Tag Archives: east berlin

On the East Side: Berlin, 32 Years Later

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The last time we were in Berlin was in November 1986. At the time it was a divided city. When we last we here we had to have special permission and special paperwork to go to the city. Back then we drove the autobahn from Helmstedt to Berlin. At the inter-German border we had to first get our paperwork checked and stamped at the NATO border crossing center, Checkpoint Alpha.

We then drove a few hundred yards to the Soviet checkpoint where Soviet troops checked our paperwork. That part was interesting because the Soviets frequently rejected NATO troops for minor mistakes in the paperwork and would make them spend extra time waiting outside the guard shack. Fortunately for us the wait was minimal and with the necessary military courtesies exchanged, we were on our way.

It was 110 miles from Helmstedt to the Allied Military Checkpoint. On reaching Berlin we had to repeat the drill with the Soviets that we did at Helmstedt and the check in at the NATO checkpoint, Checkpoint Bravo which we passed again on Sunday when driving into Berlin.

Once in Berlin we found our hotel on the West side and the next day drove to Checkpoint Charlie before going into East Berlin. We made a second trip into the city on Sunday morning. East Berlin was the pearl of the Warsaw Pact but compared to West Berlin it was dingy, impoverished, and still showed the deep scars of the Second World War where pulverized buildings, still not repaired or restored covered blocks away from the Unter den Linden and Alexanderplatz. As Americans we were shadowed by Stasi agents everywhere we went. The beer was bad, and like anyone else we waited in long lines to purchase what little we could in the stores we shopped.

Conversely, West Berlin was an island of opportunity and opulence though surrounded by the DDR and its Soviet allies.

The closest we could come back then to the Brandenburger Tor was about 200 Meters as it sat in the middle of the Zone of Death, an appropriate term based on the number of East Germans who were killed or wounded trying to escape to the West.

The contrast today is amazing. The hotel we are staying in was then in the East. Almost everywhere we have been in the past two days once was in East Berlin and the change is remarkable. Much of the Unter den Linden is recognizable simply because the buildings were part of the government and diplomatic center of the city, monuments still stand where they were 32 years ago, but now it is hard to find what was the wall around the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag. We walked under the Brandenburger Tor and past the Reichstag where the Wall once stood. Not far away the Mall of Berlin practically sits in the former Zone of Death and was built where Berlin’s largest pre-World War Two Department Store, Wertheim once stood. It is now the heart of a reborn central shopping district which had been ravaged by Nazi rule, war, and Soviet rule. It really is hard to believe the difference now.

Now there are still signs of the War. We have seen a number of buildings, especially brick or stone structures that still have the pick marks and holes caused by bullets, or shell fragments. Some of these buildings are across from our hotel at Humbolt University’s old medical school and clinic complex. The Rumanian Embassy has similar damage.

Anyway, we remain on the former East Side tonight and should visit some more museums tomorrow including the DDR Museum and possibly the Berlin Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charle. We will be meeting our friend, Dr. Bishop Rink, the head of the German Military Lutheran or Evangelische Chaplain Service who we hosted in Virginia Beach during the summer tomorrow afternoon.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, Travel

Some Very Deep Thoughts of Padre Steve

Today Padre Steve moved into his latest hermitage after being a bit of a mendicant since October trying to find something affordable while stationed away from home. He has been blessed with good people who have put him up until he could find something. Now he has his island hermitage where among other things he can muse upon the deep mysteries of the world. Actually this means that tonight Padre Steve is tired and doesn’t want to do any real critical thinking.

While driving today he noticed one of those diamond shaped warning signs that said “Blind Dive.” Now since the good padre is a bit of a warped theologian and Biblical scholar he wondered if “Blind Drive” was something like the biblical “Lame Walk.”

A bit later he saw another one of those warning signs that said “Slow Children” and he thought “that’s just sad.”

While looking for a kitchen garbage can at Wally World he noticed that while they had a full up store on almost everything there were no 13 gallon size kitchen trash cans. They had plenty of small assed cans that three Kleenex and a wad of bubble gum would fill up. He mused that it reminded him of his 1986 trip to East Berlin and waiting in line hoping what he wanted would be there when he got the front of the line. He was lucky in East Berlin, he got his Zeiss Binoculars, however he did not get his 13 gallon kitchen trash can.

Why is it in Eastern North Carolina that any mini-van that one gets behind will always drive well under the posted speed limit especially in no passing zones?

Padre Steve heard on the news that Congress has passed a temporary spending bill that will keep the government running for the next two weeks. However why is it if there is a government shutdown that these idiots will still get paid?

Why is it that the same brand and same grade of gasoline will cost 20 cents less per gallon less in one town than it does in another town just 5 miles away?

