The Margin of Others
Essays & Poetry memorializing the living and the dead of the Cold War
By Thomas R. Decker
Chaplain (Colonel, Retired) US Army
Thucydides (460-400 BCE) counseled, “Peace is an armistice in war that is continuously going on.”
The Cold War is defined as a state of political and military tension after World War II between powers in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies, and others) and powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union, its allies in the Warsaw Pact, and later the People’s Republic of China). Arguably the Cold War began in 1946 and lasted until the Soviet Union ceased operations on December 31, 1991.
The author’s time of service was from 1969 to 2002. Time overseas was in Korea, 1977-78 and again in 1993-95; in Germany, 1982-89.
The stories, poems, and essays are fictional in the retelling of the events that inspired the memories. The material is unpublished and used by permission of the author for the exclusive use of the United States Army Chaplains Corps Regimental Association.
The combined chaplaincies—of all branches of our Armed Forces—have incredible records from the period of American History called the Cold War. Each chaplain and member of the growing unit ministry teams, as they were known in the Army, had unique stories. The times and places for their global ministries were at times challenging, more often than not on the very edge of conflict.
The ministry teams were eager, innovative, and encouraging to provide God’s Word and presence to service members and their families. As always, one generation of servants cast its mantle on the next to ensure that soldiers had access to worship and spiritual growth. The record of such service is often written in reports and the histories of organizations and people.
In this brief writing, the poems and stories of The Margin of Others are at ground zero for whatever can be said of the history of chaplains and the Cold War. The publication of these memoirs will be available on the USACCRA website during 2024. A couple things stand out for the readers.
1) The poems and stories are divided into two categories: the Dead and the Living. The poems, short essays, and stories are not necessarily related to one or the other. All poems and stories are “stand alone” pieces. Poetry’s window is sometimes heroic, allowing the mundane to sit exposed with no moral beyond our own mortality. The streaks on dirty windows clean up enough to help us see what we thought was there. There and then poetry rises as a gift both to the teller and the reader of stories.
2) The service of everyone commemorated in any of the poems/stories is a part of the American story of service to the nation. The story can never be fully told until we can also tell the stories of those who served and died in the margins. Whether living of dead, the nation deserves their story in order to acknowledge their service.
3) What’s next? Readers have stories of their own. Please consider recording your own histories in some manner—yes, to revisit your exploits for your family—but also to inspire future generations by the service of those on the margins, the unnamed and unsung service members who have gone ahead of us. Your accounts of service—in whatever branch–brings their stories to the nation and to those who follow in the long gray lines.
Essay from the margins
My first recollection of a military death was when I was fourteen years old. A family from our congregation lost a son who was home on leave from the Navy. He was nineteen and did the things that kids did; even so, his parents were proud of his enlistment to serve as a member of the armed forces. During his leave, he’d been out with a friend and was killed in an auto accident close to his home. The car missed a curve and hit a ditch. He apparently died on-site. His death was but one of the thousands who died on the margins of military service.
During my time on active duty as a chaplain—mostly during the Cold War—I participated in roughly one memorial service a year for twenty-seven years. The memorial services—or ceremonies—represented the deaths of about 300 soldiers.
During that time many army units began to incorporate “the last roll call” as an almost standard ritual in the memorial ceremony.
Official? I was never sure.
“The last roll call” was a somewhat dark and yet poignant note at the conclusion of the service. The company’s first sergeant called roll for the unit, and as names were called, soldiers arose and sounded off, “Here, First Sergeant!” After several soldiers had answered, the first sergeant called out the name of the deceased . . . three times with dramatic pause and effect, and at the last unanswered summons, the first sergeant said, “Strike (rank and name) from the roster!” It was a signal that the soldier was gone, not to return. The dead pull no duty, but the unit’s mission goes forward.
Funerals, memorial services, and ceremonies drove home the obvious: the military was a dangerous venture. In war or peace, death leveled the playing field.
Early on in my service, seasoned chaplains provided coaching in the conduct of memorial services and ceremonies. Memorial services—with a decidedly religious orientation—were , perhaps due to chaplains wanting to validate their religious calling. Memorial ceremonies, on the other hand, were more fixed in tone, pared down in religious content, predictably uniform, and appropriate on many if not all occasions. America’s view of the place of religion in the public square undoubtedly shaped the military’s culture for serving the evident needs of diversity within the military.
Stateside or overseas, all deaths were tragic because death came to the young and to those in the prime of life. A death overseas added to the complexity of the loss and the events surrounding it, and yes, anything overseas was seemingly a world away from home.
Overseas or stateside, time was always a factor. Concern for the family demanded expeditious handling of every detail. Stateside or overseas, the bodies were shipped or transported, and as a result soldiers seldom, if ever, attended a funeral service where the casket was present. The historic cemeteries on most installations bore the dead of earlier times. Surprisingly in a couple instances, the dead were former enemy prisoners of war, interred in separate burial grounds. Even during the Cold War, soldiers of the nation’s army were often from another state or territory from their duty assignment.
I don’t remember one stateside funeral (i.e., a denominational or sectarian observance) for an active-duty soldier conducted on a military installation. Memorial services and ceremonies, yes; funerals, no.
Soldiers were usually spared the reality of seeing the body of their departed comrade and seldom encountered the grieving family. Sometimes, however, the deceased soldier’s unit provided volunteers to serve as the honor guard to travel to the hometown for the service and burial. Sometimes friends accompanied the soldier to his final resting place. A select few were designated as a survival assistance officer (SAO) to escort bodies stateside and to aid the family.
At least twice in my experience the SAO fell in love with the widow. The first was a lieutenant from an infantry brigade overseas; the second, a lieutenant colonel in a stateside division headquarters. Upon return to the duty station, both SAOs sought counsel, and—with eyes wide open—reevaluated their vision for a future together based solely on mutual vulnerability at an emotional time.
