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The War That Never Was


  • The War That Never Was

    "The war that never was." You hear that phrase from time to time, in reference to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. To be fair, it is a bit of a misnomer, since a "physical" war was indeed fought between the sides, albeit through proxies such as Vietnam, Korea, and other countries. Nevertheless, the Armageddon scenario - the end of everything as we know it - never transpired. Younger generations have a hard time grappling with the concept of the whole thing. Understandable, I suppose, since they didn't grow up under the constant threat of the Soviet Union. So how do we, as ostensibly responsible adults and veterans of the Cold War, educate these younger folks on the topic? For starters, we need to share our stories. This is but one of them.

    This is my story. The journey of a young man launching out into the unknown for the first time, eager to see what life had to offer. The longer version of this story would fill a book (or two). But for now, you'll have to settle for the semi-Reader's Digest version (another reference possibly lost on the younger generations!).

    Note: The things described in this article happened 30 years ago for me. I tried as best as I could to remember as many details as possible, but in the event that I screwed something up, please let me know!

    I was born in the late 1960s in a fairly small town in the South, just outside of Fort Benning, Georgia. One of my earliest memories of television was watching the coverage of Vietnam on our old black and white set - the one with the rabbit ears antenna. I saw the hordes of veterans returning back home to the Fort Benning area - home of the Army's Infantry and Ranger programs. I also saw how they were treated by the public, and how they were affected by the war. I saw an awful lot of homeless vets while growing up. William Calley, famous for his role in the massacre of the civilians in the village of My Lai, worked at a jewelry store not too far from my dad's machine shop.

    In high school, I will readily admit that I was quite the trouble maker. Straight "A" student, for the most part, mind you, but a trouble maker nonetheless. In retrospect, I suppose I was bored. Learning came natural for me, and I rarely took a book home. I tended to get whatever information I needed during the lectures, and just took the tests. I daydreamed - a lot. I always felt that there was something larger out there. Some exciting adventure just beckoning to me, beyond the shackles of a small Southern town. It was 1986.

    Some rather crazy things happened around that time. Synth-pop had already killed the Rock 'n Roll I loved so much. Even a young upstart comedian named Eddie Murphy tried his hand at being a pop star. More importantly, terrorists were blowing up airliners, and the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. Libyan "leader" Muammar Gaddafi was pretty much Public Enemy #2 when it came to bad guys. But the elephant in the room, or the bear in this case, was the top-ranked, undisputed, pound for pound champion of bad guys - the Soviet Union. You see, for years, we had not only been participating in a vicious arms race with the Soviets, but had been fighting each other through proxy wars for decades - Vietnam. Korea. Afghanistan. A lot of younger folks today don't even realize that the Soviets fought a losing cause in Afghanistan for a decade, years before we ever officially set foot there to fight the Taliban. "Their Vietnam", as we called it. And it was.

    The generally-accepted view was that eventually, the Soviet Union would most likely invade Western Europe, while at the same time launching a dazzling array of nuclear-tipped Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) at the mainland United States. To counter this threat, we had a massive number of troops still stationed in Europe (Germany, in particular), and had an even greater number of ICBMs pointed right back at the Soviet Union. "M.A.D." they called it .... Mutually-Assured Destruction. And it was maddening, indeed.

    I dropped out of High School during my senior year, because of course, at the age of 17, I was smarter than everyone else in the world, and had it all figured out (ha!). Through a circuitous set of circumstances, I found myself standing in the U.S. Army recruiting office, staring at one Staff Sergeant (SSG) Hill. A pretty unassuming guy, from what I remember, save for a mustache that would have made Tom Selleck jealous. I flat out told him that I "wanted out of this town and as quickly as possible." I remember him chuckling to himself about that. So he sat me down and started in with his well-rehearsed spiel about joining the United States Army and what it meant.

    To join the military, you have to take what is called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) exam. It is designed to gauge your knowledge in a variety of areas, much like the SAT or ACT does, though it is obviously aimed at helping you identify the various types of jobs in the military to which you are best accustomed. He wasn't thrilled that I dropped out of high school, but he let me take it anyway, likely thinking that he could just stick a rifle in my hand and ship me off to an infantry unit somewhere.

