Texas Travels- House Hunting Leave Part I

While in the service you should definitely think about seeing some of the country you are serving. I highly recommend the method wherein you drive across the entire country at 85 MPH without getting out of your car for anything but gas, in three days, as you transfer duty stations.  I have utilized this method very successfully over the course of my career and have seen the vast majority of the country within view of the freeway.

One place I haven’t seen, until today, is Texas. I am currently on house hunting leave.  That wonderful ten days of free leave to lounge around your house while pretending that you are going to your new duty location to look for a new home.  At least, that is what I should have done; instead I am driving from Chicago to San Diego.  If you look at a map you will see that Texas is not, technically, on the way.  Unfortunately, the ice storm from hell is decimating the normal route, so I have been forced to adapt by driving straight south to Arkansas (where I have learned they take pronunciation of their state very seriously) and then move west through Texas.  I have seen a lot of Texas, which involves Interstate 30, Interstate 20, and soon Interstate 10.

Although I have never been to Texas before, I have heard a lot about it from the approximate 4/5 of the Navy population from there. Texans love to talk about Texas, they can’t help it; it’s bred into their DNA.  If you spend five minutes around someone from Texas you will hear how it is the only state that was once its own independent country (aside from Hawaii), about how the Lone Star State is the biggest  in the country (if you don’t count Alaska… and really, who does?).  You will be told that everything is bigger in Texas (it’s always about size isn’t it?), and that you do not mess with Texas (forcing us to pick on West Virginia and Kentucky instead).

There is no other state where this happens.  You never see people from North Dakota go on and on about how great North Dakota is.  Wearing their North Dakota-shaped belt buckles with tattoos of the North Dakota flag and telling you that whatever you do, you do not mess with North Dakota.  Why?  Because you have never met anyone from North Dakota; the entire population of the state could sit in a booth at McDonald’s.

I was excited to see Texas.  Who wouldn’t be impressed by a state where the entire population who, despite all their differences, are united in the belief that that they are better than the rest of the country?  Driving across the border, you could just feel the pride radiating.

The first thing I noticed about Texas (apart from approximately 600 state flags) is that the speed limit is 75 MPH. This is going to be great:  I’m going to put my car on cruise control at about 84 MPH and I’ll cruise through this state faster than I can blink and not even worry about getting a ticket.  Or so I thought.  I was wrong on two counts.

First, it turns out that Texas is a really big state. No matter what you have to say about people from Texas they are right about at least one thing.  It is really big.  Even if I was traveling at the speed of light it would probably take a day (longer if you were going through Houston).

Second, I discovered that although the speed limit is 75 MPH I was not technically going faster than 65.  The right lane was filled with what appeared to be a never-ending line of trucks going 60.  The left lane was filled with trucks trying to pass the trucks in the right lane by going 61 MPH.  Even when the left lane was mercifully free of trucks none of the locals showed any desire to even approach 70.  Maybe Texas, which is known to be very strict on crime, has made speeding, by even one mile, a capital offence and no one wants to risk it by even getting close.

Weather in Texas has been another adventure. For the 16 years that I have driving across the state 95% of it has been in varying levels of fog.  For all I know I might be traveling across the most beautiful landscape in creation, or possibly a garbage dump.  All I can see is about 25 feet in any direction.  But just so you Texans know, it is some of the most beautiful 25 feet I have ever seen.

The fog finally broke just in time for me to get struck by lightning… well, not quite, but it was close. Apparently even the lightning storms are bigger here.  I am not talking about your average lightning storm where you see some flashes of light in the sky.  No these were bolts like in cartoons.  This is the kind of lightning that will try to kill you, if necessary follow you home, ring your doorbell, wait for you to come out and then zap you. I actually saw two lightning bolts hit the ground.  One hit the ground twenty feet from my car.  It’s times like this that I really hope my high school science teacher was right when he told us that lightning can’t strike a car because of the rubber tires.*  I finally made it through the storm and realized that El Paso was right around the corner (which in Texas talk is only 750 miles).

So I continue onward, through the state that will never end. While I still have a great admiration for the Texas spirit I am looking forward to admiring it from the outside. I am thinking of all those brave men like Davy Crockett who gave their lives here (possibly in traffic) and it is now my sole goal in life not to die here too, but if I do, when you remember the Alamo, remember me as well.

*A Google search revealed that lightning can, in fact, strike you in your car. It must be true, it’s on the internet.

Justice Brewing – Court Martial Duty Part II

There comes a point in a man’s life, as he sits in a courtroom awaiting a general court-martial, when he must ask how he found himself in this situation.  I recently asked that very question.  Fortunately, for myself, I was not the accused.  Unfortunately, for the accused, I was tasked with determining his fate.  This was regrettable for him since I do not have a particularly long attention span.

Defense Attorney: …and as you can see, your honor, this eyewitness testimony and DNA evidence clearly proves my client is innocent.

