Military

Our “European Vacation” that isn’t…

Several years ago, I got into a discussion with an Italian friend. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen, but he no longer lives in the United States. He had lived there as a young man hoping to earn a doctorate. He did eventually get one, but it was in Canada that he earned it. He married an American woman, had two children, and lived in the United States for about twenty-five years until his marriage finally fell apart.

My Italian friend is now married to a German woman and, at least until the pandemic, did a lot of work in Belgium. I haven’t heard from him in awhile. There was a time when we would spar a lot, but he eventually got disgusted with social media and dropped off of Facebook. The last time I got a ping from my Italian friend was over the summer. He found my travel blog, congratulated me for being on a trip, and said he was glad I still live in Germany instead of the United States.

I was kind of surprised by his comment. I first “met” this man online, back in 2005 or so. At that time, he was still in the United States. We both wrote reviews for a now defunct site called Epinions.com. I had written an opinion piece entitled something along the lines of “I’m glad some people’s sons and daughters are joining the military.” My Italian friend, Vic, took issue with it and started an online argument with me. I remember that morning, I also had a terrible hangover and was in no mood to argue with Vic, who wasn’t a friend at that point. In fact, I thought he was just an opinionated and condescending asshole who was out of touch with reality. In those days, I was a lot more conservative.

Forgive me for not knowing the exact title of the essay I wrote. It’s so many years later, although I do remember what had inspired it. At that time, I was a member of a “support” site for second wives and stepmothers called the Second Wives Cafe. It was a pretty toxic place, in retrospect… but I was much younger and kind of bewildered by being a second wife and wanna be stepmom (Bill’s kids have still only met me once). Anyway, we had a forum called “The Back Burner”, where women would post about politics and religion and anything else controversial. I remember a lot of women were posting about how they’d never let their “kids” join the U.S. military. Remember, this was during the George W. Bush era, when war was going on in earnest.

It occurred to me that if no one’s “kids” joined the military, there would have to be conscription. At this point, it would not be possible for the United States to function without a military. Of course, in W’s era, we had no idea of the horrors that were coming in Trump. I also realized that the military provides an excellent career for the people who are suited for it. My husband, for instance, grew up somewhat poor. His parents divorced when he was very young and, though his dad paid child support, it wasn’t very much. Thanks to the military, Bill still managed to go to an excellent private university for his undergraduate degree, then earn two more master’s degrees, all with minimal debt. I know a lot of other people like that, too… people who had grown up poor in small towns and would have had a much harder time launching into adulthood with work that paid enough.

So I had written this heartfelt piece about why the military is a good career option for many people and parents should not try to talk their children out of joining if they feel led to go in that direction. I still feel that way, although I can certainly understand why parents feel the need to meddle. Vic had commented that he would never “allow” his adult son to join the U.S. military, and a lengthy argument ensued.

For years, we continued our good natured bantering. I started to see Vic for the type of person he really is, and I think he began to understand me a bit more. But he was still “upset” about the United States “occupying” countries in Europe and Asia, to include Italy and Germany. I reminded him that thirty years ago, there were military installations all over southern and western Germany, and in the former West Berlin. Now, quite a lot of them are defunct. Italy also used to have more installations, though it never had as many as Germany did. Italy now has fewer installations. Bit by bit, the U.S. presence in Europe has dwindled. In fact, I can count several places that were open when Bill and I were in Germany the first time, but have since shut down.

One day, back in 2015, Vic and I had a Facebook argument about Italy’s hosting of American troops. It came up because Bill had to go to Vicenza for a conference and I was going with him. On my old blog, I wrote a post about our discussion, and why I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Americans come to Europe to live. I will repost it at the end of this fresh content, for those who are interested.

All of this leads up to today’s topic, which was inspired by a piece I read in The New York Times a couple of days ago. It was about the Bavarian town of Vilseck, which hosts a huge U.S. military base. Bill was once posted there in the 1980s. Over the years, the Army installation in Vilseck has provided a lot of money to the town and provided its citizens with work. It’s also fostered friendships between Americans and Germans. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s comments about moving American service members out of Germany, the mayor worries about what will happen to the town.

The same goes for prime ministers in other parts of Germany, where there are still U.S. military bases. A lot of them have closed. Right now, four states out of the sixteen German states host Americans. They include Bayern, Hesse, Rheinland-Pfalz, and Baden-Württemberg. Over the summer, the prime ministers of those states wrote to thirteen members of Congress, asking them not to move the troops. Indeed, Trump was discussing moving the troops to other European locations, such as Poland, Belgium, and Italy, and sending a few thousand “home”.

