Honduras (Ahuas Tara ’88)

Just about the time I was starting to figure out how to be a good Air Defense Artillery Officer, I was involuntarily transferred into the Quartermaster Corps. The Quartermaster Corps in the Army focused on logistics (water, food, fuel, equipment issue and storage, etc.). The first step was the Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course at Fort Lee, Virginia in the spring of 1988. That was a special time and place for us since that was where our daughter, Kathryn was born.

After the Advanced Course, I was looking forward to an assignment in the United States, but don’t recall even getting a choice. We were assigned by our branch. Since I was a newer member of the Quartermaster Corps, I didn’t have much pull. I did, though, score at the top of my Advanced Course class, so I suspect someone decided to sign me up for a challenging assignment. I was assigned to the 937th Engineer Group at Fort Riley, Kansas.

I knew even less about Engineers and Engineering than I did about Quartermaster and Logistics. I arrived to the unit as the logistics “expert” they needed for an upcoming deployment to Honduras. What a fiasco that turned out to be! I was far from an expert in the Quartermaster Corps and my only experience was in the schoolhouse. They expected me to provide all the logistical support for a fairly strange and complicated mission – Ahuas Tara ‘88. This was also my first experience working with engineers in general. I can tell you from that – and other experiences – that engineers think differently. I don’t think that is a bad thing, as lawyers, too, have a different way of thinking and operating. I can say, though, that I don’t think my style worked for them. I was the constant “outsider” in the unit. My best friends were mostly the Warrant Officers, who are also sort of outsiders in most units.

It became clear to the Engineer Group Commander that I was not the right fit for this particular mission. Both my logistics experience and my operating style were a bad fit for what they needed. I operated fine with incomplete information, assumptions, hunches, and promises. They, on the other hand, demanded precision. I understand that when you are building things, but most of the Army operates quite differently. I was closer to the “normal” Army than engineers. The Commander chose to appoint another mid-grade engineer officer to serve as his primary logistical officer for the deployment, so I became the assistant. They had a hard time finding the right job for me, so I helped out as directed the best I could. The worst part of all, though, was that I would spend months away from our 2 year old son James and four month old daughter Kathryn. Poor Amy got the worst assignment, though, since Kathryn had bad colic!

Ahuas Tara was the name of the mission. The primary purpose was to build an airstrip and basic facilities in Southern Honduras, several miles from the Nicaraguan border. During this time the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua was banging its drums and attempting to export communism throughout the region. They send regular incursions across the Honduran border. Our somewhat secret mission was to build the airstrip and basecamp to allow the United States to send troops and heavy equipment into Honduras within hours, if necessary. It was in direct response to the sporadic border clashes involving Honduran and Nicaraguan troops and U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels who had camps along the border.

As part of the deal to allow U.S. troops to operate in Honduras, the U.S. government committed to spending millions of dollars across Honduras building schools, libraries, orphanages, and other things of great value to the Honduran people. We had Soldiers not only near the border of Nicaragua, but were building across the country. That made the logistics challenges even more difficult.

One of my primary jobs was coordinating the various services provided by local Honduran companies. I found it interesting work. I learned first-hand the meaning of mañana. For our airfield mission it was critical to keep a supply of crushed rock. Quite often, I found myself knocking on the door of the owner of the Honduran company we had contracted with to provide crushed rock. If it wasn’t a sudden and unexpected to shut-down for a day or two, it was a situation where they provided the wrong gauge of rock. I didn’t speak Spanish, so always had an interpreter. Even so, it was awfully hard to get our point across that we wanted things NOW and per the SPECIFIC scope. Still, it was quite interesting to be invited into their mostly humble homes and offered a snack or drink.

Ice was other extremely important commodity that I had to deal with on a regular basis. Due to the intense heat, we needed ice – and a lot of it. We needed to contract with local commercial facilities to produce ice. We had our own equipment to produce clean water, but the Army did not have the ability to create ice in the quantities needed. Whether it was the crushed rock or the ice, we had REGULAR problems keeping a consistent supply. To the Engineer Group Commander, this always seemed to be my fault. The only problem with that is I had absolutely NO ability to affect when and how the local companies worked. It was quite a lesson on the stereotypical Latin lifestyle. Yes, siestas and mañana are real in that culture. The engineers liked that even less than they cared for me!

A day in the life of us in Honduras was not especially exciting, but it was somewhat interesting. As any deployment goes, we pretty much worked all the time, seven days per week. We generally got up pretty early. If you wanted to exercise at all, it had to be before the hot sun arrived over the horizon. I distinctly recall running the nearly one-mile perimeter of our barbed-wire base camp. As soon as the first peek of sun appeared over the horizon, it was an almost instant and extremely significant increase in the level of effort it took just to continue running. That heat was intense! We then showered in our shower tents and headed to breakfast. There were no tables to sit at, but there were standing tables. Before we got our food, we had someone physically watch everyone take their malaria pill.

Or offices were housed in large canvas tents. The entire basecamp had electricity from our own generators. We had limited furniture, but most offices, including mine, had desks fashioned from large cardboard boxes and the cheap folding chairs we brought with us. We had large (and noisy) fans running day and night. This was a required nuisance due to the heat. It also required that we utilize rocks to keep our various paperwork from flying away. After a long day at work, we took a break for dinner, but most of the time went right back to the office. There was little else to do, especially since we couldn’t leave our base camp after dark or without a required mission. We did have plenty of water and had sodas for sale. The engineers set up a television that provided some limited entertainment, but was pretty useless for most. I read an entire footlocker full of books.

Besides the shower tents, our only bathrooms were wooden outhouses. The “drop zone” for the outhouses consisted of 55 gallon drums cut in half. We contracted with Honduran locals to empty and burn the refuse every day. Going to the bathroom was slightly easier for men, as the engineers buried a number of large PVC pipes diagonally for “piss tubes.” This area was surrounded by about a four-foot solid plastic fence for a semblance of privacy. We had a few women, but not many. They were stuck with the outhouses and limited hours for the shower tents.

Everyone slept on cots in large tents. Since we were deployed with engineers, within a few weeks, almost all the tents were upgraded with wooden floors. What a treat! We had electric lights and several large fans that kept us relatively cool all night long. We slept about 20 per tent. I was assigned to a tent with the “ash and trash” of the unit that included an assemblage of Warrant Officers, a priest, occasional helicopter pilots, and the assigned lawyer. The lawyers rotated every few weeks since no one could expect them to survive in such awful conditions! One advantage of having the lawyers was that we always got updates on things going on in the unit. We never got personal details, but just ideas of the things going on.

One of the lawyers was a quite a jerk. He was formerly a Special Forces Soldier, who later became a Judge Advocate, so he was pretty full of himself. He did, though, cost the U.S. Government a boatload of money. We had an incident where a Soldier lost his rifle. This was a BIG deal and our basecamp was locked down for a couple of weeks. There were constant searches for the weapon. Someone was convinced that the Soldier had actually sold his weapon or was otherwise in cahoots with the Sandinistas from nearby Nicaragua. The poor guy claimed innocence, but had stupidly misplaced his weapon. Nonetheless, the lawyer personally participated in aggressive cross-examination of this guy in hopes that he would fess up. He eventually turned our Soldier over to the Honduran military so they could question and even torture him further. The lawyer would cheerfully report nightly about the sleep depravation, water torture, and other hazing conducted by the Hondurans. Years later I learned that the Soldier received a nice payout from Uncle Sam due to his treatment in Honduras. I don’t know whatever happened to that lawyer, but he should have been Court Martialed.

