Kaposvar, Part 2

Not only was my Army career looking up after I got to Kaposvar, but so was my fitness and social life. Yes, the Captain’s Club was fun, but there were also a number of poor influences. I was certainly drinking too much beer; the food in the mess hall was plentiful; I was hardly working out; and all that started adding to my waistline! My new influences were fellow Captains in our Kaposvar home – Laurel Devine, Mercer Hedgeman, Ken Speaks, and Ben Tuck. All were quite physically fit and I started mimicking their routines.

There was no way I could keep up with Mercer. He was a former Division 1 football player from Rutgers University. Mercer worked out two times per day, so there was no way I could keep up with him! Laurie, Ben, and Ken were more my speed. Ken lived at Taszar, so he wasn’t a regular, but Laurie, Ben, and I were a workout team. It got rather old running around our small former Soviet Army base. As we ran more, we needed more space. At one point we found a mostly abandoned “back gate” that abutted the woods. We were able to work around the NATO concertina razor wire and through a break in the fence line.

Mercer signing an autograph for a young Hungarian girl. He was the first black man she’d ever seen and thought he was someone famous. As you can tell from her face, she is overjoyed!

There were rumors about this “back gate” and a few brave souls apparently found some running trails in the woods. At first it was just Laurie and I who had the guts to try, but we quickly convinced Ben that this was “safe.” Keep in mind that we were restricted to our base, unless off on official duty. That meant written permission from a senior official. We somehow convinced ourselves that fitness was definitely official duty. In getting around the restriction policy, we reasoned that the woods were truly an extension of the base. It wasn’t as if we were walking around in town or in someone’s back yard.

So, the running really started with earnest. Sometimes it was only two, but often four or five of us. Almost always, it was me and Laurie, and we were dedicated. So dedicated, in fact, that we made a pact among ourselves that we would run the Twin Cities Marathon upon our return. At one point this was just four of us, but that later grew to others within our unit, to include some back in Wiesbaden (fat chance!). We ended up finding trails for miles and miles outside of that back gate and ran just about any chance we got. Before too long the rumored and unofficial back gate running route was actually approved. Even then, though, we rarely saw more than a couple of runners during our routines.

One terrible experience occurred while in the makeshift gym after one of our runs. The gym was basically a large fest tent with a plywood floor. It housed various workout equipment on one side and a small basketball court on the other side. Laurie, Ben and I were stretching in the workout room and Mercer was across the room on weights. I was laying on the floor stretching my legs when a Soldier staggered out from the basketball court area and fell face-first right next to me. He was out cold. Laurie and I immediately tried to waken him, but it quickly appeared that his heart stopped. We started CPR while someone summoned an ambulance. Someone found the unit surgeon, who quickly replaced us performing CPR, but the Hungarian ambulance didn’t arrive for another 45 minutes.

It was painful to watch the female military doctor frantically performing CPR without a break for nearly an hour. By the time the ambulance crew took over, it was apparent that the Soldier was dead. We later learned that he had suffered a brain aneurysm. He died within moments and no amount of CPR could have saved him. I can still see that doctor working so hard without avail to save him. His friends on the basketball court said he complained of a severe headache and left the game shortly before he collapsed. A few days later, we held a unit memorial. Like all of us on our small base, his was a familar face. There were no dry eyes at that memorial.

Another memorable occasion in Hungary was the Fourth of July in 1996. This was the first real holiday that we had. They opened up the Taszar airfield to a Hungarian “market” of sorts. Vendors from outside the base sold local goods that most of the Soldiers never had the opportunity to see. A large fest-tent messhall catered an old fashioned USA barbeque feast. There were games and other activities all day on the airfield, including a 5K run. At dusk, the First Armored Division band started playing. Pretty soon a fireworks display started. They shot off directly above us – perhaps the closest I’ve ever been to live, commercial fireworks. The highlight was when red, white and blue fireworks displayed above while the band played the National Anthem, America the Beautiful, and other patriotic songs. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite the chill – or was ever so proud to be an American Soldier – than when saluting the American Flag in a foreign land that night in Hungary.

My job continued to be interesting, but the same was not so true for Mercer and Laurie. They worked for another unit – the forward portion of my 19th CMMC unit from back in Wiesbaden. Their boss, Lieutenant Colonel Quimby, reported regularly to Colonel Hubbard back in Wiesbaden. LTC Quimby had an issue with the pair before I arrived – he feared some sort of secret romance between the two. Unfortunately, them making friends with me seemed to make it worse. It should have been better since we started to hang out as three, but it did not. Hubbard had warned Quimby that all I did was stir up trouble and Quimby didn’t want any part of it! We were scrutinized by Quimby every time he saw us. Poor Mercer, the active duty officer reporting to Quimby, got the worst of it!