Me (thinking): Why did those castaways bring all that luggage if it was only a three hour tour? Oh look a bird…

If you ever get the opportunity to sit a court-martial, you should definitely jump at the chance, that way maybe I won’t have to do it again; you will also be reminded of the old adage that NAVY stands for “Never Again Volunteer Yourself.”

After what felt like a year (but in retrospect was only a couple of days) of preliminary preparations, the trial began bright and early on Wednesday morning. Twelve of us showed up in our whites and were ready to do… well, something. For the past two days we had been stuck in a deliberation room with a coffee maker that seemed incapable of brewing a pot of coffee in less time than it took to build the space shuttle and doing nothing. In hindsight we shouldn’t have been so eager to leave the deliberation room.

Have you ever watched JAG?  It’s a courtroom drama series based on the Naval legal system starring actors far more attractive than anyone actually in the Navy, dealing with high profile cases.   All the lawyers are former Navy SEALs, pilots, or other exciting specialties who decided that their real passion, apparently, was law. Well this was nothing like JAG.  First of all this was not a high profile case.  Don’t get me wrong, this guy was accused of some very serious stuff… but he wasn’t accused of anything interesting like going AWOL to save his brother from a gang which he turned on because they were selling drugs to special needs kids and as a result was placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program  and then joined the Navy and is a Medal of Honor recipient SEAL just trying to help his family before he deploys to Iraq for his fifth tour.  Additionally the lawyers definitely weren’t Catherine Bell and whoever played Raab; they weren’t former SEALs, pilots, or Marines.  It turns out that the officers of the Judge Advocate General are just lawyers in white uniforms… it’s like TV has been lying to me this whole time.

When the court was ready the bailiff led us into the courtroom and announced, “All rise.”  In our “jury area” or whatever it’s called they had kindly provided pitchers of water and styrofoam cups.  Something you never think about is how loud it can be to pour water into a cup.  This is because you have never filled a styrofoam cup in a courtroom.  It has roughly the same sound and decibel level as flushing an airplane toilet over a hi-fi surround sound.

Judge:   In the case of the United States vs. Seaman Timothy Floggington the accused is charged with the following violations of (SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH!)  I understand that the accused has agreed to (SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH!) is that correct?

What is amazing is that while we were over there sounding like a herd of elephants snorking down water at Niagara Falls, neither the judge nor the lawyers even broke stride.   They just kept on asking questions and making statements.  There must be a class on these circumstances in law school.

Over the course of the trial we listened to some of the most uncomfortable questions asked to total strangers about their intimate lives, hygiene habits, texting history and every bad decision they had ever made in their life.  I can’t even watch The Office without cringing and this was happening right in front of me.

Every so often the judge would dismiss us from the court room so that he could discuss something with the lawyers or maybe so they could make fun of us, who knows?  So we would head back to the deliberation room and check on the coffee maker to see if any of us would be drinking coffee today.  To keep our hopes up it would gurgle and bubble and every so often some brown liquid would drip into the pot.  It’s entirely possible that it is still, to this day, working on that pot of coffee.  When they were done making fun of us the bailiff would bring us back into the room where we would return to the trial from hell.

After all the evidence was presented we were excused to the deliberation room to confer.  The deliberations are highly sensitive and we were instructed not to discuss them with anyone… so I won’t, partly because I respect our legal system but mostly because I do not want to experience our legal system again, especially from the defendant’s seat.

In the end after much deliberation, we reached the verdict and recommended the death penalty for whoever was in charge of installing the coffee machine. We also reached a verdict in the case and delivered it to the court where there were some sighs, tears and cheering as well, mostly from us, because we could now go home.

Blind Justice – Court Martial Duty Part I

I have been selected to sit a court martial.  No, don’t worry; I haven’t been accused of anything… that I am aware of.  No, I have been selected to sit as a member of a court martial, which is kind of like being selected for jury duty, except that instead of wearing an uncomfortable suit, you wear an uncomfortable white uniform.

I can’t really tell you much about what it is like to actually serve on a court martial.  This is partly due to the sensitive nature of the trial, but mostly due to the fact that I really have no idea what happens in a court martial because all I have really done is wait around.

Seriously, this is the nuclear version of the Navy’s policy of “hurry up and wait.”  In one day of my assignment I have spent at least 6 hours waiting around.  Not all at once.  They were kind enough to break it up a bit.

It all started at 0700 on Monday morning.  We all showed up in our whites ready to dish out Navy justice, or at least ready to avoid receiving Navy justice for failing to show up on time.  After going through what felt like a TSA airport security screening we were all escorted to the deliberation room, which is defined as room designed for 5 people filled with 15 people and a coffee pot (this was a very important feature.)  At this point we were ready to receive our instructions on what to do.  What we didn’t do is receive instructions on what to do.  We filled the time making small talk and speculation on what exactly we were expected to do.  This involved quite a lot of A Few Good Men and JAG references.  This was all we could do.  Phones were not permitted and so we were unable to check Facebook or Wikipedia or play angry birds.

