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Jeff Whitten: That time he met the SMA
editor's notes

It brought back an old memory. And then a few more.

“It” being a press release emailed Tuesday from Fort Stewart PAO Lt. Col. Lindsey Elder alerting area media to the Wednesday arrival on Fort Stewart of Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston for a town hall meeting with soldiers.

You see, I met a sergeant major of the Army once. It happened on a payday at Fort Bragg circa 1986 or so. It wasn’t on purpose.

It went like this: I was then an E-4 in the 5th Battalion, 8th Field Artillery and, while my memory is a tad bit foggy, that particular day had to be a payday. When you’re as perpetually broke as a junior enlisted soldier tends to be broke, you remember when you’re not broke. That’s payday.

At any rate, that meant I probably wanted some cash money to go downtown to what was then called Fayette- nam with some of my buddies and watch this attractively put together lady do some amazing things with quarters, so during a break I wound up standing in line at a credit union branch on Fort Bragg.

There I was, a much younger wanna-be South Carolina surfer boy in BDUs, standing about 10th in line in a bank full of lines, when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a voice address me as soldier.

“Soldier,” it said. “Take your hands out of your pockets.”

I sighed and took my hands out of my BDU pockets and sighed again and sort of half turned around to see who it was who’d given me the order to take my hands out of my pockets. I suspected it was an E5. That seemed to be their pet peeve when I was in.

Anyway, on a good day I’m about 5-foot-6, or was before being a weekly newspaper editor wore me down to a nub, and I immediately came eyeball to eyeball with a bunch of stripes and two stars staring back at me from a sleeve.

One star for each eye. Even I knew what that meant. The highest ranking enlisted man in the world had just told me to take my hands out of my pockets.

Uh-oh. I halfway recall I didn’t know whether to salute, or maybe curtsy like Molesley on Downton Abbey when he was thanked for serving the royal couple. What I think I did was either involuntarily squeak, or let out a four-letter word, prefaced by “oh” and followed by “me.” And then I might’ve wondered if I was going to be shot, or given a court martial, or dragooned, or end up pulling a million years extra duty from getting 300 Article 15s or what. In the meantime I looked up at the SMA, who looked down at me, deadpan. A chill silence sort of hovered. I might’ve said “oops.” Or “put her there.”

Probably not the latter. And then I about-faced and kept my eyes front and my hands at my sides and outside my pockets. He didn’t say anything else and I didn’t say anything else, but I swear I could feel him breathing sergeant major of the Army breath on my head the rest of the time I stood in line.

Which is actually something to ponder –

there I was, just a dumb peon who didn’t know enough to keep his hands out of his pockets, and there he was, the highest ranking enlisted man in the universe, and he was standing in line at a credit union just like me and everybody else. You think that would happen in Russia? Heck no.

Note: The Army has changed the sergeant major’s insignia since the one my SMA wore and I included a photo of in the column. Also, I’ve got a bald spot where that SMA breathed on my head. I wonder sometimes.

Onward: Are the elections over yet? While it is a good thing we live in a Republic where people get the opportunity to elect their leaders, the 24-hour news cycle and the hyper local social media weirdness that operates on its own sleepless cycles and magnifies the trivial and the inane without substance until we’re left with a dumbed-down landscape of cretinous drama queens and narcissists running around claiming the sky is falling every 30 seconds tends to almost make one wish for days when nobody knew anything except what we really knew and we were the better off for it.

Finally, this: I vote we keep setting the clocks back every fall, even if we don’t set them forward ever again. An hour a year, every year. A fountain of youth, in slow-mo.

Take care of yourselves.

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