    A week or two later, my score came back. We didn't have computer-based exams back then - it was all pencil and paper, and had to be shipped off somewhere to some poor soul in a government building who graded it by hand. I practically aced the exam. SSG Hill called me over to his office, and upon my arrival, he sat me down and started in on me. He essentially told me that he could "stick a rifle in my hand" and ship me off somewhere, but that I was "too smart" for that (something my wife might disagree with). I responded that I frankly really didn't care what I ended up doing, I "just wanted out of this town". He said emphatically that I could do anything I wanted. "You could be an electronics engineer." Great! "When do I ship out?" He replied "well, we have an opening for that in about 6 months." No good. Same thing with other "choice" jobs. Everything worth a damn that had any sort of civilian application to it had a waiting period.

    I finally looked him in the eye and said "what can I do, RIGHT NOW, that will get me out of this dysfunctional shit-hole of a town?". He said, "well, you're kinda tall, but what do you think about tanks?" And that is how I ended up in the Armor Corps.

    I was excited! I was going to join the U.S. Army and find glory abound in some far flung region of the world. Most excellent! While I was basking in the joy of my future glory, SSG Hill dropped the bomb on me. He wasn't going to let me join unless I went back to High School and got my diploma. "You are too smart for this, kid, and I'm simply not going to wreck your life by letting you take the GED exam, which I'm sure you could pass right now. You go back to High School, graduate, then come back and see me."

    I looked him right in the eye and said "Ha! I'll show you! I'll walk down the sidewalk to the Marine Corps recruiter and join the Marines instead!" It was then that I realized life was all about relationships. SSH Hill calmly replied "Son, I know every recruiter in this town. And the towns next to this town. I won't let anyone enlist you if you don't do as I ask." I was floored. But I had no choice. I ate some crow with the headmaster at my High School, and begged him to let me back in. He did let me back in, provided I also do a whole bunch of stuff that I didn't want to do, like help mentor the other kids in the brand new Computer Science course we had. If I could find SSG Hill today, I'd give him a great big bear hug. It was the best thing for me, and I realized that years later.

    There was one small hurdle remaining, however. You see, I would only be 17 years old when I graduated high school - not the required 18 years of age needed to enlist in the armed forces on my own. I would need my parents to agree to it, and sign off on it. Oh boy.

    I sat my parents down and dropped the ultimate bomb on them - I wanted to join the U.S. Army. As I mentioned, growing up around Fort Benning during the Vietnam War painted a pretty ugly picture for my parents. Suffice it to say, they (especially my mom) were not keen on the idea at all, as you can imagine. I then told my mom, "look, I'm going to turn 18 in a few months after graduation anyway. So you can either agree to it, and honor my wishes, or I can wait a few more months, do it on my own, and be resentful of the fact that you wouldn't let me go at 17." She finally agreed to the proposition, although visibly not amused by it all. SSG Hill visited our house, met my folks, and brought the necessary paperwork. It was set. I was going to be a soldier.

    After graduation from high school, I spent a few weeks down in Panama City - the Redneck Riviera - to decompress a bit before shipping off. I remember very vividly riding down to Florida with my cousin Jason in his 70s Firebird. The dulcet tones of Van Halen's Diver Down album carried us most of the way. We had a great time! But in between the partying, beach combing, and "other" activities (snicker!), in the back of mind I was already deeply contemplating my grand adventure. On the morning of June 28th, 1987, I hopped a Greyhound bus from Columbus, Georgia to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Montgomery, Alabama. Once there, they quickly shuffled us into this big room and arranged us in the best military formation they could, given our lack of military training at this point. Three rows, shoulder-width apart, facing forward, staring at this podium.

    A U.S. Army officer walks in a few moments later, and took his position behind the podium. After thanking us for volunteering to serve our great nation, he gave us all one final chance to back out. There would be turning back after we swore in. One guy out of the bunch of us raised his hand and was escorted out. I was not about to back down now. I proudly took the oath, and a few moments later, I became PVT Scott Burkett of the United States Army. The table was set. Game on.

