This is a favorite anecdote that I share with folks I know. Back in 1992, I was in the Army at Fort Ord, based in lovely Monterey California. There was a junior enlisted fellow that worked in the supply room, and he had been working there before I arrived at the unit. After a few months, I found out his story, and it was a doozy.
This soldier, PV2 Gardner, was not a supply specialist, but a communications specialist. Since we had no commo section in the battalion (they had been moved to higher headquarters two years or so earlier), I inquired as to why Private Gardner was here, issuing paper tablets and computer disks, rather than assigned to a unit where he might have the chance to connect up some radios and telephones.
Well, he had been on assignment to Korea a couple years earlier, leaving at the same time as the rest of the commo folks that had been assigned to the battalion. As he outprocessed the battalion, division, and post, he did everything as normally expected. Then SPC(P) Gardner got to the housing office, and they were in the middle of a big inspection. The housing folks, looking at his ship date, realized he could stand to wait, while the bigwigs that were breathing down their necks would not wait. “Go home and we’ll call you,” he was told. Ever obedient, he went home and waited.
After his report date had passed without incident and he was still at home waiting, he decided he’d been forgotten. Normally, a soldier would be forthright and get back to the offending party as soon as possible, and certainly before he was late for his next assignment. This is referred to as being Absent Without Leave, or AWOL, and is not a good thing. Well, Gardner just stayed home and collected his Army pay for a while, then went out and got a civilian job as well. With his two paychecks, he was doing pretty well for his family. One day he got a phone call.
The Housing Office needed to speak to him. They had some news for him that he’d been waiting on for a while: his new government quarters were ready for occupancy. Yes, this soldier moved from off-post housing to on-post housing while still AWOL from his unit.
After two years or so, the commander wondered why he kept getting Leave and Earning Statements for some guy he’d never heard of named Gardner. He started a low-key investigation, and after 4 months got the answer. Now it gets really weird.
CPT Isham was hoping to get picked up for Major that year, and was doing everything possible to maintain a spotless record of command until the board convened. Obviously, having someone AWOL for 2 years without reporting it would be a bit of a smudge on one’s record. So, when CPT Isham finally caught up with SPC Gardner, he brought him back to the unit and charged him under non-judicial punishment for Failure to Repair. This is the military equivalent of not showing up for work on time, hardly the same thing as being a deserter. Desertion is defined as being AWOL for more than 30 days under normal circumstances (it’s immediate for those in special security positions), and 29 months was certainly more than 30 days by any calendar.
Gardner received a particularly harsh punishment for his actual charge, and was reduced in rank from a promotable Specialist (nearly a Sergeant) down to a Private-2. He was also fined a month’s pay and kept on restriction for 14 days. Since his job had been erased long prior, he was put in the Supply Room to give him gainful employment while he lost weight. You see, he’d put on so much tonnage while he was AWOL that he no longer was anywhere near the weight standards, and you can’t transfer to a new unit when you’re overweight. Or at least, you couldn’t then.
All would have been relatively normal at that point, if Gardner wanted to resume his military career. He didn’t. If a soldier who has been in more than 6 years gets kicked out of the army for being overweight, he gets severance pay. Our intrepid hero just kept that weight on until they had no choice but to send him back to civilian life, a few grand richer even.
All this seems to explain the reason for the title of this essay, but I’m not done yet. His attentive wife, upon looking back on the accumulated earning statements, realized the army had screwed up somewhere back in the beginning of this adventure. While living in an off-post apartment, a soldier is given a set amount of money for his pay grade and an additional amount for the area where he lives. Monterey is an expensive area, and Gardner had not received all the Variable Housing Allowance he was “owed” for his time off-post. Yes, that’s right folks: while spending 2 years sucking up unearned military pay, the boy actually had the gall to ask for some extra money. Since the commander had not charged Gardner with desertion, he was considered to have been on active duty in good standing the entire 2+ years he was playing basketball with his sons all day. The man actually got back pay for the time he was not at work!
Now, if that isn’t a gigantic pair, I don’t know what is.