In my first book "Patches and Pins", I talk about the day that my boss realized that there was more to life than just "working in the Army". Here's that story told again with more detail, now that I am retired and the "statute of limitations" has expired on this aspect of my life - more than 30 years ago now. As a new officer, I was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division Forward in Goppingen, Germany. The "forward" referred to the "Forward Brigade-plus" which was stationed in southern Germany. During the Final War with the USSR, the Brigade-plus would be supplemented with German and French forces along the Inter-Germany Border (IGB) and "hold the line in place", keeping the Soviets from crossing over until the rest of the American Division, stationed in Kansas, would join us in the defensive fight as one Division. The mission was to "stand and slow them down". Within 24 hours of my arrival (thanks to Kenneth Davis and some others), I was given commands to "fix my Boy Scouting program and serve as the Scoutmaster of the Troop" by the one-star Division Forward Commander. That same day, I was "instructed" by my boss, the Battalion Commander of the "Blue Spaders" -- the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry. He welcomed me to his Battalion but told me "keep your nose where it's supposed to belong -- in that motor pool. You're not doing anything with Boy Scouting there..."
So I did both; as best as I could. The Troop was reorganized, the Pack was growing because "there was someone there who knew how Scouts was supposed to go and we don't have to travel too far to get help" (they have not had a Commissioner in five years), and the wife and I grew an Explorer Post (and our first child) during that time.
The cycle of work called for us to "go to the field" once every quarter for about 20 days on average, and do a "dry run" to the IGB every other month with one of the Battalion's four line companies and twice a year with the entire Battalion. The purpose was to acquaint everyone with where they had to be parked when the Soviets blow through the border and we had to "hold them back" tactically. A NATO/American Brigade is about 4000 Soldiers strong; a Soviet Brigade back in those days was four times as large. See where this is going?
The True Mission
We really knew what the true mission was, the first time we sat on our side of the border and looked over onto the East. It was "fight and die in place". It was kind of a secret where exactly our positions would be on the West German side of the IGB and we could not tell our families what exactly we would be doing other than "holding back the USSR as best as we can" in waiting for the rest of the Division to arrive and occupy space in our "war sector". During field operations like that, those Soldiers or leaders who excelled in one way or another would get "coined" by the Battalion Commander. It was a cheap but special manner in being recognized for great efforts. That challenge coin could not buy one anything but pride. Those holders of those few coins felt special. Honored. Yeah, blessed. When we returned from a full Battalion "run" that March in 1984, the first order of business was to clean and re-stock the mechanized vehicles. When that was done, Soldiers could go home, see their families and rest for a day or so before returning to work and the start of a new cycle. So everyone was busy washing, cleaning, replacing and testing equipment. It was during that "recovery period" when the three-star decided to show up for a visit. In Europe back then, the deputy commanding generals of ALL of the various military organizations had a "secondary mission": they were also the Transatlantic Council, Boy Scouts of America's District or program Chairs. In south-western Germany, this task fell to the Deputy Commander of the Army's VII Corps. The General, normally a two-star, gained his third star and was getting ready to assume the role of Corps Commander. This was to be his "swan song" visit in his former role; and his "this is who you're dealing with" introductory visit in his new role. His entourage -- a press guy, a Captain (the General's Aide-de-Camp), his Command Sergeant Major, and two full Colonels (no idea why they were there) -- drove around to the Battalion's motor pool after visiting the Division Forward's motor pool (and after we got a head's up that one, he's coming to our motor pool and not to the Battalion's headquarters for glad-handing and photos; and two, he wants to meet and shake hands with SOLDIERS and junior officers). I did not see their entry, for I was up the street at my unit's barracks, doing something or another. A young Specialist came running up the lane to the entryway of the barracks and found me. Breathlessly, he spoke "LT" (all lieutenants, to which I was one of several in the Battalion at that time, are addressed thusly) and then "He's asking for you!" "Who's asking for me?" I asked, looking at the Soldier. "The three star. And the BC (Battalion Commander). They're looking for you. What did you do? Can I hide you, Sir?" "What?" I asked. The Soldier explained that the three star -- the Corps Commander -- asked for me by name. The conversation went like "I understand that you have a Lieutenant Walton here...is he around?" and the BC pointed to Winkle Toes (a nickname for Command Sergeant Major Winkler) and ordered people to go find and bring me to him. "What did you do, Sir?" he asked. "Nothing." "You didn't get into a DWI? Beat up some German? Raped a girl?"
He had high thoughts of me for sure. "No" I answered, "None of that. Probably one of my Soldiers got into trouble and I have to pay the piper for it...." I said as I started to walk down the steps to the parking area where my car was waiting for me.
"Whatever it is, everyone's running around looking for you...Good luck, Sir...." the Soldier said, saluting me as I left.
Smoothing down my uniform
I smoothed down my starched uniform shirt and insured that there were no visible coffee stains on it. I then walked down the steps, running into other Soldiers all informing me that the "General's looking for you, Sir!" and saluting. I got to my car and pulled out when a jeep pulled into the empty space beside me and I noticed Wrinkle Toes...the Command Sergeant Major pointing at me. I turned off my car, got out and walked over to the stocky Black man chewing on a cigar. "Hey LT...what did you get yourself into? There's a three-star down there who came here looking for you..."
