In the Navy, “skating” refers to getting out of an unpleasant task or duty assignment in some creative way. There are lots of unpleasant things that have to be done in the course of any normal day in the Navy and guys (and I suppose girls now as well) will employ various means of avoiding certain tasks. Skating is not to be confused with being lazy or “malingering,” which is feigning illness to avoid doing your job. Neither of those things is well tolerated by your shipmates. It will get you a reputation as a “turd.”

Last night I had a conversation with a Marine who managed to pull off a couple of pretty impressive “skates” while he was in Iraq, and all he had to do was keep his mouth shut.

An Inauspicious Start

This particular Marine was a young PFC Combat Engineer. About one week before his unit was supposed to deploy to Iraq, he managed to down most of a bottle of Jack Daniels, and trying to find his way back to the barracks, he ended up entering the unlocked front door of a young LT living on base with his wife. As you might expect, this intrusion was not welcomed by the officer who got very much in the face of this very drunk PFC a week away from a combat deployment. The base police were called and when they arrived the LT was still haranguing this young Marine about what he was going to do to him (which was worse than going to Iraq?). Anyway, as he was being cuffed by the base police to be taken away, he lost his temper and headbutted the LT, and began to fight the base police with DMS or Drunk Marine Strength. The LT ended up with a broken and bloody nose and the base police guys ended up with some bruises and abrasions themselves before they were able to bundle him off to the brig to sleep it off and face some VERY serious charges.

Unlike the movies, in the actual military, belting an officer or anyone senior to you is considered a gravely serious offense against Good Order and Discipline. It is an offense tried by court-martials rather than non-judicial punishment within the command. Upon conviction, you will do hard time at Fort Leavenworth for a couple of years and get a Bad Conduct Discharge as well. This basically makes you a felon when you get out.

But this Marine managed to stake on these charges. It seems that with the unit just days from being deployed, the colonel at Battalion did not want to report to the general that they were court-martialing one of their Marines for bloodying up an officer while drunk. It would mean another Marine would have to be yanked from somewhere to go in his place instead. It was decided that Iraq would be worse than Leavenworth — or perhaps they suspected that he slugged the officer to avoid even going to Iraq, so off to Iraq he went. His slugging that officer was “gundecked” or simply disregarded; it wasn’t forgotten. He wasn’t clear of ever getting in trouble for it. The offense would just exist in the kind of administrative limbo that only the military (and maybe the VA is capable of).

The Clipboard may be the greatest skating device ever. Carry one of these around with you with a bunch of papers and no one will ask you what you are doing. If they do, just roll your eyes and say “chasing signatures” and you are in the clear.

Arriving in Iraq as a PFC Combat Engineer was basically an extension of the physical activity of Paris Island with heavier and more dangerous things to lift. He told me he was detailed to mine-clearing operations and to train Iraqi forces beyond their normal practice of covering their ears with their hands and probing for mines with one foot. He said they would use a 10ft dog lease around the neck of their Iraqi trainees to jerk them back if they did anything really stupid while trying to dig up these mines.

One day, he was told to report to the detailer (who is the guy specifically charged with order assignments). He arrived to find out he was being “detailed” or temporarily assigned to an air squadron. They needed a Combat Engineer for some reason and he was the most junior and, therefore, most generally worthless person they could send to comply with an order by their own Regimental HQ to detach someone. You should know that grunts love flying Marines who are very good at dropping bombs near Marines but not on them. Yet, that love couldn’t stop them from just sending their least senior and experienced Combat Engineer. So his own unit was trying to “skate” here too by complying just enough to satisfy the order, but not going all-in on it either.

A Marine’s Adventures in Al Asad

So, he packed his stuff and a helicopter took him from his FOB to Al Asad Airbase, which is this huge sprawling joint base in Western Iraq in the Anbar Province. And it was a very different world from being in the field. Guys had air-conditioned housing and soft racks to sleep in. The chow was hot, plentiful, and available 24hrs a day. There were recreational activities and internet access. And there were females there, a lot of females. Hell, it was practically like being back in the states.

He went to the squadron, presented his orders, and before he knew it, he had a bunk and a roommate in an air-conditioned trailer and all the soft benefits of being at a major base. He was told to get squared away, showered, and fed and report the next morning.

When he reported at 0730hrs he was welcomed warmly, it seems the squadron was having problems with their refrigeration and cooling systems and they needed an 1161 Cooling and Refrigeration Technician like him to fix and maintain a whole slew of AC systems and “reefers” as they are called in the Navy. This young private had no idea why they had sent him to this air squadron now. As a Basic Engineer, he had a 1300 qualification which included, “construction, facilities, and equipment.” It would seem the detailer had gotten something confused. He had no idea how to fix reefers and AC systems. What they really needed was a 1161, i.e. a Refrigeration and AC Technician.

So now he faced a choice: come clean and tell the squadron that he was a Basic Combat Engineer who had no idea how to fix AC equipment, or try to fake it. He thought for a moment about his chilly trailer, the soft rack, and hot shower and made a decision.

“Do you have the manuals and tools?’ he asked hopefully?

The processing clerk produced an inventory sheet, “We have all this stuff on this list, it should be most of what you need.”

The young Marine scanned it as if he knew what he was looking at, “You’re missing a bunch of stuff I’ll need to really do this right.”

He was cut off, “Anything you need we can get, just come see me about it personally.”

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What happened from there was nearly 10 months of this guy faking it and learning on the job how to fix air conditioners and reefers. He read the manuals and was able to learn most of what he needed to keep everything running. When he couldn’t fix something, he would make an excuse about not having the proper tool or part and say he was going to see if he could scrounge it up from the Air Force. He would then go over to where the Air Force squadrons were and use his lowly rank and relative inexperience as a PFC to get help from the Air Force guys, who had the most and the best of everything.

He Ended up Getting Promoted and Decorated

The decoration came about near the end of his deployment when the squadron was being sent back to the States which meant he would be sent back to his unit. That’s when they finally figured out he wasn’t trained or qualified in any way to do what he had been doing for 10 months, which was to be digging up mines. The commanding officer of the squadron was made aware of the situation. He asked the now lance corporal why he hadn’t spoken up and he replied that he didn’t know he was supposed to. “I figured if the Corps sent me here they musta figured I’d be able to get the job done,” he said. So, rather than admit that the Marines had screwed up (which is a nearly impossible thing to imagine them doing) he was decorated for it instead with the Marine Corps Commendation Medal. The reason was that he took on this task he had no training in and performed it so well that no one even became aware that he was wholly untrained in it.

Marines overcome and adapt. They are also capable of great feats of skate-ery as the story of this Marine illustrates.

Have a story about skating in the service?  Please share it below and thanks for reading this.


This article was originally published in March 2021. It has been edited for republication.