My oldest son turned 16 last month, and I took a day off from work to spend it with him. It was also my plan to get his learner's permit. I thought a trip to the Motor Vehicle Administration would make a great birthday present, and it would afford us some father-son bonding time. Yep, he was finally 16 and ready for another rite of passage and the freedom that comes with driving. As my wife loves to say, "How hard could it be?"
I, of course, had no illusion that this would be easy. But I did not know that my military operational experience was going to be necessary to complete the mission. As someone who has spent over 20 years in the Army, I know what it means to wait. I have had the privilege of serving with great men and women while in Iraq and around the world who also live the motto, "Hurry up and wait." I knew I possessed the skills needed to deal with my fellow government people. Armed with advice from friends who did their tour at the MVA, we selected the Glen Burnie branch and arrived 20 minutes before opening.
There were about four dozen people already in line ahead of us, not quite as bad as Black Friday or the Thursday-before-Black-Friday-Thanksgiving night. This was the pre-operation calm. It was very much like waiting in a vehicle before it leaves the gates and security of the base. You occupy your time and thoughts with small talk, music or reading while you wait for the mission to start.
Promptly at 8:30 a.m., the doors opened, and the line moved. I was jokingly optimistic. We reached the screener within 15 minutes. Heck, I was even impressed. Then the obstacles came.
"You need an original birth certificate," I was told. "But this is a certified copy," I proclaimed. "No it's not." I was stunned in disbelief. I read the word "certified," but the supervisor said it was not. OK soldier, fall back and regroup.
One round trip later, original in hand, we returned to the MVA after my son completed his life guard training for the morning. At 12:30 p.m. there was no line to get a number, and everyone filling the room had a look of calm resolve that they would get what they were there for. They didn't have the look of alert guards in a danger zone but more of soldiers at a firing range waiting to pick up all of the shells lying around. I approached the counter.
"Here are my documents." "Here is your number." My son and I were back in wait-mode, anticipating the mission, part of the crowd. A respectable 20 minutes later we are called to the same supervisor who denied the first paperwork. "This is not the original Social Security card." An explosion went off in my head, but I maintained focus. "His military ID and passport are not proof enough?" I shot back, unbelieving. "No," and I was then given a printout of the requirements. (Too bad he didn't think to hand it to me during my initial visit.)
This was the critical phase of the operation. Regroup and re-engage when you've been out-maneuvered? Retreat to return another day? Defend where you are? With a 3 p.m. deadline looming, retreat seemed to be the right answer.
Negative! Racing 20 miles home the second time, getting every possible document they could ask for including shot records, my Costco membership and my car title, we returned. After requesting a supervisor, my son scored 100 percent on the written test, and we walked out with a learner's permit at 3:05 p.m. It wasn't a pretty victory; it still doesn't feel like a victory, but every battle has a lesson to be learned: "Never underestimate your opponent."
Jeff Hutchinson is an Army colonel who lives in Columbia. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.