Tough Command

by Marcelyn Atwood

I picked up the phone. My secretary said a Colonel from the Air Staff was parked on line 2.  My shoulders sagged, what did the Recce guys from HQ want so early on a Monday morning? 

“One of my Majors just left my office telling me his active duty Major wife is having an affair with one of your Squadron Commanders, call sign Sparky.” 

“Is this an official complaint?”

My eyes were glued 10 feet in front of me.

“What kind of a fucked up question is that?  Yes, OSI is already involved.  Go after Sparky, this is fraternization and adultery!”

“I’m assuming you have proof?” The phone went dead as he slammed down the receiver.

I called my husband, a former Marine Corps military judge. I wanted my guy’s gut check to make sure the next steps were right.  I hung up, my head in my hand staring at my boots. Leaning back in my chair, I dialed the General’s secretary. 

“I need 10 minutes with the boss for a time sensitive issue.”

“He’s working paper and is on a telecon in 30.  You’ve got 10 in 15.”

My eyes were glued 10 feet in front of me.

“On my way.”  I walked swiftly down the hall arriving on the hack.  Ignoring the soft chair and dodging boxes of stuff he still hadn’t unpacked I reported in at his desk. He glanced up from flung papers, surprised as I leaned in.

“Sir, I just got a call from an Air Staff Colonel.  Sparky, one of my Recce Squadron Commanders is accused of having an affair with an Air Staff Major.  OSI may be involved on their end.  I’m starting a command investigation.” 

Stunned, the General, an Academy Grad ring knocker, paused.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes, no option and I’m leaving him in command until we get proof.”

Returning to my desk, I called the base JAG and requested an investigator from the additional duty list.  A Colonel from the medical group arrived in my office at the end of the day.  Closing the door, I stood eye-to-eye, unblinkingly stating this investigation is on an Academy grad, true blue recce guy, and squadron commander.  Sparky is accused of dalliance with a mid-grade officer at the Pentagon, whose husband is also Major on the Air Staff.  I handed him the directive letter with a two-week deadline, my inked signature still damp.  Already feeling like a long week, I stared at my stack of paper as daylight left the room.

Friday night my husband, the Vice President of the base Spouses Club, hosted Mrs. Sparky and her squadron wives at my house.  I raced home to help him prepare the drink table and finger food for the gals.  Then returning to the office, since the “husbands” weren’t allowed to partake, I worked late into the night. Climbing into bed, I sank under the covers.

“Honey, I had a strange question from Sparky tonight, you know he was at the gathering for 20 minutes talking to the gals about the next deployment rotation.  Sparky pulled me aside as the gals were cackling and asked how you were doing.”  

Squeezing my eyes tight and letting my chest fall, “Really? What did you tell him?” 

“Better than most.”

Monday came too soon and my Tuesday schedule said an early morning out and back airline flight to DC.  After the General’s Monday staff meeting at 1000, I asked if he could hang back with me.  Squaring off to face him straddling the corner of the conference table I told him I decided to tell Sparky someone in his squadron was under investigation. 


“Sir, Commanders need to know.  He’s one of 15 other Lieutenant Colonels in that squadron.  If I tell him, maybe he’ll see the path to tell his side so we can get this under control.”

At 1500, Sparky was in my office.  “I’ve started a command investigation on a Lieutenant Colonel in your squadron.  I don’t think it will go anywhere, but we are following procedure just to be sure.”

“Ma’am, Who?”

“Can’t say, it is just a preliminary step.”

“When can I expect the report on my guy, Ma’am?”

“Middle of next week.”   

I watched Sparky leave my office as he came in, upbeat and positive.  I paused my head on the back of my executive chair and turned to the stack of performance reports awaiting my red pen.

Tuesday came early.  Yawning, I squirmed in my airline seat seeking comfort despite my blue ill-fitting Class As and the rest that had eluded me last night. I hated the early morning goes but this was worth it to get to DC, to stand by my guys for the Air Force Association Recce Crew of the Year Award and get back to base all in one day.  The old guy two rows up kept turning around and staring.  Yep, geezer, this is a girl with eagles on the shoulders and wings above a full rack, of ribbons.

I’d only just taken command of the largest flying operations group in the Air Force two months earlier.  Still grasping the lack of resource issues and the 24/7 global mission this Award Luncheon was another chance to show unity with them and to pretend I knew it all.

Sitting at the table with other senior leaders I dashed through the small talk wishing the Recce Crew would take the stage and get their award so I could escape. My cell buzzed in my lap.  I gathered my napkin around my plate and sidestepped to the door of the banquet hall. 

“Colonel Atwood.”

“Ma’am, relaying radio call from Bravo.”  The Vice Wing Commander keyed his radio.

“Marcy, Sparky hanged himself this morning. I’m on site with OSI who is starting the line of duty misconduct/death investigation.” I buckled into the wall, head down, my breath shallow.

“What? Well, the command investigation is now over!” I whispered.

“Sparky left early dressed for his usual morning PT run.  A note in the car said “I hope you are happy.”  He apparently walked across the street to the new construction house and hung himself from the rafter in the garage.  Crisis response is working.  Your husband is here holding Mrs. Sparky and the base Colonel Chaplain together.”  

“Thanks, Bravo, I’m declaring a safety stand down for Sparky’s squadron.  No RC-135 flying.  Call off the schedule.  Command Post, who’s still up?”

“Ma’am, the last morning-go lands in about 30 minutes.  Afternoon launches are running pre-flights.”

“Right, cancel all flying, the 1st ACCS E-4s, the trainers, and the RC-135 flights.  Tell them I directed a safety stand down for entire Ops Group.  When’s the next higher HHQ sortie?”

“Ma’am, on Friday.”

“Good, I’ll make that call on Thursday.”

 “Command Post, Bravo, I concur.  Bravo out.”

I left the hotel walking slowly to the Washington Zoo Metro three hours before my flight home.  My eyes were glued 10 feet in front of me.  Staying on the Metro past the airport, I wandered into Old Town Alexandria Chico’s.  I quietly asked the oldest clerk for help picking an outfit. One hour later, dressed in purple with my crumpled dress uniform in the Chico’s bag, I anonymously boarded the Midwest flight to Omaha. Walking out of the gate area with effort, one foot, then the next, my husband grabbed my hand and held on tight the entire silent ride to the base.

Tossing and turning that night, one thought replaced sleep.  I failed. I told Sparky yesterday that someone was under investigation.  The last straw throwing Sparky overboard had my name on it.  

The General refused to do the eulogy.  A bomber guy, who didn’t belong to the Recce Frat, had only taken command three weeks earlier. Mrs. Sparky insisted on an open casket, his neck unusually long above his flight suit.  She positioned the casket in the base church entrance forcing all of us to walk by him.  I approached the door, seeing the casket and hurried down the outside of the building to the servant entrance.  I could not face him.       

The church was packed.  I sat hyperventilating, desperate for air to calm my nerves, waiting for my turn in the program.  I gripped the podium.  I scanned across the rows and up to the balcony, making eye contact with as many as I could with the open casket below my feet.  My last eye lock with my husband directly in front of me, gave me the push to begin.  He had drafted the eulogy, which I refined by writing Recce inside baseball references as best I could.  Using my French horn embouchure, I plastered the corners of my mouth up and performed a reading, a celebration of life. With every end of a paragraph, the nagging guilt whispered, you did this.   

We all walked slowly outside to the open parade ground.  My husband held my hand, even against my pull to let go in compliance with proper uniform wear.  Scattered in groups, the Wing mass fell silent as the RC-135 flew a wing walking slow flight 1500 feet above us to the west, a nod to Sparky, one of ours.