Reflections of a Cold Warrior – The Men

Author: Steve Traywick

“Some had families waiting. For others, their only family would be the men they bled beside. There were no bands, no flags, no Honor Guards to welcome them home. They went to war because their country ordered them to. But in the end, they fought not for their country or their flag, they fought for each other.” Joseph Galloway, Narrator: We Were Soldiers

It’s Thanksgiving again and, as always, my thoughts return to a different time and a different

Author Steve Traywick

Author Steve Traywick

kind of family.  In Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Being There, I mentioned my first Thanksgiving in Germany but now I think it’s time to introduce you to the men. Grab a cup of coffee or a beer and come on into the kitchen; I have a tale to tell.  I want you to meet my other family.  We fought with and for each other.

If I didn’t mention it at the beginning of this blog, I AM NOT A WRITER!  I’m not sure I can write a word portrait of someone but I’m going to try.  History is made up of what real people have done. The guys I served with were just that: real people. They were sons, brothers, husbands, fathers and friends. Several of them made a huge impact on my life.  I remember most of them with the fondest warmth.  There were some assholes of course. You can’t get a large crowd of people together without having at least one, but I’ll get to them much later on.

A lot of us were just kids although we thought we were grown.  A lot of us were in the Army in the first place because of the economy during the early 1980s.  We simply couldn’t find jobs.   I couldn’t find a job, but since I was (and still am) a history nut I thought armor would be the way to go.  I certainly didn’t want to find myself in the woods humping a ruck sack.

I didn’t intend to editorialize, but I still lose patience with people who remember Jimmy Carter as a great statesman. He may have been, but he was a disaster as a president.  I think the country is better off with him in retirement than sitting in the Oval Office.  I remember high unemployment, sharply rising gas prices, interest rates in the twenty percent, the Ayatollah Khomeini taking power in Iran with Carter’s blessing, the Iran Hostage situation, and a lot more.  The high unemployment rate is what put a lot of us in uniform.

A lot of guys went in to take advantage of the GI bill, but not me.  They had just changed it when I went in and it pretty much didn’t amount to anything. A lot of them stayed in and made the Army a career.  I believe to this day that the classes of 1979 and 1980 formed the backbone of the Army that went into Kuwait in 1991 and kicked some and took some.  We became Uncle Ronnie’s Army.

If you can’t tell, I’m stalling about writing the word portraits of the guys I knew. Through the magic of Facebook, I’ve been able to get in touch with many of them.  Some of them have changed and some of them are much the same way we were when we were younger. We’ve certainly all aged.   So, if any of them happen to read this, I hope they’ll understand. 

SSG Mark McDowell (Photo Courtesy of Steve Traywick)

SSG Mark McDowell
(Photo Courtesy of Steve Traywick)

Mark was a tanker’s tanker and practically the first guy I met in Fulda when he came to my room in the barracks looking for my roommate. Everyone called him ‘Mac’.   He had the theories and practical application of tanks and tank gunnery down.  I believe if an unassembled M60A1, M60A3 or M1 tank showed up in his garage he would have it put together and running in a few days.  Not only did he know the ins and outs of the tanks, he had a knack for teaching.  He made any subject he taught interesting.

I think because I was assigned to Mac’s tank as his loader, he took me under his wing. There were several occasions when he probably should have taken me behind the tank line in the motor pool and kicked the shit out of me but didn’t.  It certainly would have improved my attitude.  Mac also went a long way to stop me from becoming what we called a barracks rat; someone who never got out of the barracks or left post.

Dan was something of a legend in 1st Squadron and I could write volumes about this guy.  A

Dan

Dan

tow-headed guy from Nebraska, it was fitting that he was on tanks, because he was built like one and strong as a bull. Dan was pretty easy going when sober, but like so many of us, alcohol could bring out his testy side.

There is the story of the night he got picked by the German Politzei.  Fashing, the German equivalent of Mardi Gras, was in full swing.  Dan was walking back to the barracks from downtown Fulda where the celebration was going on.  Dan had a full load of beer on and swerved into the street (he was trying to walk on the sidewalk) in front of a car driven by a German civilian.  The civilian, thinking he was safe in his car gave Svitak the German equivalent of the bird; his thumb sticking up between his index and middle fingers.

Unfortunately for Komrad, Dan saw him do this and then the traffic light he was approaching turned red.  Komrad stopped and Dan dropped his shoulder and put a flying tackle on Komrad’s car doing about a thousand marks worth of damage to the body.  Horrified, Komrad jumped out of his car and ran to the phone booth on the corner to call for help.

Somehow, it occurred to Dan that he shouldn’t let Komrad do this, so he put another flying tackle on the phone booth and proceeded to take it apart in an effort to stop Komrad from calling anyone. Dan was a little late.  Komrad made his phone call and the politzei showed up as Dan was disassembling the phone booth.

Ordinarily, the German Politzei are as polite as any policemen in the world, but they absolutely will not take any guff from anyone.  When two German officers pulled up to find Dan taking apart a telephone booth they didn’t say much.  Legend has it they simply pulled two Uzi sub-machine guns from their car and locked and loaded.  Dan, knowing the odds were probably against him, simply grinned and put his hands up and let them handcuff him.

