Checking out (4), or doing my best Captain Jack Sparrow impression

So what do Captain Jack Sparrow and a Marine checking out of his unit have in common?  They both want the same thing: to follow the map all the way to the end and uncover the treasure that lies waiting there.  The treasure is different, but the goal is the same.  Jack Sparrow wants what his heart most desires (usually accompanied by rum) and a Marine wants something equally as important; the final signature on his checkout sheet.

Just as the “X” that marks the spot where pirate treasure always seems to be buried the final signature on the checkout sheet marks the spot where a Marine can officially take the form to his administrative section and turn it in.  Once turned in, the Marine receives that most special and treasured document- his official set of orders that will take him into retirement.

But before you can go ashore for the last time you must first obtain that last and most important signature.  Before the holder of the sacred pen will scribe his or her mark on your sheet you must get all of the other signatures first….and therein lies the rub.  Just as Jack Sparrow must endure adventure after adventure to find the buried chest-o-gold, so must a Marine follow the twists and turns of the map that is the checkout sheet.

My case turned out to be a little unusual.  Most Marines check out of the unit they have served in for a few years on their way out the door, which makes sense.  For me, though, things were different.  I had turned over command at the start of the summer, and had several months between leaving the best job I ever had and departing active duty.  While in charge there was no time to start my transition, so I put off all of the things that I needed to do until I had passed the mantle of command to my successor.  Immediately after turning things over I left the building (much like Elvis, I suppose) and headed out to the higher headquarters unit where I would perform my outprocessing.

The difference between the two is pretty astounding.  Being the commanding officer of a Marine Corps unit is undoubtably the greatest honor an officer can be entrusted with, and it comes with some pretty nice perks.  One perk in particular makes the whole business of checking in and checking out pretty simple- the Marines in the unit bend over backwards to make sure that everything the CO could possibly need is done as quickly and efficiently as possible.  In a previous post I lamented about the drudgery of turning in my equipment- that drudgery was a function of no longer being in command.  As a commander I had only to mention something and it would magically happen.  Take my unit issued equipment for example.  One of the mounds of gear I used overseas was specific to the unit that I commanded- we were fire supporters, so we had special binoculars, laser range finders, infrared target designators, and a host of other neat widgets that we got to lug around the battlefield and use on the Taliban.  Anyhow, as the CO I had only to mention that I needed to turn the stuff back in and within an hour a couple of Marines showed up at my office and took it all away.  No lines to stand it, no annoying paperwork to get signed, no arduous accounting for each item- it just happened.  Kind of the opposite of Christmas, with the jolly Marines of the Supply and Armory sections taking away my mountains of gear and leaving me with a lot less to worry about.

Contrast that with being warehoused in the headquarters unit.  Nobody knew who I was, and nobody really cared.  I was just another Marine with a checkout sheet, and the fact that I was a senior officer was interesting but largely irrelevant.  There were rules to follow, places to go, and specific hours to go there.  No jolly elves here.

I did, however, have the tool to get me through the checkout process- my checkout sheet.  So, just as intently as Captain Jack Sparrow followed his chart I turned to and started working my way down the list.

There are some low hanging fruit on the list as well as some annoyingly difficult places to go as well.  Being a creature of habit (and in no particularly huge rush) I started with the fruit that was hanging lowest and closest; that fruit being the various offices and buildings around the in and around the headquarters.  A quick gander at the checkout sheet revealed about a half dozen offices just down the hall and up the stairs from where I was standing, so off I went.  The operations section ensured that all of my required training was complete (not that I need anything special on the way out the door) and to my great relief the legal section confirmed that I wan’t pending a court martial.  The Substance Abuse Control Officer (SACO) confirmed that my most recent urinalysis was clear of drugs (good thing they don’t check for gin and tonic) and the Family Readiness Officer happily stamped my sheet after a nice chat.  Things were progressing nicely!

So much for low hanging fruit.  Time to work my way up the tree.

I tracked down the Uniform Victim Advocate.  I don’t know what that person does, really, but without obtaining the red squiggle from the official pen of the UVA office I would be stuck.  So, after a quick “Hello- can I get your autograph?” followed by the scratch of a pen on my sheet and a  “Sure, have a nice day!” I left none the wiser as to the purpose of that particular office.  I wandered across the camp to the armory and supply sections, where I waited until the time listed on the signs for checking out (at lunch until 1300!), and upon their return from the chowhall (or Subway) I queued up and after a few minutes racked up a few more stamps and squiggles on my sheet from the largely bored Marines who were the keepers of the sacred stamps and pens.

