This Veteran’s Day, I couldn’t help thinking back to my days living in Germany. Desert Storm was in full swing, and students who normally sat in my writing classroom on one or another army base were suddenly deployed to Iraq or called to complete extra training in anticipation of deployment.
I’d become accustomed to students showing up for class in camouflage and had even learned to pinpoint their true identities beneath the paint and leaves. Now, tension was high, and we spent more time than usual in class talking about what lie ahead and how life in the army had become a tad more risky than when these soldiers’ days were spent completing routine field exercises or planning jaunts to nearby France or Italy.
As Desert Storm ensued, security grew tight on base. Every week or two, a suspicious-looking package left somewhere outside the canteen would lead to complete lockdown as the bomb squad moved in to investigate. Since I was living and working in Heidelberg, where NATO Headquarters is based, all of us–military and contracted civilians–were encouraged to be exceedingly cautious and to question anything unusual.
The strangest experience I had throughout this period came from within. One evening after work, I drove onto the base to visit the commissary to restock my fridge and was stopped at the front gate and asked to get out of my car. At that time, I was driving a beat-up, shiny red BMW, in perpetual need of a brake check–the kind of car that would have been snazzy in its day (which, unfortunately, had passed a few decades prior).
The MPs proceeded to search the car. Looking under floormats. Peering under the hood. Pouring over the trunk. Shining a light underneath. Even removing the side panels from the doors to see if anything unusual might be lurking.
It was a routine check. My car just happened to be the random automobile selected for inspection. Survival in this environment meant anticipating and warding off affronts to our community without ever really knowing if they would come or in what form.