Organizations reward and shower favors on experience and seniority. Freshmen do the heavy lifting, while sophomores delight that they are no longer at the bottom. In the military, promotion is the reward which bestows what is expressed as RHIP – Rank Has Its Privilege’s. When I saw that in action I created my own letters, PP – Preparation for the Party. My vocabulary was not yet sufficient to craft acronyms like – Prerequisites for promotions.
Pretty soon my reputation as a hard-working medical corpsman earned recommendations for assignment to various wards or clinics. During the next seven years I gained experience and performed on surgical, neurological/neurosurgical, orthopedic wards, and in urology and OBGYN clinics. My most satisfying performance was in surgery, where I gained the status of Senior Surgical Technician.
In 1957 when the Air Force dedicated the Wilford Hall Medical Center, the largest Air Force hospital, I was assigned as Ward Master of “show place,” the only ward on the first floor. Airmen who trained at Lackland AFB remember their first medical exams and shots were administered at the facility dubbed “Big Willie.”
Other activities of significance during my seven-year tour of duty at Lackland were my marriage, becoming the father of two children, and performing as the starting quarterback of the Medical Squadron Intramural football team, competing against other teams of post-college and pre-professional athletes, and becoming co-champions.
But it was as a Ward Master that two specific events charted another fork in my road. The first was —
One day a patient asked me for additional help beyond the scope of my official duties. He was a master sergeant whose home station was Randolph Air Force Base, then the headquarters for world-wide personnel assignments and other major administrative affairs. Here, I refer to him as Nick.
Nick anticipated a lengthy hospitalization, so when his wife arrived for her daily visit, he asked me to join them for a special conference. He asked if I would be the primary respondent if his family needed anything during his absence from home. Even though Randolph was approximately 50 miles away along two-lane highways in those days, I gave my assurances and informed my wife to expect a call from his wife and be ready to assist me if necessary. There never was a crisis that required my intervention, but my pledge gave him peace of mind.
Then, I had to —
Plead My Own Case
Even though I was performing at my highest level as a staff sergeant, I had a festering gripe. No matter how hard I worked, my prospects of getting promoted were negligible until I received training at the School of Aviation Medicine (SAM). One day I read the announcement of the forthcoming visit by the Air Inspector, the person whose job was to investigate the veracity of complaints and disclosures, and to inform the proper commanders or agencies to take remedial action. I made an appointment to plead my case for higher medical education.
Even as I entered the room, I felt disconnected to the inspector. He was a major, and his posture projected superiority and formality, rather than creating an atmosphere of concern. His greeting:
Major: “What’s on your mind, Sergeant?” It was a cold inquiry.
Sgt. Alexander: “Sir, my numerous requests for advanced medical training at the SAM have been ignored or discounted.” His reply was stern.
Major: “Maybe the training slots are going to others who outrank you.”
Sgt. Alexander: Maybe you’re right, Major, and if you are, then I’m entitled to know that’s the reason. But, frankly, sir, those of us at this, the largest Air Force hospital, know that a disproportionate number of slots are going to smaller medical units, and that doesn’t make sense to me.
Major: Making sense to you is not the concern of the Air Force as it formulates policy or allocates slots for training.
Sgt. Alexander: I think you’re wrong, Major. I am a non-commissioned officer, responsible for implementing Air Force policy. If those policies don’t make some sense to me, then I can’t perform or supervise people to do stupid things. Then I stood and looked directly into his eyes and politely recognized his authority:
Sgt. Alexander: “Sir, it just seems to me that anyone who has the authority to investigate and correct a stupid policy should get busy.”
Major: That will be all, Sergeant.
For the next few weeks, I controlled my disappointment by suggesting that the major might have been overwhelmed with complaints. After all, if all he heard all day is complaints, maybe after a while they all seemed alike. It was an attitude of generosity to assuage my own turmoil. It might have been more appropriate to suggest that he change his attitude or change his job. But staff sergeants don’t write performance reports for majors, so I went back to work and set a timetable for submitting another request.
At approximately 3 p.m., on December 24, 1957, I received an urgent phone call which summoned me to the Orderly Room. The clerk gave me orders to report to the SAM, located at Gunter AFB, Montgomery, Alabama, on January 2, 1958. Such assignments are generally known more than one hour before quitting time, one day before Christmas, and just nine days before the beginning of class. Ninety percent of the late notice wreaked the smell of revenge for my complaint to the Air Inspector. I was 95 percent certain that someone wanted me to request deferment to a later class — which they would defer indefinitely. I was 100 percent determined to make the deadline.
On May 16, 1958, I graduated – with honors.
The Pledge Remembered
Approximately three years after his discharge from the hospital, and after I had graduated from the SAM and returned to Lackland, I had an urgent telephone call. The caller’s memory was vivid. “Hey, Sergeant Alexander, this is Nick.” We exchanged updates about our families and careers, and then he gave me bad news and good news. “You must have pissed somebody off, your name just came up for an assignment in Turkey, where you can’t take your family. That’s the bad news. The good news is, I’m in charge of world-wide medical technician assignments, so you and your family pack your bags for assignment at South Ruislip, England.” I was so excited that I asked, “Where is South England?” He said, “You will love South Ruislip. It’s located within 40 minutes to the center of London.” Then he added, “Alex, I remember, when I needed you, you didn’t hesitate. Thanks again.” End of conversation. We never spoke again.
And I took the other fork in the road.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves. Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content. Good memories are not exhausted by time.
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