A death in the military called for the leadership to evaluate the command climate as well as what may have prevented the tragedy. Higher headquarters wanted reports. Accidents were preventable. Murders were infrequent but carried legal ramifications. Suicides were always a reality check on what was called “command climate.”
The memorial service or ceremony—overseas or stateside—provided a setting for military honors. On a practical level, the ceremony signified to the unit that even though a death had occurred, the mission of the unit and the soldiers’ duties would continue.
If in the field for a memorial ceremony, the unit’s soldiers turned out in fatigues or battle dress uniform. In garrison the uniform may have been more formal. If the deceased was well known—and most were—personal anecdotes made the audience laugh . . . or choke back the tears. Chaplains, accustomed to the religious dictates of their respective faith group, soon learned to tailor their participation to the needs of the military.
Memorial ceremonies tied the service of the soldier—whether exemplary or mediocre—to the service of the country, represented by the generic display of helmet, dog tags, boots, weapon, and the unit’s guidon or colors. The unit may have participated in posting the colors; the honor guard fired the volleys, and the lone bugler played taps. Spit and polish always counted.
Not all memorial services or ceremonies were equal. Each commander—almost all combat veterans—brought his own hierarchy of values to a soldier’s death. The army’s values were defined as “duty, honor, and country,” and general officers provided watch over brigade and group commanders; the colonels then provided guidance for their battalion commanders, etc. What was heard at battalion and brigade was a repetition of the expectations of division or higher. Accidents were scrutinized for all the usual reasons for prevention—e.g., safety, training, accountability, and supervision by the chain of command. Line-of-duty accidents rated higher than just plain dumb incidents—i.e., the drunk driving, safety and traffic violations accidents that could have been prevented if somebody had provided more guidance or stricter control. Death by murder was cut-and-dried according to the dictates of the law. Suicides fell into the nether reaches somewhere between the army’s standard of prevention and that which defied both good sense and a rational explanation. Clear guidance from commanders—and senior staff—plus common sense often made for memorable memorial services.
Sometimes the motivation for the memorial ceremony was the expediency of getting it done and getting on with the job at hand. Army regulations governing memorial ceremonies may spell out the need for expedience, but the occurrence of a death provided its own impetus, an almost tangible urgency to get it done as quickly as possible. Understandably commanders tempered the ceremonial aspect of the memorial if the soldier had died under mysterious or nefarious circumstances. Under such conditions, the memorial ceremony—as opposed to a memorial service—could seem visibly sparse and grim. The ceremony offered little by way of personal comfort other than what was offered by the unit rendering “appropriate honors.”
The memorial—whether service or ceremony—said that the soldier’s life and service counted to the country. The nation’s flag, the Stars and Stripes, remained a fitting visual reminder of the nation’s commitment to the soldier and the soldier to the country. The flag duly presented to the next of kin, embodied the “ . . . grateful recognition of the service to the nation.”
When heroes are called out on Memorial Day or at the times when the nation, somberly and proudly, remembers its military past and present, are those who died in the margins also remembered? The national holidays invite reflection both public and private. The reflections of the day offer the recall of the nation’s commitment to the values for which the dead paid heavily.
Consistently the conflicts and casualties arising from combat are singled out for unique and deserving recognition. But what of the others? What of this long, sometimes deadly conflict termed “The Cold War?” What of the accident victims, on and off duty? The suicides? What of those who died on the margins of war?
The question seems to be: Can the nation include all service members in its recognition of service? It is not an easy question, nor is the answer immediately evident.
What binds the nation to the remembrance of these soldiers?
One answer—simple and yet complex—is that the nation is bound always by the service that they provided to the nation. It’s always the service. The service is always connected to duty. The duty may have been a walk in the park or as formidable as D-day. Service—however slight or hidden on the edges of conflict—is always honorable.
The men and women of the Cold War era are surely remembered by their families and former comrades in arms—and rightly so. They are remembered perhaps with relief for their time in service; certainly, remembered with thanks, and a long-suffering and abiding love. Some may be passed over by the neglect of individuals but never by the nation. The nation can do no less than to hallow its names for the service rendered no matter how valorous or humble. For the memory of all our dead, let the roll be called that a grateful nation may answer, “All present and accounted for.”
The barrel on the .50 glowed cherry red
in the lengthening shade from the bluffs of canyon.
Slow down on that goddam trigger!
the CSM yelled, Give it 3 or 4 bursts at a time;
slow it the hell down; walk the rounds into the target;
at that rate you’ll burn up the goddam barrel.
For a farm boy from Iowa, it was hard
as the .50 fired, jumped, and kicked, the brass
tinkling out onto the ground; the loader kept
his helmet down and simply watched the belt
feed through the .50’s firing block.
the tripod burrowed deeper into the Colorado sand.
Blom-blom-blom-blom. The ricochets
arced, floating high and wide, spiraling out of control,
blom-blom-blom … Germany’s chain link
and concrete border, Wursts to go,
blom-blom-blom … Panama’s canal of drugs and thugs,
blom-blom-blom … dropping in on some school kids in Grenada,
blom-blom-blom … some decidedly deep bamboo curtain,
blom-blom-blom-blom … pumping the oil sands of Iraq
and the hideouts of Afghanistan,
are we there yet?
Bullets liberated bullets for the freedom of people,
spent rounds on their way to who knows where or why,
and nobody cared
while the gunner held up long enough
to watch the light show flare
and die some 500 meters out.
I think that sumbitch will be all right,
the CSM said to no one in particular,
Just so he holds up on his bursts.
Somebody help him change that barrel.