It was during this deployment that I decided to leave the Army. This had been on my mind for quite some time, particularly with two young children. I wanted them to grow up in a stable environment around family and to get to know their grandparents. My dad had offered my sister Pam a job if she went to law school. At the time, she was living in Mexico City. Much to Dad’s surprise I was the one who took him up on it. I had applied for Law School prior to that deployment and received an acceptance from William Mitchell School of Law while in Honduras. I wasn’t quite sure yet that I wanted to leave the Army, but based upon my experience in Honduras of 1) extended deployment away from family, 2) a bad taste in my mouth from working with the Army engineers, 3) and the uncertainty I felt about my future in the Quartermaster Corps, I made the decision to leave the Army.

It is funny that I find myself in the reverse of this situation now. Though in a career that I loved, as a civilian with the Army, I left that life so we could be closer to our own grandchildren! Again, I want my grandchildren to grow up around us and really get to know their grandparents! Funny how life really does come in a full circle!

The Courthouse

This is probably something that most lawyers can relate to. To me, The Courthouse is not just any old court. More specifically, for me it is the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Ramsey County Courthouse is an 18-story Art Deco building that opened in 1932. The entrance is highlighted by a three-story white onyx Indian God of Peace (now called Vision of Peace). This statute stands 38 feet high and weighs 60 tons. It is set within a dark hallway that has various memorials to Minnesota Soldiers who died in combat in the 20th century. The Vision sits on a revolving base that turns the statue approximately 132 degrees every 2.5 hours. I first saw this magnificent statue as a grade schooler. I remember a field trip to the Courthouse to see this and other sites (likely arranged by my father), but cannot place how old we might have been. I still remember, though, that it had a profound effect on me.

Indian God of Peace (Vision of Peace) towering over the lobby of the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Not only was I a casual visitor to the courthouse as a child, but my sister Pam and I attended various court sessions with my father while in grade school. That was before there was any such thing as a formal “take your kids to work” day. I think that my dad just thought it a good idea to provide a first-hand lesson in civics and the court system to us kids.

I was later a participant in a trial at the courthouse. In the fourth grade I was injured during a school gym class and someone had convinced my father to sue the school for the cost of the extensive dental work caused by the injury. In today’s climate, we probably would have settled for a tidy sum since the “game” we had played was rather rough and dangerous, but in the 1970s, we weren’t quite there yet. Although we lost, I got to experience my first trial. In fact, I was the star of the trial. I was the primary witness in court, as was my friend Toran. I remember being extremely nervous, but the lawyers made it pretty easy. Even the defense lawyer was direct, but kind.

It was many years later that I set foot in the Ramsey County Courthouse again. I think I stopped there to get my marriage license, but it wasn’t until I returned from my stint with the Army and started Law School that I actually spent some time there. As I was leaving the Army, my dad sent a letter to several Judges asking if they needed a law clerk. One of them passed the letter on to Mark Haakenson, the jury manager for the Ramsey County. Mark also ran a program that provided extra or substitute law clerks, called “Bailiff Law Clerks.” The pay was basically minimum wage, but it provided aspiring law students (and select others) insight into the operation of the court system. Mark told my dad to have me stop by when I returned from active duty. I did and was hired on the spot.

My fellow Bailiff Law Clerks were a veritable cast of characters. There were a couple of “elder statesmen” who had already graduated from law school, but could not find a legal job. That was a bit discouraging from the perspective of an aspiring law student, but there were some obvious reasons why they were not hired elsewhere. Although there were both law students and non-students in among us, we were all treated the same. Mark Haakenson and his staff were good to us, but again, the pay and some of the menial tasks, were nothing special. The best part about the job was that it provided some “free” time to study. If we wouldn’t have had homework, we would have been bored silly some days.

Since we spent a lot of free time together, we all got to know each other pretty well. I became very good friends with Tom Kempe and George Perez. We were probably the troublemakers of the group, as we often bounced baseballs, basketballs, and footballs across the cavernous jury room after the prospective jurors had been sent home for the day. I admit that perhaps a few courtrooms still have ball marks on the walls due to our athletic prowess (or lack thereof).

Tom, George and I definitely had fun at work, but we also extended that to our off duty time. We attended ball games together, played basketball together, organized and played on various softball teamsm and were generally great buddies both on and off duty. After our courthouse days, we saw each other occasionally, but we mostly lost touch after I left Minnesota. I still have fond memories of them. For over five years, they were a very big part of my life.

We had other great co-workers. Sharon & Mary Jo, clerks in the Court’s Civil Division, were two of our favorites. They knew the inside of the court system and helped in many ways. Plus, they were just nice, fun people. Court supervisors Mark Haakenson and Mike O’Rourke both made great impact on me, but in very different ways. Mark for his treatment of people and the way he dealt with the egos of jurors, law students, lawyers, and Judges. Mike was a Sergeant Major in the Army Reserve. It was Mike who convinced me to get back into the Army, only this time as a Reservist. Without Mike’s constant prodding and encouragement, I don’t know if I would ever have taken that leap. Needless to say, the Army Reserve became a central part of my life after that time, so I owe a lot to Mike.

I was at the courthouse for over three years. In addition to the friends and colleagues mentioned above, I worked directly for Judges Larry Cohen, Ken Fitzpatrick, and Al Markert. Each provide me inspiration in my life and as a lawyer. They were as different in personality and character than you could imagine. Judge Cohen was a former mayor of St. Paul. He was a liberal Democrat and we got along as well as I have with any boss I’ve ever had. It was different since there is a fairly wide chasm between a law student and a Judge, but he was firm, kind, and always encouraging. He also had an eye for the ladies. I think I was the first male clerk he ever had. He ran a very busy courtroom, but I had fun going to work every day.

Judge Fitzpatrick was the total opposite of Judge Cohen. Where Judge Cohen was outgoing and charismatic, Judge Fitz was reclusive. He would walk through the outer chambers every morning without even saying hello to me or his court reporter. Rather strange. After a trial, Judge Fitz would put a sticky note on the file telling me how to rule on the case. It was up to me to write the Court Order. Several times, the precedent didn’t agree with Fitz’s sticky note. That didn’t matter to him. He told me to make it fit somehow. I didn’t particularly enjoy working for Fitz, but I did learn from him. He demanded a lot from his clerk. Not only did I write his opinions, but I managed his calendar, screened his calls, and kept pesky attorneys and court management personnel away. The only people who received open access were two nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor who dutifully visited every month. They always left with a check! While not overly social, Fitz was definitely a generous man.

Finally, Judge Markert was perhaps my favorite. Like Fitz, he often had me draft his opinions. He was, though, much more willing to discuss the case and precedent. Judge Markert was what some people might call a gentle giant. He had been a lineman on the Minnesota Gopher football team and was drafted by the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, he was also drafted by Uncle Sam, so never played professional football. Judge Markert freely admitted that he wasn’t what he’d call the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he made up for it with a excess of common sense and uncommon kindness. He was a Republican, but truly a nonpartisan jurist. More than anything, Judge Markert taught me how to treat people. Treat them well and they will reciprocate. He also knew how to keep me laughing. He had a deep baritone laugh and laughed often. He even made me laugh without saying anything. Often, he would show up after lunch with a box of ice cream sandwiches – and would proceed to eat the entire box! More important than the laughter, though, Judge Markert would back me up any time – and proved it during a debacle when I was taking the bar exam (perhaps a story for another blog!).

After graduation from law school, I became a regular visitor to the Ramsey County Courthouse. I represented many clients and filed numerous documents on site, so for many years it remained a big part of my work life. The climax, though, was a Rotary meeting shortly before I left my law practice in Minnesota and rejoined the Army. This was a gathering that followed my year as President of the Saint Paul Rotary club. It is a club tradition to “roast” their outgoing President. For me, it only made sense to hold it – after hours – at the courthouse. This was a wonderful gala that started in a large meeting room. What followed, though, was hilarious! I was put “on trial” for something that I can’t even remember.

Uh oh. Doesn’t look good for the defendant!
If only I could have kept my defense attorneys sober.
This judge looks mean!