Higher up the tree I climbed.  Jack Sparrow had nothing on me!  I chased security specialists down to turn in my “secret” access badge and get them to ink my paper.  I snuck into the Commanding General’s wing to garner the mark of the Chief of Staff.  I drove across base to turn in the gas mask that I had (thankfully!!!!) never used outside of annual training.  I sat in the dentist’s chair for my final checkup and was poked and prodded next door at the Group Aid Station for my final physical.  I met with the system administrator and turned off my email accounts.  I met the mail clerk and completed a forwarding address card even though I had never received any mail there  and I knew that I never would, but a checklist must be followed and the mail clerk to his credit was adamant.

On and on it went.  Days turned into weeks, but before the weeks could turn into a month I finally obtained each and every stamp, mark, and squiggle needed to complete my quest.  Were I Captain Jack Sparrow I would be chortling over a chest of gold with a bottle of rum in each fist- but I was more gleeful than he could possibly be at that moment because I had done it!  My checkout sheet was complete!  With a happy heart and a smile on my face I drove down to the Installation Personnel Administrative Center (IPAC for you acronym connoiseurs) and met with the holder of the pen that would scribe the final signature on my checkout sheet: my retirement counselor.  More on that soon.

__________

Lessons learned:

1.  Checking out takes time.  A lot of time, and the time is not yours but instead belongs to the people on the other side of the checkout counter.  Unless you are a General or a CO you must get in line with everyone else.  That isn’t bad, though, because you meet a lot of great people along the way.

2.  Make sure that all of the prep work is done.  Bring everything you need to turn in and make sure that any required documentation is done ahead of time so that you don’t have to go back several times to get the stamp.

3.  Be nice!  The Marines and Sailors that are on the others side of the counter are doing their jobs.  They will be much more friendly and forthcoming if you are friendly to them first.  The golden rule surely applies!

4.  Follow the rules.  Show up during the times listed for checking out because the Marines and Sailors who man the checkout counter only do so during those times, and if you show up and throw your rank around then you are taking them away from their other duties.  And you will look like an arrogant jerk.

Trading tradition for a tuxedo

Gentlemen’s Quarterly, the unequalled guide to fashion, suavity, and panache unabashedly states that every man must own a tuxedo.  I have had the great fortune to be able to ignore that bit of fashion guidance for decades because of the most dashing collection of uniforms that fill my closet.  I am haberdashed to the fullest when it comes to uniforms for every occasion; I can emerge from my dressing room ready equipped for firefight or prepared for a black tie formal. Unfortunately, the spectrum of uniforms don’t transition to the civilian world, and the flexibility of a closet filled with every conceivable martial fashion choice exists only as long as you continue on active service.

I had not really thought much about it, other than to rummage through at my uniforms in search of the civilian clothes that hung amongst them as I get dressed each morning.  That is, until November rolled around.

November is a big month for servicemen and servicewomen because it is the month of Veterans Day.  The crisp height of autumn finds proud old soldiers marching side by side with their younger counterparts in parades that mark the service of those who have worn the cloth of the nation, and it is the time for all of us to promise to never forget the sacrifice that they have made to ensure our country remains the best on Earth.

For Marines, however, November holds an even greater meaning.  November is the month of the birth of our Corps, and each and every Marine who has ever served can tell you what our birthday is.  November 10th, 1775 is the date of the founding of the United States Marine Corps, and every year since Marines have celebrated that momentous and distinguished day.

It is a day replete with elegant ceremony, pomp, and circumstance.  Marines everywhere, regardless of clime, place, or situation will stop what they are doing and throw a birthday party.  They range from white tie formals that rival the cotillions of nineteenth century France to a couple of tired Marines sharing an MRE dessert in a muddy fighting hole between firefights.  Whatever the situation, Marines will gather together and perform a simple ceremony to mark the day that we all grow a year older.  In this case, the Marine Corps turns a youthfully venerable 236.

