This year of 2020 reminds me, somewhat, of our lives in Germany. There were trips planned, freedoms lost, missed times with husbands, wives, children and friends. We were locked down to a small area. Picking food up from restaurants was not a possibility because there were none in our little American community. We had our community center (one grocery store and one department store) to shop at with limited hours. Our German community was cut off from us. It was not safe to shop downtown, to eat in German restaurants or to make a random trip to France on a Saturday afternoon for pottery shopping and lunch. This post explains our lives in 1990-92.
It was our third tour to Germany, our fourth city and our ninth year. By this time we were use to stairwell living, six apartments in each stairwell and three stairwells to a building. Our neighbors, people in Steve’s units and people we met in the community became our friends, family and support group. We celebrated holidays, birthdays, happy and sad times as we managed our daily lives. This group understood the trials and tribulations we under took in our daily lives.
In a cute little cottage, owned by Lupe’s Spanish family, in Spain the Kerrick and Rotchford familes were enjoying a quite August evening. The adults were enjoying adult beverages in the living room, while the four girls were off in one of the bedroom doing whatever. We had on the TV but since it was in Spanish we wasn’t really paying attention. However, when President George H.W. Bush appeared on the screen, we turned up the volume and our attention immediately went to what he was saying. Lupe, being the only fluent Spanish speaking person in the room, immediately tried to keep up with the newscaster, who was using a Castilian dialect. She explained to us what was being said. Then pictures of the invasion and occupation of Kuwait ordered by Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein were being shown. Over the next few days, the United Nations called for Iraq to withdraw and a worldwide ban on trade with Kuwait was imposed. Iraqi responded by formally annexing Kuwait.
We were feeling as if we were cut off from the world not totally understanding what was happening. We discussed ending our trip early and returning to Germany but did we really want to return to the real world? The answer was no, so we spent our days at the beaches and nightly dinners in Spanish restaurants. Our time in Spain came to an end forcing us to load our VW van with four girls, four adults to start our road trip back to Germany. By the time we got back home NATO, including the U.S., was getting ready to send troops to Saudi Arabia.
The military buildup was named Operation Desert Shield. While US troops were preparing, Iraq was building up its army in Kuwait to about 300,00 troops. Several units from Kasierslautern were deployed, with wives and husbands not knowing exactly where their spouses were going. And the waiting game began not sure when all hell could breakout or how long our troops would be gone and would all the them come home.
Steve’s unit was deployed but his assignment was supporting the unit in Saudi from Germany and taking care of troops and family members left behind. Steve’s days often ran into each other. There were mornings he was out the door at 4 am, gone for 24 hours and returned for a shower then off again. Sometimes he returned later in the day for a couple hours of sleep on the couch. By sleeping there, he felt he was spending time with us. It was a stressful time and was made more so when two enlisted soldiers commit suicide. The first, gun shot, was in the middle of the night at one of the units two hours from our house. The other, a hanging, was discovered a few days later, at the PX as people arrived for work. I arrived to do some shopping and upon hearing what had happened I said to myself “please don’t let it be from our unit.”
Our upstairs neighbor, Bruce, work schedule ran much like Steve’s. He worked in transportation and was responsible for sending the Patriots (mid-air missile-to-missiles) and other missiles to Turkey, Saudi and Israel. Debbie, Bruce’s wife, and I were happy we knew our guys were safe, but it was so hard watching the physical and mental toll it was taking on their bodies. Our neighbor on the third floor was deployed to Saudi. His specialty was ER and chemical warfare so we knew he would be on the front line even if his wife did not. There were concerns that chemical weapons could be used during the war. Her stress was different from ours but we tried to distract her and her daughter as much as we could.
As time drifted into 1991 things started to change. It was 10:00 pm when the phone call came from our Family Support group. There were 1,000 U.S. dependents who would be evacuated from Turkey. The next few days were filled finding families who were willing to take the families in until they could get flights back to the States.
I purchased a 5″ black and white TV with headphones so I could listen to the TV at night while Steve slept. On a January night at 11:45 pm our only AFN TV and radio stations were taken off the air. I sensed this was the beginning of the of unknown. I catnapped with the silent TV on in case the TV resumed broadcasting. At 4:30 am I woke up to Bush announcing the start of the “mother of all battles.” The U.S. and its coalition of allies had launch a campaign of air and missile attacks on targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
Later that morning, a furniture delivery arrived for a neighbor who I could not reach by phone – it was a busy signal every time I tried. She was head nurse at our health clinic, so I had to go to the clinic. I arrived at the clinic, opened the door and suddenly realized just how life had changed! The military soldier standing in front of me was not dressed as I was accustomed to seeing. He was wearing what is known as battle rattle. Battle rattle is close to 50 pounds worth of gear, including a flak vest, Kevlar helmet, gas mask, ammunition, weapons, and other basic military equipment. His weapon, a M-16, was out and ready for use. He wanted to see my ID card before I could enter the building. This became a way of life. Except our apartment buildings, all buildings and all check points/gates required an ID card to gain entry.
