Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

I'm not celebrating  Memorial Day with a cook-out and beer. I haven't in a long time. To me, this day is reserved for remembering those who died fighting for their country, whichever country that may have been.

I am a Cold War veteran. I was a REMF  (ask a vet what that means if you want the exact translation) and never saw combat. I maintained nuclear weapons in West Germany in the early 1980's when they were one of the main things keeping the Soviet Army from spreading Communism throughout Europe. Even though I never saw combat, a normal day at work involved large quantities of high explosives, highly radioactive materials, and chemicals that would peel the meat off of your bones. We had to trust each other not to screw up or one of us was going to get hurt or die. In the days before the invention of precision-guided munitions, tactical nuclear weapons were our answer to the roughly 3-to-1 numerical advantage that the USSR had over NATO troops and tanks. It worked: we won the Cold War, and Soviet tanks never poured through the Fulda Gap into western Europe.

My job in the US Army was mostly Monday through Friday, 0700 to 1700. I had free time to travel and since my room and board were paid for, I had money and a car as well. I wandered around a foreign country that was “First World”, so I didn't have to worry about much. The police weren't corrupt, the roads were well maintained, the people were friendly, the beer was cheap, the food was good (and safe to eat for the most part, although I won't touch Argentine beef ever again), and there was a lot to see in what I consider a small area. West Germany was about the size of Iowa and Missouri combined, so everything was closer than you'll find in the USA. Most of it is also much older than than the USA.

I was stationed in a very small NATO base in the northern part of Germany with very limited support, so I learned quite a bit of German just to get by. If I wanted fresh groceries, I had to go to town and know how to ask for them in German. This came in handy during my wandering, because it allowed me to read the plaques and memorials that seemed to be everywhere, if you took the time to look for them.

The picture to the left is of a war cemetery in Germany. I don't know which one exactly; there are over 400 of them in Germany alone. The last new WW2 cemetery for German soldiers opened in 2013 in Russia. Think about that for a minute. Over 70 years after the Normandy Invasion, and they're still burying their dead from that war.

The small picture to the right is the War memorial that was about 5 miles from where I was stationed. I was also about 10 miles from Wewelsburg, a castle used by the SS as a training center with a small labor camp at the base of the hill. Walking though cemeteries like these brought home to me the sheer scale of human loss that war brings, but having seen East Germany first-hand (we actually drove through it to get to Berlin) showed me that war is not the worst that can happen.

I am in no way condoning the actions or motives of the German government during the 1930's and 40's - they were inhuman and should serve as a reminder of how not to act - but the individual soldiers served their country and did what they were taught and told to do as best they could.

This picture is of Graves Registration during the Vietnam War. With the invention of computers and rapid transport, most of the casualties of war were shipped back home for burial by family instead of being interred in graveyards close to the scene of battle. The large battle cemeteries have become a thing of the past. 

I have family members who served in that war, and several friends who lost family over there. I also had uncles that served in and survived WW2 and Korea. I have talked with many troops that made it back from Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and a few places that are not mentioned in the nightly news. They've all lost friends and comrades. The term “brothers in arms” has a special meaning to those of us who have served in the military and experienced that unique bond of trusting another person with your very life. 

Please enjoy your family and friends this holiday weekend, but I ask that you raise a glass or two to the men who died in order to ensure that you have the freedom to do so.

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