by R.B. Breese
At the beginning of the Global War on Terror in my Air Force ROTC office I had a photo on my bulletin board of two Russian models wearing antique Soviet and Bolshevik hats. I added a caption saying, “God, I miss the Cold War,” years before Judi Dench said the same in a James Bond movie. And I’d joke with my cadets how much easier it was back then and how much more complicated their careers would be. But that is never the case in reality. Everyone’s “war” is never easy, never simple.
It may be difficult now – after nearly twenty-years of fighting in Afghanistan and US forces still questionably involved with Iraq – to understand what even the idea of a “Cold War” was like. We all worried about being nuked at the same time that we didn’t. In some ways we worried about chemical warfare more while at the same moment we knew a chem attack would end in nuclear war. It was indeed rather absurdist – like Waiting for Godot only with ICBMs. I know some people may find some of my actions in this story objectionable. So be it. But perhaps I’m mistaken about that.
It was 1987, and again I was doing my war duty: twelve-hour night shifts in a fighter squadron intel vault. Honestly, I did not mind that I’d done all of the Cold War chem-warfare-OPSEC-COMSEC-nuke-warfare training when I arrived at RAF Lakenheath in January 1985; in fact, I wanted to learn all that stuff. My primary job for the Air Force was to take care of problem-drinking and drunk airmen and their families, save them when we could, humanely discharge them if we couldn’t. I very much wanted an overseas assignment because it was the Cold War – and because it was farther from home. Requesting Europe on your dream-sheet pretty much guaranteed going there, though you could end up in Turkey. Like everyone else, I put Aviano, Italy, first knowing I wouldn’t get it. Second on the list was Lakenheath because the Senior Airman med tech I’d fallen in love with put RAF Mildenhall on hers. Fraternization was still a wink-wink thing in the 1980s. I was relieved when the orders came back; they did not say Turkey.
RAF Lakenheath it was, and I was pleased as punch. Half of my ancestral background was English, adding to my good pleasure to go live there for a two-year tour; in the end I had it extended to three because I loved living in East Anglia so much. Plus, the Continent was TDY and leave-central, and Edinburgh was a New Year’s rip and tear with your fellow junior officers and a few of the Ministry of Defence base secretaries. It is hard to describe now what the 1980s felt like, no matter how media saturated the Western world was rapidly becoming back then. It felt simultaneously like doomsday and liberation day. Perhaps the latter quality was just because my peers and I were of that age and of that life stage before pairing and spawning.
The devastatingly-shapely, flaxen-haired, and motorcycle-riding med tech sent me the literal and quintessential “Dear John” letter about three or four months after I arrived, so with my heart promptly broken, I looked to buy a house in a village with a couple other lieutenants and turn outward to the bifurcated bohemian life I wanted deep in my subterranean self. I had lived my life with a notorious poet’s name and now lived not that far from one of his haunts – but my mind was still confusingly colonized by religion.
Walking toward the also confusingly-named St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Church in Cambridge one Sunday, a truly lovely young English woman intentionally caught my eye through her own dark and almond-shaped eyes. She smiled and said “hello” in that accent I came to learn was quintessentially Cambridge, an accent that could pass for upper class even when one was not of the upper classes. This richly-brunette Cambridge lass, in an aqua-marine-colored knit dress, equally knit to her nineteen-year-old body, a beret jauntily askew on her head, left nothing to question for the twenty-five-year-old American crossing space-time in that car park on St. Andrew’s Street opposite the church. We were two equally-inwardly-wounded young souls barely aware of what we carried from our childhoods and adolescences, and we thereafter fell into one another with hardly any questions asked, soon enough holding hands in the pews and thereafter passionately having each other in that 17th century semi-detached house in the village of Cheveley.
What did transcend our ordinary youthfulness was what we did for work. My work as an outpatient substance abuse rehab counselor interested her and comforted her because she worked as a caregiver to children with cerebral palsy whilst she studied nursing. If the imperative of Jesus to care for the least of these had been inculcated into each of us, I suppose it was manifest in my care for the “problem children” of the Air Force and her care for severely-disabled actual children. We both wanted to do good; there was something in fact and deed about the social justice message of the gospel that Jesus preached that spoke deeply into our human depths. And our sexual desire for each other was no inconsistency because, ironically now I see, neither of us were pure believers; we asked too many questions of the world – and of heaven, I guess.
