Entering the United States Air Force is the single best thing I’ve ever done with my life.

I signed the paperwork in March 1980 and shipped in September.   Everyone who enters the Air Force does so through Lackland AFB in San Antonio.  No, it’s nothing like the ads with the drill instructors screaming in your face the moment you step off the bus.

 Nothing like that.

23 years active and reserve duty and every moment worthwhile.  I’m not saying we didn’t work hard, that there weren’t times you felt pushed to the brink, that you weren’t so tired you thought you’d drop….but you sure learned what you were made of….and as you travel the world and see the impact our country has had on other nations and how they regard us you realize a tremendous pride in being a citizen of these United States.

Fin Flash displayed on all United States military aircraft

Fin Flash displayed on all United States military aircraft

The Officer Candidate Program back then was 12 weeks…they called us “90-day wonders” since it took us only  that long to earn a commission.  You make lots of friends, learn a lot, get into pretty good physical shape… It’s not terribly difficult.  Believe me, it’s not Parris Island – not the Marine Corps.  It’s a little running, a few push-ups, not a big deal.

As soon as I got that butter-bar, what they call 2Lt’s rank, I was off to the intelligence school in Denver.  Here the work was hard.  Class started at 6 am and went til noon.  Then you had at least four or five hours of homework.  Remember, this is not college.  They’re paying you….you’re not paying them.   Once you’re on active duty the government basically owns you.  You do what you’re told, when you’re told.  The sooner you get that through your head the easier your life will be.  Now, did they ever ask me to do anything that was really out-of-line or unreasonable?  No.  There were times when we worked long and hard….but I’ve done that in plenty of private sector jobs too.

When you go into the service you need to understand that you’ve got to play the game.  You’ve got to roll with the punches.  An example….when you’re issued uniforms you get these black leather shoes.  They’re nice, they’re pretty comfortable.  Every day you get inspected….and if your shoes are not shined to their standards you get a “demerit”.  Collect enough demerits and you spend the weekend in your room rather than going out with the rest of the gang.   These black leather shoes are supposedly acceptable, however, your commander will likely “recommend” you pay out of your pocket to get these special very shiny plastic shoes called corfams.  

I didn’t like corfams so I didn’t buy them.  Guess what?  Every single day I got a demerit for my leather shoes not being properly shined.   Anyone with a brain in their head quickly understands that getting a pair of corfams really isn’t a ‘recommendation’ it’s a requirement….they just don’t call it that.  As soon as I told my Flight Commander that I tried to get a pair of corfams but the BX was out of my size…and I had ordered a pair – – then what?  All of a sudden the shine on my leather shoes seemed to meet their standards because I didn’t get any more demerits for not having my shoes shined properly.   You see it’s all a mind game.

Another example: My best friend in the Air Force in Germany was a Tech Sergeant who we’ll call Jack.  He was an excellent intelligence analyst.  Jack was  selected for the Officer Commissioning Program where he graduated with honors.  Likewise he graduated from the Intelligence School first in his class.  Top notch guy.  When he got to his first assignment -now as an officer- back in Germany, he decided he wasn’t going to join the Officers’ Club.

 Nobody says you have to join the OClub.  It was convenient because you could exchange your US dollars for German marks at a pretty decent rate.  No, you don’t have to join, but it’s expected of you.  Jack didn’t join.  Well when it came time for promotion to Captain, which is virtually automatic…the promotion rate is like 98%….Jack, the Honor Graduate, did not get promoted. He was out of the Air Force at about the 18 year point.  Two more years and he’d have had a pension for the rest of his life.   There’s a name for that kind of behavior: it’s called stupid.

Morale of the story: Play the game, do what’s expected of you.

USAF seal-2

I’ve always had a hard time with jet lag.  Coming from Europe home, I’m fine.  Going from the US to Europe….the plane leaves the east coast (usually JFK or Dulles) about 9 pm, arrives in Frankfurt about 7 am their time….I haven’t slept a wink and I’m really dragging my ass.  They give you a day or so to sleep it off.

 Your “Welcome to Germany” pep talk usually includes a lecture on how they expect you to work hard and “you’re not here for a vacation”.  And I’m thinking….”maybe you’re not….but my first priority is to see as much of this continent as possible – work comes second”.  Of course I had enough sense not to verbalize that.  The very first weekend I was off to Paris.  The party had started.

What followed were the best three years of my life.  I traveled all over western Europe and to some other places I can’t tell you about.   The big cities: Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna – spectacular.   Paris is really a jewel.  Every building is a work of art.  Whatever you think of the french their capital city is without equal….a must-see in my book.

Vienna comes in second in terms of beauty, design, art.  You can almost hear the strings of the Johann Strauss waltz The Blue Danube.  Most Americans recognize this as the theme music to 2001 A Space Odyssey.   

Berlin is not an artistic city in the sense that the buildings were not designed with a view to being really appealing to the eye.   Remember all of Berlin was re-built from the ground up since 1945….compliments of the RAF and the US 8th Air Force.  We had a chance to go to East Berlin which was very interesting.  There was a busload of us, all in our “Class A” uniforms…which are formal blue (Air Force) or green (Army) with our name tags notably missing.