    Everyone was so polite to us. I couldn't understand it. Where were the screaming Drill Sergeants? The breaking you down and making a man out of you? Not to be seen. Yet. They whisked us off to another room where we were dispatched on buses to our BASIC training stations. I was bound for Fort Knox, Kentucky. The "School of Hard Knox", and the home of the U.S. Armor Corps.

    It was a long bus ride from Montgomery Alabama to Fort Knox, which was located just outside of Louisville, Kentucky. We made a few stops along the way to pick up some other recruits in other towns. But we had a great time! Chatting, laughing, carrying on and so forth. Everyone it seems was just as excited as I was about "seeing the world." Yes, indeed. It was all fun and games until we pulled up to the front gates of Fort Knox around midnight, amidst a terrible thunderstorm. Through the sheets of rain, I could see the words "Welcome to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Home of the U.S. Armor Training Center" boldly stated in a sign which arched over the street. You could have heard a pin drop on that bus. Shit was about to get real, and we knew it.

    A few moments later, we were “graced” by the presence of one the biggest sons-of-bitches I think I’ve ever laid eyes on – Drill Sergeant Gunn. What a fitting name. His biceps were as big as my thighs. He very calmly addressed us. “Gentlemen, welcome to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I appreciate your willingness to serve your country. Here, you will learn to be soldiers first, and tankers later.”

    Wow, this wasn’t so bad. These Drill Sergeants seemed pretty nice and easy going.

    “Now you have exactly 15 seconds TO – GET – THE – FUCK – OFF MY BUS! MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!” He then stood right near the door of the bus and proclaimed instant death to anyone who even so much as “grazed” his uniform as we exited that bus.

    Ho-leeeeeee shit. I don’t think I’ve ever moved more quickly, and more nimbly, than I did in that moment. I didn’t so much as allow the air from my movement to ruffle his uniform, for fear that he would single-handedly rip off my head and display it on a pike as an example to the others.

    Once outside in the rain, they formed us up, and let us get wet for a bit, all the while dosing out venom to each and every one us, personally. We hadn’t eaten yet, and they marched us off to a chow hall for a midnight dinner. Spaghetti, if I recall, mostly noodles, and light on the meat sauce. There wasn’t a meatball to be found. But I didn’t care. This was my first true-to-life “Army meal”, and I savored every bite.

    In the blink of an eye, I found myself in some very old, decrepit WW2-era barracks. We were told to “shut the fuck up, find a bunk, and go to sleep. We’ll start turning your dumb asses into men in the morning.” Morning came all too quickly.

    BASIC training back then was very different from the BASIC training today – the stuff you see on reality TV shows. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, hefty amounts of “interesting language”, and copious amounts of personal degrading. This was the “Reagan Army”, and it was pretty “in-your-face”. I was fairly in shape, having played football in high school, but this was a different animal altogether. I went in at 165 pounds, and came out 16 weeks later (after 8 weeks of BASIC and 8 more weeks of Armor School) at around 185 pounds, and ripped. My six pack abs had six pack abs. Those were the days. Now I go to check the mail at the mailbox and feel like I’m practically having a coronary. Well, not really, but you get the comparison.

    This isn’t necessarily a story about my experiences during BASIC training, but there are a few good tidbits that are worth mentioning I think.

    Our primary Drill Sergeant was Sergeant First Class (SFC) Pacquiao, not to be confused with the beast of a professional boxer, Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao, who was probably around 9 or 10 years old then. But SFC Pacquiao was Ranger-qualified, had seen some shit in his day, and definitely, most definitely, did not feel kindly towards a single living soul on this planet. Most expecially us. We cherries. We band of civlian ree-tahds, as he would remind us. His hatred of us was only rivalled by his love of cigarettes and butterscotch candy, for some reason. He loved to smoke cigarettes around us while enjoying his butterscotch candy.

