Driving to Fort Leavenworth, KS

Intro

Thank you all for the well wishes and congratulations on my wedding day. There were too many to try and answer one-by-one.

I am Fort Leavenworth, KS this week. I am a part of a teaching curriculum update. It’s neat to see how the sausage is made and why we teach certain things.

BATTLE GROUND, IN- July 25, 2016

Downtown Battle Ground looks like a postcard of a small Midwest town. There is a General Store, a single diner filled with old men drinking coffee, and a railroad track that cuts the town in half.

As far as my eyes can see is a vista of corn, the leaves dark green, almost five feet high. Dawn paints the tops of the stalks a vivid red-gold. A gentle breeze ripples through it, and my sleep blurred vision it seems I am looking at a vast sea of corn, stretching off to the horizon.

Just out of town is an abandoned farmhouse, half falling down with white chipped paint. Outside the house is rusted, old farm equipment.

People wave as you drive by. Everybody knows everyone else but they mind their business.

The town is where folks leave their doors unlocked and neighbors help take care of the youngsters. Battle Ground is a place people collect on their porches at nightfall to talk in the summer time.

Graying elders where look out for each other and watch out for the kids next door.

Driving West

I drove west from Indiana. Along the way I hit a good part of the Midwest.

South of the Great Lakes is the Plains. The Plains cover a wide swath stretching through the central part of Indiana, into Illinois, Missouri and finally into Kansas. This highly fertile earth is perfect for growing crops and raising kids.

This is the great Corn Belt of the Midwest. Despite the name, corn isn’t the only corps that grows here. The rich soil and warm summer climate support soybeans and grains.

Business parks and strip malls give way to lush stretches of farmland dotted with old farmhouses and rusted silos. I see churches, pickup trucks and Confederate flags fluttering in the wind. I hear the crunch of gravel with tractors driving on one lane farm roads and I smell the wet sharp smell of fresh cut grass.

 

The timeless brown, ugly winter seems far away today on this sunny, summer day. Winter is that awful time when the leaves fall off the trees and the snow comes. Today is sunny and full of hope.

The sun is shining. There are black, rain clouds on the horizon. Rivers snake their way across the landscape.

I pass from Illinois to Missouri. Missouri is where the Midwest meets the South. The state’s two main rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, makes it an important hub for travelers and explorers.

As I head west the flat, open land gives way to gradual hills and valleys. Tall power lines crisscross swaths of farmlands growing corn and soy. Commercial trucking plazas and business parks, break up the scenery as you get closer to towns.

I start to see big box stores, plus mainstay restaurants: Wendy’s, Bob Evans and Pizza Hut. Further west, well into Missouri, the commercial centers become less and less.

Family-owned smaller farms and mom-and-pop gas stations and stores take over. There seem to be no zoning laws. Big, multilevel homes with nice trucks sit next to old trailers and junkyards.

Poverty and wealth sit side-by-side. This is a land of family farms and blue-collar workers. I pass through small towns where local restaurants are next door to deserted gas stations.

Finally, I get to Leavenworth. Fort Leavenworth is just outside Kansas City. It’s located in the heart of America. I feel blessed to be here in the middle of the summertime.

 

Fort Riley Visit

I visited Fort Riley last week. I visited the First Infantry Division Museum and Camp Funston.

I was flooded with memories long forgotten – some painful, some
peaceful, some still vague, all of which define me in a unique way.
This is one of the worst and best part of having Traumatic Brain
Injury.

These memories are like being tethered to a kite. Sometimes the kite
is far away and other times the kite pulls at you. Today I am being
pulled along.

I will start the book tomorrow. These are thoughts that I took as I
remembered them.

I just needed a foundation to start with. I know this is rough draft but I wanted us to get started.

FORT RILEY, KS- July 27, 2016

Fort Riley is nestled in the middle of Kansas, a lonesome area that
locals call “out there.” It sits 100 miles west of Kansas City, MO.

It seems a lot more like the Far West than the Middle West. The day
has a hard blue summer sky. The air is hot and muggy. I stop to get
gas. I am greeted with the flat, twang of the plains. Men wear
straight-leg, boot cut jeans, Stetsons and ball caps, and high-heeled
boots with pointed toes. I see lots of churches and pickup trucks.

Driving west the land went from flat to rolling plains. As Interstate
70 makes its way west business parks and strip malls give way to lush
stretches of farmland. I see old white farmhouses, rusted silos and
the occasional Confederate flag.

