Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Full-Bird Lieutenant

Tomorrow morning, I'll wake up obscenely early at my home-away-from-home (really, just a couple minutes' drive from home) at Mount Vernon and Bowers. I'll stumble down the stairs to the car, fire up the British-accented Economist podcasts, gun it to Worcester, grab some Awake Tea and a bagel at the Starbucks off Exit 16 on 290, and see the sun come up along 395 as the automatic lights come off somewhere near Norwich just after 6 a.m. I'll pass Mohegan, turn onto 12, flash an ID to an MA with woodland cammies, park, and hoof it to the gym. I'll PT, shower, change, and put on my uniform with the single, silver O-2 bars for the last time ever.

It's not because of anything special I've done, mind you. As they promised me back on 18FEB05 when I got to wear the neat Service Dress Blues with the single gold stripe, if I could still breathe on a mirror and see some fog on the first day of the first month four years after commissioning, I'd put on O-3. By the grace of God, I have. And I will. On Monday, an O-7 will put the bars you see at the top here on my collar, and I'll lose the "Junior Grade" from my title. Here's what it'll mean:

(1) More pay. I know it's not about the money, except when it's needed...and then it is. Or that money doesn't buy happiness, but it sure helps. Or something like that. All I know is that O-3 means a nice jump in pay (it's purposely designed that way, as O-3 is when officers have to make the bomb-or-get-off-the-pot decision about their careers, so the military entices them with a pay boost at that point). The dual whammy for me here is that I'm not renewing my lease down by the base. Yup, that's right -- for my last several months' active duty, I'm going to split my time between Market and Mt. Vernon, except when I'm too damn tired, on duty, or have too big of a brief to prep, in which case I can crash at the Lodge or the Q. Either way, I've done the math and it means a lot -- no more deficit spending, or dipping into the savings that, on paper at least, have taken a 50% dive in the past year. It also means I can start tithing at exactly the one year mark of joining my church (CCF, Princeton and Stevens just off Westford...check it out sometime). In a way I hate to make money the number 1 item, but if you can believe it, I've been living for the past year on what you might call an upside-down budget, which is obviously unsustainable. That all changes now.

(2) More respect. Now, my title doesn't *really* change until later this year, because I'm a phone Lieutenant in the same way an O-4 is a "Commander," an O-5 is a "Colonel" (yes, I'm nodding to Cliff Krieger, a real full bird, for whom I use the title of this piece in gest), or an O-7 is a "General." Still, the really big deal is the extra bar.

Here's why: Anytime someone sees an O-1 or an O-2, they can generally tell how long that person has been in the service, with only a year or so as a margin of error. O-3 is different. It's a rank that people hold for as long as 6 years, or more in some cases. So, you see an O-3, that could be a newly-minted guy or it could be someone just about to put on Major, or, for the sea services, Commander. No one will say "Why the eff is an O-2 wearing a Commendation Ribbon?" anymore (that's a sub community thing...I could write volumes about ribbons and medals, but I'll spare you the pain for now. Suffice it to say no other subject brings highly-animated debate that always starts with, "I don't care about awards, but..."

Anyway, O-1 is an Officer rank, so it's technically higher than even a Master Chief or Sergeant Major, but it's functionally not. In fact, in some ways, O-1 is one of the *lowest* ranks there is, because you take grief from all sides as a "butter bar." O-2 is only slightly better -- the same name for the ground/air services, or, for the Navy, Ensign Upper Half or "I can't believe it's not butter." (In reference to the bar now being silver).

At O-3, things start to change. You're still a JO, but now you can call a huge additional chunk of people by their first names and the overall respect you garner goes way up from every which way -- junior and senior enlisted, the officers below you, and your superiors.

(3) Less room for error. As you might guess, with Number Two comes the fact that a little more is expected. People are a little less surprised when you know the answer or come up with something that answers the mail for the boss. That, in turn, means less forgiveness for your screw-ups. Again, that applies to both the officers and enlisted around you...higher expectations and more of a chance that someone might be let down if you do something stupid (i.e. Can you believe that Captain screwed up so badly at the brief? What an ass clown!) The sort of magical "Get Out of Jail Free" card that O-1s and O-2s carry is now lost forever.