My fellow Rotarians served as judge and jury. Tom Farnham presided from the bench. I was assigned a couple of drunk defense attorney, Doug Bruce and Bob Jones. Rotarians served as the prosecutor, court staff, bailiffs, and jurors. Other Rotarians were in the gallery with various protest signs. As you might expect, I was pronounced guilty. I was led away in prison garb, only to be released to family and a heartfelt thank you from the club. It was quite a fitting way to end my long association with the Ramsey County Courthouse.

Working in Germany (volume II)

One thing special about military units is tradition. I believe, however, that my unit in Germany, 2/59th Air Defense Artillery, had traditions above and beyond what is typical. In my many years in the Army following that first assignment, I never experienced another unit that had quite the same. There were some similar traditions, but never the extent and number of unique unit customs.

The first tradition I will discuss is saluting. Even non-military readers will understand that saluting is a tradition unlike any in civilian life. Many units take that to another level and 2/59 ADA was one of those. The junior Soldier initiates the salute to a senior officer. In the 2/59 ADA, the junior Soldier would initiate the salute and state loudly, “Hot Shot!” The senior officer returned the salute and replied, “On Target.” It was a great tradition within the unit and very often officers would scold a young soldier who failed to abide by the traditional greeting.

Hot Shot motto stenciled onto the stairs in the O’Brien Barracks buildings.

Besides saluting, one of the first things we learned about in the unit was the “Hot Shot Board.” The legend was that the unit was such an elite unit that it could reject any new second lieutenants who were not up to snuff. I don’t recall the “punishment,” but I do remember the story was that anyone who failed the Hot Shot Board was either sent to a less desirable unit in Germany, or even sent back to the States! The Board typically took place within several weeks of a new lieutenant’s arrival. This was to allow the newbie to get some sense of the unit and its great lineage. The Board was convened by the Battalion Commander (a Lieutenant Colonel) and conducted by senior First Lieutenants in the unit.

As the more skeptical of you may have guessed, this entire debacle was little more than a initiation stunt where the new lieutenant was debased and made fun of, all for the pleasure of their new peers. The Commander’s involvement led to a degree of credulity that was hard for a newbie to rebut. Therefore, most new lieutenants looked toward the Hot Shot Board with a great deal of angst and trepidation. The real key to “success” was to get the new lieutenant so worked up that he could hardly sleep or eat or do just about anything. Ultimately, it was a right of passage, much like a fraternity initiation. It is definitely not allowed in today’s Army, but it was riding high in 1985!

For my Board, I was teamed up with another second lieutenant who arrived around the same time as me. I knew him from my Basic Officer Course, so it did help to ease the pre-Board jitters. The Board started with some seriousness, but quickly turned into a exercise of the two of us marching around the room with our hats over our faces (to mimic the use of a gas mask), while “tooting” our horns and calling out instructions to each other. It must have been awfully amusing to everyone in the room besides the two of us. Not only was I relieved to be ultimately let in in the gag, but I admit that I became a chief tormentor for many poor lieutenants who followed me.

Similar to the Hot Shot Board was the tradition at the end of one’s tour of duty with the unit. Upon someone’s departure, we held a formal “hail and farewell” ceremony. As part of the ceremony, the departing officer was inducted into the “Ancient and Honorable Order of the Oozlefinch.” The Oozlefinch is the unofficial mascot of the Air Defense Artillery. It is a fictional, featherless bird that flies backwards and carries the weapons of the Air Defense Artillery. As part of the induction ceremony, an officer stood while a fellow officer read a scroll that depicted the accomplishments and achievements that merited membership in this great Order. It most often included some of the most notorious and/or embarrassing events that occurred during the person’s tour. While it could be quite personal – and often extremely exaggerated (or even blatantly false) – these stories were regaled in a funny and endearing manner. They were truly a highlight of unit activities.

The Oozlefinch as adopted by the Air Defense Artillery Branch in the 1980s

A corollary to the Oozelfinch was the monthly award of the “Black Helmet” to someone during the monthly hail and farewell. This was a special award granted to the biggest screw-up during the month. Sometimes it was a huge screw-up and sometimes it was a minor infraction. It was always, though, a hilarious affair. Like the Oozelfinch stories, these were very often extremely embarrassing events. Some were based upon mere stupidity and some were cases of flat-out insubordination. The real point (in my opinion) was to provide a learning opportunity, particularly for young officers, to learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of their peers. Though embarrassing, the presentations were conducted with sufficient humor in order to allow the recipient an opportunity to save face. The most hilarious Black Helmet lore during my time in 2/59 ADA was that one lieutenant seemed to win the award time after time. Pretty soon, it was almost a given that 1LT Dave Shublak would do something to keep the rest of us from getting recognized for whatever dumb deed we did that particular month. Or, as we used to say, Dave had an uncanny ability to steal defeat from the jaws of victory!

Most of our hail and farewell events took place after work at the Officer’s Club. More accurately, by the time we arrive in Germany, Officer’s Clubs had become passé; therefore, the club on O’Brien Barracks was a Community Club. Our Battalion Commander, Jack Costello, was not a big fan of this. He (rightfully) felt that Officers needed a place to blow off some steam that is not in front of the Noncommissioned Officers and Soldiers. This was especially true when we made fun of ourselves during awards like the Oozelfinch and the Black Helmet. LTC Costello ultimately worked out a deal with the Club manager that gave officers exclusive access to a private room in the Club.

Ken Busse and I were assigned the task to make our new club room unique and special. We got almost Carte Blanche authority to do whatever we needed in order to make an Officer’s Club within the club. We started by changing the lock on the door and assigning a key to each of the unit’s officers. Then it seemed to us that the room was lacking adequate space. After pondering the situation over a few beers, Ken and I had the bright idea that if we took out half the bar, we would have more space for the patrons. Besides, the bar was adjacent to the main bar in the outer room, so we figured the bartenders could use that space whenever necessary.

The bar ran across one entire end of the room, so there was some merit to our plan. The problem was that we had an extremely limited budget and using government resources was not an option. I swear it wasn’t the beer talking, but it wasn’t long before Ken and I were physically sawing the bar in half with a hand saw. Unfortunately, we did not have a very good plan on how we would properly finish the raw cut end. I guess we envisioned turning the removed end into a corner joint back toward the wall. Sure, an “L-shaped” bar! Once we had completed a relatively straight cut through the massive bar top, we recognized that we had opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box. How do we support the new corner point in the bar? How about the electricity and plumbing running through the middle of the bar? How would we finish the top of the bar to make it appear less of a hack job and somewhat “professional?” All these questions and more caused us to “close” the Officer’s area of the club for several weeks.

Somehow, we were able to rebuild the bar into something useable. It actually didn’t look half bad. We got some help from some guys who had some more general contractor knowledge than we did and surprisingly made it work. It turned out to be a lot more work that we had initially set out to do, but everyone – even the Battalion Commander – was appreciative of our efforts. Unfortunately, though, the concept of an officer’s only section didn’t last long. Before too long we realized that the Officers on the barracks preferred to take their business to the local German establishments rather than going to the Club. In retrospect, I suspect that is part of the reason why the Officer’s Clubs were phased out in the first place. Oh well, live and learn!

There were several other traditions in 2/59ADA that I’d better mention. These are typical for every unit in Germany, so not necessarily unique, but still a whole lot of fun. The first was the annual Oktoberfest trip in Munich. It often got ugly and always included an eventful ride home (usually on the train). It is fortunate that we didn’t lose anyone along the way, though I seem to remember that Shublak might have turned up missing for a day or two!

Me with LTs Tomlinson, Sammy, and others at Oktoberfest 1987
Amy celebrating Oktoberfest with Joel Oguete and the gang.

The other interesting and fun traditions were the formally organized Officer Professional Development (OPD) trips and the less formal unit ski trips to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The former were called “battle rides” or “staff rides” with purpose to visit and learn from previous Army campaigns or individual battles. In Germany we had a plethora of sites to choose. In my time with 2/59ADA, we visited and studied such sites as the Malmedy Massacre, the Battle of the Bulge, the Siege of Bastogne, the Maginot Line, the Nurnberg Rally Ground, and Dachau Concentration Camp. All provided interesting insight into our profession of arms and the horrors of war.

