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Friday, February 18, 2005

A Honeymoon for American Soldiers Based in Europe

U.S. Army Specialist Joe Roche, whose observations about his experiences in Iraq earned the honor of being quoted by President Bush and by the Smithsonian Institution, among other distinctions, has sent over some new thoughts: His impressions of Europe, where he has been stationed with the 1st Armed Division since the 1st AD left Iraq last year.

As usual, Joe is an optimist, tempered with realism:
When I got married in December, friends asked my wife and me if we were going on a honeymoon. We replied that we are and have been for months because we are in the U.S. Army stationed in Europe.

Yes, we get some weird looks when we say this, but it is absolutely true. It is because we are in the Army that we have been able to travel to some of Europe's great places and partake in some special experiences.

My time being stationed here is now finished, and I know I have been very lucky. I would like to share a little with you because in these months in Europe, my wife and I have experienced some of the great legacy that is the impact of America. I fear that I will fail to a great extent, however, because most of this simply is beyond my ability to tell you in words.

How can I impart the emotion of looking down on the graves of the people of Noville, Belgium, who were killed by the Germans in reprisals; looking at the candles in Giessen, Germany, on the night marking the U.S. bombing of the city in 1944; the monuments to Americans and British in Prague for the liberation of their country from the Nazis and the Soviets; the beautiful and grotesque images of great culture and Fascism in Rome; the love of Americans that is to be seen all over Luxemburg where the cost of their suffering in war is so graphic; the quaint grouped graves of Jews who made up the better parts of some German towns; the grandeur and romance of Paris where war and remembrance is to be felt everywhere; the pride in resistance to the Nazis and the love of freedom in Amsterdam?; the ominously dark yet impressive structures of Berlin that show both great human achievement and monstrosity ...and Bastogne?

All this time we have lived in a nice little apartment in the German town near our base. We have lived amongst the Germans and traveled as freely as can be. Yes, the Army has us very busy and working hard, but we make use of our free time and days off to see all we can. When we do this, we encounter other American soldiers doing the same. I see that stateside it looks to you like all Europeans are anti-American. That just is not true, and even where there is such sentiments, it isn't quite what you might think.

I am sensitive to our mission in Iraq because I was there for 15 months, and most of my fellow soldiers are returning there. You see all the criticism, but I see that Poles, Czechs, Latvians, Italians and others are much involved with us in Iraq. I remember seeing Ukrainian and Bulgarian soldiers often on my missions there. Here in Europe I have also seen much respect for us that is both subtle and cautious. I think Europeans are far more diverse than you might think.

Europeans are in huge transitions. For the most part, the economies here are a mess and are getting worse. Germany's unemployment rate is at a 73-year high not seen since the days of the Weimar Republic. Rather than seeing Europe dominated by the Germans and French, what I have seen is that these two are isolated and weakening, while the rest of Europe is branching out. This is making most of Europe far more supportive of American foreign policy while the Germans and French are lashing out because of growing weaknesses.

I think you are most aware of official hostility in Paris and Berlin. What you aren't seeing is that all around them, in Denmark, Hungary, and elsewhere, the move is to support the U.S. and prevent Paris and Berlin from ever dominating again. In the past months, the European Union has moved to create thirteen small military units. Some argue that this is to be a counter to the U.S. military. The reality is that this is all too small and disorganized to ever be able to lead a mission. In fact, the effect is pushing Europe further into following the U.S. lead as these units will be follow-on forces at best.

As regards European leadership in the world challenging the U.S., I just don't see it either. Having lived here, I can tell you that Europeans are very divided on this because many want to follow American leadership that is based on values and principles. I've also learned that the only real foreign power the Europeans have to project is economic, and that is on the big decline. When it comes to political or military power, Europe just doesn't have anything to put forward on the world stage.

In Paris, perhaps one of the most anti-American capitals of Europe, we still found respect. I should know because I wore my "Bush-Cheney" and my "Global War on Terrorism" hats sometimes, as well as talking like the American I am! Instead of experiencing hostility, we were always treated well and we saw just about everything in Paris. If you haven't been there, you might be surprised to know that the legacies of America are to be seen all over the city. Statues of George Washington, streets named after Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and so much more.

I don't know if I can possibly get you to appreciate what it is like to go to a city that has been devastatingly bombed and destroyed by the U.S., and yet to be treated like a hero, be welcomed, and be made to feel very comfortable. Berlin and so many other cities of Germany that we have spent time in are like this. Bear in mind that almost all of our bases here are in former German military bases that were fought over and occupied by the U.S. after WWII.