Wadmalaw Island

Wadmalaw Island

Larry, who was also known affectionately as Grape Ape, was from Wadmalaw Island, SC. He was probably my best friend up until the time he rotated back to the States. If I ever found out what brought Larry into the Army, I’ve long forgotten it. Maybe it was for a job. Maybe it was for the education benefits. Hell, maybe he just wanted off Wadmalaw Island.

He was a big, strapping kid. When we would horseplay in the motor pool, I could take a running start and throw my one hundred seventy five pounds onto Larry’s back and he wouldn’t flinch. He would simply carry on with what he was doing until he got tired of me and simply throw me off. He was even tempered; rarely got overly-excited about anything. We pulled a lot of guard duty together and spent a lot of time together on the tank in the field.  He’s another of the guys I’d love to get in touch with just to see how he is.

At the end of Larry’s first year in Germany, he went home on leave. One Friday, we had the afternoon off and had had a few beers. Someone came up with the bright idea of going downtown and calling Larry to see how he was doing. At that time, we couldn’t just pick up the phone and call directly to the States. We had to go to the phone exchange and put in a person to person collect call. One of us had Larry’s home number. We took the bus downtown. We put in the call. Larry’s mother answered the phone and accepted the charges. The conversation went something like this:

“Mrs. Johnson, this is Specialist Traywick, may I speak to Specialist Larry, please? Yes ma’am, I’ll hold.”

“This is Specialist J., sir.”

“LARRY! How the hell are you? Having a good time at home?”

(Pitching his voice very low) “What the hell are you stupid mother fuckers doing???  You just scared the hell out of my mother! She thought it was an alert and I’d have to go right back!”

“Well, we got to missing you and wanted to see how you’re doing. Some of the other guys want to talk to you too.”

“Dumbass! Do you realize you called me collect?!?! I have to pay for this!”

“We’ll kick in some money when you get back. So, are you having a good time? You didn’t marry that girl, did you?”

“Yes, I’m having a good time. No, I haven’t got married. Let me talk to the other dumbasses so I can get off the goddamn phone before I go broke. I’m going to kick some serious ass when I get back there!”

“Okay, see you when you get back. Miss you, Man!”

(Sigh) “Yeah, I miss ya’ll too.”

I handed the phone off. We probably kept poor Larry on the phone for a half hour, but we missed our buddy. We knew he’d have most of a month to cool off.  He actually laughed about it when he got back. We really had scared him worse than we scared his mom.  I think he was touched that we’d think about him.

By then, we had all become pretty tight. We were family. When one was on leave or gone for some reason, there was an empty spot and we missed him. To this day, I thank God that our section never had a serious injury or death, which was something of a miracle given some of the stuff we got into.

Dwight was also from South Carolina. We went through Basic Training and AIT together.  Dwight was one of the few genuinely religious people I ever met in the Army. I only knew him to ever read two types of book; the Bible and Army training manuals. Dwight also wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but he was one of the sweetest, kind hearted human beings I met in the Army. He rarely, if ever, had a bad attitude and usually had a smile on his face. He read his Bible and prayed every night.

Dwight was blessed in other ways too. The day we went to call Larry, before we went to town, we all headed to the showers. We rarely wore our uniforms to town, so we were going to change into civilian clothes before heading out.

Dwight was already in the shower when we walked in. He not only had a kind, easy going disposition, but God had blessed him with good looks and a near perfect body. He had ‘six pack’ abs, broad shoulders, huge biceps and his legs were muscular. I think the term was that he was “cut”. He looked like a body builder. He also had one other ‘blessing’.  We went into the shower as a four man mob; saw Dwight, and stopped and stared in amazement. “HOLY SHIT, DWIGHT!”

“Jesus! Would you look at that!”

“Oh, my God!”

Dwight was African-American with a medium brown complexion. I’m pretty sure if the blush would have shown he would have went purple.

“What?”

“Man, you’d kill a woman with that thing!”

“Man, we could get you into porn movies and make a million bucks!”

It dawned on Dwight what we were talking about.

“Uh uh. I promised my mama I wouldn’t do anything like that until I got married.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Nope”

“I can see the letter home now…’Dear Mama, the guys want me to be in movies…porn movies whatever that is…”

“Let’s get going.”

In spite of the teasing, which Dwight took in stride, he went with us downtown for the soon to be infamous collect phone call to Larry Johnson. Dwight was probably the only one of us that Larry couldn’t stay mad at for very long.

Evidently, word of Dwight’s endowment got out. One of the female soldiers in the maintenance company heard about it. Somehow, she got Dwight to come to her apartment for dinner. There was some sort of festival going on post, but I had duty as CQ runner. I was standing on the steps to the barracks when Dwight came out. He was cleaned up and dressed in civies.

“Hey Dwight, what’s doing?”

(Embarrassed grin) “Oh, I got a date”

“Really? Who with?”

Dwight said the girl’s name. My eyes must have gone a little wide as I thought to myself ‘Uh oh”.

