In the late 1960s, I was the protocol specialist for the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce and the World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads. One of the Chamber’s gala annual dinners was themed to honor the military. Norfolk and vicinity is home to the greatest concentration of military commands in the world. The Supreme Allied Command Atlantic (SACLANT) is located on the Norfolk Naval Base, along with its fleet of aircraft carriers and submarines, that is the home base of the U. S. Navy Atlantic Command. Across the Hampton Roads Harbor is Fort Monroe, headquarters of the Continental Army Command (where there are more high-ranking officers than sergeants) and Langley Air Force Base, an Air Force headquarters that was the original home of NASA. The Marine Corps is at Little Creek Amphibious Base, where the East coast Navy Seals are based. The Coast Guard also has its Atlantic headquarters in Norfolk.
Because two U. S. Senators, William Spong of Virginia and Stuart Symington (Missouri), the very first Secretary of the Air Force, were to speak at the event, the top admirals and generals of their respected commands accepted invitations to sit at the head table. As the protocol specialist, I had to seat them according to rank. The military officers all wore two or three stars, so their placement was challenging. Whoever sat closest to the right and left of the two senators who anchored center stage had to be correct. The decisions came down to knowing the time-in-grade of equally ranked officers.
The event was staged in Norfolk’s largest ballroom hotel that seated about 600 for the service of a formal dinner. There was a crowded cocktail reception prior to the movement to the ballroom. At the proper time, I collected the ten members of the head table and removed them to the Green Room where I positioned them in a line according to their order of introduction. On cue, I would lead them to a curtained area in the wings of the platform where they would be introduced by the master of ceremonies and featured by a follow spotlight all the way to their seats at the head table.
The mood in the Green Room was jovial as I tactfully asked the distinguished men to assume their positions in the introduction line. I personally knew Senator Spong, and I had encountered a few of the admirals and generals at previous events, but I was a mere 27 years old at the time and only a year out of the Vietnam War-era Army. As the top brass of their respective military services stood before me in their magnificently decorated dress uniforms, a mad idea possessed me. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, perhaps one that had never been afforded to someone like me. I had to take the chance, not thinking that if my actions were taken as offensive, it might cost me my job.
“Gentlemen,” I said with authority to get their attention, “I would like to admit to you that only last year, I was honorably discharged from the United States Army with the rank of Specialist Fourth Class. I hope that you will understand the great honor and pleasure that it now gives me to say to you, ‘Attention!'” I spoke the order in my best military voice, and every man in line reacted and came to immediate attention with heels locked, backs straight, and arms at their side. Aside from the broad smiles and chuckles, the squad line was formed in a military manner.
My next command as their squad leader was, “Right face!” I swear, every admiral, general, and senator executed the turn precisely. The stage cue came, and I gave the command to “Forward march” and then called off the cadence, “Your left, your left. Your left, right, left” until I halted them at the curtained side of the stage.
I admit to having told this story to friends and acquaintances a hundred times, but I bet that it has been told many more times by the admirals, generals, and senators who were drilled like a squad of enlisted men by a lowly specialist fourth class. I received generous commendation letters from Bill Spong and Senator Symington and later an invitation to dine with the senior officers at SACLANT. Maybe these officers from the NATO nations were curious to meet an American who would dare to do such a thing.
Thank you, distinguished officers and gentlemen, for giving this enlisted Army veteran the military thrill of a lifetime. If only the President had been there!