There are some things deeply of German heritage that America saved for them, too. For example, it is almost unsettling to visit Marburg and stand at the crypt of Hindenburg. The reason is that it is misplaced here from the Prussian lands because his grave was rescued by the U.S. Army and brought here to prevent Soviet desecration.

Sometimes you can feel tempted to feel bad, but then there is the Holocaust, and the destruction by Germany of Poland, Belgium or Luxemburg that is just shocking beyond imagination. One hostile German lady told a fellow soldier that her soldier-dad was killed by an American in Holland during World War Two, to which he replied by asking why her dad was there in the first place. The lesson was clear: Americans came as liberators while the Germans were destructive conquerors.

I'm from Minneapolis, and one thing I marvel at is that I don't think many Americans are as pro-American as are many Europeans. In Luxemburg City, the main church in the center has a huge U.S. flag by the altar. Tell me where in Minneapolis you will find that!

Often I am traveling around Germany in military convoys wearing full uniform and have to make stops for food or fuel. I can't count the number of times people have come up to show respect to us soldiers. I wish more Americans could experience this and feel the legacy that is America.

I think that we are too caught-up with the diplomacy of left-leaning European leaders who dominate the news to see that underneath them are many people who support and admire America, even with the Iraq mission. For example, conservative Angela Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany, is the leader of Germany's leading opposition party and might be a future leader. She illustrates the disparity in pro- and anti-American sentiments in Germany as being because of the difference between those who have suffered more recently for freedom and those who haven't.

Think about it. I don't think it is any accident that Central and Eastern Europeans support us so much. "I know what it is when you don't have freedom," Merkel explains about her childhood living in East Germany, "and so I have a strong feeling for freedom, in comparison to the Western experience where the existence of freedom is normal and fighting for it is not as necessary as it was for us."

If anyone of you are curious about following my travels with your own, I insist you go to Bastogne, Belgium, in December for the commemoration of the Battle of the Bulge. First, realize that Americans have fought hard and died hard in the forests of that region in two wars in the past century. It really is like traveling the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg when you go through the Ardennes. All over it is marked by tragic reminders of the destruction of the First World War, and then you see that this place bled so much during the Second also. This is where America made some of it's greatest stands for freedom in the 20th Century. These are the forests where you will find some of the American National Cemeteries where U.S. soldiers are buried, such as General Patton.

The people of Bastogne love us. You will see hundreds of Belgians dressed as American soldiers, and you will feel a love and admiration for us that is more humbling than anything I can describe. They welcomed us into their homes and treated us like modern-day saints. I know, though, that what it is really about is the legacy of past great Americans who were there in the two world wars, and the sacrifice they made for freedom against the tyrants terrorizing Europe and then stood up to the Soviet threat for 45 years afterwards.

One thing to realize about some of the anti-American sentiments is that we bring it on ourselves sometimes too. I know we laugh at this when it is on Jay Leno, but one morning on the German TV show Der Magazine, many college-age kids in New York were asked who the leader of Germany is today. About half said Adolf Hitler is. For Germans shameful of the Nazi past, to hear American kids so ignorant of history like that is crushing and offensive. What do you expect foreigners to think of us when we have kids so ill-educated out of high school and voting in our elections?!

What this says, I think, is that while we should realize that anti-Americanism really isn't as big in Europe as it is shown in the press and media, we should also realize that we have some work to do to clean up our act too. We are the world's champions of freedom and democracy. We should show our pride in this by being worthy of it as best we can. This means too that we don't abuse the American legacy by being negligent and ignorant of our history and our place in the world.

Well, this is the finish of my being stationed in Europe. It has been some of the most special and amazing months of my life. I know this might sound hard, but if you are able and willing, you really should join the Army and get yourself stationed here. You will love it if you make the most of it. Yes, you will get deployed in service to our missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but that is worth it when you experience and appreciate the legacy we are following. The great generations of past Americans that paved the way for Europe's liberation have left this for us today. It truly has been the best honeymoon for my wife and I to be American soldiers based in Europe.
Joe's letter reminds me very much of another letter I posted on this blog, also written by a veteran, titled "I Have Wanted to Revisit France, Since Being There in WWII..." I posted the latter letter, by World War II Vet Edward Kitsch, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day last June 6th. Because President Reagan passed away immediately following that commemoration, I suspect some folks who would appreciate Mr. Kitsch's letter did not see it at that time.

The similarity of spirit in the two letters is striking to me, though their combat experiences were nearly sixty years apart.

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Posted by Amy Ridenour at 12:52 AM

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