While in Wally World Padre Steve noticed a sign that said “Piso Mojado,” He wondered if they had that sign at the Red Sea when Moses crossed it with the People of Israel. He also wondered if sometime back in history if someone had met their doom while crossing the Piso Mojado.

Padre Steve wonders what geography genius in the NCAA has Charlotte North Carolina host a game in the Western Regional or Tuscan Arizona host a games in the Southeast regional.  Isn’t like Charlotte in the East and Tuscan in the Southwest? And for crying out loud when did Washington DC get to the West Coast…but then maybe its part of the budget deal.

Why is it that every time a brutal repressive dictator for life has his people turn on him that somehow it is the fault of the United States?

How can Stockton California be the most miserable city in the United States when they do not host the Browns, Cavaliers or Congress?

Why is it when you see a commercial for some new wonder drug that it shows happy people dancing or doing fun things while the announcer reads off a list of terrible side effects….”side effects include heart lung and liver failure, depression, genital warts, halitosis and death….if you experience any of these please stop taking Gulibilify and call your doctor, lawyer and mortician.

Anyway, my brain is full.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, purely humorous

29 Years in the Military and still Going Strong

“It’s a mere moment in a man’s life between the All-Star Game and an old timer’s game.” Vin Scully

Padre Steve in 1982

They say that “time flies when you’re having fun” and I cannot believe that I have been in the military now for 29 years. On August 25th 1981 a 21 year old college kid with long Southern California “surfer” hair walked into the California Army National Guard Armory on Van Nuys Boulevard to enlist in the National Guard after having just sworn into the Army ROTC program at UCLA.   Back then I enlisted in what was or is called the Simultaneous Membership Program or SMP program.  My initial military training came through the ROTC program as well as on the job training in the National Guard as a Field Artillery Forward Observer and Intelligence Specialist.

Like Cal Ripken Jr commenting about his career “So many good things have happened to me in the game of baseball. When I do allow myself a chance to think about it, it’s almost like a storybook career. You feel so blessed to have been able to compete this long.” I can say the same thing just substituting the words “military career” for “the game of baseball.”

On the day that I enlisted I met with Major Charles Armagost the S-1 of 3rd Battalion 144th Field Artillery and full time advisor for the battalion filled out my enlistment papers and raised my right hand. I still remember the day when I enlisted. It was a hot smoggy Los Angeles day where you could see the air.  I walked down the hall after I swore in to see the supply Sergeant who outfitted me with four sets of Olive Green fatigues and ordered me two sets of the brand new BDUs.  I was issued my TA-50 gear and taken to the motor pool where I was given cursory training on the M151A1 “Jeep” and issued a military drivers license.  The three weeks later I was driving one of those venerable machines to Fort Irwin on a Friday through Sunday drill with the advanced party. It was the beginning of a 29 year career spanning two services, the active and reserve components and now multiple trips to combat zones.

Army Captain 1987

It has to quote Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead “a long strange trip” spanning the Army and the Navy, active and reserve components as well as two tours with the Marine Corps while serving in the Navy and the beat goes on with my selection for promotion to Commander and my Senate nomination to that grade on August 21st.  I have served on the Fulda Gap in the Cold War, been to what was then East Berlin driving the Helmstedt-Berlin corridor sharing the road with Soviet armored columns.  I supported the Bosnia Operation in 1996-97 and the Korean DMZ with the Marines in 2001. I served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch in 2002 where I was on a boarding team, boarding 75 Iraqi and other country smuggling ships while serving aboard the USS Hue City.  That was followed by multiple trips in and out of theater with the Marine Security Forces from 2003-2006 as well as time on the Cuban fence line at Guantanamo Bay before serving in Iraq with our Marine and Army advisors and their Iraqi Army and Security forces.  I’ve served with Infantry, Armor, Combat Engineer, Artillery, Medical and Ordnance units, Security forces, support elements, bases and training centers, hospitals and ships.

Berlin Wall November 1986

When I enlisted I thought that once I was commissioned that I would serve my entire career in the Army and retire as a Lieutenant Colonel. I did not anticipate becoming a Chaplain nor leaving the Army for the Navy. When I am officially promoted to Commander it will be the first rank since I was an Army First Lieutenant that I have not held twice.  When I first enlisted and had no ribbons I used to look at wonderment at the Korea and Vietnam veterans who had tons of ribbons and tell Judy that I wish I had what they had. Now that I am working on 9 rows of the things I cringe every time I have to remount ribbons and ribbons and my wallet screams in agony.  Judy is quick to remind me of my whininess back then and tell me that I asked for it.