Driving west slowly the civilization of business parks and strip malls
give over to rolling, green prairies with huge swaths of farmlands,
mainly corn and soy. I see horses, herds of cattle, and a cluster of
grain elevators, and green John Deere tractors.

I am on my way to visit with some old memories.

Fort Riley

Coming over a hill you are hit by the majestic sight of Fort Riley.
Helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles take the places of barns and
cattle. Fort Riley is a wonderful old frontier army post. A lot of the
old buildings on post reflect military life on the western frontier
during the Indian Wars.

It has big stone buildings from a bygone era. Historic limestone
buildings mark the main post with beautiful tree lined streets. A rush
of memories come back.

FORT RILEY, KS- January, 2008

Citizen-soldiers have played a unique role in the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. The long deployments in combat zones have changed the towns and states they are from. Our deployment was no different.

In January 2008, I joined a team of 17 Oregon National Guardsmen that deployed to Afghanistan to train an infantry battalion of Afghan
soldiers. Our mission started out at Fort Riley, KS, where we trained
for two months.

In March we went to Afghanistan. We started in Kabul, where we picked up our battalion. In May, we took our Afghan battalion to Helmand Province- a place famous for opium production, but also a stronghold for the Taliban.

My team was in some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

We trained Afghan soldiers. We drove desolate IED infested roads. We patrolled and fought out of remote combat outposts alongside British, Canadian, Danish and Afghan soldiers. It was the adventure of a lifetime.

Of my 17-man team one would die, three would be severely injured in combat and several more were wounded in action. All of us were changed by the experience.

We were not special forces or an elite team of commandos, we were
average national guardsmen. Most of the team were part-time soldiers who drilled one weekend a month and two weeks a year- traditional national guardsmen with regular lives 28 days a month.

Our average age was 35. We were all experienced soldiers with over a decade or more of service. In our regular lives we were teachers,
mechanics, policemen, fathers, sons and husbands.

What makes their story so exciting it that a group of regular men did
extraordinary things.

The BRO Patch

Fort Riley is the home of the First Infantry Division, a proud, tough
unit that has been fighting our nation’s wars since World War I. It’s
the oldest continuously serving unit in the United States Army.

In World War II, the Big Red One fought from North Africa to Sicily.
On D-Day, the 1st Infantry Division spent nineteen hours penetrating the beach at Omaha. It pushed through France and the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge and finally into the Rhineland.

The Division fought in some of the fiercest, bloodiest battles of the
Vietnam War.

In Desert Storm, the Big Red One made a 160 mile assault into enemy held territory in less than 100 hours.

The division was part of the initial IFOR mission in Bosnia in 1996.

The division deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom in 2004. Its
brigades were ready for war.

The first brigade had been set to deploy in June 2006. It was “off
ramped” with a new mission. The brigade was transformed into a
training organization to build, train and deploy military transition
teams that would embed with Iraqi and Afghan security forces.

Preparing advisory teams made up for national guardsmen and reservists that would train and fight with Afghan and Iraqi security forces was not a mission that active duty soldiers liked.

The deployable units at Fort Riley are all headquartered on the main
post. Ironically, it’s named Custer Hill. It was where the 7th Calvary
was stationed before its fateful rendezvous with Sitting Bull in 1876.

Camp Funston

We were down the hill at Camp Funston. During World War I, Funston’s main purpose was to train soldiers from Midwestern states to fight overseas. During World War II it was again used as a deployment site.

Funston looked more like a small city than an army camp. It contained old buildings from World War II, and many wood-frame barracks. The entire camp had 20 to 25 buildings on it.

All the buildings were laid in city block squares with main streets
and side streets on either side.

The three active duty training battalions were not in the historic,
old, drafty buildings, but in tan double–wide trailers that made up
the camp. This was the commander’s office, supply room and small
classrooms were.

Our barracks were tan, two-story steel-frame buildings that were
shaped like a block letter U. The barracks front door opened to a long hallway that lead to a dayroom. It had a reading lounge and coke machine.

On the right, just past the coke machine, was an orderly room. Up a
flight of stairs, on the second floor was the same layout.

Past the orderly room was a 40 man open bay barracks. Our 17 man team was scattered throughout the room. Each sleeping space had a bunk bed partitioned into separate areas with a double row of wall lockers.

This was our “home” at Camp Funston.

It was impressive and simple.

There was another double-wide trailer that acted as the mess hall. It
took only a few minutes to walk there from our barracks, but the
blowing and drifting snow with subzero degree temperatures made it seem a lot further.

The First Infantry Division asked us to wear the BRO (Big Red One)
patch. We did so proudly. They made us a part of the unit and a part
of the amazing tradition of the First Infantry Division.

