This is part of a series of nodes tentatively titled Sixteen Years Before The (Antenna) Mast: My Life In The Bush With SIGINT. The previous node in the series is She Lit Her Thumb On Fire. Your understanding of what the heck is going on in here will be increased if you read Army Security Agency.
It became fairly obvious to me as 1981 wore on that I was a long way from being the platoon sergeant's favorite soldier, or even his favorite Russian linguist. If I hadn't figured it out before he tried to foist me off on the Mount Meissner detachment, that little bit of orderly room maneuvering put the seal on it. He probably figured that since I was up at Meissner playing chauffeur for the Second Radio Battalion1, by the time I found out what was going on, the deal would be done and there'd be nothing I could do about it. He forgot that people in intel units like to gossip, especially when they can pass on bad news to somebody. Fortunately for me, I knew someone who wanted very badly to go to Meissner, not least because her husband had gotten hired there as a KP after getting out of the Army. So, I grabbed my ruck and my weapon, cadged a ride back to Karlsruhe and did the paperwork shuffle to avoid exile.
After that, my standing in the platoon sergeant's eyes dropped even further. Nobody likes a smartass, least of all Vietnam vets who had actually done intercept work in the bush.2 It followed that since he was the one that was going to recommend me for promotion to sergeant, my chances of getting that recommendation were slim and none. So, making use of the alleged high intelligence the Army claimed I had, I started looking around for other options. Transferring to the other Comex platoon was right out, and I couldn't see the CO agreeing to move me to Signal Platoon with the teletype operators.3
It didn't take long for the window of opportunity I was looking for to open. The Annual General Inspection (usually referred to as an IG inspection, even though the Inspector General had nothing to do with it) was coming up, and while the unit armorer was great at the technical aspects of weapon maintenance and inspection, he was horrible with paperwork. I offered to come down and help, and before I knew it, the supply sergeant was asking me if I'd be interested in attending the Small Arms Maintenance course in Grafenwohr. See, the armorer was short; he only had a few months left in Germany, and the supply sergeant was well aware that the two most likely replacements were just barely bright enough to handle linen exchanges, never mind the arms room. Also, since he had two 76Y supply specialists on hand, the chances of him getting another for the arms room weren't good. Having a moderately bright Russian linguist working for him as the unit armorer would make his job 3000% easier. For my part, this would unblock the path of promotion. As a member of Service Platoon, the supply sergeant would be the one recommending me for promotion, and since I was coming up fast on the primary promotion zone for E5 (three years in service, one year in grade as an E4), I'd be a shoo-in since the primary zone cutoff score for 98G E5's had been the minimum 450 (out of a possible 1000) ever since I'd been in the Army. We shook hands on it, and he headed upstairs to give the happy news to the orderly room.
The week in Graf learning how to tear down, reassemble, lubricate and repair the dozen or so assault rifles, machine guns, grease guns, pistols and the M203 grenade launcher was a nice vacation from the 20-hour days I'd been spending in the arms room. It also had the side effect of getting me used to coffee, which up to that point I hadn't bothered with. I'd been a tea drinker for years, because most coffee tasted like dishwater to me, but at Graf there just wasn't enough time on break to run down to the canteen, get a cup of tea, wait for it to steep, and then add sweetener. The school staff maintained a coffee fund, and they brewed it good and strong, like the nice strong stuff you could get in German bakeries & coffee stands. It was also raining for most of the week, which I understand is pretty normal for Graf.
After the class, it was back to the arms room. We passed the IG with flying colors, and a week after that I officially replaced the unit armorer. I got some weird looks from my fellow linguists when I started falling in with the Service Platoon, but that was okay. I was in a much better place. Well, up until the supply sergeant started making noises like he was going to welsh on our agreement. We had a fairly cordial discussion about it, during which it came out that he was worried what the new First Sergeant, an ex-Green Beret who had never had an assignment to a non-Special Forces unit before, would think. "Look," I said, "it'll be fine. Just nominate me for the board, and if I flunk it's my problem." This convinced him to pass the buck, kick the problem upstairs, and let the First Sergeant deal with it.
Which he did, summoning me to his office the next day. Having some notion how this was going to go, I took my armorer's toolkit with me. "Specialist Wombat," he began, "I'm not really comfortable with the supply sergeant nominating you for the promotion board."
"Why not, First Sergeant?"
"Well, you're a linguist, and you really ought to be nominated by SFC X or Staff Sergeant Y."
"I don't work for either one of them, First Sergeant. I'm the unit armorer. I report to the supply sergeant and fall in with the Service Platoon. In fact, the supply sergeant will be writing my first NCO evaluation." That made him wince.
"I don't know, Specialist Wombat. This is pretty irregular. I don't think I'm going to forward the recommendation."
"Okay, First Sergeant. I guess I'll be running along to the orderly room for reassignment, then. And I'll just leave this with you." I gestured to the toolkit as I stood up.
"What? Wait, you can't leave that there!"
"I'm resigning as armorer, First Sergeant. I've been doing the unit a favor filling that slot, with the expectation that I'd be nominated for promotion after I got my secondary MOS that allows me to fill the slot. If that's not going to happen, I'll go back to the comex platoons and you can find another 76Y to do the job. In which case I won't need the toolkit."
He knew as well as I did that there was no way he could force me to work in the arms room. While 76Ys might be in temporary short supply, 98Gs were a permanent shortage MOS. I could volunteer to work in the arms room, which I had, but he couldn't keep me there if I didn't want to stay.
He stared at me balefully. "Jesus, Wombat, you're a pain in the ass, aren't you?"
"I just want what every other linguist in the company gets, First Sergeant. A fair shot at the promotion board."
"All right, then. Take your toolbox and get out of my office. I'm scheduling you for the November board, and then you'll go to Battalion in December for their board."
That was the way it went. I polished everything that could be polished, memorized the study guide, and blew away the company board, winning the Soldier of the Month award into the bargain. Three weeks later I went to Frankfurt and did just as well at the battalion board, slam-dunking every question having to do with weapons and confidently answering all the others. I found out later that the Battalion Sergeant Major was furious and had cast the only vote against me. How sad for him. With a total score in the neighborhood of 800 points after including military & civilian education, the extra points for my secondary MOS, and all the time in service/time in grade points, the only way I wasn't going to be promoted in January was if they caught me with a dead girl or a live boy. No sweat.
1. Radio Battalions were the Marine equivalent of ASA units; this one, logically enough, was the SIGINT unit supporting the Second Marine Division.
2. Scuttlebutt said he'd been a linguist/interrogator/intercept operator attached to the Special Operations Group.
3. Due to a temporary shortage of teletype operators who qualified for the appropriate clearance, I wound up attached to the signal platoon anyway for REFORGER 81 and 82, since I was part of Service Platoon and hanging around the company TOC anyway.