She didn’t know what she was getting into

As an Army and Navy Officer I have served or done some kind of military duty in Germany, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Croatia and Turkey, Spain, Malta, Korea, Japan, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq.  I’ve done what I call the “Commie Trifecta” the Berlin Wall, Korean DMZ and the Cuban Fence Line. At the same time I have spent 16 of 27 wedding anniversaries away from home and lost count of birthdays and other important occasions that I missed while serving the country.

Guantanamo Bay Cuba 2004

I have served 5 different Presidents. In that time I have seen changes in the political, social and economic conditions of the country and the world that I could not have imagined at the time of my enlistment.  The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis had just ended but within the Soviet Union had been defeated the Berlin Wall taken down and collapse of the Soviet Union.  Twenty years after I enlisted the people that defeated the Soviets were attacking us on our own soil.

Boarding Party Arabian Gulf May 2002

I lived in Europe and went through the Chernobyl radiation cloud which is obviously the cause of my glowing personality.  While in Europe I ate enough beef to be labeled by the Red Cross as a potential carrier of Mad Cow disease. I worked on military personnel policies at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and saw the beginning of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.  I saw the Reagan build up and the post Cold War drawdown.  When I was a Company XO and Company Commander we had landlines and typewriters with carbon paper and did not get internet in my office until 1997.  It is hard to believe the changes even in the quantum leaps in computer and communication technology in the past few years where I can check e-mail on my Blackberry and work from almost anywhere with my laptop.

With Advisors and Bedouin on Iraqi-Syrian Border December 2007

Looking back here are some of the things that I have seen since I entered the military:

October 23rd 1983: Beirut Bombing: BLT 1/8 barracks and French 1st Parachute Regiment destroyed by suicide bombers 241 Americans and 58 French Paras killed.  I was at the Junior Officer Maintenance Course at Fort Knox watching CNN late at night when they broke the news.

December 12th 1985:  Arrow Air Charter Boeing 707 crashed in Gander Newfoundland killing 248 American Soldiers returning from Peacekeeping duty in Sinai Peninsula. Among the dead was Sergeant Charles Broncato who had been one of my Squad Leaders in 2nd Platoon 557th Medical Company Ambulance. I was then serving as the Company Commander.

January 28th 1986: The Space Shuttle Challenger blows up 73 seconds into flight killing 7 Astronauts.  I was in my office at the close of the day getting ready to adjudicate an Article 15 when my Charge-of Quarters SPC Lisa Dailey ran into my office and said “Lieutenant Dundas, the Space Shuttle just blew up!” My response was “Come on, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.”

February 15th 1988: The Soviet Union withdraws from Afghanistan. I was a National Guard Officer in Texas attending Seminary and thought this was a good thing.  Now I wish that they had done better and at least killed Osama Bin Laden, then a relatively minor commander.

December 21st 1988: Pan Am 103 downed by Libyan operatives over Lockerbie Scotland killing all 270 passengers and crew. The aircraft a Boeing 747 named the Maid of the Seas was the same aircraft that we had flown home from Germany on December 28th 1986.

October 17th 1989: the Loma Prieta Earthquake causes massive damage in San Francisco and Oakland. I was watching pregame activities of game 3 of the World Series between the A’s and Giants on television when it happened.

November 9th 1989: The Berlin Wall Fell. In November of 1986 we had been to East Berlin and like most Americans never thought that we would see this day.

August 2nd 1990: Iraq Invades Kuwait: At time few people believe it well end in war. I was deputy course leader for Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course, tell my classmates to get ready to go to war.

December 31st 1991: The Soviet Union is dissolved.

April 19th 1993: FBI and other Federal Law Enforcement personnel using Combat Engineering Vehicles from the 111th Engineer Battalion, the unit that I serve as a Chaplain assault the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco Texas. Davidian leader David Koresh and dozens of followers die in fire and shoot out.

June 17th 1994:  Police arrest O. J. Simpson after nationally televised low speed chase charging him with murder in the death of his wife Nicole and Ronald Goldman. NBC splits screen between NBA championship series game between Houston Rockets and New York Knicks and the chase. I watch in back of M577 Command Vehicle on 9 inch television in the field at Fort Hood.

August 12th 1994: Baseball strike cancels season, playoffs and Worlds Series.

April 19th 1995: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blow up Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building

January 26th 1998: Bill Clinton states that “I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

December 31st 1999: The world awaits the end of life as we know it due to the Y2K flaw sthat supposedly causes computers to malfunction and bring calamity to the earth.

January 1st 2000:  People including me wake up from hangovers to find that computers still work.

September 11th 2001: Al Qaeda terrorists hijack four commercial airliners crashing two into the World Trade Center Towers in New York collapsing them and one into the Pentagon. A fourth is brought down by passengers before it can reach Washington DC and its target, the US Capital killing 2976 people and injuring another 6000+. I am at Camp LeJeune North Carolina and remained locked down on base the next 4 days.

