The careless, the uninformed, the shy

by Master Sgt. Scott C. Etler
3rd AF/C2C

Not long after I arrived at my first duty station, a crotchety old technical sergeant nicknamed me “Scotty-Bag-of-Donuts.” I never quite understood what that meant; he never told me, and I never asked. I was just pleased that someone was paying attention to me – the new guy. 

I had an inkling it meant something negative, but for the next two years, I brushed it off as being part of the flight line banter that I learned to love. In time, the crusty old crew chief left and my nickname went with him. It wasn’t until a few years later, after finding a picture of me standing “proudly” in front of my F-15, that I understood what he was trying to tell me.

In my picture, my BDUs were faded and wrinkled beyond recognition, both collars were curled upward and my hair was out of regs. Being the wet-behind-the-ears Airman I was back then, I never got the importance of presenting a professional image. I referred to those Airmen that did get it as the apple-polishers of the unit. However, what I quickly learned was they were winning all the unit awards, getting promoted faster and leaving me in their dust. Frankly, I was quite shocked at what I saw in that picture and even more angered that no one clearly brought my slack-frumpiness to my attention. Unfortunately, even today, too many of us turn a blind eye or are afraid to address these issues. 

Over the past several years (and many irons later), I feel it is my duty to correct the dress and appearance violations I see, not because I get a kick from calling Airmen out, but because I do not believe anyone deserves the innuendoes made to me. A quick, forward and informed heads-up is all it takes to steer our fellow Airmen back on track. Whether you are correcting a uniform infraction or mentoring those who shy away from confronting these issues, it takes courage and a strong moral obligation to duty to do so. Here are a couple examples of how I have dealt with these problems.

The Careless
A few months ago, I noticed an Airman walking in my direction in the BX parking lot with his BDU cap cocked back as if on his way to a monster truck rally. I quickly had to decide which of three approaches I should take to confront the issue. I could have gone up to him and with a verbal smack on the back of the head said, “Straighten up!” However, I knew I should keep my emotions in check. I could have quoted AFI 36-2903 and stated that the cap needs to be worn “squarely on the head with no hair protruding in front.” But because we all learned how to wear a hat during basic training, I decided against this approach. I decided to go with the third approach and simply and politely inform him that his cap needed to be lowered. It was clear he knew how to properly wear his head gear, because he quickly adjusted it to how he learned to wear it in basic training and responded with a “yes, sir.”

Any of the above approaches would have been OK to use, but I feel it is best to read the situation first then pick the best one. Now, I was pleased with the Airman’s reaction, but disappointed at the NCO who happened to be walking with him. After addressing the Airman, I turned to the NCO and reminded him that as an NCO, he should have fixed the Airman’s uniform problem before letting him go out in public (looking like a “bag of donuts”).

The Uninformed
One morning, not too long ago, I commended a lieutenant colonel who works in my building for finally getting on the ABU bandwagon. His fresh uniform looked great at first glance. However, later that day, a junior officer came into my office and told me that the lieutenant colonel was wearing black socks with his ABUs. I asked the officer if he said anything to him and he replied, “There is no way I could do that, he’s a lieutenant colonel.”

I told him that he was obligated to tell him and that it is important to shield the “boss” from embarrassment. He agreed, but when the lieutenant colonel came into the room he said, “Sir, Sergeant Etler wanted me to let you know that your socks are unauthorized with the ABUs.”

Naturally, I was disappointed in the junior officer and I courteously informed the lieutenant colonel that only green socks can be worn with the ABUs. I went further to explain that tan socks may also be worn but only if wearing tan boots. The senior officer admitted he was unsure what color socks to wear, so he went with what he knew. He thanked me for bringing the problem to his attention. I later told the junior officer that he failed to address the matter correctly and the guidance should have come from him when he first noticed. 

He and the NCO from the first example did what a lot of people do by making it someone else’s problem to deal with.

A chief once referred to this kind behavior as the “booger factor.” He explained that if he had something hanging out of his nose, most people (he hoped) would say something or motion for him to wipe up before he goes out and embarrasses himself in public. He thought, if people are able to tell him he needed to blow his nose, then why is it so hard for the same people to correct Airmen who are not wearing the uniform correctly? I am really not sure why, but I want to believe most people are afraid to speak up because they just don’t know what is right or wrong.

Whatever the reason, we need to remember that the U.S. Air Force is the most powerful air and space force in the world – an accomplishment not possible without the greatest professionals in the world. It is also important to remember, that our professionalism extends beyond launching aircraft on time or seamlessly reconfiguring the base network. It extends to how we look to the public. Whether we are walking around on base, on a lunch break or on our way home from work, as military professionals we are held to a higher standard than our civilian counterparts. And if we don’t correct these minor deficiencies, who is correcting them when they shortcut work on multimillion dollar Air Force weapon systems?

So I ask you all to help out in the epic quest to inform and mentor the uninformed, the careless and the shy. Learn what is right and wrong. Praise the shiny and polish the dull. And always remember that we have a communal obligation to watch out for each other because the public is watching us.