Stevie was a boy of about eight or nine when she was his caregiver. He could perceive the world, but I had no idea how he could; she knew, she understood. Her spoken voice to him was mellifluous. To this day I can hear the gentleness and love in the tone and timbre of how she spoke to him as if she was singing a song and how he did indeed respond. I had absolutely no experience with severe disability up to that time in my life. I only remember having been forced to sing with my church youth group to the residents at a frightful nursing home near where I grew up. It was a stoic duty because I didn’t have that tough, transfiguring love of Jesus in me; I was ignorant and naive of the hard facts of the lives around me. I wasn’t privileged, though I had that kind of solid lower-middle-class good fortune in family, relatives, and at school. But back in the 1960s and even the 1970s the handicapped were still largely hidden.
When I met Stevie for the first time it was one of those Rupert Brooke Sundays on the Backs along the Cam. Must have been June and the English summer was in-bloom, like every Wordsworth and Keats poem ever written. It was not hard to see at all why this corner of England had been worth fighting and dying for so many times. In early summer, the green of the grass is literal, the yellow of the daffodils astonishing, the white of the chestnut tree flowers brawling pridefully with the cotton clouds above them. She had taken Stevie out of his high-tech wheelchair – his parents were well-enough-off – and sat him on a blanket on the lawn in the sunshine. When she saw me approaching, she was genuinely happy; I’m sure she wasn’t certain if the Yank would even show up.
I confess I was nervous but also intrigued. It was almost as though I was meeting another person in her own family. I knew no protocol for meeting someone like Stevie, and she knew this, probably just by experience of her own, but she was equally kind with me – because she was already falling in love with me.
“This is Stevie,” she said. “Stevie, this is Byron.”
“Hello, Stevie,” I said, and lightly touched his hand. He shuddered at the slight touch. I didn’t know what to do right then, but he instantly smiled a very crooked and barely perceptible smile, along with the kind of muscle movements in his body that indicated some form of pleasure or excitement. We spent that Arcadian Sunday on the blanket, and on the gravel paths along the Cam guiding Stevie in his wheelchair. I think back on this moment now and realize there was another person I saw in a motorized wheelchair around Kings College, a man whose mind was able to conceive of universes far larger than the Isaac Newton Chair he occupied for work, a mind unimpeded by his own disability. It was Stephen Hawking.
My English girlfriend and I saw each other weekly thereafter, and only very occasionally did she have Stevie with her. I came to understand him and his condition more, seeing that his humanity was as intact in his shell of a body and in his own mind as much as I was in mine, no difference in essence than Professor Hawking. His caregiver gave him a focused affirmation that was personal and meaningful to them both. She did her work and studied her studies; I did my work with my clients, drew my drawings, wrote my poems – the latter badly, I might add – and every regular while, when HQ USAF Europe called, played wargames with NATO.
The pattern of the wargames – of practicing war – was intended to be just that: a pattern, because war plans have a pattern that should be known only to your own side. Once the planes were launched what to do on base when the Commies hit us with conventional or chemical weapons had its own pattern as well. The poor fligh-tline guys twisted wrenches in full chem suits. I had it way easier. Doing decontamination just to get into the fighter squadron building was at first a shock, then a routine, and finally a pain in the ass. If you screwed up in decon the sergeant drolly just said: “You’re contaminated, Lieutenant. Put it all back on, go outside, and do it again, sir.” Sometimes, you became a casualty and then either you became a practice patient for the medical squadrons or you were “dead,” useless, and that became a problem for the fighter squadron commander, which became a problem for the group commander, which became a problem for the wing commander – and I worked for the wing commander. Not good to become a corpse in that case.
In the final analysis of every NATO wargame on every base of every nation in Western Europe everyone died. What we did was practice the end of the world. There was no post-World War III life for the US airbases in Europe; every single one of them would either be overrun or nuked. Make no mistake, every Warsaw Pact air base and Soviet Air Force base would be nuked also. This was all about defense, not about conquest. If the Commies were going to attack, we were going to make them pay, dearly. If we could prevent them from taking Western Europe, we were going to do that, and, in fact, that was the primary objective in all cases. But since we were practicing World War III, we had to be prepared for that old Dr. Strangelove chestnut: “Well, boys, I reckon this is it — nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies.” In other words, every wargame ended the same. The pattern always made me think, made me contemplate bigger questions
One evening around 1700 I was about to go on my twelve-hour night shift when the phone rang. My English girlfriend was calling. She was crying.
