As a newly minted second lieutenant I assumed that troop leadership would be the least pleasant aspect of my duties, but within weeks of becoming a platoon leader I found out I had been dead wrong – I really enjoyed being a leader, but then I had been prepped for the job, having been a teacher’s aide in high school, a trainer on my mission and an adult Scout leader for years.
The only part of leadership that I didn’t enjoy was enforcing rules. Oh, I had no problem leading my guys into difficult situations but I’m not one to crack a whip and rules often seem like punishment to your most capable troops because the restrictions feel like punishment. That’s because rules are made for the lowest functioning people in the group and by setting a limit that keeps them reined in everyone else will be under control as well. Unfortunately there are times when the percentage of “lower functioning personnel” makes up the majority of the organization and when that happens you spend most of your time in basic maintenance of unit cohesion.
When that happens two short phrases come to mind:
- Pushing a rope
- Herding cats
Complicating the situation was the fact that the army of the late 1970s/early 1980s contained a larger than usual percentage of lower functioning people which were referred to as “cat-fours”, Cat-Four was short-hand for Category IV the term used in the army’s system for evaluating enlistees – they were the least qualified people accepted for enlistment. These were the people who didn’t have a high school diploma, scored low on placement tests, or were on a first-name basis with their home-town law enforcement agencies. While it may be an urban legend that a Cat-Four was once caught reading an M&M, as a group they were often very difficult to lead. Coming out of the post Viet-Nam “hollow Army” era meant that in order to fulfill recruiting goals we were getting a larger percentage of Cat-fours, one of them being a Private Coolidge who was assigned to Fort Richardson (Alaska) in the summer of 1982.
I didn’t get off to a good start with Coolidge. I met him at the church one night while dropping off a donation for the scout troop’s summer camp fund raiser. I started causally talking to some of the young men about their progress towards ranks but when I got to one particularly small dark-haired young man all I got was a pained look and a comment that he was solider, was married, and his wife was expecting a child. I made some feeble jokes…then made another equally feeble joke when he dished up the S.O.S. on my tray the next morning. He was one of our battalion cooks.
He didn’t mix well with the other troops but he eventually made friends with Specialist Terry. Terry also fell into Category Four but had a couple years of army under his belt – and during those years he had worked hard and earned a position of responsibility with the battalion communications section. I am not sure how it came about but Terry took a liking to Coolidge – called him his “little buddy” and was instrumental in getting both Coolidge and his young wife accustomed to Army life – but in the process almost gave the young cook the scare of his life.
That scare came about in late summer of 1982 when the battalion was in the field for a BYX , the initials standing for “back yard exercise” instead of the normal term FTX or field training exercise. Because it was being held on one of FT Richardson’s own training areas, (albeit one of the areas located several miles away from the cantonment area where our homes, the PX and the battalion facilities were located) the BYX saved a lot of training dollars normally spent for various transportation costs. The on-post location also provided for much more reliable communications; instead of contending with static from the Aurora Borealis or real-world jamming from Russian signal units located across the Bering Strait, we could tie into land-lines clear communications between our TOC (tactical operations center) in the field and our regular battalion headquarters. Unfortunately easier communication didn’t automatically make life in general easier as I found out when I received a call from battalion headquarters late one night.
On the phone was a near indecipherable Specialist Terry, which given his job was to be expected. What was unexpected was the near-indecipherable nature of his speech. He had grown up the Great Smoky Mountains which had flavored his southern accent with a mountain twang, and just to make things interesting he had grown up with a Scandinavian step father which added yet another measure of incomprehensibility to his Southern/mountain accent. All of that I could deal with – I’d been working with him for six months but what iced the cake was the fact that Terry was extremely distraught.
He was all worked up and so hard to understand that I should have asked to talk to another soldier but I wasn’t doing so well myself. I had caught a cold the first day of the exercise and a shortage of officers at that time precluded me leaving the exercise to see a proper doctor. The medics did their best but there was only so much aspirin could do with a raging 103 degree temperature. “We than mumble banana patch trombone,” Specialist Terry was wailing into the telephone, ” Coolidge swift gone dog face tuba Elmendorf!”
I was totally clueless. As musical instruments seemed a major part of the conversation I wondered if the call had something to do with the highly unauthorized band that our commanding general was dancing around regulations to staff. The post commander had already cherry-picked our battalion for musical talent and in the process had stolen one of our best PAC clerks.
At that point the communications platoon sergeant took the phone and between the two of us we got Terry’s message sorted out – and when we did it was like we both had a bucket of cold water dumped over our heads. Specialist Terry had called to tell his good friend Private Coolidge that his wife had just died. “That’s right sir”, he was finally able to verbalize,” She’s gone. Someone from her church called and said she had a tuba pregnancy and she was gone”.
Once I caught my breath I told him to calm down, knock back a beer or two and relax, stressing very strongly that he wasn’t to talk to ANYONE about the matter until I gave him the OK the next morning. I then sat down with the operations sergeant and started planning how we were going to handle the situation. Our battalion commander was on TDY visiting our sister battalion in the reserves and I wanted a chance to talk to him before starting the survivor’s assistance process through the Red Cross. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to figure out my next step as Coolidge was going to be working on the breakfast line and the mess sergeant would be waking up soon.
Then in what was either divine inspiration or the effects of my elevated temperature it came to me. I called Lori at home and got the phone number our congregation’s Relief Society president ( Relief Society being the fellowshipping and support organization for LDS women). She was none too happy about being called at 4:00 AM but when I told her the reason for my call her tone immediately mellowed. Oh, she definitely knew that Sister Coolidge “was gone” – but there was nothing fatal about her absence, nor were any tubas, trumpets or trombones involved.
Earlier in the year there had been some worry about a tubal pregnancy so when Coolidge’s wife started experiencing some discomfort she went to the emergency room at Elmendorf AFB. Specialist Terry was just being a good friend when he called to check on his “little buddy’s wife – but when the teenage babysitter told him “Mrs. Coolidge was gone” he panicked and hung up before she could add “to the emergency room”. Armed with that knowledge I made a couple of damage control phone calls – and when Coolidge fell in for duty at the chow line he had no clue as to the fright he had just narrowly missed .
As nerve-wracking as the situation had been it did prompt some important changes:
- Both the battalion chain of command, myself, and members of the congregation stepped up efforts to support service members and their spouses during deployment.
- Specialist Terry was referred to a speech therapist at the same hospital that his little buddy’s wife had “gone” to.
- Whenever get bad news over the phone I do my best to keep calm and verify the information before wigging out.