Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Of (Marine) Language

By Jeffrey D. Barnett
Home Fires:
Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life
The New York Times
June 26, 2007

It’s been over three weeks since my last hair cut, and the urge to get it cut again is killing me. I’m accustomed to having longer hair now; that’s not the issue. The problem is that weekly haircuts keep the ends of your hair neatly trimmed to the same length, and the shaggy look of uneven ends bothers me. Everyone else seems to suffer from the same phenomenon of uneven hair, but it’s still a little disconcerting.

Less frequent haircuts have been just one small part of my adjustment to the civilian workforce. Changing my vocabulary has definitely been the largest adjustment. I was reading a tape measure at work a couple weeks ago and accidentally rattled off an incorrect number to my co-worker who was compiling the data into a table with a pencil. Needing to correct the error I quickly said, “As you were,” which in the Marine Corps means, “Ignore what I just said; here comes a correction.” Quickly realizing that phrase was only slightly clearer than speaking Arabic I backtracked again and said “neg….” I got the first syllable of “negative” out of my mouth before I thought to myself, “What is wrong with you? First, you’ve never been taught to use the word ‘negative.’ Second, is it possible for you to speak like a normal human being for just a moment, or are you incapable of that?” Responding to my own criticism my next verbal utterance was ‘Damn it!”

Now I was swearing, which I know isn’t as acceptable at work as it was in the Marine Corps, so I was digging further yet into this self-induced black hole of vernacular. I said to myself “O.K. Just stop, take a breath, and recock … damn it! I did it again (recock).” At this point you’re probably thinking, “He must have been lying in his previous blogs, because he’s obviously got a lot of war-related mental issues.” All of the above transpired within a couple seconds after which my co-worker asked, “What does that mean … what you just said?”

In an interesting turn of events it seems my Marine Corps vocabulary is a curiosity to others as well as a personal cross to bear. Nobody seems to be bothered by my use of “check,” “roger,” or “out,” although if I ever strung them together into “Check Roger out!” I would definitely get some strange looks. I have settled into keeping obvious and familiar words as part of my vocabulary, at least for the short-term.

Some of them are more descriptive, and in my opinion, better. Take “roger” for instance. If I reply “O.K.” to a question or statement, that could mean anything. If I reply, “roger” that means I understood what was said and what tasks it implies for me. Perhaps one day my neurons will link that thought to the phrase “O.K.” — but probably not anytime soon.

Another area where I have problems is using first names for everyone in the workplace. Now, I’m not a social idiot. I can deal with calling my supervisor and even his supervisor by first names. They’re both only a few years older than me, and I view all of us as the equivalent of company grade officers, who are often on a first-name basis. However, I know the boss three bosses above me is not in my peer group, but everyone still refers to him by his first name. I feel awkward when I call him Mr.So-and-so because I feel like I look too rigid, but using his first name feels equally awkward. Furthermore, everyone also refers to Mr. So-and-so’s boss, a vice president, by his first name. I haven’t met him since my interview, but I already know that when I do, I’ll be calling him “Doctor.” Until I get some graduate degrees under my belt I’ll continue to refer to those with Ph.D.s as “Doctor.”

As you might have discerned from my company grade officer analogy in the preceding paragraph, I also continually try to understand organizational structures and leadership positions in terms of what it would mean in the Marine Corps. Working for a defense contractor on a military base makes it a little more applicable. I think I use the analogy to determine the seniority of the person in question, and therefore how familiar I can act towards them.

One area where I think I have a distinct advantage over my civilian peers is tracking a task to completion. I’ve noticed that civilians seem much more apt to just “let it ride.” They talk about things in esoteric terms and often don’t get into the details, or are content to let the details work themselves out later, which requires more time and effort than truly necessary. The proverbial “they” is also a constant presence. I’m starting to figure out that if someone doesn’t know who “they” are then “they” may really be “we.” Similarly, “we” often means “you,” so applying the transitive property we get the equation: “They = = You.” I’m still working on the formal proof.

On a positive note, I absolutely love being a civilian again. Specifically, I enjoy not being a supervisor. I hope that changes in the future, but for right now it’s glorious to just be a trigger-puller (a basic rifleman — the most junior marine, who isn’t in charge of anyone). When I leave work in the afternoon I don’t have to think about it again until morning. When I leave on Friday I’m resting easy until Monday morning. Everybody in my workplace could get a D.U.I., a divorce, a speeding ticket, bounce checks, ignore their creditors, and gamble away their savings in Tunica, Miss., and for once I would never know about it. That, my friends, is my favorite employee benefit, and they don’t even advertise it on the company Web site.


Jeffrey D. Barnett wrote for the TimesSelect column Frontlines during his 2006 deployment to Falluja in support of First Radio Battalion from Camp Pendleton, Calif. He completed his active military service on June 1, and has started a new job in his hometown of Huntsville, Ala. He is the author of the blog The Midnight Hour.

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