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As Long as We Remember...

December 28, 2011

Lest We Forget

Norman M. Covert

Christmas and New Year wishes to our faithful readers. No doubt you agree that special greetings are due our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen serving far away from their families. Christmas for these uniformed patriots is still “Duty, Honor, Country,” in the words of the late General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.


Packages from home are terrific, but you cannot beat being at the fireside with loved ones.


The majority of our troops may have come home from Iraq, but many Americans – including one of my own – are still there. Shiite and Sunni bombs wreck its people, streets and government buildings daily; the fragile government becoming more unstable as days pass.


May God keep our kinsmen in the palm of His hand!


The Afghanistan/Pakistan Theater continues to take its toll on our warriors. I wonder if we will see a victorious end to this quagmire of political and military turmoil. Again, we pray God’s protection for family and friends in the dangerous Forward Operating Bases (FOB).


Maryland Army and Air National Guard troops are still in Bosnia-Herzegovina! Other troops remain armed and at their posts in South Korea from the DMZ south to Pusan. Tensions are high this Christmas following the death of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il. Americans also are on alert at other foreign garrisons on land and sea — far from our shores.


Legends abound recounting Christmas Eve and Christmas day truces at the battlefront. These include the true World War I account of an impromptu cease fire and exchange of personal items among German and Allied soldiers in no-man’s land between the trenches in France and Belgium.


The story is told on good authority that my great-great-grandfather Walter C. J. Wev, a bugler with the 16th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, gave an impromptu concert of carols on Christmas Eve 1862. Col. Carnot Posey’s 16th Infantry was encamped on the Rapidan River near Chancellorsville, VA, where federal troops on the opposite bank requested that he play so they also could hear.


Christmas conjures memories of my military service in the Federal Republic of Germany (1968-69). I was a chaplain’s assistant at Wharton Barracks, Heilbronn, Germany, assigned to the 237th Combat Engineer Battalion, VII US Army Corps.


Christmas meant assisting Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains in “the field” as well as in garrison. I was the weapons carrier, resident organist and choir director for the military community chapel. My duties included ensuring preparations for all services. Transportation was arranged for Jewish soldiers to take part in Hanukkah activities at Robinson Barracks, Stuttgart.


My first Christmas Eve in Germany was decorated with a good-sized snow fall. All was quiet in the Casern with families celebrating in quarters and many soldiers celebrating together at the G.I. Gasthofs. It was indeed a “Silent Night, Holy Night.”


Wharton Barracks Chapel was lighted inside by a small lamp on the organ in the choir loft, where I marked time toward Midnight Mass. I played carols and other music that were traditions in my home church. Christmas memories came in a flood, undoubtedly mirrored this year in many military members.


Christmas Eve ruminations recalled several buddies who had been summarily shipped from the 237th to Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). The war had taken a turn for the worse and Southeast Asia had priority. In Germany, we were short handed. Resupply problems hampered our ability to keep vehicles and equipment up to readiness standards. Spare parts were going to Southeast Asia. My Jeep’s sparkplugs came from a German store.


We spent most of 1968 training on the Rhine River or at Grafenwohr, Hohenfels and Wildflecken. The coming of September saw my unit “locked and loaded” on the German bank of the Danube River, where a nearby village lay in ruins, a monument of World War II fighting. Austria was just south of our fighting position.


We were alerted because the Soviet Union boldly sent a force of T-72 Battle Tanks into the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic August 21, 1968. Its purpose was to defeat a determined force of freedom fighters, who sought to overthrow President Ludvik Svoboda and his Communist government.


Our mission was to be the first line of defense for West Germany, should Soviet leaders seek to expand their success in Czechoslovakia. Sadly for the Czech people, the Soviet military might snuffed the uprising.


We were ordered back to garrison at Heilbronn am Neckar, aware that the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment could see enemy forces massed on the eastern entrance to Fulda Gap in anticipation of a “GO” order.


In the face of such tensions, soldiers removed their fatigues that Christmas Eve in favor of civilian attire, temporarily escaping their mission as defenders of freedom.


Christmas Day for me meant getting back into fatigues and combat boots, driving Chaplain (LTC) Thomas J. Confroy to the outlying Nike missile sites. He offered Christmas Mass for the troops, who were sequestered in high security garrisons. It was a blessing for the son of a Church of God minister to serve as altar boy at these masses.


After its service in Operation Desert Storm, the 237th Combat Engineer Battalion was disestablished March 15, 1992, followed closely by transfer of the historic Casern to the Baden-Württemberg government. Only the chapel and my barrack remain.


We have lost thousands of America’s children on the battlefields of history, many still unaccounted for by the Department of Defense. Repatriation of remains continues and we pray the families of these unknown warriors will soon achieve some closure.


Coming home for Christmas 2012 should be a goal, but our troops deserve to return to victory parades in our home towns.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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