Because there is a war on, we often hear tales of extraordinary heroism. Our military members ARE heroic. And sometimes their heroism is in just continuing the mission, in war or peace. This is a true story.
When I was a Judge Advocate in the Air Force, I hated working in the Claims office. Congress had designed the claims system with an eye toward preventing abuse which often prompted the exact opposite. People felt like the rules assumed they were liars and cheats and were disrespectful of their service. Due to the rules of depreciation, no one ever got ahead. On the contrary, by the third move, most people were in a position from which they would never financially recover. Thus, many inflated their claims. A lot of my time was spent explaining the fine line between truth and prosecution for fraud. By the time I met the young Airman, I had begun to assume the worst about every client who came in.
That day I walked into the outer office and looked at the sign-in clipboard of people waiting to see a lawyer. I called the Airman whose name was in slot #1. The young man who stood up looked drawn and exhausted. His uniform, though, was crisp. Everything that was supposed to be shiny was very shiny, and he wore decorations showing him to be a fine marksman.
As we walked into my office, I motioned him to a seat . “What brings you here today?” I asked.
“My First Sergeant made me come,” he said. “I don’t understand how to fill out these forms I've been given."
I reached my hand out to take the forms and looked at the information he’d filled in. There were a lot of empty blanks on the form. I shook my head.Many of our young Airmen back then weren’t very well educated, but this wasn’t one of the more difficult forms. Rarely had I seen a form so devoid of useful information. In exasperation I put the form down on my desk.
“Airman, you need to fill the form out as completely as possible,” I advised, “I can’t help you if you don’t give me any answers to work with.”
“I did as much as I could, ma’am,” he answered.
“Well, here in block 6 where you’re asked to list a location of loss, you put ‘not sure’. And here in block 7 where it asks you the date of loss, you wrote ‘not sure’. And here in block 8 where it asks you to list what you’ve lost, you wrote ‘everything.’ How is any of that useful information?”
“Well ma’am, it’s all I know to put. I was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines when Mount Pinatubo started acting up. All of us cops went into overtime status. My wife packed everything up and cleared out with the kids. I didn’t see them before they left. She had all the paperwork for our household goods and hold baggage,” he said.
I had a feeling I knew where this was going. It wasn’t uncommon in the military for young men to get married too young, have kids too young, and then be flummoxed when the wife got tired of playing house and left with everything -- especially from an overseas location. I thought he probably needed family law advice, not claims. But I persevered.
“Okay, so your loss occurred at Clark Air Base, Philippines when your wife left. Pinatubo blew in June of 1991. Why not put that down?” I asked.
“I can’t. I don’t know if the stuff ever got out of Clark. My wife and kids went to my parents’ home in Ohio. I stayed at Clark until the end,” he said. “I was with the last group there, and we got out in September. Next I went to school at Gunter Annex in Montgomery, Alabama for an eight month training course,” he said.
It was unheard of for young enlisted to take their families with them to the training courses. If they did, it was largely on their own funds. I knew this young man probably hadn’t had that kind of money. As if to confirm my guess he went on, “my family stayed with my parents, and then visited her family. While she was there, she had our third child. My NCO let me go up there to be with them for a long weekend, but I couldn’t stay.” He looked at me. “Ma’am that was the only time in my entire Air Force career that I contemplated disobeying an order.” He laughed, “I think that’s why my NCO gave it to me.”
“Well, I finally got my new orders, and I was so relieved to tell Tricia that we’d be meeting up soon in our new home in Florida. We thought sunny Florida together was better than being separated any longer.
“I caught a ride up to Kentucky. Her parents surprised us with a mini-van as a gift. It wasn’t new, but it was new to us, and with three car seats for kids, it was a life-saver.” He smiled. “We were able to pack everything we had on hand into the van and head south.”
I paused him there. “So at this point, you still had no indication of where your goods from Clark AB had ended up?”
“No, ma’am,” he stated.
“Okay, then you were in Florida. Go on?”
“I signed in to my unit and we got on the list for housing. We stayed in TLF (temporary living facilities) for six weeks until a house came up for us. We were fixing to go look at it when everyone in the squadron was ordered back to duty and our families were evacuated due to a hurricane coming in. Ma’am, do you remember Hurricane Andrew?”
My eyes widened. “You were at Clark Air Base until the end, and your next assignment was Homestead Air Force Base?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, “I stayed on duty and slept in what was left of a hangar with my unit for six weeks. Then I was transferred up here, to Bolling Air Force Base. I got here last week and my family joined me on Monday. So you see, ma’am. I don’t know whether my stuff got all the way out of Clark, all the way to Florida, or where it all disappeared. I don’t know how to answer the question of when and where it was lost."
I asked, "where are you staying now?"
I asked, "where are you staying now?"
“We’re living in TLF here on base, and waiting for housing. The folks at Transportation they said they have no record of where my stuff might have ended up, but that I can file a claim. But you know ma’am, it really doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter?” I asked.
“Well, we hadn’t seen that stuff for two years. We got along just fine without it. We’ve always had enough to eat and someplace decent to stay.”
I had a lump in my throat, for this young man who had sent his family off twice and stood between other human beings and danger, who had possibly lost all his earthly possessions, and was now saying it didn’t matter.
My eyes were moist when I told him, “Okay, I’m going to clear my calendar. We’re going to imagine going from room to room and we’ll try to reconstruct what you had. I also want you to make a list of what you need. We’ll figure out a way to make this right.”
He looked at me and smiled. “Ma’am, I’m glad you’re going to try to help me, but you don’t need to be sad. I know now that I have everything important in life. I have my wife and my kids. What we lost was only stuff.”