It is the only combat patch I’ve ever worn since. Of all three of my
deployments it is the one I am most proud of because of the men I was with.

The Training

I remember being wet, miserable and tired in training, but I really
remember the cold.

I don’t think I have ever been as cold as I was at Fort Riley. I was
stationed in Korea and Fort Drum, NY. Both places are known have
punishing winters, but Fort Riley was really cold.

We had overpowering, wind gusts of over 30 miles per hour. It was
bone-chilling cold for with temperatures in the teens and twenties. It was easy to get frostbite or hypothermia.

Any cold wind that hit your exposed skin turned it frozen solid. Your
body fidgets from it and you start jackhammer shivering, trying to get warm. Misery loves company and the harsh training conditions made the team bond together.

One day after being a gunner in the back of a truck I was so cold and
shivering so hard I thought I was going to pull a muscle. I couldn’t
get warm enough.

I couldn’t feel my fingertips to button up shirt. My buddy Paul had to
help me into a new set of clothes after getting back to the barracks.
My teeth are chattering, I’m shivering and I feel like my insides are
made of ice.

Paul looks at me and says, “Do you believe we volunteered for this?” I can’t help but smile through my chattering teeth. It was brutal and
fun.

Long days, great training, cold weather and my buddies are what I remember.

The Mission

By the time we arrived at Funston in January 2008 the training had
really changed. Initially, the focus of the training was getting the
transition teams through their pre-deployment requirements.

Now the training was focused on helping the teams to work with a
coalition partner once they arrived in-theater.

The mission of our embedded training team was to advise, teach, and mentor Afghan security forces. Besides advising them, we gave them direct access to coalition capabilities like air support, artillery,
medical evacuation and intelligence gathering.

We would embed full time with our battalion, training and fighting
with Afghan soldiers.

The mission of transition teams is to help the Afghan Army build its
own capabilities to enable them to secure their own population.

We started training in January just after the New Year, we graduated early March.

The training was a boot camp for combat advisors. It was two brutal
months of classes, workouts, night driving, shooting ranges, and
marathon hikes carrying heavy packs. The end result was worth it.

Our team was preparing to go to war. We could not possibly imagine the adventure that awaited us. Conditions would be extreme. Training for hard work and misery is simply hard and miserable.

We got language classes, culture classes and had a chance to meet with real Afghan soldiers as part of our training. All of it helped us get ready.

The training was a real eye-opener for us on what we were going to do and what could happen.

As the weeks went on we did more stuff:  weapons qualification,
drivers training, the Combat Life Saver course and some specialized
training for fire support, military intelligence and logistics. Tons
of PowerPoint but most of the learning was hands-on.

We met with newly returned advisors. They gave us lessons fresh from the battlefield.

They told us the cruel truth about what we could expect as combat
advisors- little or no support from big American units in our battle
space and a culture shock when dealing with Afghan soldiers.

For us it was a reality check. We were all accomplished soldiers, but
were we ready for the brutal toll that combat could impose? I hoped
so.

For eight weeks we qualified on individual weapons, worked as vehicle crews, fired heavy weapons like the M2.50 caliber machine gun, the 7.62mm M240B machine gun and automatic grenade launcher.

We sat through 40 hours of rudimentary Dari (a dialect of Farsi and a native language of Afghanistan).

Our team really came together during the training.

It was hard, exhausting work. We worked six days a week with Sundays off. After training nonstop all week, Sundays was a welcomed leisure time.

The training mixed the officers in with the senior enlisted men.

I was a captain. At first the men called me “sir” or “Captain Oto” but
over time I simply became “Dom.”

We came to know each other in a very intimate and special way.

Our class had 100 soldiers in it.

The training allowed us to make the transition from part-time soldiers of the National Guard to full-time warriors about to go to war. We learned never to leave home without our weapons, water, medical kit and a plan.

We practice what to do if a machine gun breaks, jams or overheats to the point of uselessness. We learned how to load and operate the
radios.

It prepared a team of lions to go to war. It put the final polish we
needed to get ready for combat.

We learned that shooting is not just a violent act. To shoot
effectively you have to control your breathing, control your heart
rate, trigger squeeze, and focus on your front sight. All of this to
make sure you are stable shooting platform.

The team became aggressive and fit. The dynamic of the team added to our combat effectiveness. It made for a warrior brotherhood.

It was a different culture than I had ever been a part of. We learned
to take care of each other.

FORT RILEY, KS- July 27, 2016

I am standing in Victory Park. I am standing in front of the Wall of
Honor. It’s in the north field, just outside the First Infantry
Division Museum on main post.

