“Saving Private Ryan” Changed My Life

We are halfway through a beautiful Memorial Day weekend here at Casa di Panek. My father, who lives with us, worked hard all week on the various outdoor tasks culminating in the boys being able to swim in the pool Friday night. It was the perfect start to a long weekend.

Later that evening, after the boys were in bed, I was flipping channels on TV and found AMC starting their War Heroes Weekend by playing a favorite- The Dirty Dozen. It’s the kind of movie that will stop my channel surfing regardless of what point the movie is at. Friday evening I picked it up just as Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) gambles on the Dozen’s tenacity to beat the stiff-necked Colonel Breed’s unit.

Doctor in the soon-to-be hijacked ambulance: “But you’re wearing red force insignia!”

Jim Brown’s deadpan menace: “That’s right- we’re traitors!”

Love it!

I got to pondering, as I often do, about the movies and my love of film. Keeping in the spirit of the War Heroes Weekend, I thought that a story about another great WWII movie, Saving Private Ryan, would be appropriate.

I am a US Air Force veteran, having served in the late ’90’s between the first and second Gulf Wars. I got my wish while at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and got orders to attend the Security Policy technical school after basic training. Seven months after first arriving in Texas, I returned home for leave with orders in hand to report to Hanscom AFB outside Boston as a Military Working Dog Handler and Law Enforcement Patrolman on the base.

Hanscom AFB is located northwest of Boston in the middle of a number of number of Colonial-era towns- Bedford, Lexington, Concord, and Lincoln. It is a very small base- the state operates a small airfield adjacent to the military base but the Air Force has no planes there itself. The base is primarily a research and development location for the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Command. A number of defense contractors and institutions of higher learning operate on the base and, during the day, there are more civilians on the base than military personnel. (Don’t use any of my recollections for a research project. Check out the official base website here.)

Being a police officer on a small military base is, I assume, very much like being a small-town cop. I was stationed there for about two and a half years and had a very mundane experience. I apprehended a couple of drunk drivers (both civilian and military), responded to shoplifting incidents at the base exchange and minimart, checked that various sensitive buildings were secure periodically, and strutted my stuff as a K-9 handler while escorting the base exchange manager to the credit union to make a funds deposit. (K-9! Jaws of the Law!)

The most mundane task as a Security Police (SP) member at that time was also, arguably, the SP’s most critical function: securing access to the base itself. Known officially at that time as as the Base Entry Point Controller, we called ourselves “Gate Guards”. This function may be a foundational responsibility of a military installation but it ain’t glamorous! Standing at one of the base’s entry gates for 8 or 12 hours, the Gate Guard confirmed the authorization of all foot or vehicle traffic to enter the base. This process was facilitated by Department of Defense standardized window decals that were color-coded to represent different groups. (Miss the salute for an officer’s blue decal and you might hear about it later! God forbid you miss the bird of a Colonel or the stars of a General…)

The problem with my perspective in that role was that I saw myself as the next Sergeant Riggs, complete with my kung fu training, formerly long hair, and bad-ass attitude, when in reality being a small-town cop (or small-base SP) is really a customer service job. Don’t misunderstand me- I carried a weapon every day and my 90 pound Belgian Malinois was trained to attack with or without my command in response to a threat. Law enforcement should not be conducted with any kind of casualness. There is a lot of responsibility in wearing a shield and bearing arms.

But when I say that it’s a customer service job- I mean that those engaged in the work of law enforcement should remember that, while any interaction they have could potentially become life-threatening, far more than 99% of the time it won’t and the way that a cop interacts with a subject can make that a positive or negative experience. I’ve since worked in a more formal customer service role and can look back at my own attitude with a fair amount of self-criticism. I conducted myself each day with a sort of haughty detachment that probably bordered on outright hostility for those people whom I judged to be wasting my time. Unfortunately, as I was also pretty self-confident and sure of my own perspective, the group of people “wasting my time” was pretty easy to fall into- especially when I was working the gate.

There are not many active duty military installations in the Northeast nowadays and Hanscom received a good volume of traffic from retirees looking to utilize the base’s resources- part of their benefits for serving our country for so long. Hanscom really was like a small town- the base had exactly two traffic lights. A retiree pulling up to my gate and- horrors!- interrupting my traffic flow by asking for directions to the base medical center would get a quickly-delivered set of directions delivered with a hint of exasperation. If they were ridiculous enough to ask me to repeat them, the exasperation was not quite so much hinted at but plainly delivered. I’d repeat myself (“Straight down the hill, left at the second light, right at the stop sign.”) while making it clear that I was really going out of my way to repeat myself, and frankly, I wasn’t happy about it.