“Byron. I need you.”
“I need to you to come to Cambridge.”
“I…I can’t…I have to go on night shift….”
“You have to do what…?”
“Um… shit…okay…we’re in a wargame….”
“Byron, it’s Stevie. Stevie’s dying.”
The wind that caught in my lungs made for a very peculiar silence such that she asked, “Are you there?”
“Yes, of course I’m here…. I…I can’t, I have to go to work….”
“Byron, Stevie is dying,” she said in a moment’s panic. “I need you, please. Come to hospital, please, I don’t know that I can do this alone.”
“What about his parents? Aren’t…”
“Yes! Of course, they are, but I need you. This has never happened to me before.”
Another silence from me, but this time she let it sit. And I decided.
“Okay. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Thank you, Byron. Thank you.”
I was already fully dressed in my chem-warfare gear over my BDUs, my gasmask slung onto my hip, carrying a Vietnam-era steel helmet, my chem boots on – but I took them off to drive this time. I didn’t have time to get out of everything, make it to the hospital and then, hopefully, make it back to the base not too late after my shift began at 1800. When I walked into the hospital ER every jaw dropped, and Stevie’s parents were at first visibly scared given the state of emotion they were already in.
My English girlfriend came up to me and simply let go crying; she’d been holding herself together for Stevie and his parents the whole time. After a few minutes apart from everyone else, she wiped her eyes and nose, brought me over to Stevie’s parents – who were not very much older than I at the time. As my girlfriend tried to introduce me, she choked up again, and I extended my hand and said “Captain Breese. I’m stationed at RAF Lakenheath. She asked me to come. I’ve met Stevie before.” Under my chem suit in the weeks before I now had two blue bars on my camouflage BDUs instead of one.
Stevie’s parents’ faces changed, their cheeks and brows softened a bit. Through their own tears they smiled some and said “We’re pleased to meet you. Thank you very much for coming to be with…”
“No, of course, and to be with you a little here also. And… Stevie.” Stevie was on a propped-up bed; he seemed comfortable, breathing shallowly, but it was clear he was passing on. It was one of the first moments I felt something like mature compassion or empathy without attachment arise inside me. I was simply there, fully human, there for all of them, nothing for myself – except Being itself.
By the time I became aware that I had to leave I realized I’d be over an hour, probably an hour-and-a-half, late for my shift. I said goodbye to everyone, but I don’t think any of them knew the trouble I’d shortly be in.
When I pulled in at the fighter squadron, I entered the hardened facility and got through security and decon. Once I reached the squadron section just outside the intel vault, the duty officer, another captain, but a pilot, looked at me and said with a smirk on his face: “Nice to see you, Breese. Wait here. I’ll tell the lieutenant colonel you showed up.”
My heart raced more now than when I was told Stevie was dying. My palms were sweating like a shower head and I was breathing like I was about to step into a boxing ring or to try to fight off the guys in high school who used to beat the shit out of me in the gym locker room. Preparing for nuclear war wasn’t preparing for battle; but this was.
A tall pilot in a flight suit came toward me and said: “Captain, where the hell have you been? Come with me.” We went into a small room alone. “Your duty shift started at 1800. Where were you?” He was slightly gleeful interrogating me because he knew I was just a personnel officer who worked on the wing staff.
My job, my duty, was to help people. I learned as a young man how to sit and really listen, how to take in, verbatim, the words being spoken so I could then write my case notes and communicate real, complex human suffering to commanders and first sergeants. I was trained how to read body language and facial expressions. That’s why I remember these intense experiences so well – it’s a skill that’s still etched into my synapses.
“I was at the hospital, sir.”
His face changed entirely. “What? Why were you there? Did something happen to you?”
“No, sir. A child was dying.”
“A child, sir, a young boy my girlfriend cares for. She called me around 1700 crying and asked me to please come to the hospital.”
The look in his previously widened eyes narrowed, returning to sadistic glee and reddening with anger simultaneously. He crossed his arms on his chest and raised his chin. “Your girlfriend?”
“She called you up and asked you to come to the hospital to comfort her…”
“Yes, sir.” And then he let it rip.
“You married to this woman?!”
“Is this kid your son?!”
“Then your ass belonged here and here on time! You’ve got a duty here and you are assigned to this place. You don’t get to make the decision about whether you come to work or not, Captain. They’re not your family, she’s not your wife, they don’t matter. You get your ass to your shift on time. This is a wargame, captain! The group commander wants to see you.”
