Those Who Do Not Study History

In the 1980s, the Mujahedeen forces in Afghanistan beat the USSR by simply outlasting them. The USSR withdrew its forces in embarrassment after failing to achieve its military objectives despite a decade of fighting, and the USSR imploded a few years later.

32 years after the USSR’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, the Taliban forces have beaten the USA by simply outlasting them. The USA is withdrawing its forces in embarrassment after failing to achieve its military objectives despite two decades of fighting, while the USA is slowly imploding for its own reasons…

More 511th History: Memories of Border Duty on a Cold Winter's Day

I have a lot of interesting memories from my days on border duty during the waning days of the Cold War. To be honest, it was a strange time to be stationed in Germany. The "Bad Guys" across the border were still poised to attack at any time, and the "Good Guys" on our side of the border were still prepared to repel them if the balloon ever went up. When I am asked to describe what it was like to serve along the East German border, I generally characterize my experiences as a giant game of "Cat and Mouse" or "Hide and Seek." We spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the bad guys were and what they were doing, and the bad guys spent a lot of time trying to figure out where we were and what we were doing.

I have also explained that my time was generally broken down as follows: 95% boring, 4% interesting, and 1% terror. I can't really talk about the 1% terror, except to say that it was the most-addictive part of the job. Although, come to think of it - I can't really talk about the 4% interesting, either. Suffice it to say that the 5% of my job that wasn't boring can't be discussed until sometime after I'm dead, so don't bother asking. Seriously.

That leaves the 95% of my time that was boring, which is mostly open for discussion.

Here's the way that we typically operated along the border: we'd get a call at zero-dark-thirty that the bad guys might be up to something, and about 30 minutes after I got the call, our vehicles would be rolling out of the gates of our post and headed toward the border to determine whether the bad guys were up to something that wasn't good. This meant that I kept all of my military gear fully loaded in the trunk of my car at all times, so when I got the call - all I had to do was throw on a uniform, jump in the car, and head off to post, where I would quickly dispatch my vehicle and pull it into place with the rest of the vehicles that were ready to deploy. It didn't matter how crappy the weather conditions were - it could be raining, snowing, or freezing - when we got the call, it was time to go. (Sometimes we would roll out to the border when the roads weren't safe enough for travel, which meant that we would have to remain on the border until the roads were safe to come home.)

East German Border in Winter

Depending on which border site we were deploying to, it might take a couple of hours to get to our location, where we would immediately set up all of the gear that was necessary to figure out what the bad guys were up to. As soon as everything was set up and configured, we'd start doing what we were trained to do, until such time as we were able to make a good/bad decision on what the bad guys were actually doing. If you weren't the soldier who was determining what the bad guys were doing, there were a host of other activities for you to do: pulling guard duty, setting up camouflage, encircling the operations area with concertina wire, or pulling radio watch. If you weren't doing any of those things… well, we had so few people in our platoon that you were pretty much guaranteed to be doing one of those assignments.

You'll notice that I didn't mention sleep, because for the first few days of any deployment there usually wasn't a lot of sleep happening. Most deployments started out with all hands on deck, because we were trying to determine the status of the bad guys. However, after a few days things would start to calm down, and then we'd allow people to rotate on and off for sleep. (I've mentioned it elsewhere that my personal record for lack of sleep was four days... at which point I began to hallucinate.)

However, at any time we could be ordered to "jump," which meant to pack up all our gear in a hurry and rapidly deploy somewhere else along the border. Our next location might be 30 minutes away, or it might be hours away - it depended on what needed to be done. The jump order could have been because the bad guys moved somewhere else and we needed to follow them, or it could have been because the location where we were situated wasn't yielding enough results to figure out what the bad guys were doing, or it could have been because some @#$% idiot in charge decided that it would be amusing to torture his troops, or for any number of other reasons.

I'll paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson to sum up how I felt about my situation:

Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew.
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

We weren't always required to jump during a border deployment; on many occasions business was good enough to stay in one place for the entire time we were working. However, there were other occasions when we would jump more than once, and I recall one especially heinous winter deployment where it seemed that we were jumping every other day. (Or perhaps we jumped every day... that deployment is kind of a blur now that I look back at it.)