There, rising before me, is are black marble towers and granite
pentagon base. The monument symbolizes the sacrifice made by soldiers since 9/11.

It was dedicated in 2004 and names have been added every year since.

The monument was erected to honor First Infantry Division soldiers who gave their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

A walkway leads around to engraved marble plaques for service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. On the base of the statue is constructed of granite; framing a quotation from Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as Psalm 91, verses 11 and 13, “The Soldiers Psalm.”

It reads:

The Soldiers, Marines and Airmen who gave their lives will always be
remembered. [Fort Riley’s Fallen Heroes]

No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great. Duty First!

“For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your
ways. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” Psalm 91 Verses 11 and 13 (The Soldiers Psalm).

I circle the monument looking by year. There, midway down I see his
name, “Bruno G. Desolenni.” Seeing his name chokes me up. I start to
cry for reasons I cannot explain.

In neat silver letters his name is written under the year 2008. These
are the names of the fallen. There are just names, no rank, and no
sign of where or how they died. These names of heroes span over a
decade of war.

There is nothing to provide even a hint as to their identities- no
month or day of death, no country or continent where they fell, not a
word to suggest to their mission. All there is a simple name and year.

It was the notion of the simplicity of just his name up there that
bothered me. Bruno is one of thousands of soldiers who died in Iraq
and Afghanistan, all of them a hero.

My father, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, used to say, “What more can you give than your life.”

I will tell you about one hero- Captain Bruno G. De Solenni. I want to
tell you his story.

He was my friend. I will do this because he died while I lived.

I will tell his extraordinary story of courage and sacrifice, how his
last days were spent far from home in a faraway land on a noble
undertaking most Americans know nothing about.

Dom Gets Married

TIPPECANOE BATTLEFIELD PARK, BATTLE GROUND, IN- Friday- July 15, 2016

Muna and I got married on Friday. It was a small ceremony. Just her kids, my parents and a few local friends.

I wore a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and a pink tie Muna loves. Muna is lovely in a pink and white floral wedding dress. She’s worried about wearing heels because she is several inches taller than me. I laugh and say, “Everyone who is coming already knows that. Wear them.”

We both laugh because we realize this is the smallest thing in a long list of things that could have gone wrong.

Before the wedding we are rushing around at home getting ready. We are having a small reception afterwards. We want to make sure everything is just right.

I feel like I’m impersonating a game show host in my monkey suit. I am a little nervous but excited too. We step outside the car. I take a deep breath, look at Muna and smile.

I joke and say, “It’s not too late to back out.” She smiles and punches me in the arm, “Why would I do that?”

“Promise me you won’t say something stupid like that again,” she says. “I promise,” I’m happy I’m here with her in this moment.

“As your husband, I can’t promise not to make stupid jokes,” I say. She smirks and says, “Well, technically speaking, I’m not your wife yet. I suppose we will have to fix that.”

I laugh again and say, “Well, good thing. Look like we will have just the opportunity to remedy that.”

So it goes. Back and forth in an easy flow. Things with Muna have always been fun and easy.

Even in the times when things get hard we are always laughing. It is the reason I asked her to be my wife- she always make me laugh.

Pastor Ron shows up to do the honors.

We picked the Tippecanoe Battlefield Park to get married in. In the middle of the park is an 85’ tall marble obelisk monument to the Battle of Tippecanoe.

We’re all standing on the steps of the obelisk. We have a picture perfect day. The sun is shining, the sky is a light blue and not a cloud in the sky. There is a light breeze on the air. It moves Muna’s hair slightly as we exchange our vows.

Just like that it’s over. We kiss and hug our way out of the park.

We arrive home a few minutes before our guests for our reception.

I look at Muna and say, “Well, Mrs.Oto, it’s official.” Her face is pink with pleasure. We hold hands as we open the front door. In the doorway she gives me a hug and kiss.

She smells like lavender. She says, “Welcome home, Mr. Oto.”

It has been one the best days of my life.

Beyond Band of Brothers Tour- Europe

Intro

I just finished the Procom Beyond of Brothers of Tour. It was one of the best vacations and experiences I’ve ever had!

This tour was action packed. We saw five or six sites a day. It was a breakneck pace and non-stop fun. It was an epic adventure with a capital EPIC!

I had unabashed fun and meet some exceptional folks who will be life-long friends. Let me tell you about my front row seat to the history of World War II in Europe. I was riding shotgun!

World War II

World War II was the bloodiest conflict in the history of the world. Bombers destroyed cities, millions of people were murdered in concentration camps.