I shared the post about Vilseck on my page, but then went back later to read the comments from New York Times readers. Not surprisingly, a lot of people seem to think that no work is going on here, and military members are simply having a vacation. That is NOT true. I can personally attest to the amount of work Bill does, and I can also say that it’s not simply about policing the world. What Bill does actually has an air of diplomacy within it. He helps plan training exercises that involve other militaries in countries in Europe. When we were in Stuttgart, he was doing the same thing, only with African countries. In both instances, he’s also worked with European militaries who are participating in the trainings. In all cases, the militaries are participating because they WANT to. Incidentally, Bill also did a similar job in Texas, working with militaries in Central and South America, who also wanted to do training exercises with the U.S. military.

Others complain that we shouldn’t be “occupying” other nations. Also not true. The United States pays a lot of money to have installations in Europe. American military members and their families also contribute to the economies, not just of the countries where they live, but also in surrounding countries. In fact, back in 2008, Bill and I visited a hotel in Poland run by Brits of Polish descent. They had not known about the American military presence in Germany when they invested $4000 in a dilapidated barn that they turned into a very cute hotel called The Blue Beetroot. Back in 2008, they were still fairly newly opened. I asked the innkeepers to tell me their story, and the wife said they had originally meant to attract Brits to Poland. But their hotel turned out to be a huge draw for American military wives on the prowl for Polish pottery. Their business is still thriving (or was before COVID-19), and it’s provided a nice livelihood for others in the community.

But my main reason for being grateful for the bases abroad, besides the fact that having them makes it easier for the U.S. to respond to situations beyond our borders, is because it allows a lot of Americans who DESPERATELY need to travel the opportunity to do so. I have lived abroad for a number of years. At this count, I’m at three countries besides the United States. I’ve learned from all of those experiences and they have made me a better person. While there are plenty of Americans who don’t care about Europe and would just as soon go home to the States and watch their Sunday football, quite a lot of people are profoundly changed by living in another culture. I know I have been. And I also know that a lot of Americans are under the impression that our way is the best or only way. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Living abroad several times has made me a better person, and I don’t think I’m the only one. And when we leave these places where we’ve been for many years– like Lajes Air Field in the Azores, Portugal, we hurt a lot of the locals.

Anyway… Vic did say last summer that he’s glad Bill and I are still in Germany. But it’s because he likes us (or at least he likes me) and sees what is happening in the States– the violence and the raging pandemic. And he knows that we’re probably a lot safer here. He probably still thinks the U.S. military sucks, though. Anyway, a lot of people in the States simply have no clue what goes on over here at the military bases. Maybe some people don’t think my husband’s work is important, but I can tell you that it’s made him more culturally aware and, therefore, more culturally sensitive. And I think Americans need all of the cultural sensitivity opportunities we can get. It’s easier to do that if you’re living abroad, rather than just vacationing.

Now… breakfast is ready. Below is the post from 2015 I mentioned earlier.

Italy’s “huge” military base… (from December 17, 2015– Vic did read this, by the way)

A couple of days ago, I got into a discussion with an Italian friend of mine who is now a US citizen living in Germany.  I “met” him on Epinions.com, a now defunct product review site where I posted for about eleven years.  My friend, “Vic”, used to read my reviews and leave snarky comments.  At first, I was offended by him, but then grew to appreciate him as we got to know each other better.  Make no mistake about it.  He’s not a fan of the US military.  He enjoys disdaining it and other things about the United States.

I can’t help but think it’s a shame that Vic got naturalized, since he clearly doesn’t love his “adopted” country and now has to pay taxes.  Aside from that Vic clearly identifies as an Italian, though he hasn’t lived in Italy for years and often disdains Italy, too.  Indeed, Vic has said the only city that “works” in Italy is Bolzano.  I will agree, Bolzano is a beautiful city with a nice mix of Austrian and Italian.  I can see why that works well.

So anyway, I was commenting about my initial impressions of Vicenza, which, to be honest, aren’t all that positive.  Granted, I haven’t had the chance to see much of the city, since I’ve kind of been stuck at the hotel in the depressing outskirts this week.  What I did see looked charming, though crowded with aggressive drivers and dented vehicles and I was seeing it in the dark while highly annoyed with Bill.  The food, on the other hand, has been a real delight.

Vic agreed that Vicenza is not Italy’s nicest city.  He mentioned that one of the main reasons it sucks is because of the “huge” US military installation there.  He says that as a US taxpayer, he doesn’t like his taxes going to fund the US war machine.  As an Italian, he simply wants that “crap” out of his country. 

