Ringing the Bell

Filed under: — lana @ 12:14 pm

It took me two years, but I finally figured out one of the strangest Soldiers I have had the misfortune of guiding.

He is not a bad person. He is nice, polite, respectful (Except when he smirks. I hate it when he smirks. Especially when he is wrong), follows directions well, takes criticism and tries to improve… one would think he is a model Soldier. Were he a private, he might well be.

Trouble is, he is not. He is, not by my doing, a Non-Commissioned Officer. But he has trouble leading others and generally doing his job because he seems to be a little afraid of people. I am not just talking about being scared of me, which he is, but he is nervous around just about everyone. In our field, that makes everyone else nervous around you. That is not so good. I’ve gotten calls after sending him to another office requesting that next time could I please send someone else or just go myself. I am fairly sure even the Germans find him peculiar, and these are people that still think acid-washed jeans are awesome.

I finally, however, figured him out today. I was describing a recent class I ran on questioning techniques, since it appears that some of the people in the office just can’t seem to grasp the concept that we are in the business of details. I was noting that he actually did fairly well when it came to tedious, meticulous questioning. Normally, when I make up stories to role play for Soldier training, I am not bored because I can mess around and make up things and try to see how observant they are. This time, I started getting bored sometime around the half hour mark of him getting the description of one of my made-up characters. He didn’t even get to the part where the guy was wearing a white, pleather suit and an ostentatious pinkie ring before I finally cut it short, the training having lasted longer than anticipated as it was and I was getting sleepy.

I realized that he can question. Boring, but thorough. That is good most of the time, naturally, in our line of work, but he was still stuck on the social aspect. Meanwhile, the other two in the training were still giving blank looks and twitching when they thought they might want to write something down. I mostly gave up hope on them already, though, so that was fine.

The social aspect of our job is when boring no longer becomes boring, encouraging the person to spew out everything as fast as you can register it and write it down. Me? I was bored. But there was something there, something I have been missing in the two years he has been in the office: he was, after all tedious and methodical. There are jobs in the Army that are tedious and methodical. Ours is not one, but I know several that certainly are.

Upon pondering this when discussing it with others, I figured it out: he was what I have now termed an “After the Bell” guy. In initial training for these jobs there is always a bell signifying when the end of one phase starts and another is to begin, so the hired role players can ensure the student gets the correct, allotted questioning time. If the student can’t figure out the role player’s scripted motivation before the bell, right after the bell rings the role player usually says something along the lines of, “Well, what I would LOVE is…” and drops a hint you would have to be on Mars swimming in polar ice lakes to miss. Even if this happens, this doesn’t always fail a student for the first part of the iteration; this is both a good and bad thing.

It is good because it puts the focus on questioning, which is the bulk of the job only because the student needs something to report.

It is bad because it convinces the student they are socially okay when they might not be. Then they bundle those people up and send them to me. It’s how my life works, it seems. It is also completely unrealistic and never allows the student to realize that real life has no bell in a social situation. Instead, they think they are the best ever at the job because they are a meticulous questioner and never totally failed the social parts despite being ineffective.

My guy, as I figured out during this exercise, was an “After the Bell” guy. He can’t walk up to someone and start a conversation without the other person wishing they had an appointment somewhere, anywhere, five minutes ago. He can’t pick up social cues to figure out what someone likes, and is visibly uncomfortable trying to do so. He doesn’t like the social aspects of the job.

He relies on the bell.

Once the bell rings, he can launch into asking questions and be fine, following up to the minute detail until the other person passes out from sheer boredom. Before the bell, he is awkward and really a little creepy. After the bell he is normal with the exception of being totally uninteresting. He has always insisted to me that he did well at school, and I believe him based on this assessment: the school is designed that way. We had someone in my class who smeared feces on the wall. Yes, that should scare people a little, but it’s okay: we heard she was kicked out right after graduation for being a little bananas. But it goes to show that just about anyone of any social skill level can still pass as long as they can meet the basic standards. He could meet the social standards without handling poo and could question people to the point of sleepiness, so he is a win in the training books.

To me, he is a win as an analyst. They can do all that questioning, bossing us around with their requirements, without talking to a single person themselves. They read whatever drivel I churn out and then tell me what I missed. He is a reports junkie and loves it. Plus, it would mean that he would get to smirk at me in his mind every time he churned out a requirement I might have to meet. I would concede to that victory to move him along out of this job field if that is what it took. I have started contacting some of my analyst buddies to help me out with smoothly converting him somewhere a little less… awkward.

