Checkpoint Charlie in the Berlin Crisis
Note: As a follow up to this Article I posted “20 Years: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of the Cold War” to this site. The link to that article is here:
From the Berlin Blockade and until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 American, British, NATO and Asian Allies waged a Cold War against their Soviet and Warsaw Pact Countries, North Korea and at times China and Vietnam. The war was a world war, fought by the major powers, their alliances and proxies throughout the world. It was a world of gray areas where soldiers, sailors, airmen as well as Special Forces and intelligence agencies from both sides attempted to gain dominance over the world through political, military, economic, diplomatic and intelligence means and through use of surrogates. Sometimes the war turned hot as in Korea, Vietnam and for the Soviet Union Afghanistan.
The conflict found its way to almost every corner of the earth and the world lived on edge wondering if the superpowers and their allies would end up in a hot war. US and NATO Navies played a cat and mouse game with the Red Navy both under the sea and upon the waters. Sometimes this war turned deadly as US and Red Navy Submarines disappeared and were never heard from again amid circumstances like those of the USS Scorpion that are still debated. On the high seas US and NATO ships shadowed each other and occasionally played a game of chicken where ships collided attempting to gain advantage as they undertook surveillance missions or shadowed task forces. Spy ships from both sides plied the seas collecting any type of information on their opponent’s operations. In the air spy aircraft maintained a ready vigil with US SR-71s and U-2s flying missions over the Soviet Union. Soviet Bear and Backfire Bombers probed the airspace of the United States and Canada and NATO forces at sea who responded by sending up interceptors. In the closed confines of the Mediterranean the Navies sparred while a in the Middle East and North Africa both sides sought dominance through treaties with the surrounding nations who moved from Western to Soviet and Soviet to Western orbit as they deemed fit. Ideology and behavior of these client regimes was less important than having them in your camp, creating a surreal world of moral ambiguity in the shadow realm of alliances.
In divided Germany NATO and Warsaw Pact Forces faced off in a tense standoff along the inter-German Border and where millions of troops planned and trained for a hot war on the Fulda Gap and Northern German Plain which would include the use of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical weapons. West Berlin was an island surrounded by the Olive uniformed Red Army and Field Gray of the German Democratic Republic. A similar watch was maintained on the Korean DMZ. In Africa, Asia, South and Central America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East forces of the major powers worked with allies and surrogates to gain advantage. The Soviets blockaded West Berlin while in response to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba the US imposed a naval blockade. The CIA sponsored a failed attempt by Cuban expatriates to land at the Bay of Pigs. The Soviets toppled governments and put down revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia while maintaining a system of Gulags at home. Even international sporting events became occasions where each side used propaganda to show itself off to the world as the ideal society. All of this occurring while the world lived under the constant threat of intentional or unintentional nuclear war. In missile silos and aboard Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and manned bombers men stood by to push buttons and turn keys that could have ended the world as we know it.
Soviet Krivak Class Frigate Intentionally Colliding with USS Yorktown CG-48 in the Black Sea 1988
Casualties were taken, even in places where the war was not “hot.” Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Intelligence Service personnel undertook missions that are still classified the details of which they cannot reveal to this day. Some suffer from PTSD from their involvement in and guilt over missions that they cannot reveal. Men from both sides know that the weapons systems that they were involved with killed men on the other side in operations that will never be known. American Veterans of the Cold War have been ignored by the country. Russian Veterans have been forgotten as the Soviet Union crashed down on itself. Countries spanning the globe bear the scars of the “hot” Cold War waged on their soil. The results of the Cold War are still with us. The West celbrated the collapse of the Soviet Empire but failed to make the new Russia a full member of the new world causing resentment which still boils today influencing Russian policy toward the West.
I met a man recently in hospital who was one of these veterans. Tormented by the demons of operations he cannot reveal he suffers from physical and emotional wounds. He is not alone. There are many like him. I do not suffer from my Cold War Service. I served as a platoon leader, company executive officer and company commander in Germany in the mid-1980s. If a war had broken out along the Fulda Gap my Chrysler Corporation bailout Dodge M-886 Ambulances with no communications systems adorned with bright red “mobile registration points’ were to be involved with reconstituting units which were expected to take 90% casualties. We trained for chemical and biological warfare. The maps used in my NBC defense officer course showed the housing area in which I lived. We lived in a world of alerts where within two hours we had to be ready to head to war. A world where Soviet spies operated and recruited Americans and where the German Red Brigade Terrorists bombed housing areas, clubs and even the Main Frankfurt PX, where we were on our way to when Judy felt sick and we had to return home. Occasionally American Servicemen were murdered by Soviet Agents or Red Brigade Terrorists. This was life for those stationed in Germany as well as South Korea.
I have been in East Berlin and was surprised as hell to see the Berlin Wall come down. I have been to the Korean DMZ and the Northeast Gate of Guantanamo Bay Cuba. I call it the “Commie trifecta.” Without the Berlin Wall there are only two places where the US faces a Communist state directly. Yet my time in a “hot” war has been in Iraq, I remember the days of the Cold War from childhood through my early Army career.
Cold War Veterans are the last forgotten Veterans group in the United States or even Russia. Their sacrifices are not recognized. The US belatedly issued a Cold war Service certificate for its veterans, but vets have to deal with a system that makes it difficult to even obtain a piece of paper that says “thank you” which gives them no other benefit. The certificate is available to any person who worked for the Federal Government, including temporary holiday employees of the US Postal Service and does not mention military service. A Cold Service Medal was constantly fought by DOD during the last administration as too costly to support at this time. The Cold War Service Medal last appeared in the FY 2008 DOD spending bills but was cut. With the present demands on the military in the current wars and the fact that the cost of any award would come out of DOD’s budget it is unrealistic to expect this any time soon as it would cut into the funds needed to fight this war. At the same time these Veterans have no memorial and no status. While their war was not “hot” it was world wide, lasted 40 years with many casualties. Yes I agree it was not a hot war and that many who served in it were not in combat. At the same time the Cold War veterans helped give the world a chance at a new beginning in 1991, unfortunately that has been squandered by governments around the world including the US government, but that is not the fault of those who stood the watch. Someday they should be recognized.
Me on the East German Side of the Berlin Wall, November 1986
I have my medals from Iraq, the War on Terror and Korean Defense service. I do believe that those men who stood the watch and many times paid with their lives or health should be recognized. Other countries have done so. I wonder why a few dollars per medal cannot be spent on men and women who served on the front line of freedom for 40 years. At the same time I understand that the costs of any such Medal would be born by DOD which is strapped to fight the ongoing wars. I don’t think it realistic to have the money spent now, but maybe when the dust finally clears and these conflicts subside someone will take the time to remember these men and women.
The gentleman I saw recently never got a thank-you, never got a parade, and never was able to talk about the things that haunted him. I wonder just how many more are waiting for the chance to come in from the cold. If you know one of them, thank them for thier service and if they are one of those suffering from their service take care of them.