The rest of the day was waiting for the phone call that the families had arrived from Turkey. The families were divided up and transported all over Germany. We recieved 100 families through Ramstein Air Force Base. They were all in a dazed and only allowed to bring one suitcase, everything else had to be left. It was interesting to hear how our Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) plan worked. Lupe and I had practiced many times when we lived in Darmstadt. Our NEO plan was to caravan to Switzerland in our cars (POV) and then we would be flown out to the U.S. We always laughed at the plan. If the Russians were interested, they could easily find us escaping in our long lines of cars on the Autobahn. Darmstadt was the only community we did the drills. In other communities, we had to attend a briefing but never assembled for a drill.
The community Commander had “button-up” our Kaiserslautern community consisting of about 65,000 Americans. With the threat of terrorism, overnight he had transformed a very active community into an armed camp. The two exits out of our housing area had sand bag bunkers with soldiers, under camouflage netting, in full combat dress and M-16 weapons. Some roads had big concrete barricades, while others were reinforced with large military trucks behind the concrete. Our shopping area had two check points. First was an ID check, the second an ID, driver’s license, car registration and a license plate check. At Rhine Ordnance Barracks, where Steve worked, there were random car searches. This included checking under the car with mirrors, under the hood, the trunk and inside of the car to include glove box. Depending on the alert level, the girls and I would check for bombs under our car before getting into them. We did not have car bombings during this assignment but had warnings and bombings in front of housing units when we lived in Darmstadt. It seemed natural to do this extra safety check.
We were told that all over Germany temporary hospitals had been set up to receive the wounded. German hospitals were ready to assist with casualties. The U.S. Veterans Administration was making ready 25,000 beds in the United States for possible casualties. Tension was very high and fear/concern could be felt everywhere we went.
Fred, living in Darmstadt, received a call on a Friday night and was told to pack three days of clothes and he would be picked up in 15 minutes. He left but was not able to tell Lupe where he was going. Or maybe he didn’t know at the time. Iraq was firing Scud missiles at Israel trying to draw the country into the conflict. The U.S., in response, had sent the Patriot Missile Battalions to Israel and Turkey to keep Israel from retaliating. Fred was sent to do training with the Israel army. After a few days, Lupe called to see if Steve had information. Steve knew he had gone to Israel but could not tell her over the phone. We were always careful about our conversations because our phones were often listened to or tapped. Lupe did get the message of where he was and to please send more clothes.
We had several bomb threats which included the schools. Soldiers patrolled the schools day and night with daily check by the bomb dogs. Grades K-8 were located within the housing area making it a secure area. Soldiers checked IDs at the gates of the high school compound. One evening Holan had several phone calls about a bomb threat at the school for the next day. She really didn’t want to go. I talked until I was blue in the face, finally telling her “I would never send her anywhere I didn’t think it wasn’t safe”. She did go with only half of the kids showing up and her teacher missing because of a dental appointment. The class was combined with another and it turned into a really fun day. I reminded her she would not have had this experience if she had stayed home with me. There was never a another issue with her going to when there were threats.
There were always threats of some type. One day a lunch box was found by a car located at the building behind our building. The streets were blocked and the dogs, fire department and EOD (people who defuse bombs) all arrived. An hour and 15 minutes later life went back to normal. On another day, I was getting ready to leave the community center when I got caught by a bomb threat. The area was shut down for over an hour. This was common and we always hoped it would not happen while we were shopping.
It was Kristie’s Senior year and much like the graduates of 2020 her final year in high school was not what she had planned. All activities were canceled. She couldn’t work after school so her fun money was gone. The Messengers, a chapel choral group, wasn’t allowed to met and their scheduled concert tours in several German cities were canceled. The Messengers Spring break trip to Ibiza, Spain, one of the Balearic islands, in the Mediterranean Sea, was also canceled. She had spent her Junior Spring Break there and was excited to be going back. Kristie was having some issues with all the guards, bomb threats and showing her ID everywhere she went. One night a neighbor asked her to deliver coffee and sandwiches to the guards. After seeing the young soldiers, not much older than her, standing guard in the cold snowy dark night in a little shack, she had a complete turn around. Delivering to the guards became part of her regular life. By the time of graduation, things were semi back to normal so she did have that of her senior year. She has said she’ll never forget her senior year between the snow storms and the war.