Ski trips were fun, but again, not necessarily unique events. The best part of them in those days was to experience the magic of the area around the German/Austrian Alps. Garmisch-Partenkirchen remains one of my favorite cities in the world, even today. In the mid-1980s, it was unique as the town had several hotels named after American Generals from World War II. They included The Patton Hotel, The Abrams Hotel, and even the quaint Von Steuben Hotel that recognized German General Baron von Steuben, who assisted General George Washington in the U.S. Revolutionary War. Also in Garmisch was a commercial movie theatre that showed first-run movies in English on weekend nights. That was a rare treat since there was nowhere else in Europe at the time to see first-run American movies (at least in English). It was at that theater that I had my first taste of the “original” Budweiser beer that was imported covertly from Czechoslovakia.

Finally, I can’t say enough about the experience of skiing the Zugspitze. The “Zug” is part of the Alps and is the highest peak in Germany. Prior to skiing there, my only experience was the various local ski locales in Minnesota where you skied about 5 minutes down the hill and waited for another 30 minutes to get back up the lift. On the Zugspitze, you could ski for well over an hour without going back uphill! I remember having to stop to take breaks before continuing down the mountain. Yes, you had a long trip back, but by that time you really needed a break.

Throughout all of the above, I learned to love Germany and gained great appreciation for everything that the Army offered to me. It would be many years before I really learned to love the Army, but it certainly got its start with the camaraderie and great adventures from my time with 2/59 ADA in Schwabach, Germany. I remember all of my friends and colleagues with great fondness. That three-year tour clearly left indelible impression on me and my life.

Living Abroad

Arrival in Germany

All told, I’ve lived abroad – in Germany – for over five years of my life. Even though I haven’t been there since 2012, I can point to Germany as a place with so many highlights in my life. It has a magical draw to me and though I’m sure it is much changed, I can’t wait for my next adventure there!

I was elated when our number came up for assignment in Germany. We were headed from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to O’Brien Barracks in Schwabach, West Germany. It was West Germany at the time since this was in March of 1985. Until then, I had never been to Europe. Amy had traveled there on a school trip, but it was all new to me.

O’Brien Barracks slightly before our time, but it looked quite similar, except for a couple of brand new buildings just inside the gate that were in progress upon our arrival.

We started our trip with a layover in Washington, DC, so we could pay respects to my Uncle E.C. Grayson. At the time he was serving as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy. We spent the night in his beautiful home in Arlington before boarding our flight to Germany. We had a late afternoon flight, as is typical, to allow for a morning arrival in Germany.

We knew had a ride at the Frankfurt airport, but did not have much detail about our pickup. At that time, most correspondence between the US and Europe was by letter. Letters generally took a couple of weeks. My sponsor had written that he would pick us up at the airport. I had no idea how I would find him, but I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to identify a U.S. Soldier in uniform. Little did I know how wrong I was!

Sitting next to me on the flight was a full-bird Colonel. That is one step below General Officer rank, so I was a bit nervous talking to him. He asked about where we were going and whether our unit was picking us up. To the latter, I answered rather tepidly, “Yes, I think so.” He told me not to worry and that he would ensure I had a ride if my unit did not follow through. I did not know at the time that not only was he a Colonel, but he was the Chief of Staff of the First Armored Division (my unit’s higher headquarters).

Upon deplaning and collecting our bags, the Colonel spied us and guided us through customs. Outside of the baggage/customs area was a large throng of people, many of whom were wearing the U.S. camouflage uniform. The Colonel asked if we saw anyone with a sign identifying them as our sponsor. I had not and I must have had a dazed and perplexed look on my face. He quickly stated, “You are coming with me.”

This led to a string of events that were NOT good for me, my sponsor, or my new unit! After a drive and stop for my first German coffee, we arrived at the Division Headquarters in Ansbach, Germany. That was only about a 45 minute drive from Schwabach. The first thing the Chief of Staff did upon our arrival there was to call our new Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Costello, and chew him out for leaving a new Second Lieutenant stranded at the airport. He directed that they send a car for me ASAP.

Before too long, a car did arrive and transported us directly to the unit on O’Brien Barracks to sign in and then directly to our temporary lodging at Porlein’s Hotel in downtown Schwabach. I was told to get some sleep and to report back to the Battalion Headquarters the next morning. Whoever took us to the hotel was kind enough to discuss the arrangements with Herr and Frau Porlein, who spoke VERY little English.

Gasthof Hans Porlein – our first “home” in Schwabach.

That afternoon, we finally met my sponsor. Fellow Second Lieutenant Ken Busse arrived at the hotel after getting his butt chewed for failing to meet us at the airport. The only problem was that he had been there all along! The Colonel had rushed us through the exit area so quickly that we had missed each other. Ken chastised me (rightly so) for not sticking around since he clearly told me he would meet us at the airport. Fortunately, Ken was quite forgiving and he and his wife Lynn became our best friends during our tour.

Living in Germany

We definitely had culture shock when we arrived in Germany. Not only had I made the ultimate faux pas at our arrival, but I seemed to have a hard time getting in step with the pace and requirements of my job. I was quite happy that my first Battery Commander, Captain John Warnke, was more interested in training subordinates than beating them for their failures. Work was hard, but we also played hard. John and his wife Lynne brought us into their circle, so we quickly became part of the community.

Germany of 1985 was a much different place than it is today. It was at the height of the Cold War. The distance to Europe was also quite different in the age before Internet. One of our first lessons of the learned was how great the distance really was. Shortly after we arrived in Germany, Amy’s grandfather died. We weren’t even aware of it until about six weeks later when she received a letter from her mother. What a shock! At the time, we had been living in Porlein’s hotel. They had tried to call, but could not get past the language barrier. By the time we had a home and sent our new addresses, nearly two months had passed.

As indicated above, this was prior to Internet, so there was no email or social media. Even once we got a home phone, it was extremely expensive. We only called on very special occasions and on those occasions, we really needed to script our calls in order to keep the call short. That led to written letters as the preferred method of communication. As letters generally took a couple of weeks, almost nothing was true recent “news.” I can’t even imagine what life was when the only communication to and from Europe was via ship.

Partly because of the communication issues, we really had to make friends with our colleagues in Germany. There is a unique camaraderie that I’ve experience only as a Soldier living abroad in Germany. Nothing else really compares to the relationships and experiences. Not only were we separated from our families, but most of us did not have more than a very simplistic understanding of the language and culture. We learned to get by, but were always the most comfortable with our American colleagues. We were all in the same boat and we all needed each other.

The Army did a good job fostering the sense of community in Germany. That was a significant part of the mission. At the time we arrived in Germany, the Nuremberg military community exceeded 100,000 American Soldiers and their immediate families. Our “inprocessing” tasks included “Headstart” basic German language classes for Soldiers and their spouses, German driver’s training and testing, and orientation of the military community. The community itself was a self-contained little village. We had our own grocery store (commissary), shopping mall (Post Exchange, or “PX”), churches, Post Office, bank, barber and beauty shops, schools, child care, hospital and clinics, gymnasiums, liquor stores veterinary clinics, and just about every other community service needed for Servicemembers and their families. The Army even provided significant Morale, Welfare, and Recreation for those in Germany. This included recreational facilities and classes, tour and travel opportunities, and counseling services. It even included radio and television (one station each) in English.

In short, the Army provided everything that anyone could need to survive in a foreign country. There was very little need to interact in the German community, especially for single soldiers. Unfortunately, there were some who vary rarely stepped foot off of the Army base for their entire tour. We tried the best we could to get them at least some taste of German culture, but outside of the German beer (and women), some soldiers had no desire to explore.