Formal events are quite elaborate.  They usually start with “preflighting”, which is when Marines and their guests gather before cocktail hour to get a head start on the evening.  Preflighting usually goes in someone’s hotel suite, and there you will find a few coolers filled with beer and counters laden with cocktail fixings.  After having a cold one or two, it is time to head for the cocktail hour that preceeds the event- time for another drink (for all of the teetotalers out there who are aghast at the thought of drinking before the cocktail hour starts, well, get over it.  Marines are known for doing many things well, and drinking is one of them!)  There is nothing quite as wonderful as sharing an evening with the ones that you love and the ones you will lay your life down for.  It is a truly transcendent experience.

Cocktail hour ends with a bugle call that invites everyone to their tables.  Moments later the ceremony begins, and every Marine’s heart quickens to the tap of a drum and the brassy keening of the band.  Two at a time an escort of Marines marches onto the scene armed with swords and and a steely gaze, smartly coming to a stop in two facing rows that frame the setting for the ceremony.  They are followed by the Guest of Honor and Commanding Officer of the unit hosting the celebration who march to their places at the head of the evening’s parade ground.  The nation’s colors, reverently carried by by a guard of Marines, are solemly presented with every pair of eyes in the house is riveted on Old Glory as the national anthem is played.

Following the posting of the colors (which is when the flag is placed in its ceremonial position) a cake is brought forth, escorted by Marines dressed in their distinctive (and unmatched!) dress uniforms.  The ceremonial Adjutant draws forth a scroll on which is scribed a directive from General John. A. Lejeune, a legendary commandant of our Corps whose service predates ours by a century or so.  Without aid of something as tawdry as a microphone, the Adjutant booms the venerated message out for all to hear:

     “On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by  a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

      The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

      In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

      This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.

 JOHN A. LEJEUNE,

Major General Commandant”

The honoring of tradition does not end there.  With a flourish borne of tradition and practice, the Adjutant proffers his or her sword to cut the cake.  Two slices are produced, and are presented by the Commanding Officer to the Guest of Honor for the evening, and then the second piece is respectfully conferred to the oldest Marine present.  In a tasty Marine Crops tradition the oldest Marine then passes the piece of cake to the youngest Marine (having left at least one bite, and with a new fork), who then takes a bite- symbolizing the passing of tradition from the old guard to the new.  The birthdates of the oldest are read out as they sample their piece of cake, with the oldest receiving the muted respect that such long service commands and the youngest receiving the howling laughter and applause that accompanies the honor of being younger than the children of many Marines present.  The sage meets the prelate, and they share a piece of most excellent cake.  Not at all a bad tradition!

With the returning of the plates and cutlery the sequence is reversed.  The cake is marched away to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, followed by the color guard after paying respects again to our nation’s flag.  The guest of honor and commanding officer follow the flag off of the ceremonial floor, closely accompanied by pairs of escorts.  With a rousing rendition of Anchor’s Aweigh (to honor our naval tradition) and the Marine’s Hymn (to honor all Marines and the birth of our Corps) the ceremony draws to a close.  All that remains are remarks from the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, the hosting commanding officer, and the guest of honor which are traditionally presented just before dinner is served.

The best remarks are those that are meaningful, thoughtful, endearing, and brief.  Having been to countless balls during my 27 years in uniform I have felt the thrill of excitement that a great and motivating speaker brings to the ceremony as well as the mind numbing drudgery inflicted by those who even with the best of intentions drone ceaselessly on.  And on.  And on.  (The longest in my experience approached the hour and a half mark before departing the podium and allowing us dive into our wilted salads.)

Once the remarks are completed and the guest of honor is presented with a token of appreciation for his or her words of motivation and wisdom the formal ceremony is complete.  Marines and guests cheerfully turn to those who share their table and break bread together in a respectful and joyful atmosphere more reminiscent of a wedding than a military event.  After dessert (which of course includes the birthday cake!) the bars reopen and the ceremonial parade ground becomes a dance floor, on which the metaphorical rug is cut to shreds in the hours that follow.  It is a birthday party, wedding, prom, and Sadie Hawkins dance all rolled into one, Marine Corps Style- and it is the best party you will likely every attend!  Just ask Justin Timberlake.

So that brings us back to my personal predicament.  November arrived after Halloween just as it always does, and with the approaching 236th birthday of the Marine Corps I was placed on the horns of a dilemma.  What ever would I wear?  It was a conundrum that I had not faced since high school!  Fashion choices…suits or tuxedo?  Haircut and uniform (which I could still do)?

