I joined the Army Reserve in 1993, five years after leaving the active Army. One of the main reasons I left the Army in the first place was to make sure I was home with my family. Now, only two years into my Army Reserve career I was going back on active duty!
The Dayton Peace Accord was negotiated by the United Nations in November of 1995 and formally signed on December 14, 1995. The purpose of the accord was to ensure peace in the former Yugoslavia Republics and to establish a single sovereign state known as Bosnia and Herzegovina. U.S. Troops were sent to this new state as part of a NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) to ensure peace in the region. The code name for the mission was Operation Joint Endeavor. The IFOR mission included or involved troops from 32 countries and numbered some 54,000 soldiers in-country (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and around 80,000 involved soldiers in total (with support and reserve troops stationed in Croatia, Hungary, Germany, and Italy, and also on ships in the Adriatic Sea). My unit, the 19th Corps Material Management Center (CMMC), was activated to backfill for our active duty counterpart unit in Germany, who was moving forward with the U.S. contingent of forces.
There were some rumblings in October about a potential mobilization and we were first put on notice sometime in November that we could be tapped for this mission. From a planning perspective, it was unclear whether we would merely “backfill” the active duty unit (i.e., take their place in Wiesbaden, Germany) or to also fill their vacancies and deploy to Bosnia. We had no idea what we were in for and there was great speculation, even in the diplomatic community, whether the peace agreement would stick. There was a good likelihood that we could see actual combat. Except for a few U.S. incursions into Panama and Grenada, the United States Army had not seen war since Vietnam. It was our understanding that ours was the first mobilization of any U.S. Army Reserve forces since the Korean War!
This was an exciting, yet scary time. During our November drill, we spent most of our time going through various Soldier tasks and getting our personal and financial affairs in order. We didn’t know if all would deploy or if it would be just a slice of the unit. Either way, we all needed to prepare. By the time we left that drill we were told to be ready for additional time at the unit location in Arden Hills, Minnesota, to conduct additional readiness activities throughout the month of December.
December drill was much of the same, but with a bit more urgency. I think everyone kept a sharp eye on the Dayton Peace talks. Finally, we were provided mobilization orders. On Thursday, December 14, 1995 at about 9 A.M. I received a call from my military supervisor. He explained that we report for active duty on Saturday the 16th – less than 48 hours – and potentially leave the Twin Cities immediately thereafter. We later learned that we would deploy from Minnesota on December 18, 1995. Our final destination was unknown, but our first stop would be Fort Dix, New Jersey. The orders read that the period of mobilization was 270 days. The first reaction of most was one of incredulity. Why couldn’t we deploy after Christmas rather than just before? Instead, we would likely spend Christmas in the middle of nowhere at Fort Dix with 119 fellow unit members, our new best friends. Little did we know then that this would turn out to be one of the strangest and memorable Christmases ever!
The four days at Arden Hills were much of a blur. There was a “secret” hubbub regarding my immediate supervisor, a Major. We didn’t know the details, but he ended up being one of only two people from the unit that did not deploy with us. We later learned that the Major’s wife had just been diagnosed with cancer. The unit commander claimed that was not a sufficient reason for him not to deploy and even refused to process the documents after the Major tried to resign his commission. It was a full “stop-loss” we were told. My supervisor had gotten lawyers involved and ultimately got himself excluded. Good for him! The rest of us wouldn’t even think of questioning the command after we saw how this Major was treated.
After tearful goodbyes at Arden Hills early in the morning on December 18th, we hopped a bus for the airport enroute to Fort Dix. We were on our way! We were initially told to expect to be complete full processing at Fort Dix over the next two weeks and could expect to deploy to Germany in early January. There was apparently a lot to do at Fort Dix, including full medical and dental exams, weapon qualification, equipment draw, hands-on battle/Soldier training, and seemingly hours of classroom training. Throughout all this, even though it was the Yule season, Christmas and family seemed so very far away. Our only contact was infrequent long distance telephone calls from an outdoor payphone. There was usually a line and it was cold.
Just before Christmas Eve, there seemed to be a lull in our training. It seemed that all the trainers were off, home with their families. We had the promise of a big feast at the mess hall, but we really couldn’t go anywhere. Whoopie! Again, there were rumblings of complaints. Had the Army really gained much in that one week prior to Christmas? We were sceptical.
One of the members of our unit was a Chaplain’s Assistant. He was an odd character, but nonetheless, was able to arrange a Christmas Eve ecumenical service for us at an old Fort Dix chapel that did not have regular services. Because we did not have any transportation and the post bus was not running over Christmas, that was our only option. It was a strange service, as it consisted of only a handful of our unit. There was a minister, but no choir or any other musical accompaniment. At one point in the service the Chaplain’s Assistant got up and started singing O Holy Night – a cappella. I admit this can be a difficult song, but he was awful! The rest of us started singing along simply because he was so bad! To this day, that remains one of my favorite Christmas Carols. The experience also created an unexpected bond among those of us who attended the service that evening.
At the end of the service, we softly sang Silent Night. As we were walking back to the barracks, we noted a distinct change in the pace, as everyone seemed to be hustling around. Soon we found out that the Army, in its infinite wisdom, had moved up our deployment and we were leaving – shortly – to board aircraft for Europe. We had to bust our buts and get things packed. Nope, it wasn’t Christmas Eve in Jersey; it was Christmas Eve somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean!
Our arrival in Frankfurt, Germany, could be the enough for a separate blog, but I’ll keep it brief. There was NO ONE there to greet us on arrival. No one. Why would they? It was around noon on Christmas Day. We weren’t expected for another week or so and no one had communicated the change to those on the ground in Germany to meet us. They were home with their families and suddenly had to scramble their plans. We ended up waiting in a airport hangar for several hours – with no food. Finally, several busses appeared to bring us back to the Wiesbaden Air Base, where we would in-process before our final destinations were determined.
The senior officers were provided nearly hotel-like accommodations. The rest of us were dropped off at a barracks. The previous occupants had left the place worse than you could possibly imagine. It was an active duty unit that had mobilized at least as quickly as we had. It looked as if they had taken only their necessaries and left within an hour. They had also obviously partied very heartily the night/morning before. It stunk! We found vomit and condoms throughout. Within short order our noncommissioned officers arranged cleaning parties for various tasks. We worked like dogs and were still hungry and tired. Most of us had gone well over 24 hours without sleeping, but we finally finished.
The end of the day turned a bit brighter than the rest. Our “host” unit had arranged for the mess hall to be opened for a late snack. Similarly, they obtained minimal staffing at the Community Club (formerly Officer’s Club) for limited bar service and music. We were given a 2-beer maximum, but those were a couple of the best German beers I’ve ever had! We collectively trudged back to the barracks and hopped into bed to await our fate in the morning.