Flashback to 1994

The phone was ringing on a Saturday morning as we were having breakfast. I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Lt. O’Malley, this is LTC Jones, we need to talk. How soon can you get down to the unit?”

“I, uh, I’ll be right there. Can you tell me what this is about?”

“No I can’t.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there.” This couldn’t be good. No way could this be good. What did I do? What is the problem? I had no idea, and the terse tone filled me with dread.

“Hon, I have to go to the unit.”

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Most definitely, yes, there is something wrong, but I don’t know what. I can’t talk about it… I… “ I fumbled around for keys, shoes, trying to remember where I was.

On the short drive to the port district in Oakland, I searched my memories trying to figure out what this could be about, trying to think if I did or said anything… anything. I had no idea, and that was more disconcerting than anything.

“Lt O’Malley, close the door and have a seat.”

I sat there in stunned silence, waiting for the bell to toll.

“I have received a disturbing report of your behavior, LT.”

…and? I thought.

“Two SGT’s have come forward with racial discrimination complaint against you. I consider these charges grave.”

I felt shocked and relieved at the same time. Shocked that someone could have accused me of such a thing, relieved that I knew it to be untrue.

“I – uh, never. Sir, I have never done such a thing. Who was it?” I was a little rattled, searching for the purpose, the plan, the method, why am I here, I asked myself?

“I can’t tell you, LT, but I consider the charges serious.”

“I am not a racist. What do they say I did? What could I have done? I’m married to a Puerto Rican, I live in Oakland for God’s sake. I love diversity. There’s no way I’m a racist.”

“That may be, LT, but I tell you, you have a problem.”

I stammered, repeated myself, got defensive. “Sir, it’s not true. It’s not true. I didn’t do it.”

LTC Jones, changed his tone a bit. I noticed a slightly fatherly demeanor for this young Lieutenant. “LT, you have a problem. How are you going to solve it?”

“A problem?! I never.. I didn’t. I can’t…”

He cut me off firmly. “LT, YOU have a problem. What are you going to do about it?”

Something clicked at that moment. I have a problem. Yes, I do, don’t I? I have been lost in my own bruised ego. I had tried to shirk the responsibility for this problem that had been thrust upon me. It was mine. All my own. It was not of my own making, but it had been delivered to me. I was now the proud owner of a problem not of my own making. Now novel, eh? – as if no one in humanity’s history had ever had to deal with a problem not of their own making, or consequence, or foundations contrary their own values.

How novel, how rich, how unusual, I reflected sarcastically. This is something that happens everyday. Problems arrive at the doorsteps of unsuspecting fools, delivered by incompetent, malicious, ill-intentioned, or ignorant people. Sometimes problems arrive from the Atlantic kicking up wind gusts of 150 mph. Accidents happen, sometimes through the carelessness of action, thoughtlessness, or just plain dumb luck.

“What can I do?” I asked LTC Jones. But before he could answer, I blurted out, “I want to address the company. Let me address the company, that way the individuals can hear me and I don’t have to single them out. Let me address the company and just nip this in the bud, with an apology.”

LTC Jones hid a smile. “That’s a great idea, LT. We can do it in the morning formation. That way it can be cleared up, and we can get on with the rest of the weekend. I’m glad we had this talk. Now get out of here.”

He was pleased, I could tell. He didn’t want to be too jubilant. It’s not dignified. But reflecting on this many years latter, I understand the difficulties of command. He had a Lieutenant and two Sergeants that were at odds. In order for his unit to function there must be accord. The unit must run without disruption, petty politics, individual negativity, bickering. The unit must have unity, a sense of esprit de corps. He doesn’t know who to trust, and probably doesn’t really care. If the charges go forward, a complaint would be filed, possibly investigated and filed away. As a commander, I can tell you that that is not a solution. It solves nothing, does nothing but document and bury the incident. Meanwhile, relationships suffer, factions form from those that support one side or the other, and the unit becomes less effective.

My direction was clear in that moment of clarity, a momentary bolt of wisdom had shot through that young heart of mine, and allowed me to divorce myself from my ego, my concern for myself, my career, my well-being, and allowed me to see my damaged unit, and know there was something I could do about it.

What LTC Jones really wanted was someone who could solve his problem, and I was the only one capable. To have been able to count on me for that task was probably something for which he was very grateful.