More 511th History: Ghosts of Borders Past

One of the places that the 511th MI CO liked to use for operations was affectionately known as the "Schlossberg," which is German for "Castle Mountain." This location earned its moniker because the decaying ruins of Brandenfels Castle were perched on the end of a ridge facing East Germany, and it earned its popularity with our squad because it was near the border and in a great location for finding Bad Guys. We approached this site from the west, where we'd be hidden from sight to the east, and we drove down a long, muddy road then up the hill to where the castle was located.

Once on site, we'd pitch camp west of the castle, thereby using it to mask our position from the east. The TRQ-32 was parked facing west, with its rear door facing the castle; this arrangement allowed us to throw the vehicle in gear if an emergency arose (like being attacked or overrun). Once the TRQ was situated and leveled, we'd set up the antennae, then we'd wrap bales of concertina wire in a horseshoe around the rear of the TRQ-32, leaving us with security to the rear and a hasty exit to the front.

Once we were set up for operations, we'd go through the rest of the necessary tasks, like setting up the 8‑man tent for sleeping, arranging our other vehicles for duties like radio watch, and setting up camouflage netting when necessary to obscure our equipment. I used a lot of knots that I had learned in the Boy Scouts to secure the camouflage netting, which always seemed to amuse or amaze my colleagues. (One of my favorite knots was the Clove Hitch, which was great for suspending netting or tarps between trees.)

We'd run the TRQ-32 by day, and its loud generators could no doubt be heard in the villages below the Schlossberg. When we shut down the TRQ-32 for the night, the guy on radio watch would take over double duty using the TRQ-30 manpack radio to listen for Bad Guys in the dark. (I occasionally found Bad Guys by night, yet I still wonder if my fellow squad members didn't bother.) Between light discipline, the lack of generator noise, and the abundant foliage, our squad would essentially vanish at night.

The biggest drawback to the Schlossberg site was a single road for entrance and exit; in theory we could have driven down the side of the hill if our situation had taken a turn for the worse, but I'm glad that we never needed to attempt such a feat. Nevertheless, we manned a guard post near the road a couple hundred meters from camp, and we ran commo wire for field telephones that allowed the guy on guard duty to talk to the guy on radio watch. We found a natural depression in the ground that we could use as a shallow foxhole for guard duty, which offered a modicum of protection from the wind, and we piled several dead logs around the rim to create additional shelter. However, there was no overhead cover, so when it rained - you were wet (though you hopefully had a poncho or rainsuit with you).

band-of-geeks

In the above photo, my EW squad is posing at the Schlossberg with Brandenfels Castle behind us. What this photo doesn't show is the amount of tree cover that masked the site from the air, which also made the site darker than the inside of a coffin when the sun retreated beyond the distant horizon. We diligently practiced our light discipline within our camp, which - when combined with the absence of natural moonlight or stars - created an environment that was mind‑numbingly black by night.

I have been asked occasionally why we didn't use Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) when we were deployed to the Schlossberg, which warrants a brief explanation. NVGs are wonderful tools, but in real life they don't work like they do in action movies. Hollywood seems to think that NVGs allow people to magically see in the dark, but that's not how they function. NVGs are light amplifiers, which means that there must be some source of light for them to amplify. In many situations, the sparse light provided by stars might be sufficient for NVGs to work their magic. But due to the dense tree cover overhead, there was nothing for them to work with at the Schlossberg, so our NVGs were worthless.

This lack of light made guard duty after sunset at the Schlossberg an especially creepy experience. As I mentioned earlier, our guard post was a couple hundred meters from the rest of our camp. Despite our best efforts to create shelter from the elements, guard duty was frequently a bitterly cold assignment, and shifts were usually doled out in two‑hour blocks. Each man was responsible for getting himself up, getting dressed, and finding their way through the dark to the guard post to relieve the previous guard. If you showed up a few minutes early for your shift, you were a hero; if you showed up a few minutes late, you were a jackass who was worthy of universal contempt.

On a particularly miserable night, I was tired of sitting in the foxhole and freezing. I grabbed my M-16 and leaned against a tree to the side of the road, where I was able to stand opposite the wind, which made me a little warmer - perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally. In any event, as the time neared for my relief to arrive, I heard footsteps walking quietly down the road toward my position. Of course, it was pitch dark, so the next soldier on the rotation, SPC Nadalalicea, had no idea where I was.

At one time or other, we'd all been in that situation, and the only way you could find the guard post was to ask the darkness for assistance. To that end, I heard SPC Nadalalicea starting to whisper my nickname, "Fred...?," as he approached. As he drew near, I continued to stand next to my tree and remained silent. SPC Nadalalicea came to a stop within a foot of me, but he still had no idea where I was. Once again, he quietly whispered into the darkness, "Fred...?" I didn't bother to whisper when I made my response - at full conversational volume I said, "I'm right here, Nada." He screamed, hurled a few obscenities, then told me that I'd just scared the poop out of him. I think if he could have seen me, he probably would have hit me.

