A key character in the Robin Moore novel, and John Wayne movie loosely based on it, The Green Berets, was Peterson, the Scrounger. It’s very clear even in the movie that in SF culture, a Scrounger was a capitalized title. Now, the movie has numerous Hollywood departures from the real world of SF service in Vietnam, but the novel and script were based on immersion in period SF culture. One of the numerous things it got right was the degree to which Group in general and a deployed ODA in particular valued a talented, inspired Scrounger.
Now a very narrow reading of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (and before that, the Manual for Courts-Martial the UCMJ replaced) would probably define Scrounger as a variety of high crimes and misdemeanors, or UCMJ articles, not to mention the all-purpose judicial catch-all of Conduct Unbecoming. But what scrounging did, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, and back in garrison, is even out some of the unevenness in military logistics.
The military quartermaster effort is amazing. But it’s also centrally planned, like the Soviet economy. And like the Soviet economy, the key information gets bottled up and doesn’t make it to the far-away decision-makers. So you have a bunch of Seabees sitting on a large quantity of pierced-steel planking and other engineering materials, while the A-Camps are trying to dig bunkers in sand, sometimes under enemy shelling. (Can you say Katum? Ka-BOOM? WhirrrrrrrrrrrrrKABLANG! We knew you could). So naturally, an army of Petersons fanned out across Vietnam, Afghanistan, you name it.
One of the best scrounge jobs happened in the early days of the Afghan war, when the teams on the ground were very hard up for vehicles. We don’t say “scrounging” any more, but Peterson would recognize the horsetrading we now call a “dope deal.” Some Toyota pickups were acquired by another agency and dope-dealed to us, but not enough to make our guys mobile. And we couldn’t rely on aircraft: in SF, we didn’t have our own any more, because we’d given them up to TF 160 back in 1980-something, in return for a pledge
not to spritz in of undying support. That pledge was meaningless, as even though they were perfectly willing to support us, they were tasked to a variety of JSOC missions that mostly had them standing by waiting for the call that intel had found some worthy Tier 1 Supervillain’s mountaintop lair. The call seldom came, but the MH’s had to sit for the hour when it would.
So we could walk, at the same three to five miles per hour Alexander’s army crossed these same rocks, or we could scrounge vehicles. An army of scroungers and dope-dealers set out to forage the globe for anything that could roll on Afghanistan’s miserable roads.
As it happened, the US Army in Europe was undergoing a major spring cleaning, with lots of entire units having been thrown away in the Clinton era Peace Dividend (that money went into the War on Poverty, still undecided after 50 years, but Poverty is advancing on all fronts). So a young, brash captain we’ll call John (because that was is name) Smith (because that was not his name) was dispatched to see if he could scrounge up some vehicles. The Colonel knew John and thought he might be talented in that vein.
The Colonel had no idea.
John quickly determined that a single Army captain was capital-N Nobody to the people who had the worrisome task of disposing of acres and acres of all-but-forgotten vehicles. But with news starting to trickle back from the war, Special Forces was on everybody’s mind. John harkened back to SF’s genesis as a new effort by the Psychological Warfare Center in 1952, and decided to conduct a psychological operation against the US European Command’s joint vehicle-park beancounters.
He disappeared for a weekend, during which he bought several items at the post exchange, including several pairs of jeans and a couple of sweatshirts. He borrowed a couple of things from an SF guy he knew in the area. He got through on a bad connection to what later would be named Camp Vance (we don’t think Gene Vance was dead yet, actually). The Colonel wanted an update.
John said he was developing the situation.
The Colonel rogered that and passed the word on. The ops officer said, “We’re going to get our vehicles, sir. And we probably shouldn’t worry about how.” The Colonel thought good things about his Three, who had served in the Ranger Regiment before being called to the Jolly Roger. And he started taking the sitreps without asking questions, the answers to which he might not wish to know.
Monday morning, John walked into the Commanding General’s office. He was wearing a pair of jeans he had beaten up a little, a cowboy hat, and a blue sweatshirt. He hadn’t shaved all weekend. He didn’t have an appointment, and he dropped into a chair in front of the General’s scandalized secretary.