World War II started in Europe, but it soon spread around the world. Fifty-seven nations went to war. More than 50 million soldiers and civilians died, half of them in the Soviet Union.

For six long years Europe was torn apart by fighting. Life would never be the same again. After this tour I feel I have a better understanding of World War II.

“Band of Brothers”

Almost everyone has seen the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. It focuses on the actions of one outstanding light infantry company during World War II.

The war was so big, with so many characters and outstanding heroes that you can get lost in strategy and personalities.

Easy Company’s story is about individual soldiers. During World War II, it fought in Western Europe.

What brings Easy Company’s actions to light is the individual stories of the men of the unit, and one extraordinary man in particular- Major Dick Winters.

Paratroopers

Paratroopers are not ordinary soldiers. Their battlefields are behind enemy lines. They drop silently from the sky. They are messengers of death and destruction.

Lightly armed, unsupported by tanks and heavy artillery, they fight time after time against overwhelming odds and win.

This is the story of Arnhem, the Ardennes, Bastogne, Normandy and crossing the Rhine into Germany. It is the story of Easy Company, a heroic band of daredevils in America’s biggest war.

Procom Tours- Beyond Band of Brothers Tours

Excellent customer service has almost become a thing of the past. We consumers have grown accustomed to things being outsourced. This tour was everything it promised to be and more. Especially in telling the story of “Easy Company.”

Nikki Montgomery- Procom

First, I would like to thank Nikki Montgomery for all her hard work, organization and communication. I had all the information I needed to for my travel.

She not only managed to arrange EVERYTHING I asked for, but also provided the BEST staff to help us drive us around and much more.

CHARLIE KOVES and JANOS MEGYERI

We couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Charlie! He took special care to make sure we saw everything there was to see. He was incredibly knowledgeable about every detail. Most importantly, he made us laugh and feel comfortable on our tour. Procom has a real treasure there!

Janos is the best driver I’ve ever seen. He made sure the bus was always ready and we were always safe. He went out of his way to help, Ric, our oldest traveling companion. He put that bus into cramped spaces I would be afraid to drive my Toyota Pick-Up Truck. Great guy.

THE EXPERIENCE

The tour follows the path of Easy Company. The tour is based on the first-hand and personal recollections of the paratroopers. It includes the extensive research of Stephen Ambrose, and the hard work of our local tour guides.

The tour is an experience unparalleled in anything I have read or experienced. We stood in the very foxholes and locations where Easy Company fought. We got firsthand experiences of some of the most climactic battles of World War II.

In the evenings there was free time to relax, shop and explore some of Europe’s most charming villages and cities. Each meal was delicious event where we recounted the day’s events with your fellow travelers.

We got a chance to sample local food and see some of the same sites that the men of Easy Company more than 70 years before.

CHARLES DE GAULLE AIRPORT, PARIS, FRANCE- July 2, 2016

The tour started in Paris. Our group had ten people in it. After a long trans-Atlantic flight everyone was tired. Charlie made sure everyone was good-to-go and we had our luggage.

Everyone was jet lagged and tired. It was a four-hour trip to our hotel. Charlie set the tone right away.

During the tour he had a two jobs- he was our full-time tour historian and full-time tour guide. He let us know that we had access him to him 24/7. Our wellbeing was his priority. He put everyone at ease and got us ready for an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.

He begin our by explaining Paris and France. He shared knowledge that only a native European and world travel knows.

Within an hour everyone was asleep.

HOTEL MECURE, OMAHA BEACH AT PORT-EN BESSIN, NORMANDY, FRANCE- July 2-5, 2016

The hotel is at the root of the Omaha Beach Golf course. The natural beauty of this area has stunning views and a great location.

The hotel was a knockout. It had a heated pool, the high speed internet connection was free and covered everywhere you went in the building. The breakfast first-rate and the hotel dinners were delicious. With its calm surroundings, with the sea close-by you could almost forget an epic battle was fought here for six weeks in June 1944.

It was hard to resist the charm of the touristic town Port-En-Bessin, a 15 minute walk from the hotel. Over the next couple of days we visited Bayeux and Arromanches-les-bains, and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

The Tour de France started in Normandy and the German cycle team-Team Sky was staying at the hotel.

RUDY PASSERA

We met Rudy on Sunday morning. It’s hard to say enough great things about him. He loves history. He was born and raised in the Normandy area. He lived in Minnesota for a couple of years so his English and French are equally impressive.

