Memorial Day – It is the thought behind it that counts
Photo credit: Ralf Weiser; depicted here Grandpa Herrmann
Just before Memorial Day my 10 year old son asked me what this holiday is all about. I explained to him that this is a day of remembrance and appreciation of all the people who protect and serve us in military, police, healthcare, and in many other services. Then I wondered how many adults would take a moment asking the same question. Even if you do, you cannot really appreciate what all these folks afford us with unless you have gone through it yourself. What we have left to evaluate and ponder this question are the stories we read and watch in magazines and television, perhaps even in movies.
My own contribution to telling a story was my stint in the German Army. I was drafted at age 19 and worked in a tank maintenance battalion servicing and repairing anything that had tracks and wheels. It was at the height of the military spending (does StarWars ring a bell?) where President Reagan outspent Russia eventually. Living under the shadow of the Russian guns was not an easy thought to cope with especially since I was stationed a mere 1.5 hours away from the East German border. Boot camp and later the days spent in military maneuvers at tank ranges were really something else.
Here we were, fresh draftees laying in the mud, sand, brush etc in just about any weather – much like any movie that depicts going through boot camp. Except this time I was one of the actors. When it affects you personally it takes on a different meaning. Especially tough were the nights when we needed to dig fox holes in the woods. We had no night vision goggles so I could see nothing. But you could hear noises. Let me tell you that being in a forest at night provide ample noises and you needed to somehow figure out what was natural and what could stem from our maneuver counter attackers. For “fun” our commanders would through in ABC gas alarms in which you needed to throw on a gas mask and a poncho that in theory would protect you from gas raining down on you. That was all well and fine, but how about tending to thirst, hunger or other bodily functions? Hmm, must have been an office person who never went outdoors who came up with that one. Then occasionally flares would go up which made a horrific sound going up into the sky. Now you could see some of the things that went on out there, but the other side could potentially see you too.
That is when the thought really sunk into me: “Oh my God. What if the international saber rattling starts to become ugly and this turns into real fighting?” The thought was rather uncomfortable I must admit. I thought that this would get better in the maintenance unit surrounded by and with high tech machinery. I was quite wrong. Going to a maneuver was an adventure. Here I was on a 2 ton Unimog (pretty much a 2.5 larger Humvee) driving behind 12 Leopard II tanks weighing 70 tons each with full gear on board. During the day things were cool as you could see them and they could see you – mostly. You still had to watch out though, because hitting them even with a truck would only chip the paint on them, but you would not want to find out the hard way what would happen to you. At night the story changed again . The tank driver closes his access door and pretty much sees nothing. He drives only by help of the tank commander who directs him via intercom. These guys drove just as fast at night and that goes for forward and back ward. Nothing – and I mean nothing – was safe. Only trees two feet in diameter and bigger as well as big large boulders would slow them down. How did I feel on the truck bed of the maintenance Unimog? Do not ask. I could not sleep much at all and most of the time we were called out helping stuck or defective vehicles anyway.
This is how I start my Memorial Day. I remember those days in the German Army when I looked at my comrades and reflected upon what would and could have happened to us. I think of my Granddad Georg who never came home from WWII and the other one, Herrman who had escaped the horrors of Stalingrad and came back on foot from Russia both having fought an absolute senseless war. I think about all the folks who either lost their lives or are currently risking their lives such that we may live a life in comfort and freedom. It is this thought that counts, because it lays the foundation for us never to forget how great a risk and sacrifice this really is. How are you making sure that you dedicate a thought to this topic?