Cold War Kid: Two Tours in Berlin Prove to be the Chance of a Lifetime for Army Brat
By Rebecca Kidder
“Have a good day, Love,” my mom said as she squeezed my hand and smiled. I grabbed my backpack and ran out the door and down Biebersteig, our street, toward the bus stop. It felt like any other morning in Berlin, Germany.
As the school bus came into view, I realized the situation was serious.
My parents told my three siblings and me that there would be a “training exercise” starting, but even at 13, I knew it was not an exercise. Two armed American jeeps—one in front and one behind—and two rifle-carrying U.S. soldiers on each bus would escort all DoD students to and from school in the spring of 1986. I climbed the steps, smiled at the soldiers in the front seats and walked to the back of the bus.
“This is weird,” I said to a friend.
The armed school bus convoys were instituted in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack on the La Belle Discotheque in West Berlin. Two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman were killed and about 230 injured when a bomb blast shook the nightclub packed with American troops and civilians.
The U.S. military immediately took measures to secure their sector. Barbed wire fences were erected and guards were posted around Thomas A. Roberts Elementary School and Berlin American High School, which I attended. Bomb threats were an almost daily occurrence at school for weeks and Berlin was on high alert.
I don’t remember feeling scared or vulnerable because I didn’t understand the gravity of what happened. I felt safe, almost invincible at times, because of my surroundings. As an Army brat, I was used to seeing jeeps, armed soldiers and guard shacks.
It’s funny how different a child’s perception can be.
While there were obvious worries and concerns living abroad—specifically in West Berlin during the Cold War—there were so many benefits to living there. My father’s career as an Army officer took our family around the world and back, but none of our stops were as memorable as our two tours in Germany.
It was truly an opportunity of a lifetime. We lived in a magical city steeped in history with cobblestone streets and historic buildings. On both tours, we lived in the quaint Zehlendorf District in the suburb of Dahlem.
On our second tour, we were assigned a requisitioned home, a four-bedroom villa that we were told was once the home of Adolf Hitler’s secretary. The villa was on a quiet, tree-lined street and the basement had a wine cellar, bomb shelter and a door leading to an underground tunnel which may have served as an escape route in years past.
Just blocks from our house was the entrance to the Grünewald, a 7,400-acre forest that used to be a royal hunting reserve. My sisters, brother and I would often ride our bikes through the Grunewald during the summer and buy popsicles from street vendors.
While living in Berlin the first time, we traveled around Europe and experienced the customs and cultures of neighboring nations. Although we had chances to enjoy our surroundings, we still lived in a foreign city divided by warring ideologies and an infamous wall. Every American family lived off-post without security and I asked my mom how she felt back then.
“Of course, it was hard to put my babies on a bus after the threats we had received,” she said. “But at least I knew you were safe on the bus and at school. I worried most when you were at the park or when we went to a friend’s house. … I always felt most vulnerable in our car because it was so obviously American.”
In addition to the terrorist threats, we were constantly reminded that we lived in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. We lived in Berlin when our neighbor, Army Maj. Arthur Nicholson, a military intelligence officer, was shot and left to die in East Germany by a Soviet sentry. My parents frequently witnessed strange men in business suits digging through our trash. What they were looking for I’ll never know.
Our second tour in Berlin was immediately after German reunification, from 1990 to 1992. Although the Cold War was in its waning days, there were still threats and we were the victims of our own terrorist incident. Three shots were fired through the kitchen window of our home while my dad was deployed to Northern Iraq. My mom was alone with three children—I was away at college in Munich—but she kept the house running smoothly. It was difficult being so far away because I was worried about my family’s safety.
Troops and their families make sacrifices every day and those living abroad are no exception. Like most, we lived far from loved ones, relinquished the typical hometown experience and dealt with the fear and uncertainty that comes with deployments.
My dad missed out on some important moments in our lives and we all missed our extended family back in the States, but his job also helped create some incredible memories for us. There were so many unique experiences afforded by living overseas—experiences we would have missed out on if the Army hadn’t sent us to Germany.
What I learned in my history class, I could see for myself by stepping outside the classroom. Or I could talk to family friends who would elaborate on their city’s history.
We forged a lifelong bond with Berliners who met my parents at a partnership event. Our family attended events with our French and British allies and two of my closest friends from school were children of Middle Eastern diplomats. We built friendships with people from all walks of life and our adventure as a family broadened our worldview.
Living abroad shaped my life in many ways, but growing up as a military brat was even more impactful. I’m accepting of others because I’ve been exposed to a diverse group of people and their cultures, struggles and beliefs. Moving from one post to the next every few years was difficult, but I learned to be adaptable, independent and comfortable with new surroundings.
I’m a proud member of a fraternity of courageous, resilient Americans who graciously embrace the challenges of growing up in the military.
–Rebecca Kidder is a former executive administrative assistant with the USO.
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