Thursday, June 20, 2013

Strange Adventures in the US Air Force: Belonging, Part 1

Belonging. We all want to belong. We need our people. Our tribe. Our band of bosom friends. The peeps who get us through life day by day, witnesses to our follies and triumphs.

The best piece of advice I received before going to college was this: find a group to join, whether it is a sorority, fraternity, chess club, intermural wrestling team, or a lobby group called Let's Bring Latin Back from the Dead.

Doesn't matter which group, just find one where you belong.

This is good advice for life as well, and being married to the Air Force made it easy. George always had a squadron, and I always had a squadron wives' group. While it was weird belonging to a group simply because of what my husband did (oh, how the feminist in me balked at this!), those groups got me through three deployments, two wars, and two babies being born. Those women, thrown into life randomly with me, are still my friends.

I appreciate them.

But one assignment, we found ourselves unexpectedly on the ouside, ostracized and invisible, wondering how we became the social equivalent of slime molds. When George took an assignment as an Air Liaison Officer with the Army Rangers at Ft. Benning in Georgia, he was excited about working with a different branch of the service, a branch he admired and honored for its courage and history. I was concerned that George would be jumping out of airplanes instead of navigating them but naively expected the Army battalion wives' group to function pretty much the same as an Air Force squadron wives' group.

In every flying squadron George had served, he and I made insta-friends and had an active social life. On Friday nights, when we entered the Officers' Club, we were greeted by a chorus of "SPOT!!!" and "MRS. SPOT!!!!" (George's call sign was Spot because he has an albino spot on the back of his head.) At the Club, all the guys were happy to see me because I didn't drink and would get them safely home with no complaining or criticism. They loved George because he would drink with them and was a lot of fun...a loyal and gregarious brother in a band of brothers flying, fighting, and winning.

My first inkling of trouble at Ft. Benning came when the cable company installer told me a story about his brother-in-law, a retired Ranger. When the installer's wife left her purse at a family function, they arrived home to a voice message from her brother the Ranger: "I have secured the purse."

Do people really talk like that? Well, yes, it turns out Rangers do. The cable guy said the Ranger attitude--a no-nonsense, aware-of-every-risk, always-alert-for-danger attitude--permeated every aspect of his brother-in-law's life. The cable guy had the highest respect for his brother-in-law and his dedication to country, but he acknowledged that Rangers are a breed apart.

When George had been at the battalion for a couple of weeks, I asked him what he thought. After a contemplative pause, he replied, "Nobody smiles."


Then, a few weeks later, we ate dinner at a steakhouse. George went to the restroom, where he ran into one of the battalion officers and his small daughter, who had spilled something on herself. George said hello and made a joke about having spilled milk on himself at breakfast to make the little girl feel better. Her father looked at George, without smiling, and said, "Yes, sir."

In retrospect, the culture-clash George experienced makes perfect sense. Military aviators fly above the action, dropping bombs and blowing up things and people at a distance. The ethos in a flying squadron is a profoundly contradictory mix of practical jokes, party time, and intense professionalism. The movie Top Gun got that right.

Army Rangers, the elite of the Army fighting force, are trained to jump out of planes, float through the air, and hit the ground ready to look the enemy in the eye and shoot them. It's shocking the number of Rangers who lose their lives in training accidents. A whole group of Ranger trainees had died of hypothermia in Florida the year we got to Benning. (You can read about that incident in a New York Times article here.)

Despite the fact that the 3rd Battalion never deployed while George was there, four Rangers died during his two years with them: three in a night jump when they landed in a river, and another who fell while fast-roping out of a helicopter.

George did night jumps. He fast-roped the same day as the fatal accident. For his two years at Ft. Benning, I was a nervous wreck.

People who are brave enough, serious enough, dedicated enough to volunteer for this work are few in number, and the work they do is absolutely vital to our national defense. But as you might imagine, party-animal Spot and his wife didn't exactly belong to the Rangers.

It's amazing how invisible we became. Our attendance was "mandatory" at the official Hail and Farewell parties...held to welcome newcomers to the battalion and give those leaving a plaque and a chance to make a speech about how honored they were to serve with such an amazing group of men. But unless we cornered someone and forced them to speak to us, we might as well not have been there.

About halfway through George's tour, a Hail and Farewell was held at a British-style pub in Columbus. We arrived early, determined to have a good time. We sat in the middle of the pub and tried to make eye contact with everyone who came in. We waved, shouted hello, and got nothing.


At one point, George lifted his arm and asked me, "Do I offend?" I sniffed his arm pit and said, "No! Do I?" And I lifted my arm. He sniffed and said, "Not at all!" We laughed at the absurdity of it all. The fire safety officer, who wasn't a Ranger either, made a bee-line to our table to join us, and we three sat in a roomful of Rangers discussing how excluded we felt and how sad it was that the Rangers didn't bother to get to know us because, by golly, we were charming people!

Finally, as all the other tables filled except ours, a young couple came up to us and said, "May we sit with you? The tables with our friends are all full."