March 19th 2003: US and Allies launch attack on Iraq known as Operation Iraqi Freedom to remove Saddam Hussein from power and disarm his stocks of weapons of mass destruction. I am assigned to USS Hue City and the ship is in dry dock. The rest is history.

I also saw a lot of baseball mostly from afar, Pete Rose’s epic hit, Cal Ripken’s consecutive games record, Nolan Ryan’s 5000th strike out and 7th no-hitter as well as all of the now steroid tainted home run records including Barry Bond’s 756th home run which I saw live in a chow hall in Baghdad.

Somehow it is all worth it. Judy has not divorced me although I have probably given her reason on more than one occasion to do so and I love what I do and the people that I get to serve. It really is amazing to look back and think about all the events that I have either witnessed or been a part of in the military as well as all of the great people that I have been associated with. Those friendships and relationships mean more than about anything to me and I am grateful to God and to Judy, my family and all of my friends who have helped me, sometimes in very dark times to go as far and as long as I have in both the Army and Navy.

I was selected for promotion to Commander in June and confirmed by the Senate on August 23rd. I now am about to enter a new phase of life, military service and ministry as the supervisory Chaplain at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune North Carolina.  Lord knows what the future hold, but whatever happens I feel that things will be fine.

I hope that whatever you do that you will experience good things and be able to look back in life and say “wow that was something else.” So here is to all of us and the long strange trips that we embark upon in life.  In the words of Lou Gehrig, “I am the luckiest man alive.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Commie Trifecta

Once upon a time there was something called the Cold War.  It was rather frosty, even in the sub-tropical paradise of Cuba.  During the Cold War the Soviet Union aka Russia led what was called the Warsaw Pact in a global conflict of world domination against the United States and it’s Allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, better known as NATO.  Both sides had minor surrogates around the world.

During the Cold War there were several places where the United States had forces face to face with the Soviet Union and its Allies. The most prominent of these were Berlin where the Berlin Wall surrounded West Berlin keeping its prosperous citizens from the great deals to be found on the East German economy and the East Germans out of the decadent West.

The Wall Comes Down

In the far east the United States and its South Korean ally faced the DRNK or the Democratic Republic of Nutso Korea headed by a man named Kim who would pass the leadership of the DRNK to his son who also is named Kim.  I think that the second Kim was named after Kim Novak but this is just a rumor started by the CIA to attempt to undermine the DRNK.  The demarcation line was that of the Armistice line of the Korean War located  in the general vicinity of the 38th parallel.  This remains one of the most heavily fortified locations in the world.

The final point of direct contact was in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay where failed baseball prospect Fidel Castro took his revenge on Major League Baseball by taking over Cuba, allying himself with the Soviet Union.  He almost helped start a thermonuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  After this Castro isolated Cuba from the Major Leagues and prevented them from having access to his star baseball players, except for defectors.

Padre Steve at the Brandenburg Gate on the East Side of the Berlin Wall

To have served in the US Military at all three flash points was nearly impossible akin winning Major League Baseball’s hitting “triple crown.”  By this I don’t just mean the American or National League crown but the entire league.  The last player to do this was Mickey Mantle in 1956 who hit .356 with 52 home runs and 130 in a mere 154 games.  I refer to the feat of serving at all three locations as accomplishing the Commie Trifecta.

PT on the Korean DMZ

To do this now is an accomplishment because you had to be serving in the military in Germany before the Soviet Union went Tango Uniform and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.  Thus it is an accomplishment that few can attain unless they enter an alternate time line were the the Soviet Union survives.

On the North Korean Side of the Armistice Line

However Padre Steve has accomplished this feat.  Back in November 1986 he and the Abbess made the trip from West Germany along the Helmstedt corridor to West Berlin and then through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin.  12 years passed and Padre Steve was now in the Navy serving with the the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines in Korea from February through April of 2001.  Part of this involved camping out at Warrior Base a mere 800 meters from the South side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.  Serenaded by nightly musical serenades and inspiring messages approved by the boy named Kim we trained and also got a tour of the Armistice village of Panmunjom where in the conference room guarded by really tall and scary looking South Korean Soldiers one can actually cross over the to North Korean side of the room.  I would also do PT along the DMZ carefully avoiding anywhere marked “mines.”

Overlooking Commie Cuba from Leeward

The third portion of the Commie Trifecta was in November 2003 while assigned to the Marine Security Forces who manned the Colonel Nathan R Jessup Memorial Fence Line which separates the Guantanamo Naval Station from Communist Cuba.