And put his feet up on her desk. In scroungy jungle boots.
Before she could gather her wits and remonstrate, he identified himself: “Captain John Smith, from CJSOTF-Afghanistan. Honey, I’m here from the war to see the Boss.”
“Uh…” She forgot whatever putdowns she was lining up, and squeezed him in to that morning’s schedule.
“Thanks, honey,” John said with a wink, and walked out of the office. She could see he had a .45 in his belt.
She wasn’t sure what action of Captain Smith’s was most alarming, but he did get in to see the CG, who wound up being extremely helpful, after a bit of friendly banter about last year’s Army-Navy game (a Navy blowout).
John spent the next several days touring motor pools and selecting vehicles.
“Now, we have to get them to Afghanistan.” The CG couldn’t help there, except with a referral to an Air Force general who made stuff move for Transportation Command. There, John made nice with another secretary, but then ran into someone unimpressed with his beard (by now, Mexican desperado style), his hat (by now, beat up), his boots, or even his .45. Not even his blue sweatshirt.
And he was completely unimpressed with John’s lack of any movement paperwork for 100 miscellaneous surplus vehicles.
“Can’t do it,” the Air Force general — we’ll call him General Jones, which is not his name — said. “You need a –” and he described the forms. He gave John some blank forms. But the forms alone wouldn’t do it. He’d also need some sort of movement code. He showed John what one looked like, on another movement order. Many of these came into his inbox every day. Apart from the source and destination, the code was the most important part of the document, because it drove the accounting. This one, he explained, would charge the Air Force; it was moving a planeload of jet engines back to the USA for overhaul. These others would charge the Army, the Navy, even the State Department, for cargo.
The form had to have a description of the shipment, the weight — it would be weighed again by the cargo specialists, of course — the destination, and the all-important billing code.
“Call your log guys and get that code,” the general explained, “and with that code and my rubber stamp you can go straight to the airhead and ship your stuff. Our guys will take it from there. But you must have the code.”
John nodded. “I’ll call right away. Can I borrow a STU-III?” (That was the sort of secure phone used in those days).
“Well, the only one’s here in my office,” the general said. “Here, have a seat, I’ll give you some privacy. ” As the General walked out, he said, “And bring me those codes tomorrow afternoon — I’m out in the morning, Captain.”
“Yes sir,” said John, and he did in fact make a STU call to Afghanistan.
“It’s in the bag. I’ll explain when I get there.”
John spent the night typing the forms himself on a borrowed typewriter. He was even scroungier the next day when he showed up at the Air Force general’s office. The .45 was showing, even if the forms were not.
“Hi there,” he said to the secretary. “Remember me, honey?”
“Oh,” she said. “Captain Smith! Didn’t General Jones tell you he was going to be out this morning?”
“Yes, but I was hoping I could borrow his STU-III again.”
“Oh… I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
John closed the door to the general’s office, with an apologetic look at the secretary. She understood secrets — all secretaries do, after all.
And inside the office he pulled out his forms with one hand while dialing the STU with the other. Soon he had a secure connection, and the Colonel came to the phone.
John hit the forms with the rubber stamp in more places than they really needed.
“Sir, I’ll be there in a couple days; the vehicles will be right behind me.”
“How did you — never mind. Forget I asked.”
John broke the connection, and put the State Department shipment order back on top of his in the general’s out-box.
As it happened, John was held up getting back to Bagram and arrived the same day that vehicles were being unloaded there, at Kandahar, and at the FOB at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan.
He was tired as a dog and scroungy. He’d returned his friend’s Stetson and 1911, but was still wearing those jeans and that blue sweatshirt.
“How did you — forget it. I don’t wanna know,” the Colonel said.
“I just told them I was Captain Smith from the CJSOTF and they all went out of their way to help me,” John said piously.
“And why the hell are you wearing a Navy sweatsh — oohhhhh.”
In due course, the Colonel made general. He never let anyone use the STU-III in his office.