There are interesting things about being on guard duty when you can't see anything. As one might imagine, your mind plays tricks on you. The tiniest sound is amplified into something far greater than it is, and everything is perceived as a threat until you can convince yourself otherwise. This situation leads me to an anecdote that I used to tell my children as a ghost story when they were younger.

As I would sit there in the dark, trying to stay warm, and watching for something I can't see, I would hear the faint sound of footsteps that sounded like they were approaching. At first, I would do nothing but listen, just to make sure that I wasn't imagining it - and I wasn't. The footsteps wouldn't go away, and they would quietly grow louder as they approached. It wasn't time for my relief to arrive, so my only recourse was to ask the darkness for assistance. I'd quietly whisper, "Hello...?," but there was no answer. However, the footsteps would stop.

For a several minutes I'd continue to sit there, straining my ears to hear... anything. I undoubtedly held my breath as I waited for something to happen, but unrelenting silence was my only reward. Eventually I would begin to relax, thinking perhaps that I had imagined the entire affair. However, with unwavering regularity, as soon as I thought the experience was behind me, I would begin to hear footsteps approaching, and the entire scenario of casting questions into the void with no response would repeat itself. Despite those ghostly footsteps, no one ever arrived at the guard post.

If my experiences on guard duty had been mine alone, you'd have sufficient grounds to think me a little unbalanced or easily agitated. However, I wasn't the only one to hear those inexplicable footsteps, and it made everyone on guard duty more than a little uncomfortable. During my tenure in Fulda, I never found a sufficient explanation for what happened to everyone who sat alone in the dark at that lonely guard post, but some years later I came up with a somewhat plausible theory. My hypothesis, however, is another story for another day.

Facing the Horrors of War

Like many of my colleagues from the 511th MI Company, I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp during my tenure in Fulda, and it was a sobering experience. It is difficult for any rational individual to come to terms with the sheer magnitude of horrors that took place in that single camp. On that note, I just read the following article from HistoryNet, which describes the retributory actions of US soldiers during the liberation of Dachau:

I have to admit, I find it difficult to find fault with soldiers who retaliated against the guards that were still defending the camp with the US Army arrived. It is easy during a time of relative peace to passively judge the actions of soldiers who exacted vengeance upon unarmed guards several decades ago, and it is likewise easy during peacetime to believe that any of us might have behaved differently in a similar circumstance. Nevertheless, none of us trod the path those soldiers walked, and I am willing to bet that coming face to face with Dachau's camp guards - whom we now perceive as inhuman monsters - could alter anyone's sense of morality.

 


ADDITIONAL REFERENCES:

More information about the Dachau Concentration Camp and the reprisals that were taken by US soldiers is available in the following WikiPedia articles:

Excuse My French

As a military brat, the scenario depicted in the following image could easily have played itself out in our household when I was growing up. Winking smile

Excuse my French

Although I must admit, in the years since my exit from the Army (where I had been serving as a military linguist), I have found the ability to utter colorful vocabulary in foreign languages extremely beneficial during times of crisis... though I am careful to choose a language that is not likely to be understood by the people around me.

Open-mouthed smile

What I’m Thankful For This Thanksgiving

Unless you've been deployed to a forgotten, backwoods, nowhere of a hell hole and one of these packages is your Thanksgiving meal, you may not realize how truly thankful you should be for the things that you have.

MRE-Turkey-Loaf-and-Diced-Turkey-With-Gravy

On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for all my comrades in arms (and their families) who are deployed far from home and their loved ones, and keeping the peace so that others might be able to spend time with their families.

The Unfortunate Demise of the Basic Training Shark Attack

Earlier today, one of my fellow veterans shared the following video from Business Insider about the United States Army Infantry School’s decision to no longer conduct the unofficial ritual known as the Shark Attack during basic training. By way of definition, the Shark Attack has traditionally been the first experience that new recruits have in Basic Training, when Drill Sergeants descend on raw recruits and scream at them until they begin to understand who’s in charge.

 

Despite CSM Fortenberry’s comments in that video, the Shark Attack totally has it's place in today's Army, and the idiots who don't think so are... well, IDIOTS. The purpose of the Shark Attack is to mentally separate recruits from civilian life, and nothing does that better than having a Drill Sergeant screaming in your face. The Shark Attack also instills a sense of fear at the outset of training, which is absolutely necessary for some new recruits to create a foundation for discipline where they'll listen to their Drill Sergeant’s orders for the rest of their training. If you take away the Shark Attack, you take away one of the best tools for teaching recruits that their lives – as they knew them – are over. (For the next few weeks, anyway.)