(4) A much cooler title, come the switch-over. I talked the folks in Millington, TN who control my fate yesterday. The exact date is still very much in question, but yes, they've confirmed that at some point this year (calendar, not necessarily fiscal, but we'll see) the magical DD-368 will be signed that will make me an Army O-3 vice a Navy O-3. So in a day I'll go from "Lieutenant" to "Captain." That's a really big deal. Because terms like "Ensign" and "Lieutenant" are often used pejoratively (hey, you can't spell 'LOST' without 'LT'), people are happy to shed them. Plus, Captain just sounds cooler. And it will confuse the hell out of my Navy friends who will think I somehow pulled a Stephen Decatur and jumped to O-6 before age 30. (That's because in the Navy, 'Captain' is an O-6...the highest rank below Admiral).

I'll be a little sad to see O-2 go, but I should have the next 5 or 6 years to embrace O-3. I purposely joined a Branch where you can still stay *active* (i.e. not just pushing paper) beyond O-3, so I won't cry about being relegated to desk jockey life as an O-4 or above in Civil fact, in CA higher rank/older age is considered a plus, because you're often dealing with foreign militaries and societies that are more rank/age conscious than our own.

In the meantime, I've got plenty of time to embrace and get comfortable with O-3.

I signed on for the $10k accession bonus with the Guard, which is like a marriage, only far more legally binding. In other words, who am I kidding, I love this stuff and can't let go, even if I'm opting for the stability-of-domicile that the Guard offers as opposed to active duty. I get giddy like a little kid when I think about the Bragg-Huachuca-Benning circuit that next year will bring before the real C-17 ride to wherever-the-heck-the-26th-MEB is headed. (Remember whose ears perk up when Pres. Obama talks about reducing *combat troops* from certain theaters).

In the meantime, every day is a chance to get a little bit better than my former self. Every qual, every brief, every PT run, and every DLPT flashcard session hopefully leads to that. Because the train towards the gold oak leaf is moving, albeit off in the far distance.

Time to start running.


C R Krieger said...

1) Congratulations. This does mean you are buying, right?

2) Having met a newly minded Air Force Doctor, in the temporary quarters (trailers) at Eglin AFB so long ago, who was putting his rank on for the first time--and he had NAVY gold oak leaves instead of Air Force. I know the rank is different in small ways--unless the Navy has rolled over. I was just a major selectee at the time and gave the good Doctor my real Air Force oak leaves my wife had purchased for me so he would look right on his first day at work (Good thing I ran into him that morning--he was putting the rank on upside down). So, long story short, shouldn't the LIEUTENANT "standard gauge railway" insignia have the connectors out at the ends? The photo looks like Army/Air Force rank.

3) A great and wonderful post and so true.

Regards -- Cliff

kad barma said...

Congratulations indeed!!!

As I understand it's not specifically prohibited under the rules of your current command--I asked Dad, who rolled (floated?) with Nimitz in '45--I will assume that you are, indeed, going to try to be buying, but let me assure you right up front that your money will be no good this weekend. UMass is playing Northeastern at the Tsongas on Saturday night, in case you don't know where to start.

Matt said...

Promised or not, it's still an awesome achievement. Congrats.

The New Englander said...


Hey, thanks for the great comments and well-wishing. I checked and it looks like we've all closed ranks on the insignia thing (bad pun semi-intended). Hope to see all of you in the near future..


Shannon said...


Congratulations!! I am very excited for you! I don't know a whole lot about military and rank so thanks for breaking it down, how neat to move forward like that!
Your passion and love for your work is really refreshing. The way that you look forward to being held even more accountable for your actions is out of the ordinary and pretty darn encouraging!

Thanks and nice work!!!


The New Englander said...


Hey! Thanks for the kind looks like a major east coast blizzard has delayed the promotion ceremony by at least a few hours, but a little more waiting is certainly doable...

Hope all's well with you and thanks for reading..