I had to take exception to Vic’s comments.  First off, if you want to talk size, the military installation in Vicenza is certainly not “huge”.  It’s about a quarter of the size of the one(s) in the Stuttgart area.  In fact, the United States has been downsizing its footprint in Europe over the past few years.  A couple of installations in Germany that were open when we lived in Europe last time are now defunct.  One in Italy used to be a full base, but is now just a “camp”.  Little by little, the United States military is leaving Europe, though I doubt they will ever totally go away.  And while some people would like to see them leave, others are glad they are there.  Not only is the US military handy for defense purposes; it’s also good for local businesses.  Aside from that, a lot of US citizens end up befriending or even marrying host country nationals.

But there’s another side to this that I don’t think people not affiliated with the military realize.  Americans ought to have the chance to live abroad.  Too many Americans never leave the United States.  Too few have passports and take the opportunity to travel.  People talk about how Americans have no concept of what life is like in other places and they don’t have respect for other people.  One way to build respect and empathy for others is through exposure.  Taking vacations is all well and good, but it takes immersion to really get a feel for what another country is like.  It’s true that a lot of Americans living abroad never bother to see anything beyond the gates of a military installation.  On the other hand, plenty of people take the time to see where they are and get exposed to new things. 

To be honest, a lot of Americans in the US military come from places where they might not have otherwise had the chance to travel beyond the US.  Granted, that isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for many people.  My dad, for instance, grew up poor and later became an Air Force officer.  His career afforded him a chance to see much of the world and develop a fascination for other cultures, an appreciation for which he passed on to his daughters.  We grew up more open minded than we might have, largely because we didn’t grow up in one place.  In fact, though my dad was a staunch Republican, his daughters are way more liberal than he ever was.  Because we had been exposed to other people and other places, we didn’t have that narrow perspective of someone who always stays within a comfort zone.

This is my fourth time living abroad.  Every time I move to another country, I learn new things and meet new people.  I try to be a good ambassador for my home country.  I understand why people have a negative opinion of the United States.  But if we quit living abroad and traveling, pretty soon all many people will know of us is what they see in movies or watch on the news.

I can appreciate that it’s expensive to maintain military bases all over the world.  I understand that moving Americans to Europe or elsewhere costs a lot of money.  Vic wants to know why we need to do this.  Why does the military send people to live abroad and spend so much money on bases in places like Italy and Germany?  Well, I won’t pretend to know all the reasons why.  It’s a rather complex issue that has roots going back to way before I ever walked on Earth. 

I doubt what I say to Vic will change his impressions of the military or the people within it.  I think if he met Bill in person, he would not see someone who is a knuckle dragger who likes blowing up things.  He’s a kind, sensitive, intelligent man who loves what he does and loves his country… and loves Europe, too.  All I will say is that I’m glad that we have the chance to live in Europe.  I appreciate it.  It’s changed my life and opened my eyes and made me a better person.  I can’t be the only one who feels that way.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of With God in Russia, by Walter Ciszek and Daniel Flaherty

I thought about this book review recently and decided it was time it was added to the new blog. I am reposting it as/is, the way I wrote it on June 23, 2018.

Sometimes Facebook can be a great place to find books, even from memes posted by long, lost co-workers from twenty years ago.  That’s how I happened to read Father Walter Ciszek’s harrowing story of being held prisoner the Soviet Union for twenty years.  My friend, Courtney, is a devout Catholic and she shared a meme featuring one of Ciszek’s quotes.  Not being Catholic myself, I had never heard of the man.  I do find books about the Soviet Union and the prison experience fascinating, though, so I decided to download Father Ciszek’s book, With God in Russia: The Inspiring Classic Account of a Catholic Priest’s Twenty-three Years in Soviet Prisons and Labor Camps

With God in Russia was originally published in 1964, but it has been republished several times.  I read the version that was released in June 2017.  The price was right at just $1.99.  The book is Father Ciszek’s story written by ghostwriter Daniel Flaherty.  It includes an afterword by James Martin. Father Ciszek, who died in 1984, has been considered for possible beatification or canonization since 1990.  His current title is Servant of God.  

Who was Walter Ciszek?

Walter Ciszek was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in November 1904.  His parents were Polish immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1890s.  When he was a young man, Ciszek belonged to a gang.  He later surprised his family when he decided to become a priest.  At age 24, Ciszek entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York.  

In 1929, Ciszek volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become part of the Soviet Union in 1917.  At that time in Russia, there was a real need for Ciszek’s services.  Religious rights for most citizens were curtailed and those who were religious suffered from persecution.  There weren’t many priests around to offer religious services to believers.    