This makes Padre Steve a relic albeit one who has been around long enough to get to do the Commie Trifecta. That friends is is way cool.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Merry Christmas or Whatever You Celebrate

“It’s Christmas Eve. It’s-it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we-we-we smile a little easier, we-w-w-we-we-we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.” Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged


Well, not exactly Christmas Eve….but who’s counting?

Well just a couple of days left until Christmas Eve which if you are Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox actually counts the same as Christmas day for sacramental purposes.  The Parish that the Abbess attends is having its “Midnight Mass” at 9 PM but I should not criticize.  When I was out visiting the little camps of advisers on the Iraqi-Syrian border in 2007 I moved the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass to the 23rd for the Marines and other advisers at COP South.  I figured no one else was out doing Christmas with these guys so why not, after all it was already Christmas Eve somewhere.

Anyway, I want to take this time to thank my readers and wish them a Merry Christmas, unless of course they are Jewish, Happy Hanukah.  Of course I have other friends and readers who are of different faiths or non-faiths.  I wish all my Wiccan readers a belated Happy Winter Solstice, my Moslem readers a Happy Eid. To my Atheist readers have a happy day off. Finally to the Jehovah’s Witness readers, sorry you get no presents and not only that if you guys are right only about one half of one percent of you will get to do anything other than pick fruit and pet animals for eternity anyway so enjoy. Heck even Atheists can buy presents for people at Christmas without any guilt because it helps the economy and makes people feel good.

So since everyone has reason to celebrate let us do so.  Of course many still have some hurdles to get over before you can open whatever presents you get, buy for yourself or can’t have because you’re a Jehovah’s Witness.  Among those things are fighting crowded malls, post offices, bad traffic and people infected with the holiday spirit which I think might also be called “road rage.”  Anyway most of us will navigate these treacherous waters as we travel over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s second ex-husband’s girlfriend’s brother’s house for some holiday cheer.  Actually the Abbess and I will spend it together and with our friends Pat and Jim, but most people call him Jim for Christmas day.

Anyway all seriousness aside the holidays, whichever one you celebrate, or don’t celebrate can be fraught with dangers toils and snares; from some of which we have not already come.  Yes there are the “Ghosts of Christmas Past,” the Christmas’s or other holidays that went to hell and are forever embedded in the back of our pea brains just waiting to jump out in the middle of the night.  Of course there are the “Ghost’s of Christmas Present,” the “demons” that crowd our daily lives that show up when we don’t want them to and causing us stress, pain and undue anxiety.  Finally there are the “Ghost’s of Christmas Yet to Come” that inhabit our dreams and either causing us to give in to fatalism and despair or to make a change for the better, I believe that in the latter case Christians call this repentance, but regardless of what it is called it is the better option.  Christmas and I guess other folk’s holidays can do this to you.

I mentioned in a previous article on this site about my crisis of faith since my return from Iraq how difficult Christmas can be and how fragile faith can be.  For a lot of people the holidays bring up all the hurt, pain, failure and rejection they have ever experienced rolled into a big turd sandwich served cold with chips instead of fries and Pepsi instead of Coke. Having gone through this last year I can understand just how people can despair in a time that should be full of hope, grace and peace. One person I know told me that Charlie Brown couldn’t compete with them. I

In our house this can be a difficult time mainly due to the Ghosts of Christmas past that inhabit both of our lives and the “Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come: which occasionally pay their visits.  However we work hard not to let that happen. Over the past few weeks the Abbess has been working on making decorations for our tree.  Now we have tons of decorations for the tree, many from Germany.  However she has decided that she decided she wanted to do something different this year.  She made what has to be hundreds of ornaments out of various beads, crystals, ribbons and bows.  Between that and a lot of other activities we are exhausted.  I ended up after she went to bed decoration the tree.  The ornaments look great. I went to bed and of course got up before her to go to work. I turned on the tree lights and turned the other lights off. The tree was beautiful and when she got up she got to see the fruit of her hard work.  It was cool and the tree is beautiful.

Today I was fortunate to get off a bit early.  I was able to get home and go with the Abbess to visit East Berlin to do some shopping.  This to locals is known as the base commissary although Wal-Mart is often very similar.  If you have read anything on this site regarding my dealings with the Ghost of PTSD know that crowds are not good for me unless they are in a ballpark. The commissary is a place that I do not like going but it was a necessary trip.  I survived though it did feel like my skin was crawling as I got stuck in the far corner of the store were the checkout line began, just like the stores in East Berlin before the Wall came down.  Having been to East Berlin and waited in long lines in crowded stores to attempt to buy what was not there I get flashbacks, especially when the line Nazi, or better put Line Stasi agent tells you which checkout stand to proceed to when you get to the front of the line.

