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.

 

In the U.S., More Than Anywhere, We Care About Somebody’s Dog

By Jim Berlin

It was high noon in a major intersection in a large Arizona city – four lanes in all directions – but most cars had slowed to a nervous crawl because of the living obstruction in the road: A half-grown Boxer pup, eyes as wide as silver dollars, pacing and darting in a circle of confusion as driver-after-driver sought to avoid him.

Because there is a leash-law in place, every loose dog is somebody’s dog, an adventurous escapee or unwilling wanderer temporarily separated from hearth and home. And in America at least, no sane person wants to hurt somebody’s dog.

In America, somebody’s dog is everybody’s dog, a loved and pampered species that has wagged its way into the hearts of us all.

But it wasn’t looking good for the pup. Drivers unaware of the drama were crowding the creepers and pushing hard into the intersection. It was just a matter of time.

My police uniform shirt has hung unworn in a closet for 15 years, but you never get it off your back. Hell, I didn’t even have a whistle, but I started to get out of my car anyway. I would just go out there, stop traffic somehow, scoop him up, make everything right.

Then I saw a kid on the far corner, early 20s, down on one knee and calling the dog as loud as he could. The pup saw him, too, and all his fear and confusion fell away. He raced from the street and into the boy’s arms and horns

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honked everywhere in celebration.

I pulled next to the kid as he put the dog back in the cab of his truck– and some truck it was. A full-sized 3’ x 5’ American flag was mounted on the back. The kid was obviously a vet, an over-the-top patriot.

“He rides with me every day, every day!” he shouted. “And for some reason he just jumped out the window!”

Then off he went, the flag snapping to full attention in the wind as he headed home with his pup.

In America, more than anywhere else on Earth, we care about somebody’s dog.

Neil Armstrong: A Real Hero
In a Nation of Invented Heroes

By Jim Berlin

Heroes have become a dime a dozen in America. No, a dime a thousand.

A child calls 9-l-l when his mother keels over and everyone from the fire chief to the news anchors proclaim him a hero. He gets a plaque and a ceremony when a handshake and a clap on the back would do.

If the kid’s house had been on fire and he dragged mama outside, that would have been heroic. As it is he’s just a bright kid who did the right thing.

But it’s gotten much bigger and more pervasive than that. For the last 10 years every military unit that returns from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan is collectively welcomed home as “heroes” by their local media. Again, they are not.

There may well be heroes among them, maybe even with medals to prove it, but mostly they are patriotic men and women who performed their duty with honor. They can be damn proud of that, but they would be the first to tell you they’re not heroes.

This “everybody’s a hero” thing starts at an early age now in America. At the end of the season every youngster in many soccer, baseball and football leagues gets a trophy. Win or lose, first place or last.

We don’t want to damage any of their delicate self-images. Give them a trophy

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that says “participant.” It all cheapens real achievement, real heroism.

Then you have Neil Armstrong. A Navy pilot at age 20 flying a Panther fighter jet during the Korean War. Eighteen years later he does a different kind of flying, riding a fragile spacecraft 225,000 miles through the vacuum of space. Then, for an encore, he becomes the first of our species to put a footprint on a place beyond our planet.

When Armstrong came home he hid from the public eye, refusing to cash in on the greatest human and scientific achievement of the 20th century.

He died last Saturday at age 82. An American hero. The real thing.