Checking out (1): Welcome to Byzantium!

Hello again, my constant readers.  I wasn’t able to post last Friday because I was busy camping with a few dozen Cub Scouts.  One thing that transition has given me is the gift of time, and I get to spend more of it with my boys, which is absolutely great!  I am a Den Leader for my youngest son’s merry band of eight year olds, and we had some serious Cub Scouting to do all weekend. Enough about that (although the s’mores and hot chocolate were most excellent) and back to talking about transition.

This is the first of several posts about the trials and tribulations of actually leaving active duty.

There is one thing that all military people do routinely, regardless of which branch in which they serve.  It is a common practice that crosses the rank gap and has no deference to gender.  That thing that we all do is a process known as checking in and checking out. Since I am transitioning I will be spotlighting the checking out bit because it is the final act of the play that has been my career and life for over a quarter century.  Before I go into detail about checking out, however, we first have to take a gander at the history of the magical checkin/checkout process.

Just as ying has its yang and every accounting equation must balance, so must checking in marry up with checking out.  So what gives?  What are checking in and out? Simply put they are mirrored process that you go through whenever you leave one place and report to another.  Just as a pilot needs to make his takeoffs equal his landings, Marines have to balance the credits and debits of their career changes by going through the process as they changing units.  This is a little different from the corporate sector because the military orders you to new assignments every two or three years or so, and along with those orders usually comes the requirement to pack up the family and move someplace new.  I am not going to be talking about the moving of the family part, but instead about the leaving one job and showing up at another part.  It can be quite daunting!

Once you join the military your ride on the hamster wheel begins.  For Marines it starts with your first true checkin, which is an introduction to the yellow footprints at one of the Marine Corps Recruit Depots or at Officer Candidate School.  Some period of time after checking into happy land of Drill Instructors you are afforded the opportunity to depart from their fatherly or motherly mentorship- either as a gleefully motivated graduate, ready to take on the world with little more than a K-Bar fighting knife and an invincible attitude, or as a washout who could not withstand the rigors necessary to become a Marine.  Either way, you will go through the process of checking out and moving on to your next duty station or going home.

Assuming that you earned the coveted Eagle, Globe, and Anchor you will take a little well earned leave (vacation for my non-military friends) and then head out for your first duty station.  This is invariably the place where you will learn about your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), which is milspeak for the job you will be doing in uniform.  Upon arrival you will put on your snappy Service Alpha uniform (the equivalent to business formal- coat and tie, but festooned with ribbons and badges!) and report in to the base reception center.  From there you will be directed to your unit, and when you get there you will start the formal process of checking in.  It is a lot like the movies; there is generally a grumpy corporal or sergeant who disdainfully guides you to your barracks and tells you where the chowhall is, and where and when to report in the morning.  That is when the fun begins!

Although you are at your new assignment to learn about your job (or to actually perform your duties when you go to your operational unit) you can’t get started until you go through the byzantine bureaucratic process known as “Checking In”.  It is part harassment package, part Easter Egg hunt, and part searching for pirate treasure.  You have to sign for your room, which means you need to find the Marine in charge of the keys.  You need linen, so off to the barracks manager to sign for some.  You need your field equipment (helmet, flak jacket, sleeping bag, backpack- that kind of stuff) so you need to go to the consolidated supply warehouse….the list seems endless.  The best part is that you are usually on your own to do it, but with the expectation that it will be done yesterday.

When you leave the process is reversed.  You have to turn in your equipment (and it had better be clean!!), you need to return your linen, return your barracks key….again, the list is long and painful.  And again the expectation is that you can somehow find Marty McFly and borrow the Delorean for a trip back in time to knock it all out.  Once you get it done, however, it is time to climb the next rung on the Marine Corps ladder by heading for your next unit.  Guess what happens when you get there?  You got it- you check in! Welcome back to the hamster wheel…

The cycle of checking in and out is a thread that runs through a Marine’s entire career.  It many ways it is a signpost along the career highway, with the hopes and challenges of arriving someplace new following the satisfying departure from a rewarding and dynamic posting.  Each stop along the way is an adventure all its own.  Like Forrest Gump’s fabled box of chocolates, you may not know just what you are going to get when you arrive but it will be something tasty nonetheless.

So how do you survive such a disconcerting process?  As I said, military types have been doing this for centuries, so you would think that they have the process down to a science- after all, hundreds of thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines check in and out every year.  You would think it would be easy, but also in typical military fashion, that which seems so simple is of course made difficult.  You can’t do everything in one place.  You can’t do everything with one person.  Each thing you need done is in a different part of the base, or in a different building, or maybe on a different base.  Some places have hours of operation that are convenient to everyone who works there but are terrible for you, or they have only one person responsible for their task and he or she always seems to be on break.

Fortunately, each and every unit has something that will help out.  Just as the pirate Jack Sparrow has his map to follow, the first thing that every Marine is given when the show up (or get ready to move on) is a priceless piece of paper- the vaunted Checkin/Checkout sheet.  With it all becomes clear, and the road ahead becomes less bumpy.  In the vernacular of the Marine Corps, it is a good piece of gear, and I’ll introduce you to that wondrous bit of parchment in my next post…


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