In the military, we are trained to remain vigilant at all times and to always be aware of our surroundings. We are trained to have situational awareness, to keep our head on a swivel, to continually check our six, and to be a hard target.

A few years ago, midway through my third combat tour, I was walking from the Joint Operations Center on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, toward the dining facility to eat breakfast. While on the airfield, it was customary to salute any officer who outranked you. Since there were military personnel from all branches of service, as well as a host of foreign coalition personnel and civilian contractors, it was often challenging to know who was required to salute whom.

I was a captain at the time, so all enlisted personnel, noncommissioned officers, warranty officers, and commissioned officers up to the rank of first lieutenant were required to salute me. 

On my way to breakfast that morning, I was saluted multiple times by the appropriate individuals. Then, for no apparent reason, a major saluted me. It took me by surprise, but in an attempt to not embarrass him, I politely returned his salute, and kept walking. Then, for some reason, another major saluted me. I returned his salute, verbally greeted him, and kept walking. But when a third major saluted me, instead of simply returning his salute, I stopped and said out loud, “What is wrong with everyone?”

Fearing I had grabbed some colonel’s cover by mistake, I stopped, removed my patrol cap, and studied it in an attempt to try and figure out what was going on. The rank on the front was definitely captain rank, and my last name was on the back. This was definitely my hat. As I stood there, scratching my head, a colonel, who was apparently walking just a few steps behind me, passed me on the right and said, “Good morning, Captain Sheely, beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

I guess things aren’t always what they seem.