Personally, I hate, hate, HATE the "kindler, gentler Army" approach that today's military leaders are trying to create. Combat is neither "kind" nor "gentle," and taking away the rough edges from military training creates soldiers who are ill-equipped to deal with the mental pressures that soldiers will experience after they leave training. It doesn’t matter if new recruits are volunteers or draftees – soldiers need to be tough enough to endure the rigors of combat life, and the Army is doing their soldiers a great injustice if they fail to prepare recruits for their new lives.

Quite frankly, this entire discussion is just one of many ways where the people who are "in charge" of the Army simply do not "get it" with regard to how the actual day-to-day business of the military is conducted.

I'm so glad I got out before this toxic cancer of stupidity infected the Army.

I’m a Russian Language n00b

After graduating the Defense Language Institute (DLIFLC), then three years working a live mission, and then graduating the Foreign Language Training Center Europe (FLTCE), I was asked to provide real-time translations from English into Russian for church services for political refugees in West Germany who had defected from the East.

I thought that I was pretty darn good with the live mission vocabulary, but my self-confidence in the language completely evaporated when I realized that I knew absolutely zero of church-related vocabulary in Russian. For instance, I didn't know basic verbs like "pray" or "baptize," or basic nouns like "angel," "salvation," "altar," etc. I didn’t even know the name of books in the Bible like "Римлянам," "Второзаконие," "Деяния," etc.

Yup - I quickly realized that when it came to church vocabulary, I was a totally worthless n00b.

Foreign Responses to the United States’ Withdrawal from Afghanistan

It is interesting to see what our allies across the Atlantic think of the United States' recent handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The following quotes are from the article British Parliament Unloads On Biden: Biden May Have Condemned The World To Chinese Domination In Future; although, to be clear, these quotes are from the British House of Lords, so one should take the source of these quotes into account when considering their worth.

Lord Dannatt: "First, notwithstanding his attempted explanation on Monday, the manner and timing of the Afghan collapse is the direct result of President Biden's decision to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. At a stroke, he has undermined the patient and painstaking work of the last five, 10, 15 years to build up governance in Afghanistan, develop its economy, transform its civil society and build up its security forces. The people had a glimpse of a better life, but that has been torn away. With US forces withdrawing, other NATO allies, including ourselves, had no option but to leave too, denying the Afghan national army the technical and training support that it needed and the moral support of friends who encouraged them to take the fight to the Taliban. Until a few weeks ago, the Taliban was being contained and may even have been persuaded over time that a military victory was impossible and a negotiated settlement was the better course. Those possibilities are now a closed chapter of history, an opportunity lost, and the world's western superpower is looking enfeebled. The only glimmer of hope today is that the Taliban of 2021 is not the Taliban of 2001."

Lord Howard of Lympne: "The responsibility for the decision to withdraw rests with President Biden. Up to now, many of us have been rather impressed with the president's performance in his first few months in office, although that may in large part be due to the relief at the absence of his unlamented predecessor. But I am afraid that President Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is, and will be seen by history as, a catastrophic mistake which may well prove to be the defining legacy of his presidency."

Lord Robathan: "...we should not underestimate the disaster and humiliation that this has been. It is on a par with the first Afghan campaign, which humiliated the East India Company and then the British Empire when Dr Brydon returned alone from Elphinstone's army. This is a humiliation of the West, of NATO, of us, of course, but especially of the US - which, apparently, leads the free world, or so we are told. President Biden said that 'America is back'. Robert Gates, Defense Secretary to the Administrations of both George W Bush and Barack Obama, said in his memoirs that Biden had been on the wrong side of every national security issue of the past 20 years. I agree very much with what my noble friend Lord Hammond - who I worked under as Minister for the Armed Forces - said on this point. The humiliation and disaster of the West is appalling. The West is seen as an unreliable ally."

Lord Ricketts: Confidence in NATO has been damaged. China is the main beneficiary of President Biden's decision. 'America is back' now sounds rather hollow - 'America is backing down' fits the case better. The British priority must be to address the damage done to NATO, to rebuild effective political consultations within NATO, and to focus on European security and the risk of Islamic terrorism in Europe. Rather than tilting to the Indo-Pacific, that is where the UK needs to put its national security energies."

Lord Stirrup: " President Biden has suggested that the Afghans are not prepared to fight for their own country. But this ignores two facts. The first is the very large number of Afghan security forces personnel who have been killed on operations over the past two decades, and the second is that Afghan society has always placed much greater importance on loyalty to family, village and clan than to a central Government. In such a society, a military force modelled on the US army could never, in the short term, endure without the logistical, technical and moral support of the US armed forces. ... President Biden purportedly wishes to withdraw from Afghanistan in order to concentrate on China. Yet his actions have immediately benefited China on several fronts. China is increasingly engaged commercially in Afghanistan and has been negotiating with the Taliban. Taken together with Pakistan's increasing reliance on China, this creates a disturbing nexus of power in the region. Even more important is the perception of other countries. If the western powers are to resist China's assault on the current rules - based international order, they will require strong political, economic and technological allies in the Indo-Pacific region. Who now, though, will be prepared to throw in their lot with a US-led effort, when that country's leadership has proved such a fickle friend to Afghanistan? Perhaps the Minister can say what the implications are for the UK's own tilt to the Indo-Pacific, which was such a prominent feature of the recent integrated review."

