Misadventures at Club Fed

On October 4, 2010, I got up early for my first day working for the Department of the Army, part of the United States Department of Defense. I had made sure that everything was ready: my car insurance was up to date, drivers license checked out, nothing bad in the car, etc. as I didn’t want to be delayed at the gate. I had been on post a few days prior for a security background check, which I had my father take me on post for as he was a serving member of the Guard at the time. This time around, it would be all me.

My destination was the CPAC, Civilian Personnel Advisory Center — the place where all civilian employee affairs were handled. That morning, I had been scheduled for my swearing-in, whereupon I would swear allegiance to the United States Government as well as the duties of office. The CPAC was in temporary housing at the time due to flooding in their main office, so I stopped outside the post’s airfield and parked across from an old OH-58C helicopter, long since abandoned as a gate guard. I was apparently quite early and there was only one person in the office, but they were helpful and gave me the paperwork I needed to fill out. It was more of the same that I had filled out in the months prior; full name, social security, maiden names, what I had for breakfast, did I howl at the moon with a rubber chicken, and so on — the usual government paperwork in triplicate.

After the paperwork was filled out, filed, and forgotten, the final part was swearing in. What you’re supposed to do is face the flag, hold your right hand up, and repeat the words that the official says while standing next to you. At the time, I didn’t have a hearing aid in my left ear, so I was completely deaf out of that side, and my implant was still a processor from 2004 — not the latest and greatest tech. I asked the official if it was OK if I asked him to repeat the words if I didn’t hear them. He said that was fine, so we got started and I proudly repeated the words, stopping a couple times for repeats and clarifications, before it was finally complete. For the first time in my life, I actually felt a sense of pride: I was contributing toward my country, an ideal larger than myself. I was actually doing something good for the people, for the nation. My youthful idealism seems so quaint in hindsight, but that’s a topic for another time.

Once my swearing in was done, I was released for work, so I reported in at the building I was told I’d be at the week prior. I met a bunch of the people in the building, who were mostly network cable and phone installers, my boss, and my coworker. Pretty much all of them were — and are — excellent people and we got along great. My boss was the wild card, someone who you really weren’t sure why they were there. He wasn’t a bad person, but very much out of his element. Well-meaning, but inept. My coworker, on the other hand, had a lot of experience under his belt and his head in the game — a very customer oriented person. He was that way because he had hated how civilian employees had treated him when he was serving in the active army and refused to be that way himself. Into this came me: a deaf man in his 20s, on a student position, with a degree and a certification under his belt, with little real experience in the IT field. Lots of theories, short of practice. Yet I was pursuing more education than either my coworker or my boss had, on a student position that mandated I maintain half a course load — on my own time. It made for a very surreal start.

The first week was strange. I couldn’t use a computer, as you needed the Common Access Card to get online, plus an account on Army Online. Getting that took a couple days, then even more time to get an account at Army Online — because my father was a service member, my account’s approval was somehow tied to him, and I had to get the authority to verify it transferred to my coworker so I could finally use a computer. That took two days and lots of frustrated calls before it finally got sorted out. I did so much “training” — holy cow, did I do “training.” Sexual harassment training, computer usage training, IT policy training, management training… All of which was thoroughly useless and only used as a “check the block” sort of deal. Little did I know that I had 6 years of that to look forward to.

By the end of that first week, I thought I was finally on the road to doing something real and tangible with myself. I wasn’t going to be the useless deaf guy, leeching away from the country; I was actually going to contribute. I was going to help the United States Army, and by extension, the people of America. My idealism knew no bounds — I might not have been wearing a uniform, but I was helping all the same. Finally, like my father, my sister, and my grandfathers before me, I was serving the country with honor and distinction. That idealism, so long part of my core values, was finally in a place where it was not only appreciated and understood, but also embraced by others. Or so I had thought.

Predators come in many forms. Sometimes it is very obvious, like a lion, a tiger, a bear, or a spider. Other times, it is more insidious and subtle, harder to detect. I had unwittingly walked into the trap of the latter the moment I had sworn in. You see, for many people, the idea of serving in the government isn’t service to a grander ideal — it’s all about them and what they can get out of it. These people look at those with ideals and manipulate them for their own ends. I was young and impressionable, full of idealism, and ripe for the harvest. Cracks started to form, small at first, then growing larger as time went on. It is only in hindsight that I look back at myself and find anger within for not having seen it sooner.

The first exposure was seemingly innocent at first: I had worked there for almost a month, getting good results and doing good work, settling in and becoming comfortable. My coworker saw this and felt it was wrong that I was in a mere student position when I should’ve instead been a full time employee. There was a full position open in our section, one that paid far more than I was making, as well as no student requirements. He brought me aside and taught me how to fill out the application to ensure that I would be on the “list.” As with much in personnel resources in the modern age, what determines your ability to get into a job is not your skills or experience, but how well you can game the system. In this case, fooling the automated routine. Essentially, it’s about padding your resume as much as possible, using key terms from the job description to make the computer mark your application as “high potential.” You look at the job listing and copy entire parts of it, filtering it down to keywords, and putting them all on your 10 page long resume — which, by the way, contains as much ancillary information as possible. Doing this, I was able to make the first list, but not the second — as everyone does the same thing, you’re up against the people best capable of spewing nonsense, not the most skilled person for a job.

That first application turned into nothing and we were eventually stuck with one of the worst employees ever hired on to the section, all because the system is not composed of idealists, but predators. You see, when your system encourages dishonesty in place of honesty, lies in place of truth, and shadow in place of light, you will find that the very people you get in such a system are not those with integrity, but those with no morals and ideals beyond themselves. In the end, you are left with nothing but evil — a simple, petty evil, but evil nonetheless. At the time, I simply ascribed it to my own lack of experience; my coworker was far more irritated, saying that it didn’t have to work that way. I now know he was right, but that’s beside the point.

Ten years later, what should’ve been something to look back on with fondness, has turned into something that fills me with shame. Shame that I was part of a system that so willingly embraced evil. I curse myself for my own stupidity, my narrowness of vision, my own blinding idealism. And yet, despite all that, the system charges on. The system charges on because those within it feel powerless to change it. And more still within it will fight any change to it — even if it costs them their lives. A behemoth that serves itself, exactly as those predators intended for it to become.

Welcome to Club Fed.

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