) a few blocks away to ask for a room.
I was naive enough to think that because the Air Force was the source of my delay and need for accommodations, that the Air Force Visiting Officer’s Quarters would happily render assistance. The front desk made it clear that without reservations I was in line behind Air Force crews members with unscheduled layovers or delays due to mechanical problems with their airplanes. After waiting around for a few hours, they grudgingly gave me a room to get rid of my ugly mug and combat kit from the reception lounge.
Day two turned out to be a replica of day one, no flight due to ‘mechanical issues.’ This time the VOQs would not put me up and advised me that there may be a hotel open off base. This was in the days before cell phones, so I asked if I could use their phone to try to find a hotel. I was sternly informed that the house phone was only for registered guests! Conveniently, there was a payphone out front on the street. Somehow I found a room off base which, which was not authorized on my orders (it was a simple channel flight directly into Honduras). Needless to say, there was no reimbursement for the taxi, per-diem or hotel costs.
The flight finally departed on day three, and I was fortunate enough to make the manifest. I squeezed in between the cargo with 19 other passengers; a couple of senior NCOs, and a couple of junior NCOs escorting a dozen or so Privates en route to their first duty unit, which happened to be exercising in Honduras. All of us traded stories on how we managed the two-day delay; we were anxious to get to our new assignments.
This aint Hondo!
After a several hours, uneventful flight, we landed without issue. Grabbing our hand-carry bags, we headed to the terminal to wait for our floor loaded, ‘checked’ bags. Along the way, several of us realized that we were not in Palmarola, Honduras. A bit confused, I spoke to the crew busy transferring their golf clubs into an awaiting van and asked where we were and when we would depart for Honduras (I thought that perhaps this was just an unscheduled en route stop.) They looked at me like I was an Idiot and in a dismissive way informed me we were in Panama and that I should check with the passenger terminal to find out about a flight to Honduras. I reminded them that this was the Charleston-Honduras channel flight, which is where we passengers and cargo all needed to be.
The aircrew finished loading their golf equipment and were off in a flash.
Halfway to the terminal, a Panamanian Customs Officer accosted us and demanded our passports and Visas. As we all were traveling under orders and none of us had passports, much less visas. We never intended to be in Panama. The customs official was not amused, but after 15 minutes of bickering, he told us in a very undignified manner just how wrong we were, and left us there standing on the terminal as he frustratingly stormed off – it was the end of the business day.
….and onward…..or not
So, finally, at the terminal we inquired when the flight was taking off to deliver us to Honduras…and were advised that it might go tomorrow. We’d have to check then to see if we could get manifested. Arguing with them that this was a direct channel flight from Charleston to Hondo and that they were required to ensure we arrived there was the height of inexperience on my part. They let us know that the terminal closed at 1700 and we had 20 minutes to grab our bags and get out! When we asked where they were going to put us up, they just laughed, feigned sympathy and left us standing there to figure out what to do as they began to close up for the day. ‘Not my problem.’
We were three days late, in the wrong country (without permission) had no friends, no accommodations and no help. I learned early, when there’s a problem, turn to an NCO for solutions. Fortunately, one of the junior NCOs found an old buddy stationed in a unit nearby. After contacting him, he and his dozen Privates found accommodations in the hallways of the local barracks. Additionally, while I was arguing with the staff, one of the Senior NCOs found a few empty beds in an old confinement facility, recently converted into temporary troop transit quarters. Although it wasn’t currently in use, he convinced somebody to let us stay the night there. We found taxis and hauled our kit across the Panama Locks to sleep in the prison!
Somehow the next day we all managed to regroup at the terminal at the designated time. A bit disenchanted by our previous treatment, we weren’t surprised to learn that due to an increase in ‘priority’ cargo there may be no room for passengers on this flight. Well, sometimes even Lieutenants can get convincingly belligerent. I had lost my humor and lost my temper and let the staff know just what I thought about them, their system, their support and in general, the Air Force. I told them that under no uncertain terms that we were not going make life easy for them to continue to screw us and that it would be beneficial for them to get 20 pissed off paratroopers out of their terminal and onto the airplane.
I never found out if my childish tantrum did the trick or that the cargo just didn’t materialize. Either way, we all ended up on the manifest for Honduras. Four days into the Odyssey, our short channel flight from Charleston, landed in Palmarola Airbase.
I learned a lot on that flight. Using channel flights for duty passengers is only a good idea to a Service trying to force more business when their commercial competition is more attractive. It was clear that screwing over 20 soldiers in their care was less important than keeping their aircrews happy.
System too big to know what it’s doing
We weren’t the first and not to be the last. Obviously, the crew never intended on delivering their cargo (to include passengers) to Honduras straightaway (Palmarola had no golf course, and the off-post bars were off limits). Apparently, their actions were Standard Operating Procedures. The Operations schedulers knew there were passengers aboard, but it wasn’t their job to be concerned. The chain of command that owned the airplanes was different from the ones that ran the terminal, who were different from the ones that set the channel route and demanded that duty passengers use their service.
It was clear that no one felt any obligation to their passengers for any troubles they created by their poorly synchronized service. On the positive side, I learned that if one travels with Paratrooper NCOs, everything will work out in the end.
Sometimes rivalries and deep-seated loathing for the other Services’ cultures, customs, practices, and priorities are based on ignorance and misplaced tribalism. Arriving when we did was fortunate for me as my new chain of command advised me that if I wasn’t on this flight, they were going to report me AWOL (absent without leave). Four days late, the officer I replaced missed their flight home, our transition timetable in a shambles, and everybody pissed at me – it was an awesome beginning to a new assignment!
Other-times, inter-service rivalries are well founded. Some thirty years later this story is a funny one, but it wasn’t at the time. I also learned, and re-validated on too many subsequent occasions, that large organizations, regardless of service, can become so myopically focused on distant metrics that they capriciously lose sight of what is really important right in front of them. The challenge for leaders is to ensure our organizations do not fall into that trap.
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