    We learned the terminology, drill and ceremony (DnC), how to field strip and clean our weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and did road marches. We overcame personal fears in the “Confidence Course”, an obstacle course involving great heights that was designed and orchestrated by the devil himself. And yes, we did the gas chamber run, which was about as fun as being flogged to death by a bit of wet lettuce.

    We were also constantly reminded of how badly the Soviet soldier wanted to kill us. “Ivan is going to kill you in your sleep, Private!” Apparently, SFC Pacquiao was convinced that all of the soldiers in the Soviet Army were named “Ivan”, and while they enjoyed western rock and roll music on underground European radio stations, they apparently still wanted to kill us all. “If you fall asleep while on guard duty, soldier, Ivan is going to sneak up on you and slit your throat! Get your shit together, Private!” Oh, man. I learned that the guy next to you was your brother forever. And the guy in front of you, with the AK-47, the Matryoshka (Russian stacking dolls), and the funny accent, was the scourge of the earth. I really, really hated Russians by the time I graduated.

    I am, however, a proud member of what I dubbed the “Three Hills Club”. There were these three ridiculously steep hills around Fort Knox. They were aptly named “Heartbreak”, “Misery”, and “Agony” – and we got know them all too well, generally with 70 pounds of shit on our backs. Later, I learned they stopped marching trainees up and down those hills, after some recruit apparently had a heart attack while doing so. Nevertheless, we became soldiers quickly, and learned the merits of personal sacrifice, and putting your team ahead of yourself.

    After I had endured the "very old-school" BASIC training regimen at Fort Knox, Kentucky, I attended the U.S. Army Armor School there for my job training. A.I.T. the Army calls it ... Advanced Individual Training. Sadly, it was in the same barracks, with the same Drill Sergeants that we had “enjoyed” for BASIC training. There seemed to be no respite!

    We learned how to identify Soviet armored vehicles, and where their weaknesses were. We learned their tactics, and how to counter them. We also learned how to blow things up with a 105mm M1 Abrams Tank. Fun stuff for a kid!

    Fast forward - 16 weeks later, I was a Fort Knox “survivor”. I had made it through. I was about to graduate. I was going to be a bona-fide soldier. I wondered if retired Colonel McCall, my old high school English teacher, would be proud of me. Or Coach Miller, our high school football coach, who had been an Army Ranger. What would they think of me now – the trouble maker who had become a soldier.

    Me (left) and Jim Altman (right) after graduation from OSUT/Fort Knox, 1987. Jim eventually retired as a Master Sergeant after a long career as a tanker.

    As graduation approached, the instructors started handing out deployment orders to everyone. We were all anxious to know where we were going to be stationed. As luck would have it, I drew Germany, and as a tanker, I knew what that meant. I was going to be in some little town along the border of some Communist state loyal to the Soviet Union. East Germany (at the time), Czechoslovakia, etc. My other option as a new tanker would likely have been in Korea, staring at those crazy bastards across the DMZ every day. No thank you. I figured that at least they had good beer in Germany, so that was a small consolation. Little did I know what I was getting into.

    As a newly minted 18-year old U.S. Army Private, I hopped a Pan Am flight from Atlanta, Georgia to Frankfurt, West Germany. Let me put this into perspective for some of you younger readers out there. This was a "smoking flight." I was a casual smoker at the time, but by the time we landed in Frankfurt many hours later, I felt like a chain smoker. I sat in the "smoking section" of the plane, and the ventilation in that plane was basically non-existent. My super shiny Army dress green uniform pretty much smelled like I crawled out of a pub in Dublin after a two day binge.

    At the processing station, they told me that I was headed for the 3rd Infantry Division. It sounded a little odd to me, since I was a tanker. I figured I would be in an armored or cavalry division. But the 3rd ID was a “mechanized” infantry division, so I’d be headed to a unit that provided the “heavy punch” for the infantry battalions.

