Yesterday was one of those days that starts out just fine and ends up just fine, but the middle of the day felt a little like I swallowed a blender stuck on “liquify”. (For those keeping track, this is yet another post that is not the 25+ Pre-Retirement post, but I swear that one is coming- I just had to share my gut-wrencher from yesterday first).
It all started in the morning. My routine is a little different now that I am transitioning than it was when I was gleefully shoving my face into the career grindstone. Back then I was up at 0500 or so and on the road to work before 0600, draining a cup or two of coffee in the dark as I drove to the base. After checking emails, I was out running and working out by 0630. By 0800 I was showered, at my desk, and slaying each beastly problem that reared its ugly head. Ahhh, the good old days…..
But now I get up a little later (0600 if I am really lucky and can sleep in- after all, a couple of decades of getting up early is a tough habit to break!), I make the kids breakfast, watch a little news, check my personal email, drink a couple of cups of coffee, and then take my kids to school. I still work out, but now I can do it in the daylight (who knew?) and while wearing my iPod and without a reflective belt, the iPod because it is against orders to wear one while you run on base (we can’t be trusted to not wander into an oncoming tank as we dreamily listen to the latest Avril Lavigne album- annoying, that rule!) and sans reflective belt because I am pretty sure I needn’t rely on a strip of reflective vinyl to warn drivers not to run me over. Silly rules….
So anyhow, I dropped the kids off at school and happily drove onto base. I drove past all of the motivated Marines who were out running long distances, clapping their hands, and counting to four in the finest traditions of physical training and started work. After presenting a brief to my erstwhile boss, I headed over to the hospital to knock out a couple of medical appointments. On the way, I stopped by the “retirements” section of our Installation Personnel Administration Center (IPAC- another acronym!). IPAC is where those diligent, yet underloved and undervalued administration types work. They are responsible for getting us paid, ensuring our orders are correct, and every other arcane bit of administrivia that pertains to our service. In typical Marine Corps fashion, the office is squirreled away in a byzantine and somewhat decrepit old converted barracks located in a part of camp that I rarely get to.
After scaring a few young Privates First Class with my shiny Lieutenant Colonel’s silver oak leaves (my shiny rank insignia- they gave their best salutes and inwardly prayed that I would just keep walking and not say anything other than “Good Morning” to them), I wended my way up the ladderwell (stairs for you landlubbers) and hit the retirements office. It was about lunchtime, so there were only a couple of people there instead of the normal half dozen or so.
I saw my smiling retirement counselor and gave him a wave. “Just stopping by to make sure everything is OK with my retirement request,” said I, “is there anything I need to do?”
Even though it was his lunch hour, he set aside what looked like an algebra textbook (never too late to go back to school!) and cheerily said “I’ll take a look!” This is why I love working with former Marines (a “former Marine is a civilian who used to be a Marine- retired or not), because he could have just pointed to the “closed for lunch” sign and made me come back later. Marines help Marines, former or not.
After a little banter, his brow furrowed a bit and he let me know that my request for 95 days of terminal leave had never been approved.
I think that the explosive pressure that instantly filled my head caused the earthquake on the Eastern Seaboard yesterday, even though the epicenter was some 3000 miles away. My knees nearly buckled and I almost started to feel faint.
Before I continue with the story, let me explain a few of the particulars in the case. Let’s start with “Terminal Leave”. Terminal Leave is leave (“vacation” in civilian parlance) that is taken at the end of your service and before you officially transition back to civvie street. We earn 30 days of leave each year, and in cases where you have some left over you can take it at the end of your time in uniform, which in effect gives you time off with pay before you get out. In my case, I had accrued over 100 days of leave (which is a lot, but thanks to a lot of time in hot, brown, and angry places I had not been able to take all of my vacation for the last five or so years) and I wanted to use up 95 days of it just before my retirement date. That would give me an opportunity to transition at a leisurely pace and maybe put a dent in the scoll-like “honey-do” list that hangs above my married head like the sword of Damocles.