Later in our tour we were authorized R&R outings. This included an opportunity to spend a weekend in Budapest – and I think some got were able to get back to Germany if they had family there. I actually got two weekends in Budapest. The first was a weekend with just Ben and I. We shared a room in a Dominican Convent right next to the famous Matthias Church on the “Buda” side of the Donau River. This is also adjacent to the Fisherman’s Bastion that houses a statue of St. Stephen and overlooks the river. St. Stephen is revered in Hungary and was its first King in the year 1000. In short, we were staying, literally, within the most famous sites of Budapest. It is in the area called the Holy Trinity Square. The convent is remarkable and Matthias Church is probably one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever stepped foot into. It is quite unique with its mosaic tile throughout.

Ben and I had a great weekend touring both sites of the Buda and Pest neighborhoods. The history was remarkable and I learned so much, including the great Hungarian uprising in 1956 that was ultimately quashed by the Soviets. We also ate great food and freely drank alcohol for the first time in months.

I was later lucky enough to visit Budapest again. This time it was mostly as a chaperone to make sure that Laurie and Mercer remained platonic friends! Still, we made the most of that short weekend. We walked miles and miles exploring the city. The hotel was NOT the same. This time it was a run of the mill hotel on the Pest side of the river. Mercer and I shared a room, though I don’t recall spending much time there. Even though I really enjoyed the company, nothing could compare with that first taste of freedom – and the spectacular location – that I shared with Ben.

Sadly, I’ve mostly lost touch with Mercer, Ben, Ken, and many others from my time in Kaposvar. I’ve remained fast friends with Laurie, but we have not gotten together in a very long time. I’m proud to say that of the six or so who agreed to run the Twin Cities Marathon, Laurie and I were the only two who competed – and completed! We even ran it again several years later with our friend Kay.

Laurie, me, and Kay. Twin Cities Marathon finishers!

Upon our return to Minnesota at the end of the mobilization, Laurie and I remained close. We both left the 19th CMMC and joined a training unit for a short time before I moved on to another new unit. We remained close until Laurie moved away. At my urging, Laurie applied for active Army duty and was selected for a coveted Active Guard-Reserve Soldier position. Though she moved away, this turned out to be a great move for her. We kept in touch regularly and our families got together several times when I was in Baltimore and she in Washington DC.

I learned much from my deployment to Germany and Hungary. This was very much an exercise in perseverence. Overall, it was a difficult time, but through it I learned to trust my instincts. Sadly, I also learned to be wary of who to trust. I learned that our Nation’s fear of the Soviets was unfounded in many ways. The Hungarians, like the Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavians, and ultimately East Germans were begging for freedom. The Soviet Union, much like historical “empires,” were overly-extended and burdened by the cost of maintining their military presence abroad. This was evident in Hungary by the very poor facilities, vehicles and tanks on blocks in the motor pools, and jets left rotting on the runways.

There are so many lessons I learned from my friends. Mercer demonstrated a daily dedication to fitness. In addition, he remained one of the most professional Soldiers I’ve ever seen, despite the continual put-downs and undeserved ass-chewings from LTC Quimby. Ben was an extremely competent Soldier and helped me learn logistics like I never had before. He was also good about keeping his head down (i.e., how to stay just outside the target zone), unlike me, who always seemed to end up in the middle of it! I definitely learned a lesson or two on that from Ben.

Laurie remains the best friend I gained from that deployment and she made a huge impact on me. Laurie is always upbeat and friendly. She is definitely not afraid of what people think of her. I initially thought that she was one of the happy, go lucky types, but I quickly recognized a dogged determination behind that always-cheerful facade. Not that her cheerfulness was fake, but in those days it often masked her competence and dedication. Laurie made her start at the Dorothy Day Center soup kitchen and ended up retiring as a senior Public Affairs Officer at the Pentagon. Though I think I’ve always had a healthy dose of humor, I believe I lost it for a time, especially as related to the Army. Laurie helped me realize again that humor and a smile are the best ways to deal with difficult circumstances. Except for a few isolated incidents, that is a lesson that has stuck with me my entire life.

Was this deployment hard? Definitely. Did it make me a better person and a better Army Officer? No doubt. In fact, it set the stage for the next stage in my Army career. Shortly after returning home, not only was I promoted to Major, but I finally transferred to the Army Judge Advocate General Corps. This changed the entire trajectory of my career and it all started in Kaposvar, Hungary.

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