First and foremost he is a true expert on the American Normandy campaign. He worked at the Normandy American Cemetery and at the Utah Beach D-Day Museum. He was the Master of Ceremony for a few International D-Day Commemorations.

He took us to Omaha and Utah beaches. He explained the battles through the stories of individual American soldiers and made you feel like you were there. He answered the most obscure questions and cited the sources from where his info came from.

Rudy went above and beyond on the last day. Corey and Sam Franklin, a father and son, traveled from Chicago for a special reason.

Corey’s dad was a Battalion Surgeon with the 90th Infantry Division. He landed on Utah Beach the first day. He died a few months ago. He wanted his ashes spread at Utah Beach.

This was a deeply emotional event for Corey, his dad inspired him to become a doctor. For Sam, it was the last good-bye for a beloved grandfather. For the father and son it was the trip of a lifetime.

Rudy arranged through the Utah Beach D-Day Museum for Corey and Sam to be given a certificate and medal. It honored the liberation of France from Nazi tyranny.

10 minutes later we down at the beach in a moving ceremony. Rudy provided flowers and helped to make a very moving emotional event very personal. It was the one thing Sam and Corey talked about for the rest of the trip.

Rudy made our trip to Normandy a memorable event. He was the perfect bridge from the past to the present. His kindness and enthusiasm made us cherish the memory for the rest of our lives.

BEST WESTERN HOTEL MELBA, BASTOGNE, BELGIUM- July 6-8 2016

In December 1944, Easy Company was in the defense of Bastogne, Belgium. The town was a crucial road junction that blocked the Germans from breaking through Allied lines.

In a week of non-stop fighting in freezing cold weather, the 101st Airborne Division, badly outnumbered and outgunned, stopped an attack of 15 German SS Divisions from taking the town.

Easy Company was at the tip of the spear in the middle of the action.

Our hotel had first class accommodations. It was right in the middle of downtown, it was easy to get around. It was a few miles from where Easy Company froze in snow filled foxholes.

HENRI MIGNON

“I didn’t choose involvement in World War II. I was an eyewitness to it,” This is how Henri Mignon begins his exciting tale of what it was like to endure the German occupation of his country.

As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the war’s effects in Bastogne, his hometown. He told us of the perils of combat, bombings, and his family’s evacuation from their rural home. His father was killed the day before the battle ended.

After the war, he was an artillery officer in the Belgian Army. He visited the battle fields of Bastogne often. After he retired from the army Henri’s interest in the Battle of the Bulge really started. He’s personally mapped out every trench and foxhole in the area.

He’s collected war artifacts and personal recollections from local survivors. After decades of research, he is an award-winning authority on what happened in Bastogne.

Henri treated the tour group like devoted friends. He was an excellent host of his amazing country. Henri’s eyewitness account of the Battle of the Bulge and his experience as a soldier helped to tell the stories of the soldiers – on both sides – who fought there.

THE RILANO HOTEL MÜNCHEN, MUNICH, GERMANY, July 9-11, 2016

We stopped at the Luxemburg American Cemetery and visited Patton’s grave. Next we arrived in Munich. We stayed at the beautiful four star Rilano Hotel in downtown Munich.

STEPHEN WHITEHORN

Our next guide was Stephen Whitethorn. There are tours and there are amazing tours- Stephen gave one of the best tours I’ve ever been on.

Stephen is an English gentleman who speaks German. He showed us Hitler’s Eagle Nest and Dachau Concentration Camp.

His attention to detail and incredible encyclopedic knowledge of the Third Reich and the Holocaust are fun to listen to. Steve infuses the long, ambitious tale of the rise and fall of the Third Reich with intellect by casting the Nazi leaders in social, religious and cultural contexts.

He has given more English-speaking tours of Dachau than any other tour guide- a few thousand, at his best guest.

Steve’s real gift is his powerful voice as a Speaker for the Dead of Dachau. He tells the true story of how at least 42,000 people were systematically murdered by a ruthless regime.

He has the courage to face the horror every day and tell the truth. In the aftermath of a terrible war everyone wanted to move on and forget. Steve reminds us why it’s important to remember.

In Munich, Steve took us to the tucked away places off the beaten track. We saw the old town hall where “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass” started- a period of concerted violence by the Nazis in Germany and Austria against Jews. It was the prelude to the annihilation of Europe’s Jews.

His wife’s grandfather fought in the same regiment as Hitler in the First World War. Stephen has his firsthand account of the Beer Hall Putsch- Hitler’s failed attempt of taking over the German government in 1923. I stood where he made the historical speech.