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: "It is very hard to overestimate the scale of the catastrophe following the Biden Administration's disastrous implementation of the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. ... It was utterly disingenuous for President Biden to present the Afghans as unwilling to fight for their country, after having withdrawn vital US support services without an agreed ceasefire, precipitating the collapse of the Afghan state."

Lord Blencathra: "My Lords, all my life I have been pro-American and favourably disposed to the United States, but not any more at this moment. What Biden has done in Afghanistan will go down in ignominy as one of the most shameful and despicable acts of betrayal by any American President. Tens of thousands of men will be slaughtered, thousands of young girls forced to marry these Taliban brutes and 14 million women driven back into slavery. Afghanistan was emerging into the light with freedoms for women and children, who will now be ruled with 500 year-old barbaric religious laws. That is Biden's legacy. He cannot blame it on Trump; Biden boasted that in his first 100 days he issued a record 24 executive orders, all of which were direct reversals of Trump policies. He should have listened to his generals and changed this policy also. This is not like Saigon; it is far worse. First, the retaliation against the population by Islamist fanatics is likely to be far greater than what the North Vietnamese did to the beaten south. Secondly, the appalling humanitarian crisis described in this House today will centre on Afghanistan but the terrorist consequences of this US sell-out will affect us all. The Viet Cong had no agenda outside Vietnam but Afghanistan is now under the control of Islamist fanatics who want to wage war on every western democracy. ... Biden has put America back, all right - back into the bunker. The lesson for China is this: play a long game and America will not have the stomach to stick it out. China is a threat to world peace, but how can we now trust the US to lead the long battle against it? Biden may have condemned the world to Chinese domination in future and the end of western liberal democracy."

Lord Anderson of Swansea: "What is the Government's best analysis of the reasons for the rapid defeat? What are the geopolitical consequences of that defeat? President Biden, alas, will be diminished, certainly abroad. Do the Government see any danger of the US retreating into a new isolationism, abandoning the aspirations of nation building, spreading democracy and human rights, and a corresponding loss of trust in the US?"

Lord Dodds of Duncairn: "President Biden's speech the other day, blaming everyone and everything except his Administration's precipitative pull-out, was truly awful. ... I fear that the US decision to pull out in the way that it has will have dire consequences. It sends a message to the terrorists and rogue states that the West can be defeated. It sends a message to our friends that, at the end of the day, they can be abandoned. It sends a message to those who want to live in freedom and with human rights guaranteed, especially the women and girls of Afghanistan, that we cannot be relied upon."

Lord Touhig: "By withdrawing US troops, not only has President Biden destroyed the hopes of people in a fledgling democracy but he has made the world less safe. If ever there was a country that knows how dangerous a less safe world can be, it is the United States. That is even more so now, as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Here in Britain, we too know how a less safe world takes the lives of men and women on our streets, of children and young people at a Manchester concert and of a brave police officer guarding this Parliament. Britain fell into line behind President Biden. In doing so, our Government have increased the risk of terrorism globally."

Lord McColl of Dulwich: "Although President Biden has tried to shift the blame on to President Trump, that simply does not work. President Biden had the power to stop the withdrawal of the troops but failed to do so. To be fair, this situation may not be easy for President Biden to deal with because he does not seem to me to be in good health. There are many examples of the disease of a national leader having a disastrous effect on a country, a continent or even the world."

Lord Bruce of Bennachie: "For President Biden to say that the collapse of the Government and the defence capability was the Afghans' fault is truly sickening. With limited allied troops and strategic air cover, the country was functioning, if imperfectly. The rapid withdrawal demoralised the domestic forces, who were often deployed far from home with no protection or support for their families against the Taliban, so it is hardly surprising that they chose not to fight. Now the cost of failure could outweigh by many times the cost of maintaining a minimal presence."

Lord Godson: "The role of the United States has been central to this and the Biden Administration have been rightly criticised, I think unanimously - as least, I have not heard any speaker defend their decision here today. It is a uniquely personal decision of this President ... However, the Biden Administration are not the totality of America. Through much of my political life, having been born an American citizen, I have noted many pessimistic predictions for the US after previous debacles, although perhaps none quite as serious as this, which rolls in many of the features of past debacles into one fell swoop. ... But because the Biden Administration are not the totality of the United States and its polity, America has an enormous resilience and ability to bounce back, to reappraise, regather and regroup."

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:

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.