We invited them to sit and did all we could to make them feel welcome and wanted. But it wasn't enough. At the next Hail and Farewell, we were completely invisible to them.

Situations like this invite us to feel an us-against-them anger or simply hurt. What's their problem? How could they be so mean? Why would they do this to us? Who do they think they are?

But the reality is more mundane, more hardwired into our sense of belonging and group identity. Rangers are special. They go through training that could, quite literally, kill them. The job we ask them to do as a nation is hard...hard in every sense of the word. They know they can count on each other for their very lives. That training permeates every aspect of their lives, up to and including securing a forgotten purse at a family dinner. Their strong sense of belonging to a brotherhood over-rides other social priorities.

So why make the Air Force guy and his wife feel welcome? He's not wearing a Ranger tab. After his 2-year controlled tour with us, he will go back to his cushy flying job making more money than we do and engage in practical jokes and get drunk at the O Club on Friday nights. We appreciate what he does for us, but really, he's not one of us.

No, he wasn't. As frustrating as that assignment was socially, George and I both came away with deep and sincere appreciation for what the Rangers do and who they are, for the sacrifices they and their families make, for the risks they take in the everyday execution of jobs the rest of us don't even want to think about.

When that two-year tour was up, we drove cross-country from Columbus, Georgia, to the Temporary Lodging Facility at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. George was going back to flying the B-1 Bomber, back to wearing a flight suit, back to logging the same number of take-offs as landings.

It was a Friday afternoon when we checked in and settled into a room. Around 4:00, we drove to the Officers Club and walked in. Screams of delight assaulted our ears. "SPOT'S BACK!!!!!" "MRS. SPOT!!!!!!" We were surrounded by friends, quite literally surrounded, hugged, patted on the back. George played crud* and got drunk and told all the guys how much he loved being back with them. We spent hours that night catching up with friends until it felt like the previous two years of ostracism were washed away in wave after wave of warm, fuzzy welcome.

We were back where we belonged.

In Part 2, I will discuss the effects of ostracism and some constructive things you can do when you're being ostracized. But please share on this post your experiences being ostracized. Has there ever been a time in your life where you felt ostracized or excluded? What circumstances led to those feelings? Was it really malice, or just strong group identity that created the situation?

*Crud is a violent contact sport played around a pool table in USAF Officers Clubs around the world.


  1. I read your blog with much interest: I was married to my first husband, an NCO with the Air Force for 29 years. My most favorite base we lived at was Mtn. Home AFB, Idaho. I still have a core of friends I communicate with via emails. Almost 3 years ago, I married my current husband who recently retired as an officer with the Army National Guard. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq as an Army Chaplain and returned as one of our wounded warriors. We were married in Columbus, Georgia. Is the Army different than the Air Force? Yes! Is there animosity between Army and Air Force soldiers: most certainly. I didn't experience a lot of Army life, but I saw a big difference in the way the Army soldiers are treated. Is it fair? No.

  2. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Carol! I, too, saw a huge difference in the way Army soldiers are treated...especially the NCOs...versus the Air Force. The Air Force is nicer to its people...which isn't saying much, but dang. I will say the nicest Rangers I met were the NCOs, but of necessity, we couldn't hang out together because of fraternization issues. I got to know several who were taking courses at Troy State where I taught. The Army and Air Force are very different worlds with very different missions.

    Mtn Home was our favorite base, too. We lived in Boise, and it's an awesome town!

    Please give my regards and respect to your husband.

  3. Loved this. Anxiously awaiting part 2. I "think" everyone is left out at times in their lives - purposely - most times no. But I do think it does happen. At the end of the day, we are all just trying to get through this crazy thing called life.

  4. As much as I hate to say it, "ostracized" is probably the right word to use for my childhood/teen years. While I wasn't the first white child in our extended family (that distinction belongs to my mother - and she really *doesn't* look white) I was the first pale child with light brown hair. Of course there were other issues, distance primarily, along with some envy and drug/alcohol problems.
    I imagine that none of them would ever admit to ostracizing me - and my grandmother would roll over in her grave if she could hear me! I was in my late teens/early twenties before I began to learn how to (mostly) let it roll off. Still, there is a part of me that wishes I could have been invited to bbq's, birthday parties and impromptu fun. That's why I don't really allow much contact between my child & my cousins. Not that they want much to do with me/him/us even now! :D

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Mrs. Spot.

  6. I went and read the story of the men who died of hypothermia. So sad.

    There have certainly been times in my life when I was ostracized by people with malice. But the most painful that I experience now is by circumstance. I am childless not by choice. I always "knew" I would have children. But it never came to be. I work with children, so I spend a ton of time with them, but I have none of my own. It hurts when people think I have no knowledge to offer because I don't have kids of my own. It is also hard to see people who don't appreciate the children they have.

  7. Crud?! My family plays crud all the time. It's a Christmas tradition. Funny thing is, I grew up in an air force base town, but hadn't heard of it back then. I got it from my cousin when we were in university, and have no idea where he learned it. My husband also played it at university in North Dakota, but they called it long nuts, and they kapt score rather than eliminating people.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!