It’s weird in the 21st century to be without your smart phone and connected to the internet at all times.  Without a smart phone there is no way to avoid an awkward conversation. You know when you are chatting to someone you don’t really know and the conversation lulls to that uncomfortable silence, so you glance down at your phone and display a facial expression that you might use if the president had texted you personally to ask you opinion about something you are an expert on (such as how to get past level 12 on the latest Angry Birds app… let’s be honest, that’s pretty much all you are an expert on.)   Also there seems to be no way to determine who is wrong when you reach a disagreement.  We’d be there conversing about something going on in the world (or possibly not going on in the world) and I was unable to fact check them.  It was very frustrating.  I was forced to simply argue or just silently judge them for being so stupid as to have a different opinion than me.

Fortunately just when we thought that we were never going to get any guidance, someone came in and told us that they were still working on some issues and that we should come back in an hour.  So we all headed out through security and outside where we realized we had left covers up in the deliberation room.  So after going back through the TSA security gauntlet, retrieving our covers and heading out we had just enough time to go back through the security check point in order to be on time for… well to be honest I’m not sure, not a whole lot happened when we got back to the room.

We ended up waiting around for another hour wondering just what was going on.  We passed the time making the uncomfortable small talk that inevitably occurs when you place officers and enlisted from varying communities in a confined space with no particular purpose.  Most of all we speculated about the reason for the courts martial, which it turns out we weren’t supposed to do, but since no one had spoken to us yet, we didn’t know this.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out, because in just over an hour someone came in and told us that they (it was never explained who they were) would be ready for us in short while (short taken in its loosest possible fashion) and we should just sit tight.  This was good advice since we had been sitting very loosely up ‘til then.

Soon enough the bailiff came in and told us that they were ready for us.  We were finally getting somewhere.  We were led into a court room and led to assigned seats.  As we walked into the court room the bailiff announced, “All rise,” and every one stood up.

Next the judge gave us some guidance which I would relay here but I really can’t remember what he said.  There were a lot of “notwithstandings,” “peremptory challenges,” and, “Voir Dires” and I kind of drifted off.  This, I discovered, is frowned upon in a court martial.  We were then told to read the charges.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Charges are not written in any discernable version of the English language.  Let’s say someone is accused of stealing.  It would look like:

CHARGE I: VIOLATION OF THE UCMJ, ARTICLE 122

Specification1: In that Petty Officer Michael J. Limburger, U.S. Navy, USS IRON WILL, on active duty, did, on or about 13 July 2013, all reasons to the contrary notwithstanding, herewith and with full knowledge of the proprietary ownership of said bag of chips, placed the aforementioned bag under the edge of his trench coat for later consumption, to wit, without the required transaction, exchange of required monetary units, or the expressed and or written consent of the proprietor and major league baseball.

After reading the charges, we had a fair idea that this guy was accused of some pretty bad stuff. I won’t go into the things he was accused of since this is a humor essay and none the charges were funny.

Next it was time for the attorneys to determine if we were right for the case. This is the only time in my Navy career, that it was considered good if you had no idea what the Navy’s policies are.  Obviously each attorney wants you to support their side.  If you do the other one will not want you.  It’s kind of like trying to impress your girlfriend’s father and your friends at the same time.  The only hope you have to being selected (and you really have to wonder what’s wrong with you if this is your goal) is to be completely clueless about every Navy policy that pertains to the case.  It turns out that I was perfect for this job.

We were asked a series of questions in which we answered yes or no to by raising our hand. Again this is not as easy it sounds, since all the questions are worded in the most complicated way possible.  “Do you not agree that by not adhering to contrary practices following certain procedures can and should be documented by itinerate and loyal activities that would not bring discredit upon the individual or individuals unconnected with the case at hand. “

We would then raise our hand if the answer was yes.   Eventually, after realizing that we were never going to be able to translate these questions into English, we just started raising our hands to everything.  They could have asked us if jay walking should be punished by death and we all would have agreed.

Once that little activity was done we were excused for an hour for lunch, which meant that if we left right away we could have just enough time to get back in line to go through security to enter the building again. Then it was time for us to be Voir Dired individually.   Voir Dire is French for, treat you like you are a criminal and ask you embarrassing questions in court in front of everyone.  This again is where you find out that they want someone truly clueless (impartial) about Navy policies.  After 17 years in the Navy, where I do NKO training every week but don’t really learn anything, it turns out that I was perfect for this job.  It’s kind of a dubious honor when you find out that it’s good to be a dirt bag.

After it was all over I was told that I had been selected to continue for the court-martial. I was so proud of myself until I realized it meant that I had to stay for the court martial, which should start, if they keep to this time table, within next 5 years (but they want me there every day just incase.)