Stephen is one of the leading historians on the Battle of Britain but his real historical love is Nazi Germany. It shows when he explained the war. Steve explained in layman’s terms how World War II happened.

After World War I, Germany was defeated. It was bitter and divided over the war. People were poor, many were unemployed and the local money lost all its value.

Many Germans were afraid and angry. Their fears were played upon by Hitler, a ruthless politician who promised to make Germany strong again. He bullied, lied and cheated his way to power.

He was a violent racist who made the Jews the scapegoats for Germany losing World War One. He despised the people of Eastern Europe. When Hitler attacked his neighbors in 1939, Britain and France couldn’t stand by.

The world was plunged into war.

We had some extra guides were deserve special mention.

SCOTT DESJARDINS

Scott Desjardins is the Superintendent at the Luxembourg American Cemetery. He gave us an amazing summary of the D-Day landing, the Allied push through France & the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge & into the Rhineland.

His concise history that tracked the movements of the American Army through Western Europe. His description contained tactical and strategic actions from Normandy to the German border.

A retired Special Forces Command Sergeant Major, he sees his duties at the cemetery as a continuation of his military service. It shows through in all that he did that day in the cemetery.

KATIE BEAUDETTE

Katie is a tour guide at the Canadian Juno Beach Centre. She is making the most of a wonderful opportunity for young Canadians to experience life in Normandy, France and be tour guides at the Centre.

She is an expert on Canada’s rich military history. Katie is a graduate student in War Studies at Royal Military College of Canada. Her specialty is the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, the Primary Reserve infantry regiment of the Canadian Army.

Katie gave an excellent account of the Canadian soldiers’ valuable contribution to the war effort.

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, SD&G Highlanders were part of the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. They were part of the 176,000 Allied troops that crossed the English Channel to attack the beaches of Normandy, in Nazi occupied France.

ASSESSMENT

I loved this tour. if I had the money and time I would spend a year doing these tours back-to-back. We toured spots were some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience.

Highlights include:

  • Private Rooms with private bath or shower, hotel taxes, and service charges.
  • Touring by first class air-conditioned motor coach.
  • Delicious meals showcasing local cuisine.
  • All entrance fees to museums and attractions.
  • Educational road books full of maps and historical information.

I can’t say enough about the warmth and genuine hospitality of the people on this tour. We ate in outstanding restaurants and received excellent service. It was a fun way to study history and learn about the monumental events of World War II.

Easy Company and Major Dick Winters

Intro

I am headed to Europe today for the “Beyond Band of Brothers” tour. Four countries in 12 days- wow!. I wanted to do an email about this awesome adventure!

This post was a fun one to write. To historians World War II is a fun war. It’s not complicated. We are not fighting for murky reasons and hidden agendas like Vietnam or Iraq.

In World War II the Americans were the good guys. We were attacked by the Japanese. The Nazis invaded other countries and killed millions of innocent people. The bad guys wore uniforms.

We fought them until they surrendered unconditionally. Then we rebuilt the economy of our enemies. Americans are smart, kind and tough. You see our country at its best in World War II.

Studs Terkel called World War II “The Good War.”

World War II

Almost everyone has seen the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. It focuses on the actions of one outstanding light infantry company during World War II.

The war was so big, with so many characters and outstanding heroes that you can get lost in strategy and personalities.

Easy Company’s story is about individual soldiers. During World War II, it fought in Western Europe.

What brings Easy Company’s actions to light is the individual stories of the men of the unit, and one extraordinary man in particular- Major Dick Winters.

Paratroopers

Paratroopers are not ordinary soldiers. Their battlefields are behind enemy lines. They drop silently from the sky. They are messengers of death and destruction.

Lightly armed, unsupported by tanks and heavy artillery, they fight time after time against overwhelming odds and win.

This is the story of Arnhem, the Ardennes, Bastogne, Normandy and crossing the Rhine into Germany. It is the story of Easy Company, a heroic band of daredevils in America’s biggest war.

CAMP TOCCA, GA- Spring, 1942

The men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, United States Army, came from all over America. They came from different backgrounds and social classes.

The company had farmers from the Deep South, coal miners from Middle America, and fishermen from New England. They were citizen-soldiers who joined the army after America was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Franklin Roosevelt was President for most of their young lives. The men grew up in the Great Depression. For some of them, the army was the first time they had enough to eat. Only a handful of them had college degrees.

As a group they were self-starters and used to hard work. Some enlisted because they figured they were going to be drafted anyway. Some men knew that a man who enlisted got to go to the best units.

The best units give a man the best chance to stay in alive in combat. The best units don’t take draftees, only men who enlist and volunteer.