The decision was further confounded by circumstance as I was honored to find myself invited to attend the 11th Marine Regiment’s Headquarters Battery Ball as the guest of honor.  Yikes!  I thought back to all of the balls that I had attended what they meant.  I had squired lovely ladies and escorted my bride in my Dress Blue and Evening Dress uniforms, and had broken chunks of ration cake with my fellow Marines in the field and on the decks of amphibious ships.  Those birthdays all shared one central theme in my life- that the day of celebration was a mile marker on the autobahn of my career.  This ball, however, fell as I left the highway and steered to the offramp, and somehow it didn’t seem right to wear my uniform.

So I followed the advice of Gentlemen’s Quarterly and purchased the evening clothes that I would wear that night, and indeed for every November 10th until they box me up and bury me somewhere at the end of my days.  So on this, my 27th consecutive celebration of the birth of the Marine Corps, I trade in the tradition of wearing the cloth of the nation for a new set of clothes.  As I depart the ranks serving Marines I join the citizenry of the nation I have defended for so long, and it seems somehow fitting to wear a Tuxedo to mark the occasion.

After all, you can’t wear your uniform forever and everybody likes a sharply dressed man!

Checking out (3): There and back again, or slaying the Supply monster

In a recent post I introduced you to that most excellent and important document: the checkout sheet.  It is a roadmap that leads to life after the service, but you can’t follow it out the gate until every signature is inked in the appropriate spot.  The ease with which you get those spots filled varies widely, however.  Some are easy, and some are hard, and some are downright painful. Let’s start there first.

In theory completing your checkout sheet should be pretty simple.  As I have said before the checkout process goes on pretty much every day at every base and in every service, so you would think that it would be a smooth and streamlined process.  For some signatures it is, but for others, well, not so much.  Today we’ll take a look at the most difficult stamp to obtain: the one you receive from the supply warehouse after turning in all of your field gear.

For those who don’t know the way that Marines are equipped to train and fight is with a comprehensive set of personal equipment that ranges from a “lightweight” (ha!) kevlar helmet to protect your noggin to steel reinforced combat boots to protect your feet.  You have body armor reminiscent of a turtle’s shell that is festooned with pouches to hold everything from a notebook and a pen to hand grenades and ammunition magazines for your rifle.  You get a sleeping bag to keep you toasty when it is cold outside and a poncho to keep you dry when it rains.  Need a jacket?  You get one.  Gloves?  Here you go.  Cup for your coffee?  You even get one of those.  All told you receive several thousand dollars worth of personal equipment that you will to use when you train and fight, and for the record it is hands down the best equipment that Marines have ever been issued.  It is a lot of gear.  So much gear, in fact, that by the time you make it through the line you are staggering beneath such a mountain of green, brown, and black accouterments of war that even the mighty titan Atlas would shudder at the heap that you shoulder on the way out of the warehouse.

And when you are done with it the Marine Corps wants it back.

Therein lies the rub.  In the typically complex way of the Marine Corps you aren’t actually issued all of the stuff you need at one time or from one place.  You receive your basic equipment from a centralize warehouse that issues and recovers the personal stuff that I just wrote about- the items that every Marine needs.  That equipment is enough for training and is a good baseline for the fight, but when you deploy it isn’t sufficient.  Iraq, for example, tends to be about a billion degrees in the summer and parts of Afghanistan approach arctic temperatures in the winter.  In order to equip Marines for the conditions they will live in while deployed to fight they are issued supplemental equipment, but they don’t get it from the central supply warehouse.

That would be too easy.

Instead, each deploying unit is issued a set of specialized combat equipment tailored to where they are going.  For my most recent vacation getaway to Afghanistan we were issued cold weather gear too keep us warm in that distant and frigid land.  Lots and lots of it.  Three full jacket and pants ensembles of varying types (one for rain, one for warmth, one in a fetching white and grey camouflage pattern to make us look like a lumpy snowbank should we need to hide ourselves in the tundra), lined and waterproof boots (comfy AND toasty!), cold weather socks, long underwear, fleece undershirts, gloves, mittens, and my personal favorite- booties to keep our toes snug when we weren’t mucking about the countryside in our boots.  By the time we got all of the cold weather gear we were ready for an arctic expedition- all we needed were a few dogsleds, a case or two of Spam, and some snow under our feet.  And just like our fighting equipment it is all top notch stuff; not leftovers from the Korean war, which is nice (I say that because many years ago when I was conducting cold weather training we were issued musty old Korean war vintage canvas “cold weather” protective clothing that was anything but.)  At any rate, this pile of gear added to your other pile of previously issued gear becomes a mountain of equipment that even our friend Atlas could not independently shoulder.