Now I’m sure that many of you will visit your own version of East Berlin be it in a mall, a Wal-Mart or a base Exchange or commissary in the next couple of days, but be of good cheer in spite of everything you won’t have to brave this again until the 26th when you have to take stuff back and deal with people in worse moods and dispositions than those that were out before Christmas as well as those who are angling for bargains and willing to kill you to get them. I can understand why Frank Costanza created “a Festivus for the rest of us.”  Of course in my family we sometimes experienced the airing of grievances but not the feats of strength associated with that holiday.  Serenity now!

So until Christmas or whatever holiday that you might or might not celebrate let us “don we now our happy clothing” as we “deck the halls” while we drive our SUVs to Grandmother’s ex-second husband’s girlfriend’s house to watch football games in anticipation of baseball season as spring training begins in just under two  months.

So until then have a blessed Christmas or whatever holiday you do or don’t do this year.

Peace, Padre Steve+

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20 Years: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of the Cold War

Berlin Wall 4Berlin  Wall Being Built 1961

For those that did not get to experience the “other” side of the Iron Curtain and only know the Berlin Wall from history the 9th of November may not mean a lot.  However as someone who spent three years commanding troops preparing for the day that the Soviet Union would strike across the Fulda Gap and across the North German Plain the fall of the Berlin Wall was an amazing event.  The wall had been built in 1961 and in the succeeding years increased in complexity and many East Berliners lost their lives trying to escape at the hands of the East German Grenzschützen and Stasi agents.

Berlin-Wall 5Berlin Wall Death Zone

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War under the threat of “Mutual Assured Destruction” proxy wars in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and tense confrontations between U.S., NATO and Soviet forces at sea, in the air and at various flash points the Wall seemed like it would be there for the rest of our lives.

The initial cracks in the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe began in Poland as an obscure shipyard worker named Lech Walesa along with others who had been active in strike movements in the 1970s which were legalized in 1980 as Solidarity.  This movement would help encourage those in other Eastern European, or Warsaw Pact nations to begin their own resistance movements.  This in every case was a risky undertaking.  Anti-Soviet movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and been crushed by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact nations in 1956 and 1968.  Encouraged by support from U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II these movements in Poland and elsewhere continued to grow.

RonaldReagan at wallPresident Reagan at the Wall 1987

When Reagan gave his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech on June 27th 1987 it was greeted with derision by many but in less than three years would become a reality as the Soviet system suddenly and unexpectedly came apart in September and October of 1989.  That speech contained these immortal words:

“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

berlin wallPadre Steve at Berlin Wall in November 1986

At the time President Reagan made that speech I was an Army Captain at Fort Sam Houston Texas in San Antonio.  The Abbess and I had just returned from a three year assignment in Germany.  My unit, the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance)  where I served as a platoon leader, executive officer and later company commander was part of the 68th Medical Group. Our mission in the event of a war with the Soviet Union was to provide casualty evacuation in V Corps area of operations and assist in the reconstitution of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment which was expected if war occurred to have a 90% casualty rate.  Our preparations went on every day, site visits to locations we would occupy, REFORGER exercises and several alerts a month where we were expected to be ready to move to our GDP (General Deployment Positions) locations in 4 hours or less.  This meant ready to go to war.  Additionally there was the very real threat of terrorist directed at U.S. and German soldiers, officials and public locations such as the Frankfurt International Airport and the U.S. PX at Frankfurt which were both bombed by the Red Brigades.  In fact the Abbess and I were on the road to the Frankfurt PX when she told me to turn around because she was not feeling well.  Had we continued on there is a good chance that we would have been at or near where the blast occurred.

We visited Berlin in November of 1986 driving my 1985 bright red Opel Kadett through the Helmstedt-Berlin corridor to Berlin.  That was an interesting trip.  Paperwork had to be completed well in advance and approved before the trip.  Because the trip involved going through East Germany it was required that we first stop at the NATO border checkpoint followed by the Soviet Checkpoint.  The trip was 110 miles to Berlin and we had to repeat the process first with the Soviets then at NATO.  There was to be no deviation from the route and the trip had to be made in a certain amount of time.  Too fast, you got a ticket, too slow, you got investigated.  Since we did not recognize the authority of the East German government all dealings were to be with the Soviets.

The trip was interesting, Soviet and East German troop convoys on the road with us, East German Polizei monitoring our progress and the dreariness of the East German towns and cities that we passed.  It was like driving through a time warp back to the 1950s.  It was a radical difference from what we knew in West Germany.

Cars were different; they were Soviet built Ladas, actually Fiats made under license in the Soviet Union, East German Traubis, and Czech build Skoda automobiles.  All were antiquated by western standards and at best were products of 1950s and 1960s technology.  My Opel was an economy car in the west but as the European Car of the Year in 1985 was a masterpiece of technology in comparison to anything built in the Eastern bloc.