Let’s pause here for a moment and dissect this interaction. I’m a Gate Guard and I’ve waved a retiree through after spotting the vehicle decal or checking a DOD-issued ID card. This retiree, perhaps new to the base or unfamiliar with the layout, has stopped to ask for directions. Granted, they might be ready to open fire on me and I need to remain vigilant but I have the choice of the manner in which I respond to them. I can listen to that person, understand that they have a need for which I can provide assistance, and  provide a service in a manner that leaves them feeling respected and content. This person is my customer. Law enforcement is a customer service job.

Sadly, I provided good customer service far too infrequently. I made sure that I provided accurate information. But I did not have to act like the very act for which I was being paid was offensive to me. (This now is starting to sound like I was a sex worker…) I carried this chip on my shoulder for a while- more than a year, in fact, until July 1998 when Saving Private Ryan was released and I saw it in the theater with my best friend (and fellow SP) Bobby V.

I love movies differently than the way that I love books. They both offer a similar promise- escape into a world constructed by another. But the way that each fulfills that promise is entirely different. A book offers me an inwardly-focused journey through the story. I see the locations, hear the words, construct my own adventure. A movie takes me out of myself through the visuals, the music,  the actors’ performances, the camera as a storytelling tool, etc. and takes me through the director’s journey.

It was the power of that particular movie- especially those terrifying first few minutes as the American forces land on Omaha Beach- that brought me to an epiphany. As I was stunned by the weight of that struggle up the beach- the chaos, carnage, and confusion- I began to realize that I had maybe dealt with men who had struggled against something so momentous. Perhaps, some of those retirees that I couldn’t spare 30 seconds of my attention for had pressed on against something like what I was watching.

I am not a combat veteran. While I was deployed to the Persian Gulf twice and spent my last year of service in the Republic of Korea, I never came under enemy fire. I responded to bomb threats (as my dog was an Explosives Detector Dog) but they all turned out to be false alarms. I was (I think) prepared for danger but was, ultimately, never tested. I don’t know if I would have the courage necessary to do my job under fire. I would imagine that if it’s possible for a movie to convey some semblance of what combat is like then the opening of Saving Private Ryan must be it. If that movie is unable to convey some piece of the experience, no movie can. I think you could take those first 20-something minutes of that movie as all the evidence needed to confirm that Spielberg is a genius and an artist.

I was grateful that the theater was dark. I’m pretty sure no one could see the tears on my face as I was engulfed in the movie’s portrayal of the fight to take Omaha Beach. I have never been so ashamed at myself as I thought of all the times that I’d been short, curt, or even downright rude to some military veteran coming through my gate. I had no idea from a 10 second exchange with someone what their particular experience in the service had been. Maybe they’d been a pogue for their whole career. Or maybe they’d fought through something like what I’d just seen. And I was a real dick because they had the gall to ask me for directions. Nice.

I never lost my self-confidence and swagger. I think that being sure of one’s self is an appropriate way of dealing with potentially life-threatening situations- like serving in the military or law enforcement (or both). It’s a type of mental armor to match the body armor that I sweated through in the Kuwaiti sun. But I definitely approached my job- and how I dealt with people- differently after I saw that movie. The “Sir” or “Ma’am” came a lot easier when talking to a retiree (or anyone else, for that matter). I tried to make my interactions with people more positive.

In the end, law enforcement was not for me. I was honorably discharged after my 4 year term of service was up and look back at those years with pride. I ended up back in my hometown of Syracuse, New York. I got remarried and became a dad a total of three times. I work in the insurance industry today- beginning my career with a direct customer service unit. Ensuring that my group provides good customer service to our customers is a key focus for me. I hope that the folks I work with would describe that as one of my defining characteristics. I think that a large part of the success I’ve had in my career has been the result of understanding and focusing on customer service. And it took the magic of a movie to get me to that perspective.

Thank you to all the men and women of our Armed Services that have sacrificed for our great nation but, most especially, thank you to those that have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free!

Happy Memorial Day!

(By the way- want to see what really good customer service looks like in law enforcement? Watch this video– it’s a great balance to the “bad cop” videos that are sensational and get a lot of airplay!)

[Edit, November 2013: In the event that the video link above doesn’t work, here’s another link to that same video. Enjoy!]

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4 Comments

Filed under Essays

4 responses to ““Saving Private Ryan” Changed My Life

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