On Veterans Day, Veterans
Remember Their Closest Call

by Jim Berlin

When someone says “Happy Veterans Day” to those who served, they often flash back to a moment when they almost bought the farm. And then they contemplate what a subtle line exists between coming home carrying a seabag — or being carried home in a flag-draped coffin.

I was in uniform the day death stopped to look me over, but it wasn’t the one I’d worn in the Marine Reserves 30 years earlier. It was the uniform of the United Nations, topped with a jaunty blue beret…the one we sported in Bosnia as members of the International Police Task Force. The IPTF, composed of police officers from 42 nations, was there to help enforce the Dayton Peace Accords.

Someone had gone through my files, saw I’d been a jarhead and a journalist before joining the Phoenix PD, and summoned me to Sarajevo for a job interview. On September 16, 1997, I sat down in a closet-size office with a Florida cop named Marvin Padgett. We got along beautifully, and two hours later he told me I was hired. I would be the liaison between the IPTF and NATO.

Marvin then called a German police colonel and his young aide into the office to approve his choice. The four of us sat almost knee-to-knee in the tiny room, and after just minutes the colonel said, “Okay, you’re hired! Tomorrow we are flying to several villages and I want you to come along.”

I politely declined, saying all my gear was in Mostar and I wanted to retrieve it before reporting for duty. The colonel said I could get my gear after the tour. But I insisted. I

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wanted to return to Mostar that night.

No one in the office was happy with my decision.

Sixteen hours later their Russian MI-8 helicopter ran into heavy fog — and then it ran into a mountain. Every passenger perished in the fireball. Of the four men smiling and talking in that tiny office the previous afternoon, I was the only one still alive.

I’ve always wondered why I was so insistent on returning to Mostar. Now I think I know: The ultimate Commander-in-Chief, God, has a mission for each of us. And he allows us to live until we complete it.

Happy Veterans Day to all who survived – and all the heroes who didn’t.