I mentioned earlier that sleep was often hard to come by, and for this deployment that was especially true. It seemed that just as soon as we would get set up in a new location and start monitoring what the bad guys were doing, we would get the order to jump, and away we went. I also mentioned earlier that we had far too few people in our platoon, which had another detrimental effect on all of our jumps: we didn't have enough people for there to be a driver and assistant driver in every vehicle, which meant that I was on my own every time I climbed behind the wheel of my truck.

Let me paint a mental picture of what that was like: I hadn't had sleep in days. I was cold. I was hungry. I was tired. I missed my wife and kids. I hurt in places that I didn't know existed after hours of sitting on a seat that was made by the lowest bidder as I drove through mile after mile of snow-laden roads under overcast skies. Night and day had a way of devolving into a constant, dismal blur due to the odd hours working inside gear that had no windows to the outside world, and there was no easy way to tell if it was morning or evening due to the oppressive nature of the unyielding blockade of gray clouds that blotted out the sun. As we made our way from location to location, we often took farmroads that meandered through scores of tiny German villages and fields that were buried by snow. We soon had no earthly idea which way was north or south... our sole point of reference was that we were following the map, and the map never lied.

Since I had no one else to keep me sharp as I drove on in solitude, I had to come up with a way to keep my brain engaged - and my solution was simple: screaming. I spend a lot of time alone in the cab of my truck screaming in order to force my anatomy to kick in some adrenalin that would keep me going for another few minutes, then I'd start screaming again to repeat the process.

If all this detail sounds miserable, let me assure you - it was.

At some point during this deployment we were on the road, and as often the case - we were somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The snow had reduced traffic down to a single lane, which didn't impact our travel at all since the Germans had the good sense to stay home where it was warm. In hindsight, I'll be willing to bet most of the bad guys were lying at home in their cozy, warm beds, too. I think it was probably only our platoon that was wandering the German countryside at that hour. Nevertheless, I was exhausted, and my throat hurt from screaming - but I had to go on, because that was my job. And if I didn't do my job to the best of my ability, good people could get hurt by bad people, and so I kept driving.

East German Border in Winter

My truck was following closely behind one of our M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, and the M113's tank commander was a great guy: SPC Heggie. As miserable as I was, Heggie had it much worse. I had the relative privilege of sitting in the cab of my truck as we drove, whereas Heggie had to sit in the commander's seat of his tracked vehicle for the duration of our journey, which meant that his entire upper torso was fully exposed to the cold, winter air. He was bundled up in all his extreme cold weather gear: jacket, scarf, goggles, helmet, gloves, etc., even a facemask that was designed to stave off frostbite in arctic conditions. But despite all that cold weather gear, Heggie still had to brave the icy winds of a German winter for hours at a time. My situation may have sucked, but Heggie's situation sucked even more.

We had been driving like that for an indeterminate amount of time, when I saw Heggie turn around and look at me for a moment. At the time, I thought that he was checking to see that I was still there, and I hadn't fallen asleep and driven off the road somewhere. That thought seemed to be confirmed when Heggie turned his back on me again, but I saw him press the microphone on his helmet to his mouth, which meant that he was trying to talk to the M113 driver about something. Of course, in those conditions - with the wind and the face mask and the incredibly loud volume of driving a tracked vehicle on a road - Heggie wasn't "talking" so much as "yelling" to the driver in order to compensate for the lousy conditions.

Then I saw the strangest thing - the M113 made a quick shift to the right, then it straightened out again. This meant that the right track of the vehicle was now riding squarely on the shoulder of the road, and running over all of the white, meter-sized markers that lined the edge of the avenue. Our nicknames for these road markers were "Machts Nichts" poles, because - according to prevailing opinion - the Germans would shrug their shoulders and say, "Machts Nichts (no big deal)" if they discovered that one or two of these road markers had been destroyed. However, this wasn't one or two machts nichts poles - it was dozens of them. As the M113 drove over them, I saw pieces of white plastic and crushed wood flying up into the air behind the tracked vehicle - and I began to laugh. I laughed long and hard, as though this was the funniest thing that I had ever seen in my life. Oh, I'm sure that the depth of my reaction was due to how punchy I was with exhaustion, but still - that was just so darn funny. Words cannot express how much I enjoyed that spectacle.

