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Smoke doesn't always mean fire Part I

I was once accused of cheating because I was an asshole Part I

In late 2009 I was selected to attend the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. The class started on the 3rd of January 2010, with a graduation date of the 18th of February; which coincidentally was my enlistment anniversary.

Anyway, I've never had a hard time with academics, especially not the watered down 'academics'  of Professional Military Education or PME for short. In this story, I had completed more than half of the 6 week course and I was well positioned by my scores to put forth even less than the paltry effort I had already dispensed.

The morning of the 5th of February 2010, we were going to begin our group interpersonal exercises. These exercises were based on a package we each received detailing a scenario. The scenario was different for everyone and required the member to intervene to mediate some workplace interaction. This scenario was considered "formative" or practice. It was a chance for the students to take a shot at the requirement and receive feedback from the instructor on areas to improve. Days later we would be required to do a "summative" scenario that would count for course credit.

On this particular day, my class had a substitute instructor, a MSgt Baker. Our regular instructor, TSgt Todd Badger, was out of office emceeing an awards event somewhere else on base. MSgt Baker was one of the senior instructors and filled in as needed as he didn't have a class of his own.

Up to this point in my career I had been a supervisor for many years, of many different people. That is one of the benefits of aircraft maintenance, we typically get more responsibility and at a much faster rate than the less "operational" AFSCs. I had been a supervisor since 2002, my 4 year mark in the Air Force. However, the maintenance style of "group interpersonal" conflict resolution was much different than the techniques taught at NCO Academy. Because of the nature of aircraft maintenance, and the dire consequences of lax standards and adherence to technical data, the more casual or supportive counseling championed by the non-operational parts of the Air Force don't quite fit. I liken it to discussing the finer points of micro-nutrients with your child at dinner to incite her to eat a balance diet, and screaming at the same child as they run into the street without looking for cars. Would it be rational to scream at your child about micro-nutrients? No. Would it be rational to calmly ask your daughter to consider the dangers of being in the street without consideration for traffic while she is in the street? Of course not.

The moral of the story, I likely wouldn't gain any insights into counselling subordinates in the NCO Academy environment because their methods were ill-suited for the vast majority of flightline counselling situations.

So as the day began with our substitute instructor MSgt Baker, I ended up as the last student to do the formative exercise. Before the first student began, a DVD was placed in the classroom recorder. Each classroom had cameras and audio to record each students exercise. This would provide the student with an objective perspective on their performance, in case they didn't agree with the instructors scoring or they wanted to review their performance to work on specific behaviors. It made sense right? The formative was practice; a chance to hone techniques before the official summative evaluation.

So as the day went on, each student did their scenario and exercise. It was more mechanical than insightful, as the actors that played the conflicting role would only be as difficult as they needed to be to solicit the appropriate response from the person playing the mediator role. While watching each person take their turn, I was debating with myself whether to be overly aggressive when it was my turn to mediate; or to be a super new-age touchy, feeling type of therapist. After all, this was only practice. And I was confident I didn't need any practice. So this exercise was more of a chance to showcase my off-the-cuff humor.

So in the late afternoon, it was my turn. I snagged two people to do it with me: a National Guard weatherperson who was super nice and friendly; and an active duty paralegal who was also an easy going guy. In actuality, the entire class got along quite well. So as I headed to the front to do my exercise, MSgt Baker stopped me and said "I know you're kind of the class clown, but keep it professional ok?"
Not an actual image of MSgt Baker.

Now I thought about his words, and they made sense. After all, this was Professional Military Education. However, it didn't count for my grades, and I doubt I would see a T-ball setup for comedy like this again. So I agreed to go easy, but in my mind I had a kind of "fuck that" attitude.

Someone else in the class pointed out that the DVD was full and the recording equipment would be inoperative during my scenario. MSgt Baker stated that it was "fine" and just "get it done without the recording"

Even at this moment I wasn't sure which way I would go.

So we are taught to "break the ice" before a counselling session. Some examples given were to ask how their weekend was, or ask how their family is doing. Many of the students regurgitated these same platitudes for their ice breaker. I had other plans...

I began by asking my two costars to stand up and join hands. I directed them to close their eyes and visualize a quiet meadow in a balmy afternoon; to breathe in through their nose and out through their mouths.

About 4 minutes into this abomination of an exercise, someone in the class shouted for another student to get his digital camera and record the exercise.

Here is the subsequent video:

As you can see at the end of the video, I walked out with the instructor. For everyone else, the instructor and the student would stop just outside the door and discuss the grading rubric. I wasn't so lucky. MSgt Baker escorted me down the hall towards the instructor office. He pulled me into an entryway away from prying eyes and began counselling me. His counselling was direct and he appeared frustrated. I debated pointing out the irony that his current counselling technique stood in stark contrast to what we were taught in the current curriculum. In the end, I settled on nodding and replying with occasional yes-sir's when MSgt Baker seemed exceptionally agitated. He ended the discussion telling me that he would document the event with a memorandum of record.

I headed back to the classroom. When I went in I apologized to my classmates for not taking it seriously. They rebuked my apology declaring it was hilarious and asking how much trouble I got into. I told them and then I decided to maybe lay low for the rest of the day.

MSgt Baker came back into the classroom a few minutes later. He looked at me, and I appeared a bit subdued and he said "Aww man, don't be like that."  I replied that I was ok, it was nothing personal and I wasn't upset. MSgt Baker asked if "we were cool" and I replied in the affirmative.

Then MSgt Baker turned to the Airman that recorded the video above and said "For the record, that was the funniest thing I've ever seen and I want a copy of it."

What happened next was a bit unexpected..

As always thanks for reading and please join us on Facebook for discussions of the on-going story, comments and news articles.


  1. Wait....when is part 2???? Laughed my butt off watching the video by the way. ;)

  2. Oh, and how do I subscribe to your blog????


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