Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Veterans in the Valley

… thy kingdom come, thy will be done … The Lord’s Prayer

The following is a true story, although some details may be in error. The fault lies with this writer and not with the original teller of the tale.

Some years ago – decades, really – my father was in the army. He was an infantry soldier serving in Europe after the Second World War; he and his fellow GIs were based in Italy near Trieste, standing watch on the border with Yugoslavia. Negotiations had been underway between Italy, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and the United Nations and the border was being moved.

Orders came down from on high to turn over the border installation to the Soviets at noon on the day my Dad stood his watch. That morning he observed a Soviet armored column climb the mountain road toward his position and notified his commanding officer – a First Lieutenant whose name has been lost to the mists of time. It was about ten in the morning when the lead tank arrived at the border crossing – which was secured by a red and white swing-gate (and a couple of privates).

My father was sitting behind a few sandbags, hands resting comfortably on a machine gun. The lieutenant stepped over to the tank commander, saluted, welcomed him to Italy, and asked how he might be of assistance. The Soviet commander returned the salute and explained he was there to escort the American troops out of Yugoslavia.

The lieutenant thanked him for his offer and then informed him that they would not need an escort and that they would turn the position over at noon in accordance with the newly ratified treaty (and the orders under which he was operating).

The Soviet commander’s demeanor darkened. “The border changed at Noon, Moscow Time,” he said, adding, “You must leave now.”

The young lieutenant looked at his troops – a handful of American GIs with M-1 rifles and a single machine gun – and looked at the tank column stretched out along the road – and then back to the Soviet commander and said, “I’m sorry, but I am under orders, and cannot turn this position over to you until Noon local time. You’re welcome to wait here and join me for some coffee, if you’d like.”

The Soviet commander stepped back and spoke with his officers in a heated exchange. They had their orders: Escort the Americans off the mountain and secure the position. The Americans had their orders: Hold the position until Noon, at which time they were to turn command over to the Soviets. Compromise was out of the question as neither officer had the authority to change their orders.

After a few minutes, the Soviet commander reached over to his left wrist, removed his watch, and put it into his pocket. He walked back over to the American lieutenant and stood still. He seemed unsure how to say what he wanted to say. Troops on both sides of the border crossing looked at each other – Dad from his machine gun nest, and the Russian tank commanders from their iron monsters. Finally, the Soviet commander spoke.

“I seem to have misplaced my watch. Looking at the sky here, I cannot tell what time it is in Moscow. Can you?”

The young American lieutenant thought for a moment and said, “I’m not really sure, but I would guess it is about 10:00 a.m. in Moscow. I could check with headquarters, but I am sure it would take them a couple hours to figure it out. You know how slow generals can be.”

The Soviet war dog smiled. “Yes, I know. Let us watch the pass together and protect it from intruders until you feel it is safe to depart.”

And with that, peace prevailed.

I am thankful for the young rifleman who stood watch for us that day so many years ago. The dangers he and his fellows faced were no less grave than those faced by soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, or merchant marines during active war-time.

I am thankful, too, for the friendly, clear-headed actions of a young American lieutenant (who knew his duty) and of a grizzled veteran who had nothing to prove – who had seen more than enough blood spilt in the past decade to last a thousand lifetimes.

I am thankful for the countless veterans who serve (and have served) their nation to preserve our freedoms at great personal cost and sacrifice. I remember them before God, and I thank God for them – each and every one – from the bottom of my heart here in this, our valley.