The first time I donned a military uniform of any kind was in 1973, when I joined the Air Force Junior ROTC program at Torrejon High School, Torrejon Air Base, Spain. My father was as surprised as anyone when I joined; I was a skinny, bookish, and shy 14-year old, and he probably didn’t think I had the interest in or passion for military life. To tell the truth, I don’t remember why I did it. I was a loner and preferred it that way, so I wasn’t a “joiner.” I guess my dad inspired me more than I realized and, looking back on it, it was a decision that changed my life.
Even so, my life path was not altered as dramatically as those whose lives were lost in service to their country, and that is who we honor on Memorial Day. Most veterans have a story about someone who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “gave the last full measure of their devotion” while wearing the uniform of the United States armed forces, and I have one that is probably not well known to the general public.
We arrived in what was then West Germany in 1985 for my first overseas duty assignment. I was an intelligence officer assigned to an underground bunker that served as the primary war headquarters for NATO’s central region command staff. We supported both the U.S. indications and warning mission for Europe and North Africa, and the NATO central region warfighting mission, with intelligence on the Warsaw Pact and Libya.
We weren’t in a war zone, but we were at risk because we were American military men and women in a foreign land, and that made us targets. West Germany should have been a haven for us; thanks to the United States, the nation had become an economic and political success story. Yet we were taught quickly and brutally that we couldn’t take our lives for granted even in this thoroughly Westernized, civilized nation.
One of the most prominent and violent leftist groups in Europe was the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, named after two of its founders. Its reign of terror extended from 1970 to 1993 and, before they disbanded in 1998, the RAF was responsible for 34 deaths, scores of injuries and numerous bombings.
Despite West Germany’s unprecedented prosperity and freedom, they deemed the nation to be an imperialist, racist and fascist state, and they took their left–wing politics to the extreme. After their demise and the reunification of East and West Germany, authorities learned that the Stasi, the East German secret police, provided the RAF with significant financial and logistical support, and a haven for RAF members on the run.
On August 8, 1985, a car bomb exploded outside the headquarters building at Rhein-Main AB, Germany as people were headed to work. An airman and the wife of another airman were killed, more than twenty people were injured, and the blast caused considerable damage. This was the second bomb attack on Rhein-Main AB by the RAF, and they were joined in this terrorist act by Action Directe, a bloody French left-wing terrorist organization which had allied with the RAF at the beginning of the year.
American and German investigators learned that, the night before the attack, a female RAF member had lured 20-year old Army Specialist First Class Edward Pimental from a nearby disco frequented by American service members, murdered him, and stole his identification card to gain access to the base.
As a result of these events, American service members and their families in Germany lived in a constant state of anxiety, not because of anything we’d done individually, but what we represented to these left-wing lunatics.
As an indications and warning center, the Tactical Fusion Center (TFC) had to be on alert around the clock, and I was directing the midnight to morning shift one September day in 1985. We were winding down and thinking about the beds that awaited us at home when a message came across our terminals about an explosion at a surface-to-air missile site not far from the small Army community of Neubruecke, where many of our families lived.
Snapped out of our drowsiness, we alerted authorities in Washington, DC and sent out warning messages to put people throughout the command on alert. Three bombs had gone off at the site, causing damage but no injuries.
There were 19 attacks against American military installations in Germany in 1985, most by the RAF but at least one attributed to a joint effort between the RAF and “Arab terrorists” – a specter that haunted us even then. Collectively, these attacks were a chilling reminder of how much our lives were at risk as American service members, even in a nation at peace like West Germany.
What did Spec. Pimental die for? He wasn’t on duty, and he was out enjoying an evening with his fellow soldiers. He let his guard down, lost his life as a result, and his ID card allowed these terrorists to plant a bomb which killed two other Americans.
The fact is, however, we were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we all knew that. Our words and actions reflected not just on ourselves, but on the United States of America. Each of us were ambassadors in uniform. To some, that made us heroes, to others a necessary evil, and to a darker, more ominous faction, an enemy. Spec. Pimental died because of the nation he represented, and that means something to those of us who know that America is, in the words of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “a force for good” in the world.
In some respects, Spec. Pimental’s death also signaled the beginning of the end for the RAF; they debated internally and, eventually, publicly over the necessity of Spec. Pimental’s death. Unlike some of their other targets, typically senior military leaders, and prominent government officials and captains of industry, he was a “small” target. Many within their ranks speculated they could have secured his ID card without killing him. His murder caused a lot of conflict in leftist circles, and the RAF was put on the defensive among those sympathetic to their cause.
So on this Memorial Day, while we remember those who died in battle, let us also remember the American service members who died at the hands of terrorists whose thirst for blood is driven by their contempt of America and its desire to bring freedom and prosperity to all people. By donning the uniform of our nation, these men and women placed a target on their backs, but did so willingly, not knowing they would die, but knowing they could, and forging ahead anyway.
As I’ve said on many occasions, I was one of the fortunate ones. I get to grow old with my wife and children, and enjoy the freedoms that these men and women secured for me with their blood. They died so I might live – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).”