“Well, you have a good time. Don’t do anything the rest of us wouldn’t do.”

“Nope. I prom…”

“I know. You promised your mama you’d behave.”

“Yep”

“Okay, man, see ya when you get back”

“Okay, see ya.”

This was at about 1700 (five PM). I had duty until 0700 the next morning, so I was up at midnight when Dwight came crawling back to the barracks. Yes, practically crawling.  Dwight was a big, strong young man. He could run two miles at nearly a full sprint. He could knock out sixty pushups in two minutes. He maxed every PT test he ever took, but he was practically staggering when he came up to the barracks.

“Hey, Dwight, have a good time?”

A sleepy grin came across Dwight’s face and I thought for a second that his head would split in two.

“Oh, yeah.”

“Oh, my God! Dwight, you got laid, didn’t you?”

(Tired chuckle) “Yeah.”

“Well, good for you!”

This news was too good to keep to myself and Dwight hadn’t told me not to tell anyone so I passed it around. Come Monday morning formation as we stood in ranks listening to whatever information the First Sergeant was putting out, the young lady that had seduced Durham came walking by on her way to somewhere. She seemed to be walking funny like she had maybe injured a hip or something and was definitely more bow-legged than usual.

Someone in the section noticed her condition. There were nudges, eye rolls and head points. Those of us who knew the story of Durham’s date had to catch our breath to keep from laughing out loud. We knew why she had the funny lilt to her walk, but at least Dwight hadn’t killed her.

Humberto was an E6/Staff Sargent and one of the tank commanders in our section. He was from Los Angeles and he was a wild man. ‘Berto had no hesitation telling anyone what he thought about them, the current situation, the Army, the chain of command, etc.

REFORGER Exercise

REFORGER Exercise

During one REFORGER (from return of forces to Germany) exercise, a couple of our scout tracks managed to corner and “capture” an OPFOR (opposing force) vehicle. The scout section sargent came up on the platoon radio net and asked if anyone needed anything from the “enemy” tracks.  Someone responded that they should get their maps and overlays.  Someone else suggested they take their weapons and sensitive items such as radios and binoculars.  ‘Berto was much more pragmatic. His response was “Get a blowjob!”

Mike, another Staff Sargent/tank commander, got there about the same time I did.  Mike was a gambler; probably the best I ever saw in action.  Mike would take a ten dollar roll of quarters to OP Alpha.  Two weeks later when we left, the bank bag would usually be full of bills.[1]

Mike was something of a celebrity too. He’d transferred in about the same time I did. He’d come from Aberdeen Proving Grounds where he’d been doing field trials on a new tank. Something called the XM1. The Army was allegedly taking lessons learned by the Israelis in the Yom Kippur war (where tank crew casualties had very nearly gutted the IDF Armor Corps) on crew survivability and was applying them to a completely new tank.  The stories Mike told about this new tank were unbelievable.  We would later find out that the truth was even more fantastic than Mike describe.

Now you’ve met the family.  It may have been a Cold War to the rest of the world, but it was

Soviet Barracks

Soviet Barracks

real to us.  The tensions were high.  We knew the Cold War could go hot at any time and the bonds the ‘tank family’ forged would be our refuge in a shooting war.  “According to a declassified National Security Agency history, American Cryptology During the Cold War, the “period 1982-1984 marked the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The secret history recounts that “Cold War hysteria reached its peak” in the autumn of 1983 with a NATO nuclear-release exercise named Able Archer 83, which — according to a CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate – caused “Soviet air units in Germany and Poland [to assume] high alert status with readying of nuclear strike forces.”[2]

 

[Editor’s Note: Steve Traywick was born in Union City, Tennessee on April 11, 1958 but grew up in Houston, Texas.  Steve went into the Army in June 1979 as a 19E10 (M60A3) Tank Crewman.  He arrived in Fulda FRG, Germany in November 1979.  Strategically important during the Cold War because it was an area where tanks could invade, The Fulda Gap is situated between what used to be the East German border and Frankfurt.  Steve was assigned to B Trp 1/11 ACR and served there until January 1984 when he was transferred to A Co 2/8 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood.  Steve continued his service with the 1st Cavalry Division until he left the service in 1989.]

This is the sixth in a series of Reflections of a Cold War Warrior written by Steve Traywick. This series provides a rare behind-the-scenes view of what a recruit in the military experiences in the transformation from boy to warrior; from a kid next door to a man who was willing to give his life to keep you free. Previous Posts: Every story has a beginning and this one is mine, Reflections of a Cold War Warrior, Reflections of a Cold War Warrior Being There, Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Duty, and Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Continue the Mission

 


[1] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia states that “Exercise Reforger (from return of forces to Germany) was an annual exercise conducted, during the Cold War, by NATO. The exercise was intended to ensure that NATO had the ability to quickly deploy forces to West Germany in the event of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact.”

[2] George Washington University; Nate Jones; May 21, 2013; The Able Archer 83 War Scare: “NATO requested initial limited use of nuclear weapons”; http://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/war-scare-the-real-life-war-game-that-almost-led-to-nuclear-armageddon/

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