And that did it. All of my philosophical questions were answered in that moment and all my questions of conscience were crystallized.
“You know what, colonel? I come here I don’t know how many times every time we play one of these games. I get dragged out of my office where my real job is taking care of those airmen who are twisting wrenches on your airplane, sir! I take care of your pilots when they get their asses arrested for drunk driving, sir! I’m here doing this work being shown classified stuff you all know I’m not supposed to see but you do it anyway! What do you think the friggin’ IG would think of that? Your intel people even tried to pin that lost crypto on me last wargame.
“A boy was dying, colonel. A real human being. A real life! This is bullshit, sir. We do this all the time and we all get nuked in the end. It’s a game, sir. Tonight, a kid was dying for real, a father and mother were losing their child. Do you have kids?! And, yes, my girlfriend asked me to come and be with her for a little while. I told her I had to go to work, but she pleaded because she was in pain! Go ahead, yes sir, take me to the group commander, and I’ll tell him the same damn thing, sir!”
The lieutenant colonel stood there with his arms still crossed, though his initially open mouth had closed, and he looked downward at me, a certain different shine in his eyes, the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes showing his age a little more.
“Okay, Captain Breese. Go into the vault. I’ll take care of this.”
“Yes, sir.” I popped a salute and, still righteously seething inside, I went into the intel vault for the rest of the night. I ignored everyone else in the vault for a while as I cooled down. The real intel officers and NCOs, all my rank or lower, kind of looked at me sideways. One of my NCOs was in there, too, as an augmentee. “You okay, Cap’n?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thanks, Mac.” I didn’t know if I would be fine after the wargame or even in the next hour or so, but honestly, I didn’t care because I was very angry and completely committed then to my own conscience. I didn’t load bombs or have a key to turn in a missile silo, but I was prepared for whatever would happen. In fact, I was the kind of guy who would have said the same thing as I said to that superior officer at a court-martial. This was the kind of “combat” I was used to, the emotional kind, mental.
I had brought a book with me that night because, per normal, there would be long periods of boredom; the book was by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer had been tangentially part of the plan to assassinate Hitler; he was hung naked by the SS three days before the US Third Army liberated Flossenburg concentration camp. When the SS officer in charge asked him if he was shaking because he was afraid, Bonhoeffer said in the chilled early morning air, “No, I’m cold. For you this is the end, but for me it is just the beginning.” Then he strode to the gallows.
No, I am not comparing myself to Bonhoeffer; he was a genuine hero of conscience who gave the ultimate measure. No, I didn’t, and don’t, identify my comrades or my nation with the Nazis or the Third Reich. But I did identify with how Bonhoeffer challenged every status quo because challenging any power that could become potentially abusive has always been part of my nature. Yes, I was an annoying idealist; it was hardwired in me.
The latter years of the Cold War could seem just as nutty as Kubrick’s 1965 movie. Free people were protesting us all over Europe; less free people were clamoring across the Iron Curtain – unbeknownst to us. It’s difficult to explain all of the hues of grey both inside and out: we never knew how close or far we were to World War III, but we were there in Europe to be ready. By helping our people, I supported our mission, that mission, if need be, to fight a war. I was committed to my job. But there was a limit to what I’d put up with as a human being, as weird as that sounds.
And no, I was not charged with being AWOL, I was not given a letter of reprimand, my Officer Evaluation Report was not annotated. The lieutenant colonel handled it and I never heard about it again. Perhaps my idealism and self-righteousness fit with my actual job and they just wrote me off – “planes weren’t crashing, people weren’t dying” as they saw it. Or maybe I convinced that O-5 pilot that evening, maybe he was a father, maybe things were just strange enough in that time and place to expand his mind in that one unique moment, and I was spared because a young boy actually died that day.
But as much as I remember my chewing-out and my defiance, I remember my English girlfriend, like yin to yang. I remember her voice like a lark, sung into Stevie’s ears on a summer’s afternoon, not far at all from where Rupert Brooke wrote and sang his hymns to the countryside around Cambridge. My girlfriend’s name was Carole. Her soft-sung voice with her chorus of intentional sweetness and affirmation to Stevie, intoned like a sacred chant, its power hidden in between the actual words: “You are fully human, Stevie; you are whole, you are worth the universe.”