One problem for us was that our Town of Schwabach did not have a large American base. Rather, we were an outpost of the greater Nurnberg community. As a result, family lodging was extremely limited and nothing was available upon our arrival. We stayed at the Porlein Hotel for over a month before we could find housing on the German economy. We quickly realized, though, how lucky we were. We ended up in an apartment on the second floor of a German family’s home. We had a shared entrance, but walked upstairs to our apartment.

Our landlords, Herr and Frau Schuler, were very nice to us. They had a small son, Alexander. Herr Schuler spoke a little English, but Frau Schuler spoke none. This created many interesting interactions since he was often away with work. He did, though, alert us to the various rules of the house. Not only were most stores closed on Sundays, but it was supposed to be a day of rest for everyone. He could not do yard work on Sunday and ensured we were aware that we could not wash our car or hang out our laundry on Sundays. He was a stickler for many other rules, such as where and how we parked, the correct way to open the gate, etc.

The house was on Bad Strasse, not far from downtown Schwabach. It was a wonderful location and had an orchard in the back yard and a small creek running through the front yard. Our apartment had a covered deck across the front of the house. It was quite a peaceful setting. Before long, though, we adopted our puppy, Schatzi, and really wanted our own fenced yard where we didn’t have to take her on a leash down the stairs and across the yard. In addition, it was clear that Frau Schuler did not like the dog, so we found a townhouse that suited us better.

We loved the experience of living among our German hosts. After leaving the Schuler’s apartment, we ended up in small townhouse village in which we were the only Americans. Schatzi loved the yard, but she was also a bit too fond of our wooden floating stairs. She took quite a chunk out of one of the stairs. Living amidst the Germans led to many interesting and awkward experiences. In addition to the stairs, we had an incident where we lost power during a big soccer game. Our home was in the middle of the row, so the community television antenna was on our house. When our power went out (from using too many transformers), the neighbors came banging on our door. The good thing was we got much quicker than usual response from the power company! Other issues included Amy having a slight problem with a garage door that caused a commotion in the neighborhood and Schatzi, though she loved the freedom of her own yard, would not quit barking any time someone walked by. Despite these and various other issues, we felt welcomed and really loved that home.

Our townhome at 14 Am Dachsbau, Schwabach. Note the television antenna atop our middle unit!

The group of officers that we associated with frequently planned weekend trips to other cities within Germany. Ken Busse was most often our translator. His wife Lynn and John Warnke’s wife Lynne were the travel planners. Most trips were only a short drive away. We definitely got to see much of the entire state of Bavaria. In addition to our travels, we became “Volksmarch” aficionados. A Volksmarch is generally a 10 or 20 kilometer hike through the German countryside. Each town sponsoring a Volksmarch typically offers some sort of prize for participants, usually a beer mug or medal. That became a regular activity most Saturdays or Sundays in the Summer.

Another frequent activity was eating out and drinking beer. It didn’t take me long to learn to really enjoy the German cuisine. I loved the fact that the Germans had a beer for every season. We bought beer by the rack. Those consisted of twenty half-liter bottles in a plastic rack. We went through racks and racks of beer! Every city had its own brewery. The larger towns had multiple breweries, so we were never at a loss for places to try new beers.

Schwabach was about a 30 minute train ride to the center of Old Nurnberg. We made that trek often, but I particularly loved during Christmas season. Nurnberg is the site of the world famous Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market). It was awesome just strolling through the main square of the city. In addition to perusing the wares of peddlers, there were aromas of Gluhwein (spiced hot wine), lebkuchen (gingerbread), and of course, bratwurst. This was not your typical bratwurst like Americans are familiar with, but it was special Nurberger Rostbratwurst. You typically got a small sandwich roll (brotchen), with two or three Nurnberger bratwurst, and wonderful sharp German senf (mustard). They are heavenly and I think that the Christkindlesmarkt visits were the only time I chose wine over beer.

German fests are legendary. Almost everyone is aware of the Munich Oktoberfest. Yes, we got there every year, but nearly every town had its own fest. It wasn’t just the Fall beer fest either. There was a wine fest, a spring fest, and summer fest, a harvest fest, and just about any other reason to celebrate. We hit them all! They all served beer and wine, all had music, all had bratwurst and currywurst and pom frittes (French fries) and pretzels and many other staples. It was good, clean fun! If you didn’t visit the fests in Germany, you were missing an important part of the culture. Still my favorite was the Christkindlesmarkt, not only in Nurnberg, but throughout Germany and Austria. We tried a lot, but still enjoyed our home town version the best.

Not long after my arrival, most of the 2/59 Air Defense Artillery Battalion airlifted to the Crete Missile Base for our annual readiness drill and inspection. There, they chose the best – and worst – missile squads and platoons in Europe. My platoon came in dead last. I had a lot to learn as a leader. Still, I was awed at the opportunity to live in Europe and to visit Crete as a part of my job! In my next blog post I’ll focus more on my job, as well as on some of the interesting situations we found ourselves in.

Working in Germany

As should have been clear from my last blog post, I LOVED living and working in Germany. At that point of my career, though, I was far from the best Army Officer. We had an incredible group of Officer and Enlisted leaders in the 2/59 Air Defense Artillery Battalion. In my Battery alone, I can point to spectacular officers, such as John Warnke, Earnie Harris, Jeff Bergenthal, Mike Sullivan, and Ken Busse. A few others were closer to the bottom of the barrel, which made me look pretty good in comparison! There were so many other great officers in the Batallion (including: Charlie Gulac, Tim Eno, Lonnie Buff, Ben Cubitt, Lee VanBrederode, Mike Steves, Mark Borreson, Joel Oguete, Mark Carlson, Randy Wuerz, Arturo Thiele-Sardina, Ray Iram, Greg Marinich, Art Earl, Carlos Solari, Tim Tritch, and MANY others) in our small unit that I could point to, so it seems to me so many years later that I was clearly a “middle of the road” Lieutenant.

The people I really looked up to were our Battalion Commander, Jack Costello (who went on to retire as a 3-star General), his wife Mickey, my Battery Commander, John Warnke, my sponsor, Ken Busse, and my Platoon Sergeant Ted Fisher. In so many ways I was dragged along by the above just enough to become a serviceable Platoon Leader, as the Army life did not come naturally to me. I think I described this in more detail in an earlier blog post. Anyway, I followed the example of these and other fine Soldiers to get my footing.

My first introduction to the “real” Army was shortly after we moved into our apartment on Bad Strasse. We didn’t have our phone installed yet (about a six week wait in those days). We were woken suddenly VERY early one morning by an annoying buzzer that kept ringing in the hallway of our apartment. It was Ken Busse pushing the buzzer at the gate. I picked up the intercom and Ken explained that the unit had an alert – and that our platoons needed to be loaded up and ready in less than an hour. I had no car, so Ken had to wait for me to get dressed as quickly as I could.

“Lariat Advance” was the code word for a full alert for the troops stationed in West Germany during the Cold War. We simply called it an alert. Alerts occurred about once per month and were generally hated events, mostly because they typically occurred around 3AM. We never knew when they were going to happen, but there were always rumors of an upcoming alert. That was nearly as bad as the alert since you could hardly sleep the night of a rumored alert.

I don’t remember the precise timeline, but the standard procedure for an alert was to get full accountability of all our unit personnel within one hour of the initial kick-off. We then had another hour to get our equipment loaded onto our vehicles and lined up to depart the back gate of our small Kaserne. Some of the tasks during that second hour were: issuing weapons and gas masks to every Soldier, obtaining communication encryption codes, and Operations Order briefings that went first to the Battery Commanders from the Battalion Commander, then from the Battery Commanders to Platoon Leaders, and finally from the Platoon Leaders to the Squad Leaders (or simply to the entire Platoon). The typical instructions were to proceed via “road march” (i.e., riding in our tactical vehicles/weapon system to our nearby Basic Load Storage Area. We would stage our vehicles in the woods and in sequence load our full compliment of weapon systems. For us, that meant guided missile systems for the Chaparral and Stinger teams and 20mm basic load for the Vulcan anti-aircraft guns.