    They handed me a train ticket to Wurzburg, where the division was headquartered. Now, to me that was very cool, since Audie Murphy was one of my childhood heroes. Having seen "To Hell and Back" (his semi-biographical film) more times than I could count, I knew that he had been stationed in the 3rd Infantry Division, and that he was one of the most decorated soldiers to come out of WW2. I pondered all of this on the train, while eating a German candy bar that I picked up in the airport. I remember that candy bar vividly for some strange reason.

    While these days, the 3rd Infantry Division serves as the mechanized/armored component for the XVIII Airborne Corps (contingency), back in the 1980s, they were a key cog in the Army's VII Corps in Europe. They were "front and center" in the Bavarian region of Germany, meaning they had an expensive front row seat to whatever eventuality the Soviets chose.

    I stayed at the processing station in Wurzburg for two days, waiting for my eventual orders. Finally, it came down. I was going to a little town called "Schweinfurt", to the 3rd Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment - part of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. Never heard of the place. But I did know that the word "schwein" in German is "pig." I asked the Sergeant who was processing my orders "so ... you mean to tell me I'm headed to a place called Pigtown?" "Yep!" he said. "That's what they call it!". Great ... I had just exchanged one suffocating little town for another. At least that was my thinking. Schweinfurt actually turned out to be a pretty cool little town.

    I exited the train in Schweinfurt a few hours later that day. It was early evening. November of 1987. I remember hopping into a military van and being shuttled from the bahnhof (train station) to the kaserne (base). I looked up at one point and saw this big building which apparently belonged to one Fischers Aktien-Gesellschaft, a German manufacturer of ball bearings. However, the initials of the company, “FAG”, did make for a pretty amusing moment, when I saw them displayed proudly on top of the building.


    NOTE: I learned later that Schweinfurt had been the target of several allied bombing raids during WW2, as we tried to take out the centralized ball bearing factories of the Nazis. You can read about them here and here.

    Very crisp outside, and overcast, as it generally was in Germany during the fall and winter months. I remember being asked if I smoked or drank. I said "well, not really." The guy processing me into the unit laughed out loud and said "Oh, don't worry. You will!". He handed me what was called a "ration card." Coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages, and cigarettes were rationed every month. How we worked around those rations is a story for another day!

    After being processed into my new unit, I was taken to the Delta Company barracks and shown to my new squad bay. These were ancient barracks, originally used by the Germans during WW2. Aside from being re-painted a few times over the years, it didn't look like much had changed. My unit was out in the field during an operation, and the barracks were eerily empty. I dropped my gear on the floor next to my bunk, and looked out the window. In the distance, just outside the base, I could see the silhouette of two nuclear reactors for a power plant. Faaaaaaantastic, I thought to myself. This just keeps on getting better.

    The next morning, I woke up with a Sergeant Agard screaming in my face. I jumped out of my bunk, still thinking I was in BASIC training, and snapped to attention. He was going on and on about how he hated new recruits, and that he doubted my ability to kill communists when "the shit" went down. In Vietnam, enemy soldiers were referred to as "Charlie" or "Charlies". However, here, just as it was in BASIC training, I quickly learned that "Ivan" was indeed the universal G.I. nickname for the "Russian soldier". "Ivan is gonna kick your ass, private! I can just tell! You ain't about shit, are you?" It was then, that I realized I wasn't in proverbial Kansas anymore.

    I was then summarily informed that we were so close to the Communist border, that if they decided to attack us, we had about 15-30 seconds to kiss our collective asses goodbye before the artillery shells hit the base. Comforting. I’m sure at one point, it was 2 minutes, but over the years, the story kept getting better and better with each generation of G.I.s that came through the place. But we were a "speedbump" for the Soviets, and we knew it.

    Now, back then, when you arrived in country, you had to attend a mandatory two-week course called "German Headstart". Basically, it was the Army's attempt at assimilating you into the culture and language of the host country (in this case, West Germany). So we learned some basic German words, along with the obvious list of "don't do this or that". Kind of boring, but a requirement. But we also had some lectures on espionage. Espionage! Now we're talking!

