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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A moment that only a few of you will fully understand/appreciate

One of the many hats I wear at work is that of liaison between my company and the many visiting military officers from countries with which we do business.  My fluency in english, previous service in the U.S. military, and current role in marketing/customer service make this both a natural assignment and a good fit.

However, (and here's where I will probably lose many of you who haven't served in the military), at some point whenever former / current military people get together, an informal exchange of personal information (also known as trading war/sea stories depending on what branch of the service you served in), takes place which is essential to helping size each other up.

This process of exchanging information becomes doubly important if one or both people is out of uniform, since the clues that would normally be gleaned at a glance (branch of service, rate/rank, qualifications, awards/medals, etc.) have to be given over long-hand.

For example, within five seconds of meeting someone in a military uniform, I can tell what country they are from, how senior they are, and can usually surmise from their ribbons and badges what kind of training/responsibilities they've had and how 'colorful' a career they've led so far.

In the military, anytime you are in uniform and meet a commissioned officer outside who is senior to you, you are required to salute them first... and then they will acknowledge your salute with one of their own.  As an enlisted man (I was honorably discharged after four years in the Navy as a Petty Officer Second Class), I pretty much had to salute all officers. 

And in my experience, fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel was frowned upon (although I counted a couple of officers among my friends, back in the day).

I mention all this background because almost all of the officers I deal with on a professional basis these days are field grade, or or even flag officers.  And once the informal exchange of information I described above takes place, there is the occasional 'coolness' that results from the revelation that I was not an officer.  It isn't rudeness or a deliberate snub, mind you.  There is just a certain camaraderie among brother officers... very much the way there is a similar kinship among senior non-coms.

In recent months I have had the privilege of working closely with several high ranking foreign naval officers who have been stationed in Israel on a joint project with us.  In addition to the work-day contact, I have also shown them around, hosted them in my home and spent a lot of time explaining our culture to them. 

For the most part the rapport between us has been excellent, and I have not felt any reserve on their part when, in the course of exchanging stories, they figure out I was an enlisted man.  But there is one officer who seemed a bit more aloof when he found out I was a petty officer... and I couldn't help noticing that he was decidedly cool towards me for a few days after we had first exchanged 'sea stories'.

After a while he must have come around (or I stopped noticing the distance), because our daily meetings and frequent contact became very natural and cordial.  But I couldn't help noticing that he didn't exchange any more sea stories with me either.

Yesterday was this particular officer's last day with us, and I had asked him to stop by my office on his way out so I could say goodbye.  But when the appointed time came and went without his arrival, I started to get concerned.  I didn't think he would snub me... but I was concerned that he'd miss the ride I'd arranged for him to the airport.

As I reached for my cell phone, it rang... and it was the departing officer.  He asked me if I would step outside for a moment. 

"Outside?"  I asked him.  "Where, outside?"

"Just out in front of your building", he replied.

I went to the door and saw him standing at rigid attention just in front of my building's entrance.  When I stepped outside he locked his eyes on me, snapped a formal salute, and held it.

I was a bit stunned.   First of all, this was a bit unorthodox since I wasn't in uniform.  But more importantly, he was a senior field grade officer... certainly not someone who should salute me first (if at all).   But after a long moment when I saw he wasn't going to release his salute until I reacted, I snapped a respectful salute in return....upon which he released his own and allowed his serious face to break into a broad grin.

He came forward and shook my hand warmly and then drew me into a bear hug.  After he had thanked me for all my help on the project, and for making him feel at home in Israel, he gave me a small gift and a slip of paper on which was written his home address and phone number... with what I'm certain was a sincere invitation to visit him and his family when I am next in his country.

The gift he gave me is still wrapped on my desk.  It does't really matter what it is.  The real gift was the respect that was exchanged between us outside... something intangible but priceless that will probably remain a complete mystery to anyone who has never served in uniform.

Posted by David Bogner on April 27, 2010 | Permalink

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i may not fully appreciate- but an excellent post- i felt like i was watching the exchange between the two of you- thanks!

Posted by: roberti | Apr 27, 2010 5:01:29 PM

Oh.... I don't know.... Having lived with you for nearly 19 years, I think I can deeply appreciate the significance of this exchange even though I never served!

What a wonderful moment! LOVED reading this post!

(Also curious if it was one of the last two officers I met -- and if so, if my guess of which one is correct!)

Posted by: zahava | Apr 27, 2010 6:14:13 PM

This speaks volumes about you, David. Though I have not served, I do understand the gulf between an NCO and a Field Officer. To have this officer salute you speaks to the type of individual you are.
L'Hitraot.
MH

Posted by: MIchael Harbater | Apr 27, 2010 6:56:11 PM

Wow. Very special. And I have to agree - definitely a statement about you as a person, outside of the outward designations of rank or status. Much deserved.

Posted by: Alissa | Apr 27, 2010 7:20:18 PM

What they said.

I finished reading this post with a lump in my throat.

Posted by: Rahel | Apr 27, 2010 9:24:48 PM

Beautiful, man, that was just beautiful.

Posted by: At The back of the Hill | Apr 27, 2010 11:26:31 PM

Good on ya, STG2. :)

Something else to think about. They may be cool toward you at first because the gulf between officer and enlisted is much wider in the rest of the world. Enlisted personnel in their world aren't just inferior in rank, they are often members of an inferior class within their society. As USN Petty Officers, we came from the same social strata as most of our officers. We also had much more responsibility and were better educated than our counterparts in most other navies.

Posted by: sobersubmrnr | Apr 28, 2010 12:03:10 AM

The coolest things happen to you.

Posted by: Raizy | Apr 28, 2010 1:39:01 AM

wow, Trep, awesome post. Seriously waiting for you to write a book.

Posted by: Hadassah | Apr 28, 2010 5:51:40 AM

What a great post! I am sure that salute has been richly deserved many times before, even if it wasn't demonstrated.

What a pity those of us in Civvy Street don't have such a respectful way of showing our appreciation "across the divide". So I guess two thumbs up will have to do for now.

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Apr 28, 2010 6:25:31 AM

Wonderful post and a tribute to the sort of person you are.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Apr 28, 2010 4:58:41 PM

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