In 1981 Germany was still a divided country. The Western part of the nation was free, the Eastern part was communist. American troops were stationed in the West, facing the Soviet Army in East Germany on the frontier of freedom in Central Europe. I was one of those troops.
Christmas of 1981 was a tense time for my outfit, a battalion of the Pershing Missile Brigade stationed in Neu-Ulm. The deployment of the Pershing II missile was a political issue and there were those in Germany, mostly left wing students led by communists, who were adamantly opposed not only to Pershing II but to our presence in the country. There were political demonstrations in front of our gates.
So when I looked at the duty roster the week before Christmas and saw that I was on it for Christmas Eve guard duty, I was not happy. When better for a terrorist incident that would attract international attention? Also, the thought of pacing to and fro for hours on end in the dark was not my idea of yuletide joy. But, duty was duty and I reported to the guard shack after dinner.
The other guys looked as joyous as I did. Some were reading, a couple of them were outside smoking, a couple were cleaning their weapons as if they expected to shoot them soon. Oh great. I sat down on my bunk and started reading a magazine. Within a couple of hours I was up and on my way to the fence.
The guard post was a walking tour of our southern perimeter fence. If I remember correctly the shifts were 2 three hour assignments separated by 6 hours. Any spare time you had you slept in the guard shack. I approached the guy I was relieving and dispensed with the sign and countersign. We both figured if any enemy had infiltrated the post to the point of faking a mundane guard duty tour on Christmas Eve then he was welcome to the joint. But he probably wanted to stay away from the mess hall, especially for dinner. Breakfast was okay.
I commenced walking and turned on the completely unauthorized small transistor radio I had brought with me. Armed Forces Network was playing a special edition, just for us, of American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. It featured family members and loved ones from back home sending Christmas greetings to us in Germany.
It was a nice gesture, but it only made us feel worse. And what’s more, if the soldier wasn’t already home with them, then he was probably out at German night club seeking inebriation and female companionship, in that order. So he likely would not hear the Christmas message from back home anyway. Points for effort.
While we walked our posts it gave us time to think, mostly of the people we missed. But we knew we had a job to do, to protect those very same people. Sometimes a duty as prosaic as walking a guard post didn’t seem very important in that defense of what and who we loved. But looking back, I guess all we did, and everyone who did it, contributed to our eventual victory in the Cold War.
Today we face different threats and adversaries. But the same kind of soldier, Marine, airman, and sailor is on guard duty tonight and will be on Christmas Eve. If you get a chance, and one of them is somebody you love, then send them a Skype, a text, or a phone call on the day or the eve and tell them you miss them and are proud of them. It’ll remind them, so far away from home at Christmas, why they are there in the first place.