But we’re not done yet!

You now have your fighting equipment and your environmental clothing, but you need to be issued the tools of the trade- your rifle, pistol (if you rate one), and all of the other bits and pieces that make you into a warfighting machine.  Your weapons shoot bullets, and those bullets are loaded into magazines.  Ten magazines for your rifle.  Three for your pistol.  You need Night Vision Goggles to peer into the darkness, and a bracket to mount those goggles to your helmet.  Along with a dozen other items, you pick these things up at your unit armory and add them to the growing Everest like mountain of gear that you need to fight.

Enough, you think?  Well, not yet!

You still have to draw your unit specific equipment.  Every unit has a different mission to accomplish, and as a result each unit has some unique equipment required to do so.  My last unit was a fire support and liaison outfit, so we needed special radio headsets, helmets, night vision equipment, thermal targeting sights, ruggedized computers, and other nifty items to ply our trade in combat.

Now you’re finally done!  All you need is a flag to plant on top of your equipment mountain and your Edmund Hillary impression will be complete.

So off you go….training, deploying, fighting, coming home, and doing it over and over again.  Time passes, and soon enough it is time to start turning all of that stuff back in.  The problem is that it all looks the same- some of it is brown, some green, some black- and all of it needs to go back where it came from.  Were I more organized that would be no big deal, because I would have been smart enough to take the itemized receipts that the various supply clerks handed and file them away for the day that I would be turning the stuff back in.  Well, I’m neither that smart nor that organized.  Without a thought of the ramifications down the road I took the receipts from the supply clerks and jammed them into my pockets, where they were either laundered into oblivion or thrown out with the gum wrappers and lint that always seems to aggregate there.

So there I stood, eager to divest myself of the mounds of gear that clogs my garage, but unable to really remember where it all came from.  I give it my best shot, and soon enough I have a backpack and a couple of seabags stuffed with all of the equipment I seem to remember receiving at the main supply warehouse.  After grunting and straining to get into the car, I zorch over to the Centralized Issue Facility (CIF- another acronym!) where I unload my car and again grunt and strain to get it all over to the checkout counter.

Standing at the entrance to the warehouse is reminiscent of Frodo’s trip into Mount Doom, complete with the unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach that you are stepping into the great unknown with uncertain outcome.  Entering the dark maw of the musty hangar-like building, I saw that it was going to be no quick and easy adventure.  Lamentably, between the counter and myself stretches a long line that serpentines back and forth.  And back.  And forth.  Apparently,  I am not the only one interested in returning my gear today!  I search the faces of those in front of me and see the blank and resigned expression that every Marine knows- the “it’s gonna be a while” look.

Capitulating to the timeless fate of Marines immemorial, I lug my stuff up and join the line.  Slowly, inexorably, like a caterpillar the line moves through the twisting lane.  A Marine is called to the counter, so he or she reaches down, seizes the straps, loops, and handles and drags the agglomeration up to the counter.  The Marine’s departure from the front of the line starts a sine wave of stooping Marines, each grabbing their gear and lunging forward, with the fleeting feeling of progress supplanted by return to resignation as they wait.  Painful minutes stretch into infinity, and moments before my last hair turns grey it is my turn.  Finally!

Up to the counter I struggle with my jumble of earthtoned equipment.  The clerk, a civilian contractor, asks for my ID card and we get down to business.  As I have said before, this is not my first rodeo, so I made many of the basic preparations that get Marines into trouble at the supply counter.  I had cleaned my equipment (nothing dirty is accepted- it is issued to you clean and you are expected to return it that way) and disassembled it by removing the camoflage cover from my helmet, taking all of the pouches off of my protective vest, and separating the components of my sleeping bag.  I tried to keep it organized, with all of the pouches in one pile and clothing in another.  So off we went.  “Helmet, Medium,” said she, and after she inspected the one I handed her to ensure that it was indeed a medium helmet she moved on to “Cover, Helmet, Medium….”