I am starting to meet my quota as a non-commissioned officer. I have figured out what makes three out of four Soldiers tick, the fourth being new, and guided them as best I could to the extent they would listen to reason. Those that didn’t listen call on a semi-regular basis to express regrets. The fourth one is my next project, and she will be a doozy. I am tempted to just see if there is a deep hole that needs digging somewhere far away from anyone I respect and if that is, in fact, an Army position. I am working on it. This last one took me two years to finally figure out, having to rely on interactions with those of limited social skill sets which is never an easy task. But it served as a reminder that there is no bell to ring in most aspects of life, no way to just move on to the next phase without it being awkward and incomplete.

My own bell rings sometime within the next six months, though, moving me on to bigger and better things, or at least different things. There are a few bells rung in the Army, such as setting a specific date to change assignments. Good thing, too, because I still have no idea what motivates this unit and don’t think the extra few months are going to help. I can only hope that around the time the bell rings and I can move to my next station I get to hear their real motivations for the things they do. Should be interesting, and then I can leave the meticulous and dull follow-up questioning to the Soldier I am leaving behind.


Safety Last

Filed under: — lana @ 12:29 pm

The past week and a half or so the Army has largely left me alone. I do my thing, babysit a warrant and a few Soldiers, and occasionally get told that I am too angry because I sent snotty messages to my reports officer when he asks for another PowerPoint slide so he can show the Battalion where we are and what we do. Nothing out of the ordinary.

So that, naturally, means that it is Germany’s turn.

The other day it snowed. This being on the same latitude as Canada, one would think that this would not come as such a shock to the local residents. Tragically, one would be wrong.

0500, as it turns out, is way too early on a Saturday for a German to be out plowing the roads. It makes the Works Council (yes, there is such a thing… like a union but fewer mafioso and more whining) unhappy to think that the plow operators might have not had enough rest to sleep off the beer from the evening before. A reasonable concern, but doesn’t help anyone when the snow started the evening before. By the time they wander out into daylight, which is around 0800, there is a fine layer of ice under everything else. I like to think they are just trying to make it more fun.

So when I drove to my friend’s house to help her make cookies to send to Soldiers recently departed for points south, I noticed the roads were a bit slick for my 1991 rear-wheel drive beast. I confirmed this fact when I passed a Polizei sitting and reading a book in her car next to the scene of a flipped over and completely totalled vehicle. I then narrowly dodged being hit by a car sliding around a curve, who I then watched spin out in my rearview mirror and bump out to get stuck in a field less than 50 meters from the Polizei, who looked mildly annoyed. Her having seen the accident, I kept plodding along, making the 15 minute drive to my friend’s house in about 30 minutes.

The way back, almost 11 hours later, was no picnic. Slipping to my car and then taking five minutes just to convince my car that backing out of a spot onto the road was a good idea, I figured it would be prudent to take my time going home.

Apparently, this was where I went wrong. I made it to within a mile of my house, just turning onto the main road in town, when the blue lights and the “STOP! POLIZEI!” lights flashed behind me. I went a block ahead and found a place to pull over.

Upon discovering that I spoke English, the Polizei decided to speak it as well, which was fun because his English was about as good as my German. We understood each other enough for me to communicate that I have a strong dislike for poor driving conditions in darkness, and for him to communicate that he thought I was coming from the nearby American Refugee Camp, also known as the local Irish Pub. He wanted to know why I was driving so slowly and more towards the middle of the road, and why my car looked like it was weaving and slipping a little. I gave him an incredulous look, but then realized that I recently had Botox shot into my face as part of a perverse headache treatment attempt, so really I probably just looked rather young and blank. I instead explained to him that I have been in an accident on icy roads, and just that day had seen a few, so was trying to be careful. He sneered at me. He actually sneered at me. I don’t think he tought I would notice. I did. I was not happy. This is a culture that cannot seem to keep their roads clear, eventually just putting sand down on top of the snow when the plow guys decide they had enough for the day, had two accidents in a row just that I had observed in less than 12 hours, and he sneers at me because I tell him I am trying to be a prudent driver in poor weather conditions. Plus, I think I recognized him from previous trips to the indoor rifle range. We will see who gets expert next time, buddy, we will see…

I watched his partner slip and slide back to the Polizei vehicle to get her Breathalizer and agreed to play his game. To not do so would have meant a Driving Under the Influence with Refusal to Submit to Testing, plus a forced blood test on the spot, so I didn’t have many options aside from chatting with him to wait for her to return with the machine. To make small talk, I asked him if the roads were clear near where I lived. He tried to give me directions to my house. I stopped him to try again, and got more directions to my house. I decided I should give up and wondered which of us should take the test. He asked me if I was from Arizona, since that is where my most recent license is. I was getting tired, so I said sure and told him the desert is hot. He agreed. We were both content.

