Thursday, January 17, 2008

The New Budget Officer, RAF Bentwaters, 1970

In my previous post we arrived at my new base in the UK and we spent the first six weeks living in the Coach and Horses, Melton, while I worked constantly, then searched long and despairingly for a house for us.

I arrived at RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, UK, in early January, 1970, a 27-year old 2nd Lieutenant with wife, Marilynn, and three sons ages 6, 3, and 1. I had just completed an MBA at Michigan State, and the Budget Officer job at Bentwaters would be my first Air Force duty as an officer. Since I had spent my six enlisted years as a Russian linguist radio intercept analyst, clerk typist, and/or college student, I knew absolutely nothing about Air Force accounting or budgeting.

Apparently the Air Force wasn’t concerned, because no mention was ever made of sending me to any school to train me for my new job.

When I reported for duty as the Budget Officer, 81st Combat Support Group, 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, I found that my predecessor, Mr. Byce Pierce, had transferred from RAF Bentwaters to an accounting and finance job on RAF Lakenheath nine months before my arrival. During that long vacant period, the Budget Office had operated with only two people, TSgt Phillip Ashcraft and UK civilian clerk Art Sharman. Their happiness at my arrival was tempered with the immediate recognition that I didn’t know the slightest thing about the Air Force’s accounting and budgeting system.

Another thing that happened the week I arrived that tempered their joy was the simultaneous arrival of the “call” to begin preparation of the Fiscal Year 1971 Wing Operations Operating Budget and Family Housing Budget. The preparation of each of these hundreds of pages documents is a harrowing and challenging activity at the best of times. With a new untrained and inexperienced leader, and a just installed new tape and hard drive computer (Burroughs 3500) to replace the old punched card one, a Burroughs B-263, the budget preparation tasks looked impossibly difficult.

Looks weren’t deceiving.

For the next six weeks each of the three of us worked forty or more hours of overtime each week, but even though each of us worked the same long hours, this arduous workload was not evenly distributed.

At 27, I was the youngest, but my position as Budget Officer and my total lack of accounting knowledge gave me few duties I was either required or capable of performing. Fortunately, writing the budget narrative (borrowing heavily from the previous years’ budgets) and proofreading the typed printing masters were important jobs that I could do well without grasping the underlying details and concepts.

TSgt Ashcraft was the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of Budget, and was ten years older than me, and very calm and affable. He was able to get a lot of information from a wide variety of activities and individuals, and incorporate it into the Byzantine budget formats. I didn’t realize until much later that Air Force budgeting was in a period of transition and upheaval when I arrived. My ignorance of what preceded the new system led me to believe that I was entering an established one, when actually it was in complete disarray and groping its way in the dark from being a tightly centrally managed one to responsibilities being distributed throughout all levels of Air Force management. TSgt Ashcraft was struggling to make the transition, and for the most part I was unaware of it.

Arthur Sharman, the UK civilian budget clerk, was twenty years older than me, and I owe him a lot for my eventually successful career in budgeting. Art handled the most precisely demanding elements of our budget, the pay of civilian employees and the contracts and services provided through the British Ministry of Defense and Department of Environment (DOE), which performed the functions performed at stateside bases by Air Force Civil Engineering. He also ably liaised with the financial officer of the DOE, Mrs. Iris Fletcher, a very able and slightly built but imposing woman in her fifties who Art nicknamed the Dragon Lady. Between the two of them they wielded a surprising amount of power over most of the physical plant of the two air bases which were operated by the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, Royal Air Force Bases Bentwaters and Woodbridge.

The problem we all faced was that the newly responsible financial managers had no training or experience in their duties under the new program. Being an overseas base compounded the problems, because both military and civilian managers and personnel were normally rotated back to a stateside base after three years, and there were very few with any knowledge or experience in financial management.

I thought I was stepping into an existing system and that I had to find out what everyone was doing so I could learn and get up to speed, and they thought I was there to lead them.

It could have been a classic example of the blind leading the blind, except I didn’t know they were blind and waiting for me to show them the way.

Somehow we got the budgets finished on time, although Phil Ashcraft was visibly exhausted, and Art Sharman suffered a minor stroke and was off work for about six weeks to recover. Although the budgets were in, we continued working many hours of overtime each week, even after Arthur came back to work.

Not long after Arthur came back, Phil Ashcraft finished his tour of duty and went back stateside. Arthur and I anxiously awaited his replacement, another TSgt named Robert Clough, coming to us from a Defense Contracting Agency job in Paramus, New Jersey, and prior to that, a year at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam.

As we awaited TSgt Clough’s arrival, we continued to burn many overtime hours on tasks such as loading budget targets in the Base Accounting system on the B-3500 computer, and corresponding supply and equipment targets in the Base Supply system on the Univac 1050-II computer system.

Working with Base Supply was particularly difficult, since they operated in accordance with their own sacrosanct regulations and procedures which seemed to be in competition or opposition to the overall budget process. We were in a constant fear that Base Supply would not issue a critical maintenance part because of a shortage of funds in a unit account, thereby resulting in delayed repairs to an aircraft delaying mission accomplishment, and the blame placed on us.

The Supply system seemed to be run by its cranky computer. When there were problems, and there were endless problems, the usual explanation for not fixing them immediately was that “the computer won’t let us.”

We had very little information about TSgt Clough, but information in some of his records we received before his arrival showed he had experience working with Base Supply.

The fateful day finally arrived, and I made the short walk from Accounting across the highway to the parking lot in front of the Base Reception Center to meet the bus carrying Sergeant Clough and his family from the UK arrival base, RAF Mildenhall. The bus pulled in, and Sergeant Clough and his wife Lorna, plus two sons and a daughter, got off. As I gave Sergeant Clough a warm welcome I noticed he was overweight and his uniform more unkempt looking than expected even considering the long flight and bus ride.

He introduced me to his family, then announced that he was “on the Road program.”

“What’s the ‘Road’ program?” I asked.

“Retired On Active Duty,” he replied.

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