Growing up in a small timber and farming town in western Oregon, my family could not afford my college tuition. I had decided by my senior year of high school to join the military after graduation, as my older brother had. But I was encouraged by my high school history teacher to apply for an ROTC scholarship, in order to have my college tuition paid for in return for serving in the military as an officer.
I was fortunate to receive that ROTC scholarship, and I attended the University of Oregon, where I majored in history and was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I entered active duty on New Year’s Eve, 1975, just months after the fall of Saigon signaled the end of our conflict in Vietnam. My first assignment after officer basic training was to an artillery battalion stationed in the small town of Babenhausen, Germany, near Frankfurt.
When we went on training maneuvers, often it would be in the German countryside, with stops at the bakery, the meat shops, and the schnitzel stands. We parked our tanks and howitzers and jeeps and trucks in farmers’ fields to pretend we were in combat. We showered in the town athletic clubs and school gymnasiums. We ate hot meals every day, we slept in our cots almost every night, and we were always home in a week or two or three.
I made the Army my career because I loved the life of a soldier, because I fell in love with Germany and Europe, and because I believed in what we were doing—defending Western Europe from communism.
Although I served in Army artillery units in West Germany for eight years, I was never deployed to a combat zone. I was never separated from my family for more than a few weeks at a time. I was never shot at. I never encountered all the dangers faced by those who served before me or after me. If I had joined four years earlier, I would have likely served in Vietnam. If I had joined a few years later, I most assuredly would have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Between 1975 and 1990 was a period of relative peace in the world, although there were a few small conflicts of short duration. I was far from the dangers and deprivations of combat, serving not only in West Germany but also at training posts in the U.S., and eventually as a senior officer in the Pentagon. I was training and waiting, which is what soldiers do when there isn’t a war going on.
I had hoped to return to Germany for another assignment, but over the course of a few months from 1989 to 1991 the Berlin Wall came down, Germany reunified, the Soviet Union imploded, and the need for a large standing American Army in Germany evaporated.
I am a proud veteran of the Cold War, the 40-year conflict with the Soviet Union. But I don’t belong to the VFW or the AmVets. Though I’m sure those fine organizations would accept my membership, I feel I don’t fit in with the Vietnam veterans or the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I imagine myself sitting at a card game at the VFW, playing penny ante poker with Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans. They tell war stories, and of the challenges of war wounds, missing limbs and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And I tell how I got a medical disability by rupturing discs in my back, doing too many Army sit-ups in the Pentagon Athletic Club. No, that conversation is not going to happen.
I am a Cold War veteran. Though I don’t have the war wounds, the combat patches, the medals, or the war stories that my military brothers and sisters have who served before and after me, I was ready. To paraphrase the great English poet John Milton, who penned similar words in 1655, I believe we also served who only trained, and watched, and waited.