I blew a 0.00. They had me try again, apparently hoping for a higher score. I must have lost the game, because they seemed very disappointed when I failed to produce any trace of alcohol. I told them I had last had a glass of wine with dinner five hours before, but they could give it a third try if they really wanted to. They declined my offer. Before slipping back to their car, the nice Polizei told me to drive carefully. I bit my tongue, rather hard in fact, so I wouldn’t point out that was what had caused the trouble in the first place.

I know the nice Polizei were only trying to do their job by making the roads safer, taking the drunkards off the streets. I know I could have pointed out the quality of my automobile or the darkness or the ice that was raining down in little flecks onto his head to make him understand, but I knew that no matter what I was going to take the test and he would continue letting others speed by and whipping themselves into fields. Laws of German Nature, I suppose.

So instead I just told him he should really be wearing a hat to avoid catching cold, turned on my car, and plodded home at the same speed I had been traveling earlier: a few kilometers an hour under the posted speed limit. Meanwhile, they whipped around and went back to stake out the Pub. I finally made it home safely with nary even a citation to help explain the delay to the cat. It was only then that I realized I had forgotten to take any cookies home with me.

I blame it on Germany. If the Army isn’t doing it to me, it can only be the location. A few more months and there will be all new adventures. So long as I drive slowly enough but obviously not too slow, I should be able to live to see the day.

And that, I suppose, is the best I can hope for.


Two Cents

Filed under: — lana @ 5:22 pm

Want my two cents? Can’t have it. Sorry. Army already has it.

No, seriously, and quite literally. Nothing has changed in the regulations: Mother Army still really doesn’t care what her little peons like me have to say. I can give my two cents all day long, were it mine to give.

But it isn’t, because see, Mother Army didn’t give it to me.

Story goes like this. I shall do it in steps so those that might have trouble following a long story (as in, other Army folks) can follow along:

1) Soldier goes on five week temporary duty assignment halfway around the world.
2) Roughly two weeks into assignment, Soldier gets cryptic message saying that the approval for the assignment that Soldier is already on was retracted because someone accidentally hit the wrong button when trying to remind the Soldier to send a payment request voucher. How that happened is still something of a mystery expounded upon during previous sleepless nights.
3) Soldier completes assignment and returns to station.
4) Soldier finds a voucher cannot be submitted because the approval was returned.
5) Everyone gets perplexed.
6) Everyone remains perplexed for about a week and then tells Soldier to just start over with the paperwork because it is easier than figuring out the whole thing again.
7) Soldier is reminded of a conversation with one of her junior Soldiers about how he said something similar when his stripper fiancee cheated on him but he decided to go through the wedding because it was “just easier that way.”
8) Soldier remembers telling him he was an idiot and bites tongue and resubmits.
9) Soldier resubmits a few times to help some random person up the chain try and “streamline” the process, which eventually extends the process by a week or two.
10) Nothing happens for a few months except occasional calls to the company from the Sergeant Major wondering why nothing is happening and Soldier’s bills were not paid. Soldier wonders why the Sergeant Major doesn’t ask the people who sit at the desks upon which her paperwork has sat for two weeks, then returned, then sits again, then gets returned, and so on.
11) Soldier finally gets paid nearly three months after returning from a five week temporary duty assignment.

Here comes the kicker, folks:

12) The bill paid to the now-suspended government travel card, which was for several thousand dollars, was two cents short of the bill. Probably a conversion error somewhere, but two cents short nonetheless.
13) Soldier and supervisor both agree that at this point it is probably just spite instead of a conversion error.
14) Soldier beats head on desk repeatedly. Supervisor puts Soldier’s mittens on the desk to absorb some of the shock, since they just got some new computers over the summer and he is signed for them and would hate to see the Soldier damage them with the daily beating of Soldier’s head on the desk.

Two cents. No big deal, right?

One would think so. Trouble is, the card is suspended. That means the entire bill needs to be paid before the card can be unfrozen. To include those last two cents. The two cents I would love to give the Army, only the Army already has them and won’t give them to the government card.