We remained in West Berlin our first night and in the morning made the trip into the East.  Going through Checkpoint Charlie was a surreal experience as we watched East German Border Police take our photos from their control point.   We eventually found some parking in the Alexanderplatz, did some shopping, sightseeing, had a small bite to eat and a beer, the beer being quite bad, obviously the product of the Communist system, you could not believe that it had been brewed in Germany it was so bad.  It was so bad it made any cheap American beer taste good by comparison.  We went to the East Side of the Brandenburg Gate, visited a number of other sites, including the East German War memorial where as I lined up a photo was nearly kicked in the balls by an East German soldier as he goose stepped during the changing of the guard ceremony.  So members of a Scottish Regiment of the British Army got a “kick” out of this and I had no idea how close to disaster I had come until Judy told me later.  That would have been worth the price of admission for all who saw it had the boot landed.  When we finished in the east we went over to the Reichstag and the western side of the wall.   When we returned to our hotel I discovered that I had no film in the camera and so the next morning we made the trek to East Berlin once again.  This time I was able to get photos.

berlin wall 3The Wall Falls November

The Soviet System began to come apart in the summer of 1989.  Strikes, riots and refugee crisis enveloped much of the Warsaw Pact.  Hungary opened its border with Austria in August allowing thousands of East Germans into the west followed by Czechoslovakia.  Gorbachev had decided as early as 1986 that he would not use force to quell trouble in the Warsaw pact nations.  As the turmoil built throughout the Warsaw Pact the situation in East Germany became critical as thousands of East Germans gathered at border crossing points on the night of November 9th.  Later in the evening the wall would be breached.  It was the beginning of the end for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.  In country after county Communist governments fell, most peacefully but in cases like Romania in a violent manner.  On December 31st 1990 the Hammer and Sickle was taken down from Red Square in Moscow signaling the end of the Soviet Union as on Republic after another declared their independence ushering in a period of uncertainty, change and confusion in the former Soviet Union.

gorbachev and reaganMikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1987, in 1986 Gorbachev Decided that He would Not Use Force to put down Revolts in Eastern Europe

Gorbachev’s foreign affairs adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev, recorded the moment of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in his diary.

“The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over,” he wrote. “Today we received messages about the retirement of [China’s] Deng Xiaopeng and [Bulgaria’s] Todor Zhivkov. Only our ‘best friends’ Castro, [Romania’s Nicolae] Ceausescu, and [North Korea’s] Kim Il Sung are still around — people who hate our guts.”

Looking back 20 years it is still hard to believe that the event occurred. As a former Cold Warrior I pray that the West and the Russian Republic will not return to a Cold War mentality and begin to cooperate in ways that are beneficial to peace, security and economic stability.  In the current world situation we have more shared concerns, especially in relationship to radical Islam and terrorism which affect both the West and the Russians in a similar manner.  Economic, military and diplomatic cooperation between the West and the Russians is more important than ever.

The rest is history and the future is yet to be written.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Outlasting everyone else…The value of Longevity in One’s Chosen Vocation

Soldier Once and YoungForward Observer 1982

“I want to stay around longer than the pitchers who were at the top when I came into the big leagues. I don’t want to be gone and have all the old guys — Seaver, Carlton, Ryan and Sutton — still pitching. I got rid of Palmer, now I want to outlast the rest of them.”   Bert Blyleven

Hall of Fame BaseballBert Blyleven

I have come to value longevity in my career.  In fact I did not plan on this when I enlisted in 1981, but I am am coming up on 28 years on the military.  I enlisted in August of 1981 and was commissioned in July of 1983.  In 1988 I left active duty and went to the National Guard for seminary and my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital, the Knife and Gun club in the friendly city of Dallas Texas.   I became a chaplain in 1992.  I ended up resigning my commission as a Major in the Army Reserve back in 1999 to enter the Navy.  I’ve been in the Navy now a bit over 10 years.

My plan back in the day was to spend 20 years or more on active duty in the Army and retire as a Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel and then go teach history or military science somewhere.  Things took a very different course.  The Deity Herself somehow had other plans for this at times miscreant Priest.

