Work as Therapy

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

–          Ephesians 2:10


Yesterday, I wrote about a non-deployable sergeant.  The memory came to the surface after being buried for 40 years, give or take a few months.


I neglected to mention that his ragtag group of misfits, half from one engineering battalion and half from another, were in need of redemption as well.


I had used my best skills of begging, pleading, and reasoning with people much more highly paid than I was to receive the gift of workers to turn an old house (used as a dispensary) into an infirmary, designed to modern standards, although nothing had yet been designed.  I felt highly confident until immediately after the sergeant shook my hand and thanked me for giving him this assignment.  You can click here to read his story.


I just suggested the means of getting the work done.  Others gave me these people.  The only one that I personally approved was the sergeant in charge, but he was the only one available.  And once I looked around the group underneath the shade tree, I wondered if the brigade operations officer had hand picked the worst of the worst to see me fail.


As a young platoon leader, I had seen a few soldiers that were far from stellar examples of a man in uniform, but these guys seemed to be worse than anything you could imagine.  It almost seemed like they were wearing their uniforms backwards.  At least, their gig-lines were so far off, it looked intentional.


Okay, a gig-line is the line formed by the double seam containing your shirt buttons and the fly of your trousers and the belt buckle, all in a perfect vertical line as if sewn together as one piece.  My wife, a Vietnam-Era veteran of the Air Force, introduced me to the term and has spent 40+ years commenting on how mine is rarely perfect.  With the muttered epithet, “And you call yourself an officer”  (with accompanied eye roll).  Can you tell she had been enlisted?


These guys had nothing vertical, and nothing came close to lining up.  They each had haircuts that looked like they were done with a weed-whacker.  (Were weed-whackers invented back then?)  Many would not make eye contact, making me think that their eyes were dilated.  We were in the shade of a tree, but it wasn’t that dark.  Some of the guys had the shakes.  Some of the guys had red, runny noses.  If you could think of a symptom of drug or alcohol abuse, I was able to see it in the shade of the tree.


Then, you had a mix of two battalions.  The battalions shared opposite corners of the same kaserne (barracks area), but since they did the same kind of work, they were highly competitive and jealous of the other battalion’s sweet projects in picturesque locations, like Greece, Italy, and Belgium.  Even though we might have to go to war side by side, they did not like each other very much.


As they looked at me, it was clear no one, other than the sergeant, wanted to be there, and the sergeant was so glad to be off permanent latrine orderly duty, he might not have thought this through.


I got in my car and went back to my office with a prayer muttered along the way, “Four or five months of work, squeezed into three months, with this bunch?  Lord, we need a miracle.”


The medical corps had sprung on me the need for the temporary infirmary at the last minute.  I had no design work done, but I had the medical facility standards on my desk.  We had a dispensary next to the ball fields at the kaserne, no man’s land between the two engineering battalions.  It had been a home, maybe the commander’s home when the kaserne was occupied by the German Army before World War II.  The half basement had not been entered in about thirty years, since reconstruction.  The dispensary only dispensed drugs and handled sick call.  Thus, the building met no modern standard for anything.  The living room became the waiting room.  The other rooms were turned into a pharmacy room, a doctor’s office, and various examining rooms.  The building had one unisex bathroom.


We needed a Men’s room and Women’s room.  We needed one room converted into an X-ray room, lead lined.  We needed the basement converted into an area for making plaster casts.  We needed the side entrance converted to include a wheelchair ramp and a ramp for gurneys, both rolled in from the street and a level area for exit directly out the back of an ambulance.  And I haven’t mentioned that all the walls had lead-based paint.  And those were the easy things to do.


Yes, we needed a miracle.


My head of engineering, upstairs from my office, had two degrees as an architect and a mechanical engineer.  Early the next morning, he delivered the drawings for the wheelchair / gurney ramp, all up to code – a design shaped like a tuning fork.


I had just been diagnosed with Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) before all this happened.  My doctor was the doctor at the dispensary where the work was being done.  At the end of the first week of the project, I combined a doctor visit with a project update.  With most projects, the officer in charge dealt with my sergeants at the Facilities Engineering office, and I only made occasional inspections, but this project had no commissioned officer in charge.  I asked the sergeant what had been done so far.


“Sir, we have the ramp completed, but don’t touch it.  The first coat of paint isn’t dry yet.”


We walked around to the end of the building, under the shade trees where I had seen the collection of men at the beginning of the week.  I was expecting to see a wooden structure made of 2×4 boards, similar to a deck behind someone’s house, like the drawings I saw early in the week.  What I saw was what looked like fine cabinetry – not rough carpentry, but finish carpentry.  Hardly any seam was visible.  All the corners were smooth.  The handrails looked like they had bought factory-made material, but they had shaped them by hand.  It was top-of-the-line.


I said, “Sergeant, I would like to congratulate the men who did this.  This is above and beyond the quality I expected, and you have completed it quicker than our estimate.”


The sergeant barked, “Pot Heads!  Fall In!”


I gave the sergeant a look, and he volunteered the answer to my unasked question.  “Sir, I was given people from at least 20 or 25 different platoons in two different battalions.  Hardly anyone had worked together before.  I’m an Army man.  I couldn’t work with a disorganized bunch of misfits.  So, I created three squads.  I organized them roughly by the reason why they are here.  The heroine addicts and other hard drug people are my Addicts Squad.  They’re in the basement making the plaster cast room.  My fellow AA members prefer to be called the Booze Squad.  They are coordinating with the medics and the doctor getting rooms stripped of the old paint and repainted while we wait for more drawings.  That way the dispensary can keep working while we work around them.  I think they’ll do the X-Ray room once the design is ready.  And the pot heads built the ramp.  They are starting the framing for the Women’s bathroom now.”


I turned to the Pot Head Squad and congratulated them on a job well done.  In unison and well-practiced, they replied, “Sir!  We are not losers, Sir!”


That entire week, the sergeant had gone on to encourage each squad to try to be the best.  He encouraged them to work together in support of each other.  He encouraged them to talk to each other as the workday progressed.  As it turned out, each workday became a group therapy session, and the best therapy was seeing something being transformed by the sweat of their brow.  Some of these guys may have had their substance abuse problems due to having tremendous skill and not having a means of using it.  Boredom was a common problem.


They had a sergeant in charge who had substance abuse problems of his own.  They were all living day-to-day.  But now they could see the result of a day’s labor.


The sergeant also reminded them every day that this building would be used by wives and children.  He encouraged them to build it as if it was for their wife and kids.


After the first week, I had no concerns about the work getting done.  There was not a ribbon cutting ceremony.  As soon as the last of the paint dried three months later, the doctors, nurses, and patients started filing into the waiting room.  There was no time for ceremony.


I offer this post as a belated ribbon cutting ceremony and a prayer that the 30 or so misfits, who became the members of the Addicts, Booze, and Pot Head Squads, have been able to stay sober and productive.  They each needed their own measure of redemption.


And the Scripture from Ephesians attests to at least one fact: None of them were losers.


Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.


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