By mid-morning we normally got an “ENDEX,” which meant that the alert was over. Sometimes, though, the alert lasted a day or longer. In at least one case I remember that it kicked off a week-long exercise that we didn’t know was coming. This obviously also put stress on our families, who had no idea when we would be home.

We went to the field for extended times fairly regularly. Honestly, I didn’t love it, but those were the times when you really got to exercise your leadership skills. You got to put into action the various battle drills that your team ran through on an almost daily basis. It was in the field where you could really excel. I remember some great times while in the field, but there were many downsides, such as: sleeping in a cold cot, not getting much sleep (see a pattern about what I DON’T like?!), no showers, no bathrooms, and always being on the move. There was absolutely no downtime, or at least very little. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like my job as a Platoon Leader. I did. I just didn’t like things like alerts, Staff Duty, and extended field duty. I enjoyed the daily work with our platoons on maintenance and training. I truly loved working with Soldiers and Non-Commissioned Officers. There was a whole lot about the job that I loved, but like any job, certainly not all.

Another hated task was serving as Staff Duty Officer (SDO) about once per month. We needed to have multiple people on duty 24/7. Each Battery had a enlisted CQ (Charge of Quarters) and an assistant stationed near the unit headquarters. They kept watch over their respective areas overnight. The SDO was tasked to check up on the Battery locations throughout the night. This included a regular patrol route through each of the Battery areas, their motor pools, the arms room, our Basic Load Storage Area (BLSA), and other areas of high security. We had a Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) who was assigned the duty for several months at a time, so they really ran things, but the Staff Duty Officer was the Commander’s representative and took the brunt of anything that went wrong. The NCO worked nights regularly as their only job, but the SDO signed in after the normal workday was complete and was on duty throughout the night. On a good day, we might catch a few winks on a couch at some point during the night, but it was always an interrupted sleep. The only good thing was getting the day off (normally) once you were relieved of duty that morning.

As indicated above, field duty was a part of life in the 1st Armored Division. As my Air Defense Artillery Battalion supported the Division, when they went to the field, so did we. It was in the field that I learned NOT to like camping. We rarely slept well. Our radios squawked all night long, so even with a night-shift radioman, we were often up trying to figure out the various messages. It was when we were in the field that two very important moments in my life occurred. The first was in May of 1986. I got a radio message from our headquarters very early that morning. The message was, “the stork is coming.” That wasn’t some sort of coded message, but it was confirmation that my son was soon to be born. I had to quickly disengage and get myself back home if I wanted to be there to witness the birth. Fortunately, we were not far away and I made it back in plenty of time.

The second important event was during an extended field exercise at the Hohenfels Training Area in Bavaria. This was in October of 1987. My home team, the Minnesota Twins, were in the World Series against the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals. The games were on the Armed Forces Network, both television and radio. Since we were in the field, though, I had no access to television. My only access to games was radio. Unfortunately, all but one of the games were night games. Due to the time difference, that would have been in the wee hours of the morning. Given the little sleep I already had, there was no way I could even think about listening to the games. Instead, I had to rely on the AFN morning news or finding one of the few copies of the Stars and Stripes morning newspapers that made it out to the field.

On Saturday, October 24, 1987, the Twins returned to the Metrodome for Game 6. They were down in the series 3 games to 2. If they lost Game 6, it was over. Fortunately, that game was an afternoon game in the Twin Cities. Therefore, it wasn’t TOO late for me to catch at least part of the game. The Twins trailed until the bottom of the fifth inning when they clawed out a one-run lead. It was pretty late in Germany, but I couldn’t even think about sleeping. Then came the sixth inning. Kent Hrbek stepped to the plate with bases loaded and hit a grand slam! I was elated! With a five-run lead I felt I could finally turn off the game and get some sleep. Oh, and for Game 7, unfortunately I could not even catch the start of the game, but from Hohenfels, Germany, that Game 6 was magical to this long suffering fan!

Whenever we came home from the field, most wives had us undress outside our front doors. Yes, we smelled that bad. Our unit had no women, so there was NEVER much considerations for showers while in the field. I remember one time when I was on the Battalion staff that I actually got a shower at a sportsplatz, but that was the exception. In the winter, things seemed even worse. We seemed to spend more time just keeping our Soldiers warm and fed than accomplishing anything related to the mission. It was a treat to head to higher headquarters where there was almost always a toasty hot tent. The best mechanic was the guy who had a knack with vehicle heaters. Whoever that was quickly became my primary driver! Even then, it isn’t easy to keep a ragtop Jeep warm.

Besides the above exiting events that occurred during field exercises, two of my most memorable field experiences related to getting stuck. One earned me a nickname and the other brought me great appreciation for German farmers. The first was when we had a hard time finding a bridge over a small creek that would accommodate the weight of our vehicles. I had a string of five tracked vehicles and we couldn’t find a bridge without detouring several miles out of our way. Because of the difficulty keeping our tracked vehicles running, we avoided putting any extra miles on them. So, I decided that we would ford the stream where there was a rather gentle bank. The first Chapparal crossed the stream without too much difficulty. It did have some trouble, though, on its entry out of the water onto the bank. I directed the next vehicle to come at more of a diagonal route to provide a cleaner lift out of the water. Bad idea. We had a general idea of the depth of the water, but didn’t know how solid the creek bed was. The diagonal route took the Chapparal into a mucky bottom and it got stuck. Stuck bad!

Sergeant Johnson was my bad luck Squad Leader. Sure enough, it was his vehicle stuck in the mud. As a good leader should, I took all blame for getting him stuck. After a time it was clear that we might have to call a wrecker. That would cause just about everyone in the Battalion to know that I screwed up. Captain Warnke happened to come by as we were trying to figure things out. I think he tried to chew me out, but he couldn’t stop laughing. He even had me wade out to the sunken vehicle and snapped a photo that got shared throughout the unit. He also dubbed me, “Admiral Grayson,” a nickname that stuck for a while.

“Admiral” Grayson directing the recovery effort of the Chaparral sideways along the bank.

The second mud incident occurred during a reconnaissance of an area that the Battery would be occupying during a field exercise in Southeast Germany. It was springtime and the forest roads were terrible. They weren’t exactly roads, but were tractor trails through the woods. This time it wasn’t me with the bravado, but my driver who insisted that he could easily navigate the ruts. I was then the Battery Executive Officer, so this was after my earlier encounter with the creek. This time I was smart enough to make sure that no one found out about it. Also, we were over an hour drive from home and it would have been a long night if we had to call back to our unit for help.

My driver and I walked to a nearby farmhouse with the idea that perhaps his small field tractor could pull us from the mud. Our Chevy Blazer (we had recently upgraded from Jeeps) had bottomed out in deep, muddy ruts. The farmer came to investigate and chained his tractor to the vehicle. After several mighty tugs, it was clear that our vehicle was even more stuck than we thought. In my mind I started going through how this time might just torpedo my career. Suddenly, the farmer told us to hop on his tractor. He pulled up to his barn and opened the door. Inside was a HUGE tractor with wheels about eight feet high! That thing could have pulled our Chapparal out of the river by itself. It had no problem pulling our SUV out of the mud and we were soon on our way. My driver kept his word and that story never got out!