    An officer of some rank or another came into the room and started talking to us about the importance of keeping our mouths shut when out in public. "The walls have ears." The local barmaid, your new German girlfriend, the guy selling you a bratwurst on the street corner - all candidates for Soviet intelligence agents. I was convinced it was a bunch of bullshit until "Pedro the Schnitzelman" (no clue if that was his real name or not) asked me once how many tanks we had in the convoy going to Hohenfels for maneuvers. Commie bastard.

    Pedro was one of the few German Nationals that they allowed on the base. He cooked and sold bratwursts and schnitzels out of the back of this white van. Good grub, especially at 2am when you were coming back to base from a night out drinking with your buddies. Funny thing, though. G.I.s are always broke, it seems. So Pedro used to take Army gear "in trade". You would grab something belonging to your buddy if he wasn't in the barracks ... a poncho, tanker gloves, pyle cap, canteen, LBE harness, ammo pouches, flashlight, etc. You'd never trade something like a flak jacket, kevlar helmet, or a ruck sack (A.L.I.C.E. pack). Those things were too valuable and easy to realize they were missing. And of course, you'd never trade your own gear! Ha!

    We were also handed one of these - called a Soviet Military Liaison Mission card, or SMLM card. We simply referred to it as "the spy card". Whenever you saw a Soviet Liaison vehicle, you had to report it along with your observations. You can read all about the Soviet Military Liasion Missions here. Pretty crazy stuff!

    When we drew the short straw to be on border patrol along the East German or Czechoslovakian borders, a completely new set of parameters were introduced. We had a training session on how to conduct ourselves while on patrol along the border.

    Rule #1: Do not go within 1 kilometer of the border unless on an authorized patrol. This rule was pretty serious. Violating it could have all sorts of political ramifications way, way, way up the food chain.

    "Don't make gestures or attempt to communicate with foreign border guards" was another big one. Apparently, the commies had a history of taking your picture and doctoring it for propaganda sake. You could also not render aid to, or defend, a defector until their ENTIRE body was over the line. All you could do was stand there until that happened. After they get over the line, however, we were free to engage the other side if the defector, or us, were being fired upon.

    Enjoy these images of what the border defenses were like then. Unbelievable stuff, really. It’s stuff right out of a thrilling novel, only it was real.

    For the next few years, I spent every day of the week training. Learning all the nifty ways to kill Ivan. We had flash cards that we'd hold up to one another, emblazoned with the silhouettes of various NATO and Soviet vehicles. We had a split second to shout "Kill!" or "No Kill!", depending. A wrong answer was hard to live down. Most especially concerning were the Soviet Mil Mi-24 "Hind" attack helicopters, fearsome tank busters and nicknamed the "flying tank" by the Soviet pilots.

    We spent half the year out in the field, maneuvering around the German countryside. War gaming. Going on border patrols, and staring at the commies through M22 binoculars, Uncle Sam's finest optics of the day! You name it. Reagan was our Commander-in-Chief, after all, and we all wanted to "Kill one for the Gipper!".

    Speaking of the German countryside. The scars of WW2 were very, very apparent, even in the late 1980s. We routinely found artifacts from the war. A buddy and I were patrolling in this one area on foot, and we were both complaining that it was incredibly "hilly". We climbed to the top of an actual hill, and looked back. They were bomb craters, overgrown now, but very visible. I also sent my dad back a souvenir - a hunk of concrete from a German bunker that we came across during this one exercise. I use it as a paperweight on my desk now.

    Periodically, we’d have alerts. I say periodically, but it felt like once a week. They would run through the halls of the barracks mustering us, always in the middle of the night, and usually when you were hungover (or still buzzing) from German biers the night before. “Lariat Advance! Alert! Lariat Advance!” they would shout at the top of their lungs. That was our queue to put our general deployment plan into action. This mundane phrase being uttered so many times during my service must have sunk into my subconscious. 30 years later, I decided to start this web site, and that’s what I used for its name.