After ten or twenty seconds, I watched Heggie press the microphone on his helmet to his mouth again, and the driver of the M113 quickly adjusted his course back onto the roadway. Heggie turned around in his commander's seat to look at me again, then he pulled his facemask and scarf out of the way so I could see his ear to ear grin. I exploded into laughter once more, then Heggie replaced his facemask and scarf and turned forward to face the icy winds of winter once again.

More than thirty years have passed since this brief episode unfolded on a dismal day in the middle of nowhere, but I remember it like it happened yesterday. And Heggie - he holds a special place in my thoughts of days gone by like some sort of mythic Norse hero. He made my day - and he probably kept me from crashing my vehicle due to exhaustion or the inescapable reality of my miserable circumstances.

I really needed that laugh. And you can't buy experiences like that for any amount of money.

Wearing a Mask Could Be a Lot Worse

I posted the following image to a veteran's forum with the following caption: "Whenever I hear people whining and moaning about having to wear a mask, I remember days like this, and realize why I have zero F's to give them."

Army-in-MOPP4

Believe me, there's nothing like putting on a full chemical protective suit over your regular uniform, complete with gas mask, rubber booties and gloves, and then working outside in the deserts of Fort Huachuca (in southern Arizona) to make you realize that the human body wasn't designed to work in 100+ temperatures while wearing multiple layers of non-breathable clothing.

At-Least-Youre-Not-in-MOPP4

With that in mind, I would like to reiterate to all of the people who still complain about having to wear a simple mask for 15 minutes or so while they're shopping in a supermarket: "Just Shut Up and Wear the Darn Mask." In other words, get over yourself. Think about someone else for a change. Wearing a mask is a small price to pay for keeping the people around you healthy, and things could be a lot worse.


UPDATE: As I mentioned earlier, I had originally posted the opening joke to a veteran's forum, because I thought my fellow veterans would appreciate the humor. However, shortly after I posted this information, it was removed by one of the forum's admins with no explanation. As you can see, there was nothing even remotely political in this post, so all I can assume was that one of the admins is an "anti-masker" who took offense to the suggestion that wearing a mask during a pandemic isn't that bad. Oh, well... there's nothing that I can do about that. I guess some people failed to pay attention in their grade school science classes.

More 511th History: That Time I Was a Russian Major

At some point during my tenure with the 511th MI Company, I was requested by some high-ranking US military officials to help review the readiness of 11th ACR troops. The time was in the late 1980s, and a delegation could show up at any time for a surprise inspection during the drawdown of nuclear armaments in Germany. This was important work, and our senior leadership needed to know that our troops would do the right thing when the time came. On the other hand, they also needed to know that our troops would prevent bad things from happening, too.

With that mind, I was dressed in a Soviet Major's Uniform (from the Tank Corps), assigned a Russian "translator," and I was asked to pretend to be a particularly "difficult" guest during a faux inspection.

Soviet Army Armored Corps Officer Uniform

To be more specific, these high-ranking officials asked me to try getting into all sorts of mischief in order to evaluate how the unsuspecting 11th ACR troops would react. I'm the kind of guy that you don't have to ask twice - I could get into lots of trouble rather quickly, and my victims probably would have been seriously ticked off if they ever suspected that I wasn't who my official escorts said I was.

My translator was SPC Meyers, who was a good friend of mine from the 511th. We were both passably fluent in Russian, which was more than was necessary to fool our unsuspecting victims. All of our personal conversations in Russian were about what was going on, how much fun we were having, where to go for lunch after we were done, what we should do to mess with people, etc. However, whenever I would say something in Russian, my friend would "translate" something entirely different (and often exasperating) to our hosts.