So as I wait for the new bill showing the paltry sum so I can figure out what to do, I realize that I have a few options right now:

1) Wait a few weeks for my name to come on the delinquent roster again for bills owed. This might be entertaining only because it would mean that the Sergeant Major would have to find a way to complain with a straight face that I am delinquent on debt for two cents. That alone might be worth the utterly annoyed and exasperated telephone call from my Commander that would result. I would hope he would counsel me in writing for it. That would be a keeper along with the electric tape extravaganza from my time at Bragg. I really like silly counselings. I keep them to remind myself to never get like that. Ever.
2) Suck up my pride and do an electronic check through my bank to the government card for the bill. I like my bank, though, and don’t want them to laugh at me, hiding their electronic smirks behind their electronic hands.
3) Tape two pennies to a notecard and mail it to the government card. I don’t think they take cash, though.
4) Write a check for two cents and send it in. Both 3 and 4 have the additional problem that stamps cost 44 cents now. I would be spending 2200 times my bill to send in payment. I feel like that violates some of these new laws about absurd rates and such. I would then feel the need to write my Congressman, which would need another 44 cents. Now I am 4400 times my bill for this little problem. That is just out of control and a travesty. I can’t be so wasteful.
5) Have the bill in hand, call the company, and offer to give them my two cents. I have a nice rant on the political climate in eastern Africa that I have been saving up for such an occasion. See how long it takes them to hang up.

Quite frankly, I am wondering if the government card company is actually ballsy enough to send a bill for two cents. If they are, well, kudos to them and I shall pay after copying it to frame for my Commander’s wall. I strongly suspect that they will, seeing as they are on a government contract anyway. I’ll get the frame ready.

At least this finally gives me an excuse to give some of these people my two cents. All I need is for the first person to ask for it…


Use and Abuse

Filed under: — lana @ 4:34 pm

Even after they leave, Soldiers can be useful.

Case in point: My Branch Manager is highly elusive. He is a very nice guy on the phone, but very busy and so if you don’t catch him with enough time to accomplish the entire task needed before the conversation is over, it may not get done. Good luck getting him on the phone, too, because most of the time that involves dealing with his full voicemail box, his unread email inbox, and usually calling at an obscene hour. Luckily, his obscene hours fall in the middle of my day, so that helps, but nevertheless he is a wily one, ducking and dodging phone calls even better than a warrant officer can dodge a full day’s work. The difference is that Branch Managers control assignments and reenlistments, making them fairly important people with whom we start to get fairly frantic in our attempts to get in touch when threats of Fort Gordon loom in our possible future.

So we found that if we call another lady who works down the hall from him sometimes we can convince her to transfer the call over if she knows he is in the office. It isn’t very nice, and it very obviously annoys her to no end particularly after I let the secret out to a few other people in my position who now don’t even bother trying our Branch Manager’s real number anymore. Today one of the warrants tried to get her to do it and she finally told him no, call in half an hour, and don’t call her. I took that as my cue to get hopeless for ever getting the class date I need to get promoted or get an assignment that doesn’t involve me contemplating just how far I could get if I squeezed out the window and took off across the lawn towards anything looking like freedom, what with freedom being particularly hard in both Korea and Georgia, the two current threats. I needed the class and no one but Branch could put me in. I had to find him. Now.

I started to lose hope until my warrant came up with a plan: Call the other lady and pretend I had a Soldier who would fall into her realm, one who is our sister job and a sergeant or below. I told him she looks them up by service number and name, so I couldn’t just make one up. My head fell into my hands… and then he mentioned my previous Soldier.

My previous Soldier hates the military. We get along fine, particularly now that he is gone. He periodically sends me emails and even calls to tell me that he understands now all those days I threatened his well-being and why I did all the things I did. He would kill me, rightfully, for what I was about to do: put him on the Branch radar for re-enlistment.

I did it anyway. He is not happy with his current assignment anyway, so what is the harm in asking about options that would send him back to this hole? I called as a favor to him, of course, and was therefore most upset that I would have to let him down by telling him that he was not able to move again for at least another year, maybe even more. Bummer (and something I already knew). But hey, while I have her on the phone, could she transfer me over to my own Branch Manager?

By the end of the day, I had a class date. Not the one I wanted, but a class date that might keep me in the running for promotion even if at the bottom of the list because of the late timing of the class.

