by John D. Couch
I would have to say one of the most eye-opening experiences I ever had was being a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during the years 1983-87. President Reagan, as Commander-in Chief, was my boss; the top of this lengthy “Chain of Command” I had to keep committed to memory. During my term in service I had plenty of experiences that shot holes through my ideals of patriotism. I was part of those “shows of force,” commonly used by the Reagan White House as a foreign policy tool. Whether these “shows of force” was effective or not, remains a mystery to me. I found myself in situations that seemed to be more damaging to our relations with other countries, then they were to be helpful. Then again, I was just a simple soldier doing what was expected of me. Perhaps those who out-ranked me really did know what they were doing; at this point, however, I still question that notion.
One of the most memorable experiences that had me questioning my actions as an American soldier took place outside the Grafenwoer training area in West Germany. The majority of troops stationed in Europe were mechanized; they relied on tanks and armored personnel carriers for their mode of transportation. This severely limited the areas where they could train. As paratroopers, we were able to jump into our training areas. After the, we relied on our feet to get us from place to place. West Germany, being occupies, was wide open to us, with the exception of “urban” areas. During an exercise in the summer of 1985, we were conducting a company level (120-150 troops) movement through the German countryside. our unit came upon a small farming community. In front of use were acres and acres of farmland. Our Company Commander was confronted with the decision of taking the roads that zig-zagged through the fields, or maintaining our present direction of travel. He decided that we would go right through the farmlands.
We started moving across the well-groomed fields of produce. Since this was a tactical movement, we were required to travel in a formation that was appropriate for wide pen spaces–as far away from each other as possible. I’d say that the width of our formation was about 70 meters or so across. Every once in a while, I came fairly close to the people who were tending the fields. One of them, an elderly man in his 50’s, started cussing at us in German. He was pointing at the American flags we wore on our sleeves and shouting at us. The words themselves, I didn’t understand, but the emotions behind them struck me harder than a swift kick in the crotch. There we were, “america’s Guard of Honor”, tearing up these farmlands that brought food and a way of living to these people, hardly what I would call “diplomacy.”
I was near the center of the formation, so I was able to see the damage made by the 50 or so soldier that were in front of me. There were some recently planted vegetables, that had once reached for the sun, driven back into the ground by careless soldiers. I tried my hardest to leave as little impact as possible on the soil beneath me, but after awhile, my efforts only seemed futile. The damage I saw along our path was quite extensive. At that point, I couldn’t help but to question our presence there. Was this really in the best interest of the United States? I didn’t know. All I knew was that we had surely done several thousands of dollars of damage to their crops for no apparent reason. I mean, I could see cutting across the fields if we had the entire Red Army hot on our trail, but this wasn’t the case.
After what seemed like days, we finally “breached the open space in a swift manner.” Once on the other side, we moved into a security perimeter. I was lying on the ground, propped up on my elbows. From my vantage point, I was able to look out over the farmlands we had just finished crossing. Cutting diagonally across the parallel rows of produce, was a 70 meter wide path pounded into the soil. I dropped my head in disgust. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the flag on my sleeve. There it was. The parallel lines that ran its length weren’t blemished, but the ideals it was supposed to stand for were. At this point in time, I thought about all the people home in the States. I’m sure that they had no idea as to what was being done under the name of the United States. Then again, they probably didn’t care. These were the asme people that put Reagan in for a second term.
After several days of evading an invisible enemy, we brought our training to an end. We were then flown back to the rear by helicopters. While we sat on the ground cleaning out weapons, our Company Commander started into his usual “after action speech.” Paling in front of us by with his hands clasped behind him, he said, “Men! You have really worked hard these last few days.” He then stopped his pacing. “Some of you might be asking yourself if it was all worth it.” He was scanning the crowd in front of him, almost as if we were supposed to react. “Freedom!” It’s all about freedom!” Men, believe m. You all have earned yours!”
“Yeah,” I thought, as I ran a cleaning rod through the bore of my rifle. “At the expense of someone else.”
“Reagan-Era Paratrooper,” by John D. Couch originally published in City Scriptum ([Forum] 1990, City College of San Francisco).