Thing were now calmer and we were getting back to a normal life. Then housing notified us they were updating and changing our apartment unit to enlisted housing. We had the choice to move to a quadplex if we had at least nine months left in country. Our timeline was ten months so we made the move. All the work was done by movers, making it a very easy. The hardest part was leaving Debbie on 3rd floor. She was always dragging me into something, some times just lunch or shopping, other days things that took a lot of my time. She never passed our front door that she didn’t knock on it. We shared a lot of good times together.
A short time later we received word that Steve would be going to Saudi to replace the current Executive Officer (XO) of the Battalion. The XO wanted to stay in country for a full 60 days. This was so he could meet the criteria for a combat patch. With the extra time, we were able to purchase the items Steve needed and get his bags ready. We entered into the waiting game not knowing when he would be leaving.
The day came and we knew it was his last night at home. After the girls went to bed, we sat in the living room going over last minutes things. Steve pulled out his wallet and removed everything in it except for his military ID and a few dollars. He removed his wedding band and diamond ring, giving them to me for safe keeping. This made it feel very real that there was a chance he might not return. The soldiers were not to have any personal items on them in case something happened. It was a very hard night and flew out the next day. His unit was located on an airbase, only because they made a runway and put up some tents. As a side note, there wasn’t a lot of danger for him just possibilities. I had spent weeks with our one TV station, AFN, carrying the CNN live 24 hour unedited war coverage. The coverage from a hotel suite in Rashid Hotel gave me all of those possibilities.
Although the military cannot give official assignments to spouses, we always had our required duties depending on what position our husband (or wife) held. The commander’s wife took care of unofficial duties at the unit. She was the “commander” of the spouse group, greeting new spouses upon their arrival in country and was to be there when any of the them had a problem. When Steve took over as XO, I became the next in line after the commander’s wife. The first assignment Dee gave me was to put yellow ribbons on a large calendar in a hall way at the Headquarters. I immediately said I would/could not take part in this activity. To look at that calendar and the months that needed ribbons would not be good for my well being. I needed to take one day at a time and not be reminded how many days were still ahead. She found someone who took joy in marking off each day.
There were days of taking care of the wives. Some did not have transportation to buy food while other’s had been left without a check book or money to do shopping. Pregnant wives, rumors of affairs, sickness of wives or children, depression, loneliness were just a few of our concerns. All of these things were passed on to our husbands on our weekly calls. They handled things on their end and us on ours. The weekly calls was a benefit from Steve’s position. If he had not been XO we would not have been able to talk but a few times during the six months he was gone. Those were not the days of email, zoom, face time, or text.
Dee and I would meet on Sunday at the Headquarters, there were few people in the building, so we could discuss the upcoming week. One Sunday her son and her got into a shouting match with a little pushing involved. Upon separating them, I discovered this had been going on for awhile. It had gotten so bad one night the neighbors called the Military Police (MPs). This was not conduct becoming to an officer or his family members. If it continued one or all of the family could be sent back to the States. I convinced her to let the son come home with me to give everyone a time to decompress. He stayed for three days even though his mother wanted him back home after a couple of hours. They managed until the unit and Dad came home. The Colonel thanked me for my help with the family situation never going beyond those simple words.
The unit slowly began it’s return to Germany. Steve turned out the lights and was on the last plane coming back to Germany.
More than 540,000 US military took part in the attack by air on January 16–17, 1991. Saudi pilots flew more than 7,000 sorties. In the four-day ground war that began on February 24, Saudi troops, including the National Guard, helped defeat the Iraqis and drive them out of Kuwait. During the combat we lost 375 military and one Army civilian.
2020 is slowly coming to an end and hopefully by the middle of 2021 we will have this virus under control with the vaccines. It has been a hard year for the first responders, health care workers, families losing loved ones, others hospitalized or dealing with long term effects, businesses, people with depression, missed church services, visits with parents and school children. We have all done the best as we can. We have tried to do our part by wearing our mask, washing our hands and socially distance because we care about you and want to keep you safe. I will do it for you and you do it for me. Just maybe that person you care about will turn off that light and will safely return home.