I believed I had overcome being that girl. I’d gone to college, for Christ’s sake, the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree. I’d moved to California and started a career doing what I love. The Air Force version of me was just a kid with no guidance, not knowing what the hell to do. Plus, that photo made it look like I was this good little soldier patriotically serving her country. Even at the time, that made me feel like a poseur.
Here’s how I served you, my countrymen. You can thank me later.
At Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, I worked in an office with more than 40 people with a workload that 20 could handle. We were told, “Perception is everything,” which meant: “Just make it look like you’re working, even if you aren’t. Then you won’t get in trouble, and more importantly, we won’t get in trouble if an officer walks in and sees you fucking around.” It was then that I learned that I can pretend the shit out of working. All day long, even. I excel at it. So whenever I’d stop by Walmart after work in uniform and a well-meaning stranger would come up and say, “Thank you,” I always wanted to thank that person back. Thank you for your tax dollars, nice lady. I will now use them to go on a shopping spree.
When I was “Airman Mitchell,” I sat at a desk. I had a cubicle. There was a coffeemaker. There was a snack closet. Every day a guy I had a crush on would flirt with me by getting me a Moon Pie from the snack closet. I’d made the mistake of not telling him from the first that I hated Moon Pies and so I slowly accumulated a drawer full of them.
I never went overseas. I never did anything remotely dangerous. I did shoot an M16 at a piece of paper a few times. I did have a perfect uniform: shiny boots, sleeves crisp and creased, my hair slicked back like a seal — if seals had hair. I had a bun any sexy librarian would covet. I was quiet. Quietly judging.
Once, a new guy was sent to the squadron where I worked. I can’t remember his name now, but I referred to him then as “Captain Fetushead.” Captain Fetushead was young, doughy, pale, and blonde — with a certain flatness to the back of his head and closely cropped hair through which one could see his pink scalp. He was really excited about his new job and about all the ideas he had to improve the way things operated. As if that weren’t annoying enough, he singled me out, focusing on me as a “project.” Because I was quiet, he’d decided that I was shy and meek — neither was true — and that he could fix this perceived problem.
“We’re gonna bring you out of your shell, HAHAHA! People can’t be shy when I’m around, HAHAHA!”
He was one of those people who laughed after everything he said. (By the way, if you do that, you should stop.) By then, I had learned to control the impulse to roll my eyes or to say what was on my mind. In military world, I could get in big, big trouble for calling an officer a giant douchebag tool from hell.
Captain Fetushead’s plan to give me a personality makeover was to un-shy me via indoor volleyball. As an office, we went to the gym a few times a week for our PT (physical training), and Fetushead decided we’d play a version of volleyball wherein I was the captain of my team. If my team made a point, I had to switch one of my weak players with a strong player from the other side. This is some officer training school leadership bullshit, and I had zero problems and no guilt doing it. Alas, it did nothing to fix my personality. What Fetushead didn’t realize was that you don’t have to be loud and obnoxious to be a leader; smart and decisive work fine.
In my Air Force life, I did what I had to do, but nothing more. I didn’t sacrifice much, aside from some of my youth and a chunk of my soul, which was crushed daily by guys in crewcuts who walked around yelling “Hooah!” in an office full of semi-obese, balding computer programmers in combat boots. I was the only girl programmer where I worked for most of the years I was Airman Mitchell. Considering that I was young, unmarried, not a closeted lesbian, and didn’t look like a gargoyle — well, I might as well have been a baby panda — you know, ’cause they’re rare. It was hard to blend in, but not hard to get away with things others could not. I got more than a little special treatment, mostly because of preconceptions that I was weaker, stupider, and more incompetent than the boys. Oh, and because I put out. Sorry, feminism.
The main reason I’d signed up for military service was so people would get off my back. When you’re a senior in high school, everyone’s always asking you what your plan is. The ideal answer is, “I’m going to college! I’ve chosen a major! I’ve won scholarships and am well on my way to becoming a productive member of society!”
I certainly wasn’t planning on any of those things, but at least I had an answer. “Yes, it’s true, family. I am almost failing out of high school because I never go and am completely disinterested in it, and I have no real direction in life, no future to speak of, but ooh…look…I’m joining the military! See? You like that! America!!” Now leave me alone.
The bar for intelligence at enlistment is set so low that my scores (as a failing high-school student) on the ASVAB were perfect and allowed me my pick of career fields. Those career fields had long names that make them sound important and military-ish. I vacillated between Space Systems Operations (because it had the word “space” in it, and space is awesome) and the recruiter’s recommendation of Communications Computer Systems Programmer, for which I’d have to take an additional logic test. I chose the latter because it seemed more exclusive and brainy. Like a cool Vulcan club. (I still cite this logic test as proof that I’m a rational, clear-thinking person, even if I’m crying uncontrollably. Hey — show of hands: Who has qualified as a logical thinker by the Department of Defense? That’s what I thought.)