In 1934, Ciszek went to Rome to study the Russian language, history, and liturgy, as well as theology.  He was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite and took the name Vladimir.  Just as an aside, not being Catholic myself, I don’t understand the practice of taking different names for religious reasons. I was a little confused as I was reading the book and Ciszek was referred to as Vladimir.

In 1938, Ciszek went to eastern Poland to do his missionary work.  The following year, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and forced Ciszek to close his mission.  At that point, Ciszek decided to go east, into the Soviet Union, under the assumed name Władymyr Łypynski.  He and two others journeyed 1500 miles to the logging town of Chusovoy, where he worked as a logger and provided religious services on the side.  

In 1941, Ciszek was arrested and accused of spying for the Vatican.  He was sent to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he spent five years, most of which were in solitary confinement.  During his time at Lubyanka Prison, Ciszek was drugged and tortured.  After enduring severe torture, he signed a confession.  Convicted of espionage, Ciszek was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in the GULAG.  He spent four more years at Lubyanka, then was sent to Siberia, where he worked in mines.  Throughout his many years imprisoned in the Soviet Union, Ciszek maintained his deep faith in God and provided religious services to other prisoners.

In 1955, Ciszek was released from prison and was finally able to write to his family, who had assumed he was dead.  He lived in the city of Norilsk with restrictions.  He wrote of how local authorities tried to get him to take a permanent Russian passport, which he refused to do.  Three years after his initial release, the KGB forced Ciszek to move to Krasnoyarsk, where he secretly established missionary parishes.  When the KGB learned of what he was doing, they required Ciszek to move again, this time to Abakan, a town about 100 miles south.  There, he worked as an auto mechanic for four more years.  

In 1963, he received his first letter from his sisters.  A few months later, the Soviet Union exchanged Ciszek for two Soviet agents who had been held by the United States.  He did not know he was going to be exchanged until he was handed over to a State Department representative, who told him that he was still an American citizen.  He left Russia in October 1963.

From 1965 onwards, Father Ciszek continued his missionary work in the United States, working and lecturing at Fordham University and providing counseling and spiritual guidance until he died in December 1984.  He published two more books, one of which was released posthumously, and has left an impressive legacy to Catholics.

My thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not Catholic and I don’t know that much about Catholicism.  I didn’t read this book because of who Ciszek was in a religious sense.  I read it because I am interested in the Soviet Union and what life was like for people who were imprisoned there.  I spent two years in the former Soviet Union just after it fell apart.

Although Armenia isn’t Russia and it wasn’t part of the Soviet Union when I was there, the Soviet Union had only just fallen.  Some aspects of Ciszek’s descriptions of life there rang very familiar to me.  I’m sure Armenia still maintains some remnants of that time even now, although I can see from pictures and Facebook posts from Armenian friends that the country has changed since I knew it.

Ciszek’s story is very engaging.  Flaherty did a good job making it read as if it came directly from Father Ciszek himself.  He describes the monotony of daily prison life, particularly when he was in Lubyanka and basically sat in solitary confinement for years.  He writes of the struggles of staying nourished while he was at hard labor.  I was particularly fascinated by his descriptions of meal times, when prisoners would bring out a large pot of soup and dish it out to all the prisoners.  The ones who were served first got the thinnest and least satisfying helpings and would demand that the soup be stirred before it was served to them.

In Ciszek’s voice, Flaherty wrote of special duties that would score prisoners extra rations.  For instance, the prisoner that would dump the bucket used for toileting would get another bowl of soup.  The prisoners would be so hungry that some were eager to take on that duty.  Naturally, because it was a prison, a lot of the people Ciszek did time with were actual criminals.  He wrote a lot about the “thieves” who would try to trick other prisoners out of their rations in Machiavellian ways.  

I was impressed by Ciszek’s devotion to God, even when it seemed like he couldn’t get a fair shake.  Make no mistake about it, Ciszek’s time in prison wasn’t fun.  I remember how Ciszek was given extra rations one day, not told that it was to last him for two days he’d spend riding on a train to another prison.  There he sat with his Russian handlers, who had plenty to eat and didn’t share with him.  When a piece of buttered bread fell to the floor on the train, he tried to get it with his foot without attracting the attention of one of his guards.  The guard eventually did catch him in the act, but Ciszek pleaded with him to let him eat the dirty piece of buttered bread.  The guard was indifferent, so he got the bread.  There is something about the desperation of that story that sticks with me.  Ciszek appealed to the guard’s humanity to ease his suffering just a tiny bit and it worked.