The Allied agreements that ended WWII stipulated that the Soviets had access rights to West Berlin and we had reciprocal rights to East Berlin.  On this particular day we were exercising those rights.  So we go through Checkpoint Charlie.  The West German tour guide gets off the bus.  The East German tour guide gets on the bus…..a female NCO.  She is fully aware that she is addressing a bus full of US military personnel.  She saluted us which is customary, even between adversaries.  And immediately she launches into this diatribe about how the US is guilty of war crimes for the bombing of North Vietnam.   This is 1981.  Our involvement in Vietnam ended in 1975.  During our pre-brief we were given strict instructions not to initiate contact with any military while in the east.  So you don’t walk over to Ivan the Russian enlisted guy and offer him a pack of Marlboro’s.

They took us to the Soviet War Memorial in East Berlin which really was impressive.  We got off the bus, we could walk around this park-like place.  The locals looked at us like we were from outer space….like they’d rarely seen an American before….and seemed afraid to even acknowledge us.  There were a couple of Soviet soldiers standing guard much like at our tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.   Of course we didn’t try to talk to them.  When we tried to take pictures of Soviet or East German soldiers their habit was to turn their backs to us.


This is the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park in East Berlin.
Often they’d have three or four troops standing guard out front.

Don’t approach them and don’t attempt to initiate a conversation.  Whatever you think of the Soviets they sacrificed enormously to win that war.

Just to illustrate the difference in perspectives: in World War I the United States lost about 116,000.  In WWII we lost about 400,000 military personnel in both theatres of operations – Europe and the Pacific.  The Soviets lost 300,000 just in the battle of Berlin alone.  They lost 75% in that one battle of what we lost in the entire war.  Soviet military doctrine, going all the way back to Lenin, has always been based on superior numbers.  They knew their technology was not as good as the Germans….but they had way more numbers – of everything.   During the Cold War they knew our gear was better….but they had lots more than we did.  In Europe, while I was there, we were outnumbered in tactical combat aircraft by more than 2:1, in tanks more like 4:1.

The Kremlin knew we’d resort to nukes pretty quick if they came across that intra-German border, what we called the IGB.  And the French government made it very clear that they were not going to wait until Warsaw Pact troops reached France.  The moment a communist soldier stepped across that IGB they were going to let lose with their nukes long before the commies reached the french border….and -the reasoning went- if they killed a few hundred thousand Germans in the process….oh well….so much the better.  Under no circumstances would they endure another occupation like 1940-44.

It’s been the American strategic nuclear deterrent that has kept the peace in Europe since 1945.  It’s the backbone of NATO.  There’s a reason why the top ranking officer in NATO has always been an American four star….SACEUR – Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.

NATO HQ Brussels, Belgium

NATO HQ Brussels, Belgium

So back to the East Berlin tour.  They took us to this restaurant…that was completely empty except for us. And they only accepted West German  marks.  They didn’t want to be paid in their own money….the East German govt went to great lengths to get their hands on “hard” currencies….meaning money from western nations.

Unless you’re an old timer like me you don’t remember that back in the early 1980s the US dollar was very, very strong on the international currency markets.  In 1980 Reagan campaigned effectively against President Jimmy Carter on the “misery index”.  That was the unemployment rate combined with the inflation rate….they totaled over 20.  Reagan used that against Carter with great success.  Reagan got 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49.  That’s a landslide by any definition.

The reason I raise this is because life in western Europe was pretty comfortable for those of us being paid in US dollars.  The house we rented went for the equivalent of $300/month.  You couldn’t touch that in the US.  A nice dinner for two…drinks, dessert, the works came to about $12.  We were living high on the hog.  You could buy anything anywhere with the American dollar.   The landlord was very happy as long as I kept him supplied with Jim Beam.  American liquor is very expensive in Europe and the sales tax is 14%.   Buy it on base and it’s dirt cheap.   So if that’s what keeps him happy, then fine.  Now and then I’d take Mrs. Landlord to the commissary where she could load up on American food.  They loved us and we got along great.

In the US there used to be the milkman who worked for a local dairy and would deliver milk, ice cream, etc to your home three or four times a week.  In Germany they have the “beer man” who brings you a couple of liters of your favorite brew on a regular basis.

What’s left?  London.  I was there for a long weekend.  It was Columbus Day 1981.  Five countries in one day.  Left Germany, through Luxembourg, through Belgium, across northern France, across the Channel to Britain.

I’m the last person to ask about Britain.  Been there just this once.  Never had a burning interest in their history.  The few British officers I’ve met through my intelligence work were really nice people.   There is a very short list of countries that we can really trust.  As Americans, we can go to bed at night and sleep soundly in the knowledge that the Brits will never stab us in the back.  Believe me, that cannot be said about some of the other countries who are supposed to be our ‘allies’.