Every Soldier uses and abuses his NCO. It is what we are here for, really, while we are accountable for that Soldier and he falls within our realm of influence. But once they are gone, it is fair game to take their names in vain and potentialy bring retention’s persistent wrath upon them. He is an NCO now, which means he can now attempt to employ some sort of retribution against me, but he also thought Hugo Chavez was from Russia for awhile so I am not that concerned. I’ll thank him for putting up with my abuse, albeit unwittingly and from halfway around the world, one last time when I next see him.

All I know is I have a class date and I don’t have to go to Georgia, nor do I have to call that lady again and have her catch wise and ban me from calling as she banned the warrant earlier today. I already have a long list of places I am not supposed to call; I would hate to have to start a new page.


Receipt for Payment

Filed under: — lana @ 3:11 pm

This morning, I lost my patience.

Not that such an event should come as a shock to anyone, but nevertheless it turned out to be a rather traumatic experience.

I decided this morning to check on the status of my travel voucher. Much to my surprise, it appeared to have passed on to the next level! I decided to doublecheck and opened it up to see who had the courage to actually do their job for the day. Upon doing so, I noticed that it said “Adjustment.” My warrant started to giggle. Adjustments are never in our favor. I opened it up at his prompting and immediately saw the trouble.

Something to the effect of “Until your final receipt for your auto rental is included, you will not get paid for your rental. When you have the receipt, submit an amendment to be repaid for that.” In very fine print, it laughed at me and called me a sucker.

The thing was, I submitted the final receipt the rental company provided for me after my return to Germany. I was, therefore, once again confounded by the perplexities of the system. Surely there was something missing? No, indeed the receipt was loaded into the system just as it has been for well over a month in total. Perhaps it was illegible or not clearly a receipt? No, I understood it just fine and the amount on it matched the amount paid on my credit card statement. I notified my Commander and then realized that it was Training Meeting Day, which has a tendency to turn into a seven hour affair, so my warrant prompted me to get more information by calling the person who left the cryptic adjustment on my voucher.

The conversation started out pretty normally: I was told there was probably nothing anyone could do, a hearty “Eff You,” but at least he would hand me to the person who made the adjustment so he could confirm.

The next conversation was rather circular in nature. It consisted of the person telling me he needed the final receipt and me explaining to him that I submitted the final receipt. He insisted that there was another receipt I needed because this wasn’t the final receipt. I informed him that indeed, it was, it even said “Receipt” in bold letters at the top. He insisted he needed the receipt from after my final payment. I pointed out the total amount and how it matched my statement and the dates and the account numbers and informed him, patiently, that it was the only receipt sent after I requested it directly from the company several days after the payment was made and this was what was sent so please just give me the money you owe me and I will go away. He said no, he needs the final receipt.

He wanted something, anything, that told him the balance on the receipt was zero. Apparently, “Balance Owed: Zero” was the key phrase missing. The receipt showed the amount owed to the company, the credit card used for payment, the itemized charges, and so on, and he also could see that the bill identified the company and matched the dates, accounts, and amount, but that was not enough. He wanted the company to generate a “Balance Owed: Zero” statement for me. Until then, perhaps they would pay me the rest of what they have owed for several months, but will hold the rental repayment until I can come up with the balance receipt, which does not exist in this world as far as I am aware. I hung up the phone, put my head in my hands, and finally worked up the nerve to write a pleading request to the company to please generate the receipt. The adjustor had also mentioned, in passing, that if I could get in writing from the company that they would not generate such a document, in other words tell me Eff You, it would also be good enough for him. He just needed a formal Eff You in writing, and until then he would continue to just give me a hearty Eff You.

My Commander then called, having received my email. I told him about the conversation. He got irate, mostly because the entire thing was absurd. He ranted, he raved, he called Battalion. Battalion agreed to call the adjustment demons. The Commander ranted and raved until he had to go so he could call back Battalion for an answer.

Five minutes later he called me back, possibly about to cry. The adjustors had told Battalion to Eff You, making Battalion call my Commander to tell him Eff You, so he had no choice but to call me and tell me Eff You. He did mention that he was not going to repeat the excuses that he was given, because as far as he could tell none were valid, but to find a way to get the company to either generate the receipt these people wanted or at least tell me Eff You in writing. Apparently, that one last Eff You is the key to repayment paradise around here. It’s like levels of success, and the more people who can tell you that one phrase in a day, the closer you are to getting what you want. Somehow, it all works out that way around here. It’s a little bit of a backwards system, I think, but what do I know, really?

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