Here's an example:

Me [Saying something innocuous in Russian to my translator.]
Translator "The major would like to see inside an Abrams tank."
11th ACR dude "No, that's off limits."
Translator [Saying something innocuous in Russian to me.]
Me [Saying something innocuous in Russian, but louder and angrier.]
Translator "The major is very upset; he says that's part of his inspection duties."
11th ACR dude "I'm really sorry, and uh - can someone help me? What do I do now?"
Translator [Apologetically in Russian to me: "He'd kick our butts if he knew we were so full of crap."]
Me [Angrily in Russian: "Yeah, but this is so much fun. Still, we'd better not show our faces around here for a few weeks."]

Ah, good times.

September 22nd is National Veteran and Military Suicide Prevention Day

At the risk of Too Much Information (TMI), I'd like to share something that I've never talked about with anyone other than my wife.

Here's the backstory: a few years ago I was diagnosed with Essential Tremors, which is a disorder with hand & feet tremors that resembles a non-fatal form of Parkinson's Disease. I had hoped to retire one day and be able to tinker with electronics or play my array of musical instruments, but now I suddenly found myself in my mid-50s and facing the very real possibility that I might not be able to hold a pencil or a fork in a few years.

I went through all of the stages of grief; at first I was in denial, and then I was viciously angry at God. I kept asking Him, "Why me?" and "Why couldn't you just kill me?" It was humiliating each time I had to ask my wife to help me eat, or when I had to pull off the road and ask my wife to drive because my feet wouldn't do what they were supposed to. It was even more embarrassing when I was at a restaurant with family or friends and I kept missing when I tried to feed myself.

I eventually launched into a major depression, and all of this happened at a time when my job took a major nosedive; I was overworked and had a boss who had no idea who I was or what I did. As each day grew worse than the last, I finally reached the breaking point, and I want no sympathy for this - but I had my note written, I had all my accounts in order, I had all my passwords printed out so my wife wouldn't have to look for anything, and I had a noose all set to go. I'm great at tying nooses; I learned how to tie an ultra-secure noose as a Boy Scout, so I had everything tested and ready in our garage where I knew that nothing was going to fail on me.

I was literally within minutes of stepping into that noose when I was somehow distracted by something; to this day I don't recall what it was, but I stepped away and never stepped back.

I eventually found a doctor who put me on the right medications to manage my tremors, and I found a counselor to help me pass through the final stages of grief - from depression into acceptance. Now I look back at what almost happened and think, "Holy crap - what was I thinking?" But the truth is, when you're that depressed, you can't think. And you don't WANT to think. You just want it to end. In hindsight, I should have sought help sooner: I should have seen the doctor sooner, I should have seen the counselor sooner, and I should have told my wife that despite my day to day appearance, I really wasn't handling my situation.

When I think back on my time in the military, I realize that soldiers are taught to be completely self-sufficient, and I think that makes it hard for veterans to ask for help. But if we veterans are honest with ourselves, we were never completely self-sufficient. In every duty station where I served, I was surrounded by awesome folks who knew exactly where I was at, and we all helped each other. Oh sure, there was the occasional jerk or two in each unit that we couldn't trust, but for the most part - we were surrounded by people who understood all the ups and downs that we were facing.

Now that my situation has changed for the better, I've found a support group for my tremors where I can hear from other people that have gone through what I'm going through, and it really helps. To be honest, that's also why I love a veterans group that I belong to. There are parts of my life that no one outside the fraternity of the Armed Forces will understand, like why I laugh out loud every time I see a yellow bird lying dead outside a window. But all of my fellow veterans get it.

To finish off this post, I'm doing great now - and I've learned to take each day one at a time. I don't mean to make light of anyone's burden, but I look at the following images all the time. The image on the right reminds me that I shouldn't try to do everything alone, and the image on the left reminds me that the same drive and determination that enabled me to endure and do amazing things in my youth is still there, and I can tap into that drive and determination in order to help me make it through the stupid things I face today.

Never-Quit-and-Seek-Help

Green Eggs and Spam

I can't speak for the Navy, Air Force, or the Marines, but the Army was cursed with some truly awful food. As you can see in the image below, I have eaten actual green eggs on more than one occasion. (And unlike the photo below, they were usually served floating in a tepid pool of disgusting water...) With that in mind, when someone posted this photo, I thought that it deserved an appropriate ode in the style of Dr. Seuss...