Best of Friends: Maggie got the brains,
Ronnie got the jelly beans

With the British we share a language*, cultural values – rule of law, respect for human rights, value of the individual, a criminal justice system that says innocent til proven guilty.   With Canada we share all those things, plus with them we share a continent.  Like I said, it’s a short list.  (Canada even has a Major League Baseball team…what could be more American than that?  Ever noticed that when you call Canada it’s not an international call, just a different area code…like calling from New Haven to Hartford….Tampa to St Pete.)   The difference between an American and a Canadian is like the difference between and German and an Austrian…..there isn’t much.

We and the Brits are in sync on nearly every foreign policy issue across the board.  In short, there is very little “daylight” (i.e. differences) between Washington and London when it comes to the important stuff.  They have been our best friend and closest, most loyal, ally for nearly 200 years.  The only real spats we’ve had were the Revolution and the War of 1812….and that was two centuries ago.  When there is the occasional bump in the road (Grenada) we kiss and make up pretty quickly and everything goes back to business as usual.  That’s the ‘Special Relationship’ they love to talk about.  It’s a nice place to visit……so long as you don’t mind drinking warm beer and driving on the wrong side of the road.

*In an address to a Joint Session of Congress Sir Winston Churchill joked that “America and Britain are two countries ‘separated’ by a common language”

That covers the major cities I visited.  We lived about 45 minutes from the french border.  It was not unusual for a bunch of us to go over to France for dinner.  Back then the trend was a buy a new Saab and see what it could do out on the Autobahn.  Wife and I each got one….no speed limits on parts of the german autobahn.  I’d be driving along at 125 or 130 mph feeling like I’m breaking the sound barrier and these BMWs or Mercedes would fly past me like I’m standing still.  When they swoop up behind you and flash their high-beams that normally means, “Get the hell outta my way you dumb ass American”.

I spent a fair amount of time exploring the battlefields of the First World War in eastern

The world as we know it exploded a century ago this summer. If you read anything about that this. Pulitzer Prize.

The world as we know it exploded a century ago this summer.
If you read anything about that era….read this. Pulitzer Prize.

France…..Verdun, the Marne, the Somme.  This was trench warfare at its worst.  Think of Gettysburg with machine guns and poison gas.  You can still see and walk down into the huge caters created when these monstrous artillery shells detonated.  And this was the “war that would end all wars”.  This summer, 2014, is the 100th anniversary.  For a really good read on this I heartily recommend Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.

Bavaria is Germany’s largest state in the southeastern corner of the country.  Definitely worth a visit.  Schloss Neuschwanstein is there.  As far as tourist attractions, natural Alpine beauty, good German beer….this is the place.  Plan on spending two or three days.  You won’t regret it.

Another place worth visiting is an American military cemetery.  I went to the one in Luxembourg where George Patton is buried.  He survived the war but was killed in a vehicle accident in late 1945.  Kennedy said in his inaugural, “The graves of young Americans who answered the call to duty surround the globe”…and they do.

Patton gravesite

Lt General George Patton grave in Luxemboug

I spent a good deal of time travelling around Europe and in the process managed to learn something about the intelligence business as well.  This was during the early 1980s, Reagan’s first term when he was calling the Soviets the Evil Empire.  The Soviet leadership was changing frequently.  Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982.  His successor, longtime KGB operative, Yuri Andropov took over and died in 1984.  He in turn was followed by Konstantin Chernenko who died in 1985.  So for a while there was a rapid succession of leaders.  At a press conference Reagan was asked, “Why haven’t you met with your Soviet counterpart?”  The President quipped, “I’ve tried to but they keep dying on me”…haha.

 Well, the next one wouldn’t.

The Soviet Politburo realized they needed a younger guy who would have some longevity and they settled on Mikhail Gorbachev who became leader in 1985.  He was the final leader of the Soviet Union.  When he resigned on Christmas Day 1991 that was the end of communism, the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the non-communist Russian Federation.   The 16 member countries that had form the USSR called themselves the ‘Confederation of Independent States’ which itself fell apart in just months.

I had a buddy who I went though the USAF commissioning program with, through the intel school with.  He was working in the Defense Attache’s office at the American Embassy in Moscow when all this was going down.  Very exciting time to have a front row seat at history.  In my view, Gorbachev, more than any other single person deserves credit for bringing about the end of communism in eastern Europe and Russia.

Looks who’s left as communist countries: China – They’re communist in name only, their economy is about as capitalist as you can get….they manufacture and export like nobody’s business.  The regime picks and chooses what aspects of communism they choose to retain such as censorship of the press.  North Korea – That’s more of a family cult than anything else.  For them communism is the crutch used to keep that family in power.  Cuba – Fidel is on his last legs.  When he goes I’ll bet communism in Cuba goes with him.  His brother Raul won’t be able to hold it together.  What Marx and Engels envisioned as a workers’ paradise was a nice idea….on paper.   The way it was implemented was a perversion of the original theory.  Any system that supresses the natural wants and needs of the human race is doomed to eventual failure.

So from April 1981 until July 1984 I had had my fill of Europe and was ready to come home.  In August 1984 I began what would be 12 years at the Defense Intelligence Agency  (DIA) in Washington, DC.