Other adventures were even more exciting. The highlight had to be the three trips to Crete. That was the only location in Europe where we could fire live missiles. It was quite a treat to spend a couple of weeks there each Summer, but it wasn’t all for fun. In addition to the missile firing, we were evaluated on our jobs. As I indicated in my last blog, that first year my Platoon came in dead last. Not just in the Battalion, but in the entire European theater. We had work to do. My Platoon Sergeant, SFC Fisher, squad leaders SSG Rivera, SSG Harrell, SGT Clapp, and SGT Johnson worked hard all year with the idea of redeeming ourselves the following year. When CPT Warnke asked if I wanted to try a different job, I declined. Nope, I said, I want to take THIS Platoon back to Crete and win! That we did. We achieved the top score in Europe that Summer. Redemption was ours! I couldn’t have been prouder of my team. We celebrated drinking ouzo in the port town of Chania and enjoyed the many sites on the island (yes, that included trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep our Soldiers away from the nude beaches!).

Only about half of our Battalion got to participate in the Crete trips. The rest comprised of the Vulcan weapon system teams and our radar operators. Instead of Crete, they conducted their gunnery twice per year on a small NATO base in Northern Germany, just outside the small town of Todendorf. We fired the Vulcans 20mm shells over the Baltic Sea. I only experienced it once, but it was a treat. To get there, though, we first had the tedious task of railheading our tracked Vulcan vehicles from Schwabach to Todendorf, together with the tedious “freight” train travel schedule. Once in Todendorf, though, we worked hard and played hard.

One of the signature events during each Todendorf trip was the unit dinner at a local restaurant. Two traditions were shots of rusty nail, which are unlike any rusty nail drinks I have ever seen in the United States, and the “boot.” I think the rusty nail consisted mostly of Tabasco and probably Vodka. It was deadly, both the night of and the whole following day! I am aware of only one person who refused to drink one and survived. The other tradition was the passing of the boot. This is more of a traditional German drinking game. The trick was to tap the table in some sort of sequence and then take a guzzle from a two-liter glass boot. If you got the sequence wrong, you drank a rusty nail. If not, you passed the boot to the guy next to you. Whoever got the first bubble from the foot of the boot had to guzzle the remainder. Good clean fun! Unfortunately, there were a whole lot of hangovers the following morning!

The best part of Todendorf for me was that after the firing and evaluations were over, we got the following day off. Many of the Soldiers slept and had a lazy day in Todendorf. The adventurous types hopped a ferry to Copenhagen. Since I’d never been to Denmark, I jumped at the opportunity. I still remember so much of that trip. The marvelous Tivoli gardens, wonderful food, beautiful women, and sights unlike those we saw in Germany. At one bar part of our small group got a visit from the reigning “Miss Denmark,” who wanted to practice her English. All in all, it was a fun day and a great way to wrap up a long week.

Yes, there are more hijinks from that first tour in Germany, but those will have to wait until my next blog!

Thanksgiving and Christmas 2019

I typically write here about influences (people, places, and events) in my life. As I have not written for about two months, I thought it prudent to update any regular readers about omissions in my writings. All said, our lives have been a whirlwind since mid-October (and even before).

During a Fall reunion I was greeted by one of my former classmates with the exclamation, “Good to see you. I thought you were dead!” To reassure readers of this blog and to paraphrase one of my favorite authors, Samuel Clemens, no, thankfully, I am not dead!

The whirlwind began when we sold our house in Maryland at the end of October. This was set in motion in early May when I accepted a job with Wells Fargo, N.A. The job is cited in Minneapolis, but I was allowed to work out of the Washington, D.C. office until we could relocated to Minneapolis. We got a bit of a late start on both purchasing a home in Minnesota and selling our home in Maryland. For a myriad of reasons, we decided to build in Minnesota, so we had some time before we had to move. In the meantime, we had to sell the Maryland house and gracefully exit our various obligations in Maryland.

The house sale was time consuming and frustrating. Due to some needed updates, we did not get it onto the market until June. We anticipated a fairly quick sell and planned a rental in Maryland until our new home was ready. We did not finalize the sale until the end of October, so we obviously did not have the quick sale. As a result, we had to keep the house spotless and endure numerous open houses for about four months. That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that we needed to remove our two dogs prior to any showings and that we both were commuting daily to Washington, D.C. On a good day, that meant a one and a half hour commute each way. Fortunately, our realtor is also our best friend. She helped schedule convenient showing times and even took our dogs when we were not able. Still, it was a hectic and frustrating time, and yes, we took much less in a sales price than we were hoping.

The stress wasn’t over yet, though. Now the timing had to work out to allow us pack our household goods, transport everything, and move into our new house. Fortunately, our buyer was willing to rent the house back to us for the month of November, so we didn’t have to immediately vacate. Our new house was supposed to be ready the first week in November, but as is typical for new construction, was delayed. It was touch and go whether it would be ready by the end of November.

Almost immediately after the closing of our Maryland home, we had to start packing, not only for the move, but for a long-planned trip to Mexico. This was not exactly a vacation – it was for our daughter’s destination wedding! So, we had to quickly transition from moving mode to our roles as parents of the bride. Kathryn and Jon were married in a wonderful ceremony above the beach in Cancun on November 16th. They had fifty friends and relatives and all had a wonderful time!

Kathryn with husband Jon (and brother Jim officiating!)

Proud Papa with his beautiful daughter.

Once we returned from the wedding, our crush to pack and otherwise get the house ready for the move went into overdrive. We now had only one week until the movers picked up our stuff! As we were too cheap (and poor from both the new house and the wedding), we chose to pack ourselves. That was definitely not an easy task. I was literally taping boxes shut as the movers were hauling them out of the house!

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we set out to drive from Maryland to Minnesota. After some tearful goodbyes, we started the trek. We made it to Ohio on Wednesday night before continuing the journey on Thanksgiving day. We ultimately arrived at our new home (sans furniture) late that evening. We slept on an air mattress for two nights until our furniture arrived during a snowstorm on Saturday. Then we began the task of unboxing. We quickly realized that though we knew we were downsizing, we still shipped way too much. As of today, we are still in the process of unpacking and have multiple HUGE piles of giveaways and junk. Christmas Eve is tomorrow, but we are finally starting to feel somewhat comfortable in our new home.

Admittedly, we got lost in the bustle. Fortunately, we will have an opportunity to sit down with family this Christmas – a rarity this decade – and reset. In the Army, we used to call this “taking a knee.” During this time we need to focus on the reason for the season. For Thanksgiving, that means family. We barely made it home for that, but at least we made it! For Christmas, though, the reason for the season is reflection and recognition of what that baby Jesus, who was born in a lowly manger, means to us. God took human form and put his trust in humans to care for Him as an infant.

Jesus knows, from personal experience, what it means to love as a human and the feelings that it causes. He understands stress, such as that of moving, of leaving friends and family, and of struggling with humans and the emotions they invoke. Jesus experienced the great highs that friendship and family provide, as well as the sorrows of hate, betrayal, and the agony of human torture and death. He did all that for you and for me. His promise is eternal life. His life and his promise provide us hope in a mixed-up and hate-filled world. In Him, we can find peace. I wish you great peace this Christmas and throughout the year.

Merry Christmas to all and Happy New Year!

U.S. Army and Me

With the exception of family, the one single consistent thing in my life has been the United States Army. It started first in Junior ROTC as a Freshman in high school, but was really cemented when MAJ Dave Pearson convinced me to join Army ROTC in the early 1980s. At the time I left my position as a civilian attorney earlier this year, I had a direct and regular connection with the Army for approximately 44 years!

Me in uniform with the ADA branch insignia and the First Armored Division Patch (1986?)

Like so many other things in my life, the Army took quite some time to stick with me. It was precarious for a while, but eventually it really stuck! I previously detailed my challenges with JROTC in high school. College ROTC took a similarly slow path. I think I failed my first physical fitness test. I don’t know if I’d ever done more than ten push-ups at once. I’d never been a runner. After remedial training, I finally was able to (barely) meet the standard. In addition, many of my peers started ROTC two years ahead of me (due to my 2-years exemption due to JROTC), so I started a bit behind the curve.