Well, to get 95 days requires one to ask for a waiver from the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, and the waiver must be requested in standard Naval format using an arcane system that hearkens from the days of clattering teletypes. In my case, the timing is critical because my request crosses over the end of the fiscal year (September 30th), and any leave that I had in excess of 75 days would be lost without the waiver. So, in a nutshell, if the request was not approved I would have to work for about another month before I could go on terminal leave.
That would not go over well at home. Trust me.
My friendly retirement counselor saw my consternation and asked if I had a copy of the message. Nope. Did I have an email, perhaps? Yes! Taking his generous offer to log into one of their office computers, I pulled up a months-old email from my monitor (the monitor is the Marine who determines your assignments and issues orders that send you to places like Alaska if he doesn’t like you or Hawaii if he does in addition to approving terminal leave waivers from people like me) that said he had no problem with me taking 95 days of terminal leave. Unfortunately, the email did not have the formal approval, so it wasn’t quite enough.
“Call your monitor,” said my counselor, “he should have the message.”
My head was spinning. Surely there was a copy of the message! I asked if he could access it from his computer. He looked, but it wasn’t there. Again, he advised me to call my monitor.
Reaching for the phone, I didn’t call my monitor but instead called the administrative shop at my unit. The request had gone through them months ago, but because it was lunchtime the only one there was the poor low ranking sap who had to sit there and answer idiotic question from knuckleheads like me who call during lunchtime. After baffling the poor Marine with questions that way outside his lane, the sweat started to break out on my forehead.
A little more insistantly, “sir, call your monitor!”
So I dialed up Quantico and asked for my monitor. He wasn’t there, but the assistant monitor was. He had just re-entered his office after being evacuated by the earthquake, but in admirable Marine Corps fashion he immediately got back to work by helping me, a distraught officer on the other coast. He confirmed that they had never received the request, but he was able to pull up the email where his boss had agreed to my retirement plans.
“Sir,” he said, “If you can get the date-time group of the message I can pull it up and approve it immediately. You’ll have it tomorrow.”
Ahh, the date-time group of the message. That is how these messages are tracked. The date-time group is just that- the date and time that the message was sent by the originator. Since literally thousands of these messages are sent every day it is the only way to make sure that you have the right one, and without having the date-time group it would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Part of the problem is that the request does not go directly from the originator (me!) to the approver, but instead it has to go through several levels of command (bureaucracy at its finest!) and then it finally arrives on the desk of the person who can approve or deny it. In my case, the message was lost somewhere between California and Virginia, even though it is an electronic system. At any rate, I had some sleuthing to do in order to find the information he needed.
I thanked him as well as my counselor, who waved and went back to his algebra homework. I left the office and headed for my appointments, making calls as I went. Since it was still lunchtime, they were in vain. So, off to the hospital I went, and after a couple of hours getting poked and prodded by various medical personnel I was able to resume my quest for the most important message in the Marine Corps (at least in my opinion!).
I called my administrative section and finally got connected to a Marine who knew how to work the messaging system. I explained my dilemma, and after answering a few questions, he announced that he had found it. Hooray! He quickly read me the date-time group from the message, and I was back in business.
I emailed the information to the assistant monitor, and sure enough I checked my email this morning and he had done just as he promised- the request was formally approved and all was again right with the world.
Whew! Good thing, too. I think my family would have strung me up had I come home with the news that I needed to keep working for another month….
– Always, always, always get copies of every piece of paper that pertains to your transition. In my case, I followed the status of the message up through the chain until I had been assured that it was approved. I didn’t ask for a copy, and since I didn’t I was unable to provide the proof I needed to fix my problem.
– Follow up repeatedly. I tracked the message several months ago, but didn’t follow up again until it was nearly too late. I shudder to think what may have happened if I had not stopped by the administrative office yesterday!
– Listen to the experts. The counselor had to tell me three times to call my monitor. If I had just done as he suggested immediately it would have saved me a few hours of angst and heartache. After all, that’s why they call the experts- they know more about their trade than you do!