Although I am not a very religious person, I am fascinated by people who are committed to their faith, particularly when their commitment is genuine and not motivated by greed or a desire for power (although those people are also interesting for other reasons).  Father Ciszek was able to maintain faith, hope, and courage in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  He did not become a bitter shell of a man who hated God or blamed God for the twenty plus years he spent incarcerated in Russia.  Instead, he turned that situation into an incredible life story, full of adventure and hope.  He sets an example of a man who did not give up or give in to self-pity or doubt.  A lot of religious people, particularly the leaders, could learn from Father Ciszek’s example.

In any case, I highly recommend With God in Russia, particularly to Catholics who aren’t already familiar with his story.  I found it a very interesting and inspiring book.  I suppose the very fact that I read it proves that not all Facebook memes are useless.

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anniversary

17 years…

In two weeks, it will be our 17th wedding anniversary. I haven’t bought Bill a gift yet. Truth be told, after 17 years, it gets hard to decide what to buy for one’s love… I had the same problem a few years ago, as evidenced in my Facebook memories. I posted that I couldn’t decide what to get Bill for our eleventh year, and my former shrink and current friend suggested steel. He’d looked it up on Hallmark.com, which helpfully offers tips on gift buying for beleaguered spouses who can’t think of the perfect present at anniversary time.

Steel for the 11th anniversary? Perfect. “Handcuffs it is, then!” I cheerfully posted. But I’ve already given Bill handcuffs. In fact, they were the very first gift I ever bought for him. I did it on a dare.

We were dating, and had confessed to being a trifle kinky. Somehow, in the course of talking about kink, he told me his preferences for handcuffs. He said he wanted black ones, because they don’t reflect light and are easier to conceal. When I learned that he had survived September 11th, 2001 in the Pentagon, I decided it was appropriate to give him a congratulatory gift. I went on eBay and made my very first purchase… a pair of black, professional grade Smith & Wesson cuffs. I even remember the name of the vendor– Patty Wagon Express.

Bill has a pair of these. I think he determined I was the woman for him when I sent him this as a “gag” gift.

I sent them with my compliments to Bill, who said that he was very… ahem… excited to receive them, even though I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve even tried them on. It’s the thought that counts, right? Is it any wonder we were engaged a few months later?

So anyway, last night I went looking for a gift for our 17th year. A number of sources indicated that for the 17th year, it’s appropriate to give your partner furniture. We are in dire need of a new couch for our TV room. We threw out the shitty futon we bought when we moved into our last house because it was a cheap piece of crap and uncomfortable to sit upon, even though it had been one of Zane’s favorite places to lounge.

I was excited at the prospect of buying furniture. Hell, I could even make it kinky! There are stores out there in Internetland that specialize in sexy stuff. We live in Germany, where there are sex stores aplenty, even at the airport! There are lots of craftsmen around, too. I bet I could find a sexy Barcalounger that would spice things up at our house as the long, dark, winter approaches. Bill could force me to watch movies like The Matrix and The Big Lebowski (which I’ve seen three times now and still don’t enjoy) while I mainline wine through a bong.

But I was still curious to find out what Hallmark had to say about our upcoming anniversary, so I went looking… and Hallmark suggests wine and spirits! Like we don’t already have enough of that shit in our house! I don’t think I’m going to buy him any wine or spirits. I probably won’t buy him a kinky recliner, either. I’d never be able to get it up the stairs.

As it is, we’re planning to spend our anniversary night at a beautiful five star hotel in Frankfurt. I’ll find us a nice restaurant where we can toast seventeen good years together.

Then, the next day, we’re flying to Wroclaw, Poland, where Bill has to work all week, and I’ll be fucking around, looking for things to do and people to see. We have been to Wroclaw before, but we only spent a few hours there. It was in 2008, when we spent our sixth anniversary in Bolaslaweic, Poland with stops in Dresden and Prague. We spent the first weekend at our first luxury hotel in Dresden… absolutely a fabulous city. Then we spent five nights at the Blue Beetroot, a boutique hotel that was once an old barn. The British owners are of Polish descent and moved from London to make their hotel the hottest pottery stop in the district. We had a surprisingly good time in 2008, and eleven years later, they’ve added even more to it. Then on our anniversary weekend, we spent a couple of nights in Prague— also a fabulous town I’d love to see again. Of course, we had the benefit of our trusty Toyota when we visited Poland the first time. This time, we’re forced to fly due to company policy.

We’re more like Jack and Chrissy.

Maybe that’s enough. God knows, we have enough crap in our house. There’s no telling when the next move will be. It could be next year. It could be five years from now. Maybe it’s better to just collect memories than stuff to lug around. I still like the idea of a sadomasochistic Barcalounger, though. Sometimes even boring housewives like a dash of spice after seventeen years.

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