The first turning point for me was the ROTC Summer Camp prior to my Senior year of College. Summer Camp is a six-week, mini-Basic Training, that all officers need to endure. It is complete with Drill Sergeants, push-ups, long runs, sleeping with weapons, and all the other fun of Basic Training. Mine took place in sunny (NOT!) Fort Lewis, Washington. It was pure hell for me for many reasons, one big one being the 4AM wake-up calls every day. My slow eating style was turned upside down. Finally, I had strep throat for much of the six weeks, and only survived due to antibiotics and cold medication.

Two things really turned Summer Camp around for me. First, I caught a break when our tech sergeant had a soft spot for me. He was an active-duty Soldier assigned to St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota. Being the only person in our platoon from Minnesota, I was his “homeboy.” Second was my writing ability. Sometime near the end of our training, we were assigned the task to write an essay about ourselves and about how we saw ourselves fitting into the Army. Now writing was something that always came relatively easy for me. I penned an essay with what I thought was a good mix of self-degradation, requisite seriousness, and a good dose of humor. My leaders thought it was hilarious and determined that I had a good future in the Army. Their final report on me back to the ROTC program put me ahead of many of my peers. Assuming I continued to do well during my Senior year, this set the path for me to make the cut for active duty service upon graduation.

When I got back to the University that Fall, the Army ROTC Cadre now saw me in a different light. I was given more leadership opportunities and ultimately was chosen as “Mr. Vice” for the end of year “Dining In.” This selection provided me, a relatively shy cadet, an opportunity to shine. This further set the stage for my active duty service. All of us were commissioned as Second Lieutenants upon graduation, but only about half of the graduates were granted active duty status. The day the active duty list came out, I was overjoyed to find myself on the list, but wasn’t too sure yet about my assignment to the branch of Air Defense Artillery.

My next steps were Graduation, Commissioning, and starting on Active Duty. In the meantime, I had proposed to Amy and we planned our wedding for July 28, 1984. I had graduation on June 6th and Commissioning on June 8th. What the heck was I supposed to do on active military duty between Commissioning and our wedding in late July? Most new officers left immediately for their Basic Officer Training. My friends in the ROTC department provided an answer. I would enter active duty immediately upon commissioning and serve as a Gold Bar Recruiter for the ROTC program. That meant linking up with high schools in the state, attending college fairs, and whatever else I could do to encourage new college students to join ROTC. I would hold this job until September, when my Basic Officer Training course began in El Paso, Texas.

Our time in El Paso (Fort Bliss), was very much a blur. We arrived in early September and by the following February, we were already off to our next assignment. Still, it was our first real taste of Army life. Highlights included the Texas “blue laws” every Sunday (we often drove just across the New Mexico border to shop in the mall on Sundays); an inch of snow shutting down El Paso; and our cozy apartment just outside the gates of Fort Bliss. We were initially intrigued by the courtyard pool, but our bedroom window faced an alley. Directly across the alley was a “sauna” and a busy porn shop. Inside of the apartment wasn’t much better. I’ll never forget the day Amy woke up screaming when she spied the large cockroach scurrying across the ceiling above our bed.

At Fort Bliss, newly minted officers learned about our trade. That included review of basic Army tactics, but also focused heavily on the branch-specific training. For me, that was Air Defense Artillery. I was further assigned to Short-Range Air Defense, which at that time included study of weapon systems such as the Vulcan, Chaparral, and Stinger. We also received high-level instruction in the long range weapons that included missile systems of Hawk, Hercules, and Patriot. Every other branch had their own Army Post that they called “home.” Officers in Infantry started their initial training at Fort Benning, Georgia; Armor at Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. That typically meant that you would be back to your home post for the next phase of training, Officer Advanced Course. Next step, though, was a first assignment to a “line” unit.

I was one of the lucky ones. I was assigned to 2/59 Air Defense Artillery, a unit of the 1st Armored Division in Schwabach, Germany. We were hoping for an overseas assignment and Germany was our preferred destination. I was to be a platoon leader – 3rd Platoon, Delta Battery, 2/59 ADA. More on Germany and 2/59 ADA in another story.

Hijinx during Vulcan gunnery at Todendorf, Germany.

During my three-year Germany assignment, those of us not “Regular Army” had to sit for a board for retention on active duty. ROTC students were not automatically assigned to Regular Army. That status was reserved mostly for the graduates of the United Stated Military Academy at West Point. Mere Reserve component officers needed to regularly seek continuation on active duty. I was retained, but in doing so I was reassigned to a new branch, the Quartermaster Corps. Quartermaster is the Army’s logistics branch, so this was an entirely new field for me.

The home of the Quartermaster Corps was Fort Lee, Virginia, so that was our next destination after Europe. Fort Lee is just outside of Petersburg, Virginia, and about an hour from Richmond. It was back to the classroom for my Officer Advanced Course. Though I was one of the least experienced of all my classmates, I tied for the top score in the class. It certainly wasn’t easy. Competition had increased since so many of our peers either left active duty after their initial tour or otherwise were not retained on active duty.

I felt like I was just figuring out Air Defense Artillery and now I had to deal with warehouse operations, fuel supply, dining hall operations, field feeding, water delivery, and other less interesting things such as mortuary affairs, laundry operations, field showers, and parachute packing. All this was new to me – plus was the addition of women in our corps. Air Defense is a combat arms branch, which at the time did not admit females. Quartermaster was much different. The biggest difference for me was that we actually had showers when we were in the field. I can only remember one field shower in my entire three years in Germany. That was just not a part of life I was used to in the combat arms.

Following graduation I was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas. This is in the middle of Kansas near the college town of Manhattan, Kansas. Fort Riley is an interesting and historic Army fort, but is truly in the middle of nowhere. The worst part about Fort Riley, though, was that shortly after our arrival, my new unit, the 937th Engineer Group, was deployed to Honduras as a part of an operation entitled Ahuas Tara. We were sent there to build airstrips, schools, medical clinics, and provide other humanitarian aid. The real reason, though, was to build a military-capable airstrip in southern Honduras as part of President Reagan’s attempt to counter the Nicaraguan Communist Government.

I mostly enjoyed living in and seeing Honduras, but timing was horrible. I left Amy home at Fort Riley with two young children. Jimmy was only about two and Kathryn was still an infant. I missed them terribly. Even worse, I was assigned to the unit as the “expert” in logistics. Unfortunately, I was far from an expert. They had expected someone who had at least several years of experience in logistics and then attended the Quartermaster Advanced Course. While I had the latter, I was a novice putting any logistical training into practice. Now I was thrown into an actual deployment where supply and resupply were critical.

We lived in a “base camp” near the Nicaraguan border in southern Honduras. We basically build our own base. It consisted of a large collection of tents, surrounded by barbed wire. We (by “we” I mean the engineers assigned to the unit) built flooring for our tents, built the dining facility, built the outhouses and “piss tubes,” and provided for everything in our small town, including power. As the chief logistician, not only did I need to ensure supplies for our construction projects, but also for our base camp. That included fuel and maintenance for our generators, procurement of water (utilizing Army equipment to purify, store, and distribute the water), and ensure that our food supply ran smoothly. We even had to contract with the local Hondurans to burn our refuse, including that collected from the bottom of the outhouses!

Fortunately, I got a LOT of help. I was not particularly happy, though. I felt like a round peg in a square hole and I did not get along well with the leadership of the unit. I appreciate engineers, but my experience in Honduras suggested to me that they were not necessarily the best leaders. There were HUGE morale problems in Honduras and the entire deployment was quite negative for most of the Soldiers. We left just after Christmas and returned over four months later with chips on our shoulders.

Between this experience, my transfer to an unfamiliar branch, time away from my young family, and too many failures in leadership, I’d had enough of the Army. Several months after returning from Honduras, I left the Army with visions of law school and a future as a lawyer. At that time, the Army was clearly in my rear view mirror. As suggested above, I soon reconnected with the Army, but that, too, is fodder for another story.