"I don't know, Sergeant Major...I was just coming down to see what new mission I was chosen for now..." The Sergeant Major got out of his vehicle and pulled the seat back so I could get in. "I'll give you a ride. And some advice." On the way to the motor pool, the man with the cigar doled out his advice to me. "Whatever he says, you just stand there and take it, son. Be a rock. He's down here to chew someone's ass -- just let it happen, hear?" I nodded and said, "Yes, Sergeant Major." There was a flash to my enlisted days, in which in formation all of us Soldiers had to respond with that command...response...before that Sergeant Major directed us all to "Droppppppp!" and we proceeded to start knocking out push-ups for two minutes-- in cadence. Winkletoes' voice brought me back to the present. "Only say "Yes Sir" and "No Sir". Don't give him any excuse for chewing more than he already has. Are you SURE you don't know why he's here?" "No Sergeant Major. I don't have a clue one. But we'll find out soon enough!" I answered as the driver pulled into the gate of the motor pool and stopped his vehicle to let us out. "Good luck, LT!" The Sergeant Major got out, pulling the seat back and letting me exit the vehicle. He then saluted me and I returned the salute.
I stood a bit straighter and then walked over to where the gaggle was standing, beside the large command tracked carrier belonging to the Battalion Commander. "Lieutenant Walton, as ordered Sir!" I stopped, saluted and waited for everyone to return their salutes to me before I lowered my hand to my side and stood there. "Mike Walton?" The General looked at me. Everyone else, I sensed, was holding their collective breaths as the General walked over to where I was standing. I attempted to smile but then thought better of it. "Yes, Sir" I responded. The General extended his hand and then grabbed my left shoulder. "I wanted to shake the hand of the kid who made me look like a hero...thanks to you -- and to our District Executive Vince -- we are the best District in the Council!" I returned the strong grip he had on my hand, shaking it. "Awww. At ease, Mike. I wanted to come down here and tell you in person how much I appreciated your work in making Goppingen and Schawbish Gmund a great place to do Scouting...." the General started. "You -- and that wife of yours, Melly, Kelly...." "Millie, Sir" I corrected him. He repeated my correction. I think that everyone around me exhaled at that point.
"You two have done our community proud. You did me proud. And I can see that your Commander and his folks have assisted you in a grand way to allow you to do all of the things you've been able to do here." I just nodded. I have been really close to Generals before...in my youth... Never been in front of anyone who could crush my military career with some words and direction, however. The General turned to my boss' boss and said "Colonel, I know full well that your unit has an important mission. Without a shadow of a doubt, your Battalion is on the tip of that spear. I just wanted to ask you that you don't forget that your unit also is a part of a community. Give this man all of the support you can legally and morally give him. He -- and all of your other Soldiers and officers here -- are just as important to ME as these tracks and carriers are. You catch my drift, Colonel?" My Battalion Commander looked at his superior officer and said: "Yes Sir, Lieutenant Walton will continue to do a good job for you and the military community." Again, I thought about smiling at this point but again decided not to. I'll laugh later. My commander was the guy who told me to keep my nose out of Scouting while I was assigned to his unit. Or else. The General turned back to me. "I'm not going to keep you, Mike...but I wanted to let you know that I will be moving up as you may have heard. There's going to be a two-star Navy guy taking over as DC, and I expect you to make him welcome. Willy," he said looking at his Aide, "I need a coin and an impact AAM."
The AAM -- Army Achievement Medal -- was a relatively new award. Most Generals did not have one, it was that new. I had received three before this one. An "impact" AAM just means that I was being awarded it on the "spur of the moment" -- most cases without orders or a certificate. They would be generated and sent through command channels down to you. The Aide pulled out of a pouch he was carrying around a medal from one baggie and a coin from the faux leather briefcase and handed both to the General. I looked onward as the General attached the medal to my uniform pocket and informed me "the orders will come down in a couple of weeks". He then extended his right hand outward and as I grasped his hand to return the handshake, the Corps' challenge coin was between our palms. He ended the handshake and that was my signal to place the coin in the other hand and to salute the three-star. He returned the salute and the entourage all got into the vehicle and prepared to leave the large motor pool. The General looked back at my boss, his Sergeant Major and the rest of the people standing there, and said simply "You guys are the tip of the spear. Don't forget that, Jayhawks!" We were all told that when anyone says "Jayhawks" -- the motto of the VII Corps -- we were all to respond with our own motto. I stood there and along with everyone there, yelled "Blue Spaders!", our Battalion's motto. Winkletoes gave the command for attention and present arms, and we stood at attention and saluted in the direction of the van as it drove off and back toward Stuttgart. As we went back to our work recovering and getting ready for the next run out the gates in the middle of the night, I reflected a little on what just happened -- that I've been "coined" by the incoming Corps Commander. That coin now sits among other coins in my display at work, one of several given to me not for what I did in my military role, but what I do for others through Scouting. As I said, the coin could not buy one anything but pride. It did, however, made me feel special. Honored.