I used to work for Uncle Sam
But never liked Green Eggs and Spam

Not in a tank, nor in a boat
Nor in a Jeep or Gama Goat

Not on the border in Germany
Nor in the rain or snow or sea

I did not like them in Korea
They only caused bad diarrhea

They were crap in Iraq and Afghanistan
So I still don't like Green Eggs and Spam

Green-Eggs-and-Spam

Learning the Local Language

Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, I never bothered to lean Spanish. I had plenty of opportunities, though. Spanish was offered in all the schools, and I ventured south of the border on a handful of occasions through border towns like Nogales. But the main reason why I never bothered to learn more than a few words in Spanish was because I resented the fact that so many people were coming across the southern border and insisting that I learn Spanish to speak with them, instead of learning English to speak with me in my own country.

It frustrated me to no end that everything in Tucson was required to be printed in both languages; I thought that this was laziness on "their" part. Meanwhile, I studied German in High School, because I was certain that German was going to be a useful language in a state where the two spoken languages were English and Spanish. (Hint: Sarcasm.)

But then a weird thing happened: I joined the Army to become a Russian Linguist in the mid-1980s, and I was sent to the the Defense Language Institute (DLI) to learn the Russian language. After I graduated from two years of military training, I was sent to Germany for the next several years. (As it turns out, my years of studying German had actually paid off. Who would have thought?)

However, while I was stationed in Germany, I noticed an odd thing happening: a lot of the American GIs who were stationed there never picked up the German language, and many of the Germans appeared to have no knowledge of English. But here's the odd part about that: I discovered later that most of those Germans actually spoke English. I got to know some German friends while I was stationed there, and they told me that they resented the fact that Americans were "too lazy to learn the local language," so they pretended like they didn't know English. But by the late 1980s, all students were required to study English in the local German schools, so it is no stretch of the imagination to say that pretty much everyone spoke a modicum of English.

It reminds me of the following video:

That being said, I could speak the German language on a passable level, and most Germans were very forgiving of my frequent mistakes because they could see that I was making an effort. I remember botching my order at a restaurant, and my waitress coldly retorted in condescending English, "I can speak English!" To which I replied in fluent German, "Yes, but we're in Germany, and I want to speak German in Germany." This caught her off guard, and her attitude improved greatly; for the rest of the evening we spoke nothing but the local language. And that was largely my experience while stationed in Germany; most Germans spoke a bit of English, and yet most Germans respected my efforts when I attempted to interact with them in their native tongue.

Although I have to say, there was one woman that I knew in passing when I was stationed in Germany who NEVER learned any English.

Here's her story:

My wife and I lived off post in a tiny German village, and there was an older woman who took her evening walks around the time that I arrived home from work each day. And by "older," I mean that she was in her 80s, and I was stationed in Germany during the late 1980s. In other words, she was in her 40s when WWII ended in 1945, which means that I represented an "occupying force" in her eyes. I was a visible, constant reminder of everything she hated.

I already knew a bit of German when I arrived, of course, but I continued to learn German while I was stationed there, and I would always greet the old woman by at least waving and saying, "Hi." By the end of my first year, I received nothing from her but the evil eye treatment. For the second year, her apparent loathing of me was reduced to a passing, disapproving glance. By the third year, she had met my wife and young daughters several times as they went through the village on their own walks; the old woman LIKED them, so eventually I would receive a smileless shrug in exchange for my more elegant greetings.

When my wife and I finally left Germany sometime during our fourth year, the old woman still wouldn't talk to me, but she would at least make an effort to stop and wave in return. There was still no smile, of course, but I think she viewed me less and less as a potential enemy... even if I kind of was the enemy. I would like to think that in the end, the efforts my wife and I made to assimilate ourselves into the local culture yielded a grudging respect from her.

