MIGHTY CULTURE

Off the pods and into the cubicle: a Special Mission Unit Operator’s transition to civilian life

Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is now a master photographer, cartoonist, and storyteller.

Eyes roll at the sight of yet another transition story. We all get it; it's hard to transition from military to civilian life. I have read many a story myself and note positively that everyone brings up a new eureka moment for me that I didn't experience myself, but that I totally get. My transition story doesn't boast any novel epiphany though it does come from the aspect of a career SMU pipe-hitter.

"You're not on the pods anymore, Geo... you need to get off the pods and throttle back a bit. I mean not a bit but a whole, whole lot!" explained my boss, Conan, also from my same SMU in Fort Bragg, NC.


Pods refer to the two benches on the exterior of the MH-6 Little Bird helicopter on which two men on each side of the aircraft can ride into an assault scenario. To many of us, riding the pods into an assault objective hanging on with one arm and lighting up targets on the ground with the other arm was the penultimate of brash aggression and acute excitement of living life on the very edge.

(A complex brown-water insertion of a Klepper kayak. Photo courtesy of the author)

"SMUs will always be around, because no amount of technology will ever replace raw unadulterated aggression." (SMU Squadron Commander)

I stood tall in my new office cubicle at my new job as a civilian, having just separated from the Service. My job/title was Project Manager. This was my new life, this square. "This is going to be great!" I pallidly promised my psyche. I fervently thanked the creator for the "shower door" on my cube that I could slide closed to prove to the world that I was not really there.

It was plastic, but it was translucent rather than transparent; that is, you could see through it, but only gross shapes rather than defined detail like... a shower door does. If a body were to remain very quiet and still, nobody could detect your presence in the cube. This thing I did fancy.

Carol from HR then stood in my open doorway in her blue office dress to welcome me and list the ground rules — the corporate culture of life in office cube city. She recited those edicts as they appeared chiseled in granite:

• "No, singing or playing of music;

• no cooking food;

• avoid speaker phones

• watch your voice volume

• deal with gas in the restroom

• always knock before entering a cubicle

• no "prairie-dogging"

In fact, whatever it is you find yourself doing in your cube for the moment just stop it!

"Er... no prairie-dogging? Yeah, so... what might prairie dogging be?" I posed.

"Well Mr. Hand, prairie dogging involves the poking of ones head over the top of one's cubicle walls and... and looking around!" Blue-dressed Carol from HR became a blurred and indistinct pattern from the other side of my show door as I closed it in her incredulous face.

"Well, I never... I AM NOT FINISHED MR. HAND!"

I popped one's head up over the top of one's cubicle and explained: "Yes, yes you are finished, Ms. Carol from HR... and please watch your voice volume — TSK!"

Within the hour my shower door flew open and there stood Conan, face awash with concern.

"Woah, now that is a great, big, fat, bulbous-assed no-go here in cube city—entering without knocking... tremendous transgression, Conan!" I warned.

"There was a complaint about you from HR, geo..."

We talked. Conan was right, and there was no dispelling that. I apologized and thanked him. We shook hands as we always did when we parted or met. So with a crappy first morning behind me, I vowed to make the best of the rest. I headed to the break room for a cup of coffee to calm myself down.

(Low-profile office cubicles offer no substantial privacy)

I embraced the notion that there might be nobody in the break room, but my crest fell for there were a man and woman seated at a table enjoying lunch. The noon hour had crept up on me though I scarce remarked. I held my breath and went about for that cup of Joe.

Men are great around just each other, but they get stupid and inclined to comport themselves like jackasses whenever a woman is around too. This fellow saw that I was engaged in an action that was somewhat contrary to break room policy, and he began:

"Excuuuuse me there, partner... but you're not supposed to..."

"SHUT UP; SHUT THE PHUQ UP, PARTNER!!" I delivered to the man without even turning to look at him, not fully knowing from whence my outburst came.

"I'm screwed!" I thought, "I didn't check the volume of my voice!" unable to sort through the gravity of which coffee offense I had committed just then. It was not the volume that was the greater offense, rather the content of my delivery.

The woman left the break room immediately at a cantor. Partner remained for the mandatory tough-guy extra seconds, me leaning against the counter, staring at him all the while sipping my incorrect procedurally-obtained break room coffee. He then sauntered out with backless bravado.

My shower door flew open without a knock. Once more, I reeled at Conan's blatant disregard for cube rules. I endured the pod speech strewn with constant "I'm sorry, Conan" interrupts. This time his speech contained a threat annex to it. I needed to take that seriously. We two shook hands, as we always did when we parted or met.

A few months ago I was riding on the pods doing 90 MPH hanging on with one arm like a rodeo rider, spitting jacketed lead at targets on the ground, sprinting from the touched-down chopper at full speed smashing through doors and lighting up all contents... now I was born again into a world where the penultimate cringe comes from the shrimp platter at the buffet not being chilled down to the proper 54-degrees (Fahrenheit).

I had to turn this thing around, but wasn't sure how. I accepted my plight with this eight-word phrase, one that I came to lean on in countless occasions: "We'll just have to figure it out tomorrow." And so it went for the next 16 years there at that same job.

I didn't have to re-invent myself as I feared, but I did develop a set of guidelines that would steer my path over the next more than a decade and a half. There were the company rules, and then there were my rules. My rules were better than the company rules. They were simple. Though I never formally wrote them down, I can list them still for the most part:

1. Don't ever tell anybody what the real rules are

2. Don't ever hurt anybody in the company or customer base

3. Don't ever damage any company or customer property

4. Don't ever wear corduroy pants on a day you might have to run many miles.

5. Don't ever allow yourself to be stuck in a position with a boss who sucks.

6. Don't ever cheat entering time into your pay invoice

7. Never litter

8. Never threaten another employee within earshot of a witness

9. Remotely bury any items that could get you fired or that you just don't want to deal with

10. Never reveal the locations of buried items

11. Eventually, return all clandestinely-acquired tools and equipment

12. (most important of all rules) ALWAYS WORK ALONE!

(The author on left and teammate on right, lift off with an MH-6 for more gun runs, not giving one-tenth of a rat's ass about the temperature of the shrimp platter.

(Photo courtesy of SMU Operator MSG Gaetano Cutino, KIA)