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“Rules: Damn Rules and Blessed Rules”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Jack E. Riggs

“General, please don’t make me cancel R & R leaves, Sir.”

I had been reduced to begging and pleading.

“Jack, I am not canceling R & R leaves. I am making you comply with the rules,” the general replied. His decision was firm and final. The general had ordered me to cancel ten leaves.

Fifteen days of R & R leave were an important morale boost for troops deployed in a combat zone. Being deployed and separated from family is difficult. As the months slowly pass, home-related matters arise, marriages strain, behavioral problems in children emerge, and financial foundations crumble. My challenge was keeping the unit focused on their mission despite the competing distractions back home, the emotional toll of witnessing the tragedies inflicted on fellow service members, and the morale-lowering effect of working in a rigid military environment.

I was violating the rule that no more than ten percent of a unit could be absent on leave at any time. I had these leaves scheduled so as not to violate that rule. The problem was emergency leave. Members of my reserve medical unit were generally older. Consequently, our parents were older. During our deployment, thirty unit members had a parent die. Once the Red Cross message confirming parental death was received, the service member was automatically granted ten days of emergency leave. On a half-dozen occasions, more than ten percent of my unit had been absent on leave. Ignoring warnings, I just kept hoping that parents would stop dying.

Having spent twenty-five years in the military, I was hardly an anarchist. However, there were so many rules! I wondered if R & R rules and their context could provide an escape. The other rules were service members must be in a combat zone for at least 270 days to be eligible and could not begin R & R before serving sixty days in the combat zone or if they had less than sixty days remaining in the combat zone. My unit of 375 sailors arrived in Kuwait in thirds in November, January, and February. However, we were going to depart Kuwait in halves in September and November. As I contemplated these rules and our context, I suspected that I was in deeper trouble and would violate more rules than my superiors realized.

I examined unit rosters by arrival dates and tallied the number of sailors who had taken or were scheduled to take R & R. I was on track to massively violate the 270-day rule. I would actually need to cancel many more than ten leaves to comply with all R & R rules. I called the general’s aide and scheduled another meeting.

As I again faced the general, I knew that I was going to lose, and lose badly. That was my plan. I demonstrated to the general and his staff that it was mathematically impossible for all my sailors to take R & R and I had been in compliance with the ten percent rule 98 percent of the time. I argued that my unit deserved an exemption.

“That’s like telling the cop who stops you for speeding that you don’t deserve a speeding ticket because you drive within the speed limit 98 percent of the time,” the general retorted. The general was not amused with me wasting his time.

The general dismissed me, but I had achieved my objective. I had been explicitly told that I must comply with all R & R rules.

I had one week to turn in my list of cancelled R & R leaves. I began calling sailors scheduled to take leave the following week. I told them that some leaves would have to be cancelled, but I would not unilaterally cancel their leave. I informed them that if they gave up leave, I would send them home in the first group. In effect, I was offering them the opportunity to exchange fifteen days of R & R leave for going home sixty days sooner. I called three sailors to personally make that offer. They had elaborate plans for their leave and turned my offer down. Nevertheless, I knew that my offer would immediately spread throughout the unit.

Over the next couple of days, twenty-five sailors gave up R & R leave in exchange for going home in the first group. At that point, I informed my staff that my offer could no longer be honored.

Instead of turning in a list of ten cancelled R & R leaves, I turned in a list of twenty-five cancelled leaves. Staff members from my superior echelon asked me why I had made such a fuss over being ordered to cancel only ten leaves. I gave no explanation.

Two months later, I turned in the list of sailors who were going home in September. The name of every sailor whose R & R leave had been cancelled was on that list. My superiors noticed, and realizing this could not be coincidental, began questioning those individuals. I soon found myself back in the general’s office.

“Jack, did you trade fifteen days of R & R leave for going home 60 days sooner?” the general bluntly asked me.

“Yes, Sir. I did.”

“Who gave you that authority?” he demanded.

“You did, Sir.”

I reminded the general that he had personally told me that I had to comply with all R & R rules. I explained that my unit came into the combat zone in thirds and would go home in halves. Everyone who arrived in the first group had to go home in the first departing group so as to be off active duty within 365 days. But I also had to send sixty sailors home in the first departing group that had arrived in either the second or third group. None of those sixty sailors would have been in the combat zone the required 270 days to make them eligible for R & R. I pointed out that every sailor arriving in the second or third wave who had taken R & R was on the manifest of sailors going home in the second group. If anyone from the second or third arriving group who had taken R & R went home in the first departing group, I would have violated the 270-day R & R rule. I explained that to comply with the 270-day rule, I had to cancel twenty-five R & R leaves instead of just the ten leaves to be in compliance with the ten percent rule.

“Sir, I complied explicitly with your instructions.”

The general dropped his shoulders, shook his head, and smiled.

“There is no issue here,” the general told his staff. “Captain Riggs is in charge of the rotation schedule of his troops out of theater.”