Nevertheless, when my wife and I returned home from Germany, we returned to Arizona, and my former resentment over the local language was long gone. By that time I had interacted with and experienced multiple cultures, and I had learned the value of making an effort where language is concerned. Oh sure, I meet the occasional person who has lived here for more than a decade and still insists that they haven't learned any English. I'm willing to bet that they're not being entirely truthful, but I learned during my tenure as a linguist that not all languages are equal, and as it turns out - English is a terrible language to learn if you weren't born here. On the other hand, Spanish is considerably easier to learn, for just about anyone.

So in the end, these days I make a conscious effort to speak Spanish when I have the chance, and I appreciate it when visitors who travel across the southern border make a conscious effort to speak a little English from time to time.


POSTSCRIPT:

As my wife and I have continued to travel the globe, I have always made an effort to pick up something of the local language wherever we go. Of course, the depth of my learning is usually just enough to greet people, to understand basic directions, to purchase something, and to order food. I learned enough French to get by in France, enough Italian to get around in Italy, and even a basic understanding of some common Tahitian phrases when I was in French Polynesia. I would never say that my language skills were anything more than the most basic of levels in any of those languages, but still - I made an effort, and it was always appreciated.

An Ode to SOS

I belong to a few different Veteran's forums, and recently someone mentioned that they had completed their tour of service without ever having tried the military's infamous SOS, which is an "affectionate" name for creamed ground beef over biscuits. The name is an acronym for (ahem) "Stuff on a Shingle," (although in Army parlance it's a different four-letter word instead of "stuff.")

SOS

Nevertheless, I thought that it might be fun to write a few words as an homage to one of the most-hated and yet most-loved dishes in the military cookbook. SOS may have tasted awful, but it was better than starving, and it taught me to be truly thankful for what I had.

I do not mean to sound so rude
By poking fun at Army food
But I have had their SOS
And can attest it's not the best
I've also had green eggs and ham
And a dozen types of mangled spam
I did not think those things existed
Until such time as I enlisted

My stomach now is ironclad
And can withstand when food is bad
If I sit back and reminisce
Those tasteless morsels I dismiss
Time, it seems, has helped to heal
My memories of horrid meals
Of MREs and old C-RATs
Which tasted more like stale, dried cat

The Army cooks, they tried their best
To create something we could digest
Suffice to say, we still survived
The food was bad, but we're alive
To bring my story to a close
I'd like to say before I go
That SOS may taste like crap
But it's better than a long, dirt nap

Smile

General Snetkov versus Ralph Kramden

I've shared on here before about how I had been COL Abrams' translator on the DDR border when GEN Snetkov (the CDR of GSFG in the late 80s) came through. (See https://bit.ly/2PIjcD9 about that.) But something that I don't think I shared here before was how much I thought that GEN Snetkov looked like Ralph Kramden.

GEN-Snetkov-vs-Ralph-Kramden

My German Skills are a Little Rusty

I attended a reunion this past August in Fulda, Germany, with some of the folks from the 511th MI Company. As we were leaving a restaurant after dinner one night, we bumped into a traveling Bachelor Party that was making its way through streets of the city. They were already a few sheets to the wind, which undoubtedly explains why they appeared to think that I was a hilarious attraction. (I have that effect on drunk people, so it seems.)

Anyway, they were sounding off with a series of German idioms, and after each one they would laugh uproariously and ask me to join in. This didn't seem possible to me, as I hadn't lived in Deutschland for 30 years, and even then I had been a Russian linguist.

However, as luck would have it - somewhere in the back of my aging mind was the sole German idiom that I had managed to retain for all these years, which I recited to the assembled crowd:

"Freier macht die augen auf, heiraten ist kein pferdekauf!"

This had the desired effect - they laughed even harder than before, shook my hand, offered me a beer, slapped me on the back, etc. After offering me some pomme frites, (which were stored in the groom's hat - ugh), they bid me "Auf Wiedersehen," and they wandered off to continue their evening's festivities.

Unfortunately, that idiom loses a little in translation, (especially when using Google or Bing translate), but trust me - it's pretty funny for a soon-to-be-groom to hear. What it says, in essence, is: "Open your eyes, free man - getting married is not like buying a horse."

Nevertheless, it's nice to know that occasionally your long lost language skills can still come in handy.

Open-mouthed smile