Dozens of items later my pile had shrunk, but oddly had not completely disappeared.  It was smaller to be sure, but still there.  Reduced from mountain to foothill, my equipment load had lessened.  Fortunately, we weren’t done.  “Flashlight, Tactical.”  Unfortunately, my tactical flashlight was absent!  I rooted through what was left to no avail.  “Um, I don’t have it,” said I, hoping for a pass.  No such luck!  “You can come back when you find it.  Jacket, Combat, Desert?”  After much fishing through the pile I came up empty handed.  My forlorn look was met by her steely gaze and flat reminder that I could bring my errant jacket in with my missing flashlight.  I asked about the other stuff, and her steely stare softened.  “You didn’t get it here,” said she, “and we don’t want it.”  D’oh!

Off I went with a bag of stuff I thought I needed to turn in and a homework assignment to find the stuff I forgot.  All things considered, though, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.  I seemed to remember putting the flashlight in the pocket of my jacket, but where the jacket was currently hiding was anybody’s guess.  As for the other stuff, well, I had a few other stops to make and I am pretty sure that one of the many clerks who had issued it to me would recognize and reclaim it.  All I had to do was make the circuit from the CIF to the armory to my unit supply a few more times and before too long my pile would be gone and the magical stamps would appear on my checkout sheet.

Two trips and a found jacket and flashlight later, my checkout sheet was emblazoned with the stamps of success from the CIF, the armory, and my unit supply.  I had bested the supply monster and scribed its mark onto my checkout sheet.  Things were looking up!

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  Keep the receipts!  You would think I would have learned that ages ago, but I didn’t.  I even tried to keep a folder each time I showed up at a new unit to organize all of the pertinent paperwork including receipts for equipment.  Needless to say,  I failed in the attempt.  So, if you are checking in somewhere soon, save your receipts.

2.  Do a little research before getting in line.  Had I made a few phone calls or emails I could have found the list of gear that I was expected to turn into the CIF.  The same goes for the armory and your unit supply.  It will also save your back from the strain of lugging extra gear all the way through the line and then back to your car because you brought it to the wrong place.

3.  Make sure your equipment is clean and complete.  There are a lot of little straps and widgets that can get lost, and you will be buying replacements and cursing up a storm unless you have everything squared away.  A few minutes with a scrub brush will save hours of waiting in line.

4.  Allocate a lot of time for the process.  You will forget or lose something and will be making more than one trip to the turn in counter. In addition, there will be a lot of people like you in line ahead of you.  It is not a speedy process.  Be forewarned…

Happy Birthday, Marines!

Today the Marine Corps celebrates its 236th birthday.  For those who don’t know, this is an incredibly big deal for Marines; every Marine, regardless of where they are and what they are doing will be celebrating the birth of our Corps.  Ceremonies will range from black tie formals with medal clanking against corsages as Marines and their significant others dance the night away to a match burning in a chunk of MRE cake in some muddy fighting hole in Afghanistan.  So, if you see a Marine today wish them a Happy Birthday!  I can personally guarantee that regardless of circumstance they will smile and wish you a happy birthday back.  You never, ever, get too old to get excited about your birthday as a Marine.  This year is my 27th, and I will continue to seek out cake and camaraderie every November 10th until I ultimately go to the big Birthday Ball at Saint Peter’s Pearly gates.  It won’t end there, however, because then I will have the honor to join the Marine Security Detachment that guards the streets of Heaven.  I hear they throw a pretty good birthday bash up there….

Semper Fidelis and Happy 236th Birthday, Marines!

Checking Out (2): Hello, Checkout sheet!

Back to work.  Well, back to leaving work for the last time, or at least back to trying to leave work for the last time- and the emphasis is on trying.

Leaving a job in the civilian world is a significantly different experience than leaving military service.  Generally on the outside you can leave your job in one of two manners: happily or unhappily.  The happy way of leaving is with an office party with a nicely decorated cake, some kind words, and a thoughtful (but not too expensive) gift from your cubemates to speed you on your way.  The unhappy way is finding yourself wedged between two security guards as they hustle you and the dented cardboard box that contains your precious office belongings out the door.  In either circumstance you generally get to leave the company with a minimum of fuss and hassle- and it all happens in one day.

