Service before self

Map showing Baumholder’s location

At the end of 1990, American servicemembers began to build up in Saudi Arabia, along the border that country shared with Kuwait. This action, Operation Desert Shield, was precipitated by the fact that Kuwait had been invaded by its larger neighbor to the North, Iraq. While these events were front-page news across the globe, they had an immediate, direct impact on my life, as I was a teenager growing up in Baumholder, an Army post in Germany.

It wasn’t long before my life at Baumholder began to change dramatically. My mother was a civilian employee on the base, so we lived “on the economy”–which meant, in the parlance of military families living overseas, in a house that we rented in a nearby German village–because on-base housing was reserved exclusively for military families. I rode a bus to school every morning, though the “buses” that we used were actually Mercedes-Benz vans that picked up the half-dozen or so students on each route. In America, that might raise some eyebrows (“Mercedes school buses?!”), but in Germany, Mercedes and BMW are about as ubiquitous, if not more so, as Ford and GM are in the U.S.

After American troops began to mass in the Middle East and tensions began to mount, it was felt that an attack against a “soft target”–like the children of American servicemembers overseas–was possible. To counter this threat, armed Military Police were assigned to ride with us on the buses, and others were posted to guard us at the bus stops. Having a soldier in full body armor with a loaded M-16, whose sole responsibility each morning was to protect me and my schoolmates, was both exciting and terrifying. Until that point, I’d never considered that anyone would want to kill me, and the realization that I was a potential target, simply because it would be easier to kill children as a means to hurt and demoralize American troops than it would be to attack them directly, was eye-opening.

Armed guards on the school buses was only the tip of the iceberg, however. Radical changes were underway that, in some cases, are still in effect to this day. Most of the soldiers assigned to the base began to deploy in preparation for war, and the base population plummeted as a result. The base itself, once all but merged with the surrounding German community, was practically on lockdown. Roads that once merged the German community and the base at multiple points were blocked off with concrete barriers. Fences were erected, surrounding the base and further isolating it from its German neighbors. Construction began on a new guard checkpoint at the main entry to the base.

Baumholder American High School

My high school was similarly isolated. Located on the Southern edge of the base, along a major road, the school itself was vulnerable to a potential attack. All access directly to the school was cut off by concrete barriers and two-and-a-half-ton trucks–a design called a “deuce-and-a-half” by the military–which were parked at the ends of a road and parking area that was adjacent to the front of the school. Our bus had to drop us off about half a block from the school entrance, where one of the deuces was parked, and we walked the rest of the way. Once we got to the front doors, more armed guards were there to conduct checks of our military dependent ID cards.

By January 1991, the bombing campaign over Iraq began, and Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm. Conducted at night–the better to help conceal the planes from ground-based defenders–the timing and time zones helped make the war take place during the middle of the day back in the United States. Germany, however, was only two time zones away, so the middle of the night in Iraq was simply earlier in the night for Germany. I was at home, cleaning my room and listening to Armed Forces Radio–the only English-language radio to be found where I lived–when an announcer came on to report that bombing had begun in Baghdad.

Despite my age and the circumstances, I still found a way to become actively involved in the war effort, even if only in some small capacity. I’ve always been a fairly patriotic person, and “doing my part” was important to me, especially since I saw firsthand how the base became a virtual ghost town with so many of its soldiers deployed to fight the war. Long before the bombs started to fall, I was already doing my part. Nearly all of the servicemembers deploying to the Middle East passed through Rhein-Main Air Base, which was located near Baumholder. At Rhein-Main was an area filled with tents for those servicemembers to relax, make phone calls home, and sleep before continuing on to Saudi Arabia. Nicknamed Tent City and run by the USO, I spent many of my weekends volunteering there.

Tent City
Tent City. (That’s me on the right, in the Boy Scout uniform)

At the heart of Tent City was an enormous fest tent, about the same size and type used by the Germans for large fests. Inside of this tent were couches and big-screen televisions with VCRs and an assortment of movies; board games; ping pong tables; dart boards; books and magazines; as well as food and drinks. When I volunteered at Tent City, I would work in this tent, spending about 24 hours straight (with naps on the couches between planeloads of troops) keeping the food and drinks stocked; talking to or playing games with the soldiers, airmen, and, occasionally, Marines as they passed through; checking out video tapes to them; straightening up the bookshelves; and whatever else needed to be done to maintain the tent’s facilities and help facilitate an environment where these deploying servicemembers–many of whom weren’t more than five or six years older than I was–could relax and rest before continuing on to their destination in the Middle East. At one point, after the war had begun, I brought along several of the other scouts from my Boy Scout Troop, providing all of us with an opportunity to complete the service hours required for advancement.

One thing I always did when I got to Tent City was check the register of units and people who had passed through during the week. My father was a crew chief and a senior noncommissioned officer in the California Air National Guard, and I hadn’t seen him since I’d moved to Germany, nearly three years earlier. I was afraid that he would pass through Tent City, and not only because he would be going off to war, but that I wouldn’t even get a chance to see him if he did come through Germany. He never did deploy for the Gulf War, but even if he had, I know in retrospect that he would have called us so that we could see him. In fact, that’s exactly what happened a few years later, when he deployed for Operation Northern Watch. When he passed through Germany, en route to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, he called ahead and we had enough time to get lunch together at the Burger King at Ramstein Air Base, before he had to go back to work and get his plane ready to move on.

I kept working as a volunteer at Tent City, often two or three weekends each month, until it was shut down after most of the American forces had returned home from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I was honored later that year by the base commander for the hundreds of hours I had volunteered there, along with many others who had done the same. I may not have been old enough to go off to war myself, but I still found a way to play a role, however small.

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