If you’re in the Air Force, there is one name you never want to be called: “Airman Snuffy.” It’s a pejorative term that military instructors use to describe the hapless, clueless or lazy recruit who’s constantly on the verge of trouble.
While I don’t tend to use deprecating terms, it might well fit the sergeant I met five years ago in the Muslim cultural class I was teaching to our unit. The attendees were deploying to Afghanistan, so I was teaching them things, such as don’t point at a Muslim or motion him to come with a wagging finger. Don’t show the bottom of your shoes or appear to hurry social conversations.
But above all, I warned, it’s against General Order No. 1 to proselytize the Muslims. Military members aren’t allowed to convert local Muslims or give them Bibles. The briefing wasn’t just intended to mandate political correctness. If well-taken, these pointers might save their lives.
During my 30-minute talk, I couldn’t help but notice a man I’ll call Sgt. Snuffy. The man was slightly younger, with a tight haircut and an impeccable uniform — except for one thing.
He had an armband around his left arm that was inscribed with religious language. Knowing this wasn’t an authorized alteration of the uniform, I approached the airman.
“Sergeant, tell me about your armband.”
“It’s a Mormon scripture,” he said, bouncing his index finger under each word to read aloud. “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.”
“Can you tell me more?” I asked.
“It’s a war, chaplain. It’s between the Muslims and the Christians.”
When I offered a disapproving squint, he launched into an argument for a complete destruction of the Muslim faith. I’m not a Mormon, but I knew he wasn’t expressing the kindness I had experienced from Mormon people and seen in their theology.
“That kind of thinking might get someone killed,” I told Snuffy. I added that he should probably reconsider whether this deployment was the best place for such strong opinions.
Snuffy simply shrugged and grabbed another muffin from the snack table before resettling in his classroom seat. When I saw he wasn’t budging on this, I went to Snuffy’s toweringly tall commander.
“Sir,” I told the lieutenant colonel, “I believe Sgt. Snuffy is ‘mission impaired’ and don’t think he should be deployed.”
The commander gave an understanding nod to my technical term but replied: “He has to go, chaplain. I have no one else to replace him. End of story.”
The technical term I had used with the commander comes from the military acronym, MICAP, meaning, “mission impaired capability, awaiting parts.” In a roundabout way I was telling the commander that Snuffy was missing a mission-critical part — compassion. While Snuffy had declared war on the faith of others, he was missing a crucial understanding about God — his boundless love.
And the commander was wrong about one thing: It wasn’t quite the end of the story. Snuffy became such a chronic complainer during his deployment that he was impossible to get along with. Thirty days short of the end of his tour, he was ordered home early and immediately retired.
By the way, there really was an airman named Sgt. Snuffy. He was also “mission impaired,” but he wound up winning a Medal of Honor in World War II. How did Snuffy become such a denigrated name? I plan to tell you in a future column.