They all volunteered to be paratroopers. Some did it for the thrill of jumping out of airplanes. Others did it for the extra pay- $50 for enlisted men or $100 for officers.

They trained non-stop. Five to ten mile runs up mountains. Thirty pushups for every mistake plus one more “For the Airborne.”

Endless road marches with heavy packs in the middle of the night. Classes in weapons, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.

The point was to become paratroopers. They could take anything.

Out of 500 officers who volunteered for training, only 148 completed the course. For the enlisted men, only 1,800 made it out of 5,300 volunteers.

They came together in the summer of 1942. By the late spring of 1944, they were as good a rifle company as any other in the world, maybe a little better.

Major Dick Winters

Major Dick Winters commanded Easy Company for most of the war. He started the war as a 2nd Lieutenant and rifle platoon leader. At 26, before the war ended, he got promoted to major and commanded the 2nd Battalion.

Winters was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He graduated from college before he joined the army in August 1041, so he wouldn’t be drafted later.

After basic training, he attended Officer Candidate School. After OCS he volunteered for the parachute infantry.

In August 1942, he was assigned to Easy Company. He first served as the platoon leader of 2nd Platoon, later he was the company’s executive officer.

Winters as a Leader

Captain Herbert Sobel was a tough company commander. He and Winters did not get along. Sobel was a petty tyrant who treated his men badly. His harsh training methods played a part in the company’s later success in combat.

Winters did his best to shield the Easy Company men from Sobel’s tirades. Many of the enlisted men of the company respected Winters for his competence and compassion.

Winters was a natural leader and Sobel was not.

NORMANDY, FRANCE- D-DAY June 6, 1944

In May 1944, right before Normandy, Winters replaced Sobel as the company commander of Easy. In Normandy, Winters and 13 men knocked out four Nazi artillery guns. The artillery pieces had 50 Germans in entrenched positions.

Winters personally led the attack. He destroyed all four guns and he lost only one man in the raid. The mission is still taught at West Point as the perfect example of how to assault fixed point defenses.

For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second award for valor.

HOLLAND-September, 1944

In September 1944, Easy Company jumped into to Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. One day on a routine recon Winters came across a series of German machine gun nests.

With only 35 men he ambushed over 300 SS infantry, the most elite unit in the German army. He led a charge on foot, across an open field and got behind the Germans. He called in artillery while his men mowed down the surprised Germans.

He destroyed two companies of German infantry.

BASTOGNE, BELGIUM- December, 1944

In December 1944, he was the battalion’s executive officer. During the Battle of the Bulge, he led the defense of Bastogne. The town was a crucial road junction that blocked the Germans from breaking through Allied lines.

In a week of non-stop fighting in freezing cold weather, the 101st Airborne Division, badly outnumbered and outgunned, stopped a coordinated attack of 15 German SS Divisions from taking the town.

Dick Winters and Easy Company were at the tip of the spear in the middle of the action.

BERCHTESGADEN, GERMANY- May, 1944

In May 1944, he was the battalion commander. He and Easy Company captured Hitler’s summer home- The Eagle’s Nest. The war in Europe ended a few days later.

Conclusion

During a year of almost non-stop fighting, Easy Company sustained 150% casualties, Forty-eight members of Easy Company gave their lives to their country. More than 100 men were wounded. Some men were wounded several times.

Dick Winters led them through it all.

As brass knuckle paratroopers, they hit hard targets. They came in fast. They came in at night because night time is killing time.

The book and mini-series created the myth. The reality was violent and ruthless.

They were trained killers.  They got used to carnage and destruction. They lived in a harsh world that required quick, violent reactions. They used muscle, courage and initiative to defeat a resolute and experienced enemy.

The brutal training broke down the barriers of the men. Where you came from and who you were didn’t matter.

Everyone double-timed around the camp. Every day they ran the three miles up the mountain and the three miles down the mountain.

They were loaded like bullets into airplanes. They jumped behind enemy lines to take back Europe from the Nazis. It was an age of guts and glory.

Tough men need a tough leader. They got one in Dick Winters. Winters led from the front. He led by personal and physical example in everything he did. He never asked a man to do something he wouldn’t do.

Here are Dick Winters’ Ten Principles for Success:

  1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.
  2. Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.
  3. Stay in top physical shape – physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.
  4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.
  5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.
  6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.
  7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.
  8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.
  9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. They key to a successful leader is to earn respect – not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.
  10. Hang Tough! – Never, ever, give up.

Hope you guys enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed typing. Write to you in two weeks about my trip- Hang Tough!