Looking out onto the sea of camouflage uniforms, I was as nervous as a menopausal chicken on soup day.
Like most Midtowners, I awake to the charming sounds of reveille every morning. But I don’t have much occasion to visit Hunter Army Airfield, where Capt. Ethan Miller had invited me to speak to the men and women of the HHC/4-3 Assault Helicopter Battalion.
Yet there I was, a little ol’ pacifist blinking around the conference room armed with nothing more than a chewed-up ballpoint pen.
I must confess I never expected to be facing a group of soldiers that wasn’t a firing squad.
But Capt. Ethan approached me to be part of a new experiment he’s been working on, which has nothing to do with administering LSD to chimpanzees and everything to do with giving his company a competitive edge to work within the military—and without.
“I’m always looking for ways to implement new skills and break up the routine,” he explained to me when we first met for coffee.
“Plus, a lot of my soldiers are concerned with getting jobs when they get out of the Army.”
Today’s soldiers face budget slashes, moving-target policies and a post-service unemployment rate three percent higher than for civilians—not to mention enemies who don’t play by the same rules of war as previous generations. With Veterans Affairs in deep crisis and its hospitals resembling scandalous snakepits, America’s armed forces need to think fast to stay ahead.
Capt. Ethan represents the sleeker, smarter strategies of a new kind of Army, one that values communication as much as combat and engages with its surrounding communities. A kinetic ball of energy who favors Roberto Cavalli sweaters and regularly quotes Malcolm Gladwell, the seasoned helicopter pilot doesn’t just think outside of the box, he uses it as a stepladder to get a better view.
“The future is connectivity. I’d like to close the gap between soldiers and civilians,” he says, describing a downtown scavenger hunt he devised to familiarize his company with Savannah’s “cultural corridor.”
(I actually ran into some members of HHC/4-3 AHB that Sunday, and while they appeared to be having a blast, you do not want to interfere with a bunch of competitive military types trying to track down how many kinds of pralines are sold at River Street Sweets.)
The captain has also introduced a series of optional lectures led by what he calls an “expert village.” He’s had gurus talk about everything from running to paintball, and he recently brought in Floralife VP Jim Daly to discuss the corporate practices of the world’s largest flower food supplier.
I came to deliver a discourse on the application of metalogistics on field operations, so ... kidding! Capt. Ethan is a regular reader of this column and thought I might be just the person to encourage his charges to enliven their written language chops.
I warned him that there may be NSA surveillance footage of me from the early ‘90s protesting the first Gulf War and that I only wear combat boots ironically. He was still eager for me to “leverage my specialty” with his soldiers. While military writing guidelines are comprehensive, they’re far from poetic.
“Communication is the most important skill,” he encouraged. “I think they would appreciate your perspective.”
I don’t know about that, but I concur with the captain that clarity, tone and proper grammar usage make everything better. So after I got over the initial shock of standing in a room of steely-eyed conscripts, we talked about why words matter and how to use them in the resumes and emails and love letters that make up a life. (Remember, friends: A thesaurus is not a large extinct lizard!)
I’ve always maintained the best way to improve one’s writing is to read, so we had a mini-book club session about what was on our nightstands. The gamut ran from historical biographies to urban fiction, though I thought for sure there would be more George R. R. Martin fans.
As we bantered, I began to feel less like the fourth member of Pussy Riot awaiting the gulag. The wall between soldier and civilian turned out to be pretty permeable, and by the end of the hour, it was just a bunch of folks sitting around a conference table talking about books (except that most of them happened to be wearing matching outfits.)
It occurred to me that Capt. Ethan’s experiment was working.
After he dismissed the members of his company, who each took their leave with a hearty salute, Capt. Ethan rewarded me with a visit to a Blackhawk helicopter. He even let me press a bunch of buttons and everything. As we crunched across the gravel parking lot, he acknowledged that at home, his wife, Christina, is the real commander.
“She’s pretty much in charge,” grinned the captain, who can’t wait for General Christina and their two children to move from Germany to Savannah this summer after she finishes her Masters degree at Munich University.
“This is a pretty spectacular community. We’re looking forward to putting down roots here.”
No matter how we feel about war, there’s no denying that it’s regular people who end up fighting it. While our collective treatment of America’s soldiers has improved much from the Vietnam spitting era, putting them on pedestals doesn’t do them any favors, either.
Appreciation of our troops must be more than lip service—it needs into translate to better medical care, expanded educational opportunities and job training. As the Army struggles to evolve, we must be willing to treat active military and veterans not as transient bodies but as neighbors and coworkers.
I’m grateful for the chance to commune with these soldiers not as uniforms but as humans. My old combat boots may never get further than a punk show at The Jinx, but it was truly an expansive exercise to imagine walking a couple of miles in theirs.