Berlin WallAt the Berlin Wall, the East Side, November 1986

I can relate to Bert Blyleven’s comments. When I entered the Army in 1981 a lot of folks that I knew had been around for Vietnam and Korea.  My early mentors were all Vietnam vets.  I’m pretty sure that almost all of the people that I came in with are now retired or out of the service.  In fact I cannot think of any of the men and women that I was commissioned with in 1983 who still are in the service.  Likewise, most of the guys that were senior when I entered the Navy are either out or maybe coming up on their last tour.  It is my desire like Blyleven to outlast all those guys who were Commanders and Captains when I came in ten years ago.  I like this longevity thing.  I play hard so to speak and love what I do.  It is kind of like, well heck; it is getting a chance to do what I know I am called to do. For me a second chance because I thought that I would finish my Army career in the obscurity of the Reserves and never get to do what I really wanted to do.  In a sense I am a journeyman who through a lot of ups and downs has finally come into his own.   There is a player named Oscar Salazar who was just called up this weekend from the Norfolk Tides to the Orioles.  Oscar is one of my favorite players.  He is a journeyman who has spent most of his career in the minors.  This year he came into his own.  He was hitting about .380 and was having a great year in Norfolk.  He deserves to be in the majors.  If he can’t stay up with Baltimore then I hope that another team will deal for him.  When you see him on the on deck circle talking to younger players you can tell that he enjoys playing the game.  He hustles and plays hard. I hope that he does well for the Birds while he is up for Caesar Izturis.

WeddingWedding Day 25 June 1983

There is something to longevity in one’s chosen calling.  You get to see a lot, do a lot and experience a lot that other people only get to dream of doing.  When you do what you love and then are blessed to get to do it as long as I have in two military services, the Army and the Navy, you can count yourself fortunate.   There is a certain satisfaction that I have when you look at my career in the long term and see that I have lasted 28 years and that I am still going strong.

In a sense I am a relic, though unlike most of my relic contemporaries I am still relatively junior in rank.  I enlisted at the height of the Cold War a couple of years after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini had overthrown the Shah of Iran, over 8 years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I have been to what I call the “Commie Trifecta,” East Berlin, Panmunjom Korea and Guantanamo Bay Cuba.  I have served in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at sea and ashore as well as an exchange officer. I have not always been a chaplain.  I have commanded a company in Europe during the cold war.  I have served multiple tours with the Marines, served on a great ship, the USS HUE CITY and done more in my career than I had ever imagined possible.  I am grateful for the experiences that I have been blessed with and even the adversity has made me stronger and wiser, even the times that I have had my ass kicked by it.

Boarding partyBoarding Party Operation Enduring Freedom April-May 2002

Most of the people who have been in the military as long as me are very senior officers or non-commissioned officers.   Thankfully, I still have a relatively young appearance for someone my age, which was enhanced when I shaved the pitiful remnant of graying hair from my now pristine head.  Likewise I stay in pretty good shape.  I actually want to start playing baseball or softball in some old guy league when I have the time.  People say that I appear and act younger than I am.  The acting part is no lie, I have not really grown up, and I’m still a kid at heart.  I like to have fun and see humor in life even sometimes in the midst of tragedy, which I have seen a fair amount of in my life.

Today was another 13 hour day at work.  Thankfully my department director had taken my duty over the weekend and in a sense sat me down for a game.  We have a couple of kids doing really bad in one of my units.  The last couple of hours were spent working with the families of both of these kids and spending time with our staff.  I also ended up doing country clearances for my boss and I to make a trip out of the US to work with chaplains from another country concerning the people that they are sending into our Pastoral Care Residency Program.  This later thing I have never done before, though I have supplied information plenty of times for others to do my requests.  I was talking to my buddy Elliott the usher of section 102, of which I have seat 102, row B, seat 2. We were talking about baseball and life, which is pretty much par for the course with us.  We were talking about situations that I deal with at work and he said to me, “no wonder you come here to relax.”  It is true.  I have learned that I need to take some time for me, it is imperative for my health if I want to keep myself in the game and like Bert Blyleven outlast the guys who were at the top of their game when I came in.  I have pretty much outlasted most of my Army contemporaries, now I’m working on outlasting Navy guys.

Me and BTT with Bedouin KidsOut on the Syrian Border with the Bedouin

I have come to like Blyleven.  He is one of the more under appreciated pitchers who played the game. He had 287 wins and pitched 242 complete games with a career 3.31 ERA and over 3700 strike outs, 5th on the all-time strike-out list.  He played on 3 All-Star Teams and in 2 World Series.  He played on a lot of really bad teams which probably kept him from winning even more games, yet he is not in the Hall of Fame.  At the same time he did outlast the majority of his contemporaries pitching 22 years in the major leagues.  In a sense I want to be kind of like that.  I want to outlast folks and both do well and have fun when I do it.  I want my last season, or tour in the Navy to be my best.

Pirates Orioles BaseballOscar Salazar

I hope that Bert Blyleven makes the Hall of Fame and that Oscar Salazar makes it in the Majors.  As for me, I just want to do well and have fun doing it while helping as many of the young guys as possible.

Peace, Steve+

Note: Tomorrow I will be taking part in a memorial service and celebration of life for Senior Chief Pam Branum.  She was a great shipmate and tomorrow our Medical Center as well as her many friends will remember he life and say goodbye.

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