This morning, Bill told me kind of a funny story about one of his former Army bosses. This guy was legitimately an abusive asshole. Almost everyone thought so. He had a reputation that reached far and wide among everyone who knew him. Woe be unto anyone who had to work directly for him, because he would put those guys through hell. Bill experienced it firsthand in a war zone.
The sad thing was, guys like Bill’s former boss were frequently rewarded for being assholes. Nice, reasonable, compassionate guys like Bill were often seen as weak leaders. However… Bill’s asshole ex boss was eventually very publicly fired from his job weeks before he would have been a general, so there’s definitely a fine line of how far the asshole routine can go.
Years ago, when we lived in northern Virginia, Bill’s former boss used to visit the “slug line“. The slug line, for your information, is a place where commuters needing a ride into northern Virginia or Washington, D.C. could wait for someone to pick them up. It was a win/win. The riders would get a ride into the city and the drivers could use the “high occupancy vehicle” (HOV) lanes without risking a ticket. If you’ve ever experienced D.C. area traffic, you understand why that’s a good thing.
So anyway, this former boss of Bill’s… I’ll call him Zeus (clearly not his real name)… had a habit of showing up on the slug line to pick up people he knew. There were certain guys he targeted. He didn’t pick up just anyone. He’d get guys who worked with him or were in the Army. Then, he’d spend however long it took to get to the city berating the guy. He’d deliberately provoke arguments with them or get them involved in a stressful discussion about work.
Now… the guys didn’t have to ride with Zeus. They could take their chances that someone else was going their way, although that might mean they’d be late, or it would take a lot longer to get where they needed to go. More often than not, those poor dudes would suck it up and ride with Zeus, who usually outranked them and got off on harassing them.
Bill went to war with Zeus and experienced that kind of abuse 24/7 for about six months. He used to call me from Iraq and tell me stories… I knew it was really bad when he said his boss reminded him of his ex wife. I was pretty pissed off about that, too, since I didn’t want my husband to come home from deployment with mental issues other than what he might get from being at war. I do remember telling Zeus that if he got Bill killed, I’d be coming after him. He was a bit taken aback by that, since most wives didn’t speak to him in that way. But hell, I don’t care… The Army never issued me a paycheck. He never let Bill forget what I said, although to his credit, he did make sure Bill was never put in really dangerous situations.
Zeus loved to play little sadistic mind games and deny his people a break from his very special kind of narcissistic abuse. My husband is extremely kind and patient, but even he has his limits. After awhile, Bill started adopted little habits to deliberately irritate Zeus, who would force him to take his meals with him and deny him days off. Bill eventually became a bit passive aggressive, and then got more actively aggressive. At one point, Zeus sent Bill to Qatar for a three night “vacation”, which basically meant going to a small U.S. post there, sharing a room with a guy who snored a lot, and weathering 120 degree heat. But at least in Qatar, Bill could visit the markets and have an allotted two beers a day at the bar.
I will never forget the sight of Bill at Ronald Reagan International Airport in August 2007. He was in his uniform, fresh from the war zone. When he saw me, he looked absolutely overjoyed. He almost knocked me over with a big hug. It was like a movie moment. People stood around and watched our reunion… and then we went home and did a lot of fucking for about a week. After that, we had to pack everything up and move to Germany the first time. Great God Almighty, he was free at last! But it was kind of a short lived respite.
Zeus wasn’t done screwing with Bill after their war time experience. In February 2009, we were enjoying life in Germany. Bill had just gotten home from a “TDY” assignment somewhere. It was Valentine’s Day weekend, and we were headed to Chodovar, which is a cool beer spa in the Czech Republic. I was all excited about that… and then Bill got a cryptic email from his war buddy. It turned out he’d fucked with Bill’s career and recommended him by name for a job at Fort McPherson in Georgia. Fort McPherson was slated to close, so a move there would mean another move very quickly. We ended up being there for just 16 months before we had to move to North Carolina for another 28. Plus, we were loving Germany, and didn’t want to leave. I was really upset with Zeus.
Fortunately, although the chain reaction of three moves in five years was a big pain in the ass, it wasn’t all bad. In Georgia, we lived in a nice town and adopted our adorable and much missed Zane, the wonder beagle. Bill also learned how to brew beer, and we made some good friends. Then we moved to North Carolina, where we picked up Arran, and got to meet even more friends. Our year in Texas wasn’t so bad, either, although I was delighted to move back to Germany. It’s crazy how that worked out for us, and I’d say about 90% of our second experience here has been fantastic. Some of you know about the other 10%… but even that wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Zeus went on to lead a large battalion of 750 people to Iraq a few years later… and he spent the whole year of his deployment egregiously abusing people. He was especially tough on anyone who didn’t appeal to his sense of aesthetics. I remember hearing about how he’d go through the trash cans of guys he thought were too fat, dig out any sweets wrappers he saw there, and show them to the entire group. He hated dealing with women, and would either outright dismiss them or be very insulting to them. This was even though he has daughters of his own. He would not allow female doctors to examine him, for instance. I have a female childhood friend who is now a colonel and she had dealings with him. She said he was a complete asshole to her, too.
About six weeks before Zeus was to come home and be promoted to general, his mother died. He went home on emergency leave. While he was gone, people in the battalion he was regularly abusing started working to get him relieved of command. They made complaints and offered proof of the abuse– there were 74 complaints lodged against him and two congressional inquiries. And by the time Zeus was back in Iraq, he was very publicly fired. There was a long article in the Army Times about him and everything. It was very embarrassing.
Guys like Zeus seem like they win a lot, just for being assholes. Nice people tend to let assholes get away with a lot more than they should. Frankly, I think Bill should have complained about the way Zeus behaved when they were in Iraq. It was the first time for both of them, and a lot of people saw how Bill was treated. A couple of people even spoke up about it… but when you’ve been an abuse victim, which Bill and I have both been, you get taught not to speak up when you really should. It’s a tough habit to unlearn.
One thing that Bill and I have been learning is that sometimes, you have to sound the alarm. Maybe if Bill had said something about his former boss, that guy wouldn’t have had an opportunity to harass such a huge group of people in Iraq. Being at war is tough enough when your boss isn’t a narcissistic creep. Maybe if Bill had stood up to his ex wife, his daughters wouldn’t have experienced as much hell as they did being raised by their mother. I can also think of times when I should have been a lot more assertive, although in truth, I tend to be better at that than Bill is. I have a much shorter temper.
It’s easy to cop out of standing up to bullies. Sometimes it seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But not standing up to bullies is implicit permission for them to keep being bullies. We’re trying to change our habit of not speaking up more loudly when we should, so that major catastrophes can be avoided and other people don’t have to suffer. Sometimes, you have to let people reap the natural consequences of their bad behaviors. And sometimes, you have to put the wheels in motion… not unlike Zeus did in the slug line, when he’d pick up guys to harass on the way to work.