    Photo by Tim Combs, Charlie Company 3/64 Armored Regiment, 1987

    When we were on alert, we had but a few minutes to grab all of our gear, including individual and crew-served weapons, and get down to the motor pool. Stow your gear on your tank, mount the crew-served weapons (.50 cal machine gun and 2 M240 machine guns) onto the tank, and roll out to our designated zones out in the countryside (our GDA, General Deployment Area), along with the Blackhawks, Kiowas, Apaches, and Cobras from the Air Cavalry that was stationed with us. And yes, we had lovely visits from the A-10 Warthogs as well ... BBBBrrrrrrrrtttttt!

    Alerts sucked. No kidding. But, they were a necessary evil. We never knew if it was a drill, or the real deal. Sometimes we’d roll out for a few hours, then come back to the garrison, while other times, we’d roll out for many days. You just never knew.

    I participated in Certain Challenge, aka REFORGER ’88. REFORGER stood for “Return of Forces to Germany”, and it was a big annual exercise conducted during the Cold War by NATO. REFORGER was intended to ensure that NATO had the ability to quickly deploy forces to West Germany in the event of a conflict with the Soviets. Although most troops deployed were from the United States, REFORGER also involved a substantial number of troops from other NATO nations including Canada, West Germany, and the United Kingdom. REFORGER ’88 was the largest REFORGER ever held, with over 125,000 troops involved in the operation, and was quite the scene.

    And of course, no tenure in West Germany was complete without a few deployments to Grafenwoehr for gunnery training. I will admit, it did have some fun aspects to it. I mean, blowing things up is what we were trained to do, after all. Then I think of Private Allison, who was killed at Grafenwoehr by a stray round from an M2 Bradley crew. And that saddens me. It was a reminder to us all that in between the German pub crawls, and the thrill of pulling the triggers on the main gun of an M1 tank, that this was serious business.

    There was also this other place. A place of woe and dismay. It was officially called the “Schweinfurt Training Area”. We referred to it simply as “Area Mud”. The mud there got so thick and deep with all the armored vehicles maneuvering around the countryside, that we expected to throw a track, or get stuck in the mud. The crews of the M88 Tank Recovery Vehicles absolutely, without a doubt, earned they paychecks when we deployed to Area Mud for maneuver training.

    We maneuvered in the aforementioned training areas so much, in fact, that the military finally had to take action and start cleaning them up. They were described in a DoD report as being “virtual wastelands”. I can attest to this. Years of blowing things up had taken it’s toll in places like Grafenwoehr, and Hohenfels and other maneuver areas looked like moonscape. That’s how much we trained to counter the Soviets.

    At some point, someone in the bowels of the Pentagon conjured up the notion that it would be a terrific idea if we all gained “deep winter” training experience. They called it “Winter Warrior”. It sucked. No, it was beyond that. I participated in Winter Warrior twice, and I left a little part of my physical and mental being out in the field each time. It was so cold, Richard Simmons would have even worn pants. Your breath would freeze against your balaclava or pyle cap face cover. Your nose hairs would freeze when you breathed in, and then thaw when you breathed out. It was insane. To this day, I cannot stand to be cold.

    I remember once our tank became disabled during Winter Warrior, I think in early 1988. The rest of the tank convoy drove past us as we sat inside our tank on the side of the road. We stayed there for 2 or 3 days waiting to be patched up. For everyone that thinks being inside of a tank would be nice and cozy, think again. You are inside of a giant metal box. It’s basically a refridgerator. Yes, there is protection from the wind, which was horrid at the time, but those tank heaters are not terribly reliable. And we only had so much fuel in the tank to begin with. The four of us literally froze our asses off out there.

    But probably the least favorite of all of our training stops had to have been Hohenfels. Oh. My. God. Hohenfels. The mere mention of that word to many veterans will trigger all sorts of miserable moments in their lives. The mud was very much akin to that at Area Mud. I remember a time when my buddy Mitchell and I decided to scoop up a bunch of mud, shape it into pottery, and “bake” it on the back exhaust of the tank. For some reason, I remember that like it was yesterday.

    There were other crazy times, for sure. Occasionally, we'd have to lock down the base, generally whenever Gaddafi was orchestrating some silly shit from his perch in Libya. The bomb blast that destroyed a disco in Berlin was still fresh in our minds. Most of our time, however, was spent contemplating the inevitable war with Ivan - a war which would never come.

