I wish some of you had been here with me this past month to hold my hand as I nervously awaited the release of the lieutenant colonel promotion list.
Even as I prayed to see my name on the list, I knew a promotion would bring challenges, not the least of which would be learning how to spell lieutenant colonel. I had so much trouble spelling lieutenant when I entered the Air Force that they immediately promoted me to captain.
As a captain, I was sent to a seven-week officer’s school with more than 1,000 other newly minted captains. We listened to countless lectures, but one particular lecture presented by a military futurist put forth a novel idea.
“How would you like to be a captain for your entire military career?” he asked our class.
By the loud groans, it was obvious not many of them would.
“Well,” he countered, “what if being a permanent captain meant that you keep doing the job you love for your entire career?”
Mumbling in the crowd told the speaker that listeners found the idea intriguing. That’s because promotions often bring the dreaded “desk job” of a supervisor, and many officers relinquish what they love doing most.
As a chaplain, I found the speaker’s idea captivating. I enjoyed the active ministry of a chaplain who was preaching, counseling and visiting airmen in their workplaces. I knew a promotion would lead to my becoming the head chaplain with all the headaches.
Needless to say, the futurist’s idea never caught on. Whenever I dared share the idea with supervisors, they’d find my disinterest in advancement unimpressive.
“It’s either up or out,” they’d say. “If you can’t be promoted, you’ll be forced out.”
And in 2002, that’s exactly what happened to me.
Fortunately, that same year two things happened. This column went into syndication and I found the Air National Guard. The Guard promoted me to major, but allowed me to continue the active face-to-face ministry of most captains. That’s because Guard chaplains aren’t chained to desks. We go where our units go. Little paperwork, lots of peoplework.
I’ve known the feel of a thundering rocket launch on my chest, and I’ve prayed with men with holes in their chests.
I’ve preached more than 700 sermons to military congregations. I’ve knocked on doors to darken the world of families with the most unimaginable news, and I’ve joined couples in holy matrimony in the most stupendous ways.
I’ve dined with generals and cried with privates. Promotion or no promotion, it’s been a pretty good life.
I couldn’t help but wonder if I made lieutenant colonel, could I still mix it up with these young guys as they work? Would it be proper for a senior officer to be seen sitting atop a block wall, as I did this week, cajoling and encouraging young men and women?
When the announcement came, I ran my finger down the list praying I could accept bad news gracefully or good news humbly.
Gratefully, it appears that I will have to learn how to spell lieutenant colonel.
And fortunately, protocol dictates that chaplains are addressed, not by their rank, but by their title, chaplain.
I suppose I could use the abbreviation of Lt. and get by on that until I retire. Of course, I find general pretty easy to spell.