Not so fast or easy in the military world.  Following the vaunted tradition of making simple things very difficult every departing Marine must run a perplexing gauntlet of clerks, administrators, and senior leaders on his or her way out of the unit.  He or she must obtain the mark of consent from a dozen or two different entities before the byzantine process of checking out is complete- marks that range from elaborate signatures that would make a calligrapher swoon to stark and brazen ink from a much-coveted rubber stamp; coveted because without the mark of the stamper you will remain forever in the purgatorial no man’s land inhabited by the lost souls who could not obtain the vital mark on the most important of all documents to the so0n-to-be departing: the checkout sheet.

I have alluded to this most glorious and momentous document in a recent post.  It is indeed a glorious bit of vellum because, much like Pirate Captain Jack Sparrow’s map, it holds the key to that which you most strongly desire: your departure.  Like a treasure map it divulges the often hidden location of important places that otherwise would remain forever hidden, or at least forever ignored because the only time you really need to go there is when you are checking in or checking out.  The vaunted checkout sheet is so crucially important because it is the one and only key to receiving your final orders to the outside- without completing it you can be stuck on hold and denied the ability to leave despite your desire to grow your hair and rediscover the joys of sleeping in during the week.

The checkout sheet is usually provided by the administrative section of the unit you are checking out of.  The purpose that it serves is to make sure that you hit all of the wickets on the way out the door- important wickets like turning in thousands of dollars worth of military equipment as well as completing critical paperwork that ensures that you receive the benefits and entitlements that you have earned during your service.  So, in and of itself, the checkout sheet is actually a good thing because it ensures that you do everything you are supposed to do before you hit the road.  Unfortunately, just because the checkout sheet is important to you that doesn’t mean it is particularly important to anybody else, which is a painful lesson to come to grips with.  Your eagerness and urgency to get it completed has little to do with the desire of others to assist you in getting it done, so a word of warning the soon to be departing- make sure you allot ample time to knock it out.  A smart guy once told my that a crisis on my part did not correlate to a crisis on his, and that must because I was in a hurry didn’t mean that he was.  Important and accurate advice, as we shall see…

What does a checkout sheet look like?  It is invariably similar across the spectrum of units and services.  It is a sheet of paper that lists all of the agencies, offices, and people that you need to visit in order to depart your unit.  More importantly, it has a place for each of them to make their mark- eminently important, because without the proper notation by the functionary behind the counter your visit will be in vain.  For those with nimble fingers and an eager pen beware!  Don’t think that just forging a random set of initials will let you slide by- that has been tried by many who have gone before you and as a result most places have acquired nifty and unique little rubber stamps (and variously colored ink pads) that must be used on your checkout sheet for it to be deemed authentic.  Forge at your own peril, because to be caught will get you in big trouble and result in a trip to purgatory as your transgression is sorted out.

Here is a link to what my own checkout sheet looks like: Checkoutsheet

As you can see it is a colorful document- at least it is now that it is completed.  I obtained my checkout sheet from the administrative section of my unit, in this case 1 Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group (try saying that three times fast!) located aboard Camp Pendleton, California.  To get your mitts on a checkout sheet you have to be able to show the nineteen year old administrative clerk that you are indeed departing soon, which is actually pretty easy.  The major muscle movements of personnel administration are done over a centralized computer system, and since my retirement request had been approved the young Marine only had to check the system to confirm my not-so-imminent departure.  He reached behind the counter and pulled out a single piece of paper, and with the efficiency borne of experience he whipped a yellow highlighter over numerous lines of text.  “These are the places you need to hit, sir,” he explained, “take it to IPAC (the Installation Personnel Administrative Center- where my friend the retirement counselor works) and they will cut you your final set of orders.”  With a cheerful “thanks, and see you around!” to the clerk I left the admin shop with a virginal sheet, ready to be filled with the scribblings and stamps of those who stood between me and my final day on base.

The sheet itself is an innocuous looking bit of poorly Xeroxed paper.  It is a copy of a copy that was a copy of a copy, and as a result is a bit faded and tough to read.  I filled out my administrative information at the top, stuff like my name, rank, and section (HQ for headquarters, in case anyone didn’t know that) and headed out to get as many signatures and stamps as I could in the shortest time possible.

As usual, it wasn’t that simple.  It never is.  More on that soon…