    However, a funny thing happened along the way to marching to an inevitable war between two nuclear-armed Goliaths. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took President Reagan's advice and actually tore down that wall. No, seriously. Tore it down. Well, the people tore it down, but the Kremlin voted to eliminate itself, and that was that. No warning, mind you. It just happened in a flash. And with a single vote of a room full of old commie bastards, the whole of Eastern Europe became free again. And just like that. “It” was over. “The war that never was”.

    The U.S. military machine was left without an obvious enemy. The bad guy fell on his own sword. Not to worry, of course, we've found other enemies since then, but still. There was a void, and a generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines that were highly trained in confronting a now-defunct enemy were left wondering what to do. The Armor School at Fort Knox, the place of my soldiering baptism, was eventually closed. It was moved down to Fort Benning, Georgia, right next to that shitty little town where my adventure first started. Fitting.

    During my time in the service, I learned an enormous amount about life, people, and more importantly, myself. For many years after I got out of the Army, though, I had a hard time dealing with Russians. Seriously. I finally got over it, however, and even made good friends with several Russian-Americans I met in the civilian workforce.

    I have not, however, forgotten what the world was like then. That would be a tragedy. Nor have I forgotten how to spit shine my boots, fire a rifle, or field strip my Colt .45, which I still love to take to the firing range from time to time. And yes, I could still qualify Expert on it to this day. The world may change, but some things just never do. Once a soldier, always a soldier.


    This article is dedicated to:

    Michael Austin Lang. My piezo and battle buddy. RIP, soldier. Save me a spot on Fiddler’s Green.

    My lifelong brothers who served with me in Schweinfurt: Tony Thornton, Kirk Strieter, Monte Starling, Jason Penner, Al Doucet, Mark Lancaster, Jim Montoy, Tony Beebe (Sinke), Mike Dreier, Chris Harmon, Mike Evans (RIP), John "Booger" Sciortino, Phil “The Giant” Benton, Michael “Digger” Crews, Chris Mitchell, Alan Combites, Tim “Damn I need a haircut” Mitchell, Jaycee Turnquist, Shane Fuller, Curtis Chambers, Sean McLaughlin, Ron Mihalko, Tim "Hambone" Hamblin, Tom "Bacon" Hall, Jack "Winthorp" Henderson III (aka "The Honky Tonk Man" lol), Ty "Wolfman" Wohlford, Chris "Supernova" Covino, Eddie Garrett, Troy Patterson, Michael Servantes, Robert Gonzalez, Steve "Bat Wings" Whitman, and so, so many others. Love you all, and thanks for your service.

    • CrosstimbersOkie
      CrosstimbersOkie commented
      Editing a comment
      Scott. What happened to Mike Evans?

    • Scott Burkett
      Scott Burkett commented
      Editing a comment
      Tim: I will definitely credit you with the photo. I have lots of pics that I've downloaded from everyone over the years. Wasn't sure who took that one. I think your idea of an Obit section of pages would be a fitting tribute. Despite what some may think, we lost some good folks during the Cold War.

      Ed: I'm not sure. I found his obit online a few months back while trying to track him down:

    • CrosstimbersOkie
      CrosstimbersOkie commented
      Editing a comment
      Being an avid bicyclist is a good way to get run over.
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  • The War That Never Was
    Scott Burkett

    "The war that never was." You hear that phrase from time to time, in reference to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. To be fair, it is a bit of a misnomer, since a "physical" war was indeed fought between the sides, albeit through proxies such as Vietnam, Korea, and other countries. Nevertheless, the Armageddon scenario - the end of everything as we know it - never transpired. Younger generations have a hard time grappling with the concept of the whole thing. Understandable, I suppose, since they didn't grow up under the constant threat of the Soviet Union. So how do we, as ostensibly responsible adults and veterans of the Cold War, educate these younger folks on the topic? For starters, we need to share our stories. This is but one of them. ...
    12-29-2016, 10:21 AM