By Jack Mandaville I want to make a few of my...
RU Nick’s Forces of Good
About 48 hours ago, I hopped onto a train from Koln, Germany to Frankfurt, Germany preparing to fly back to the good ol’ US of A after having a phenomenal time at UFC 99. It was one of those trips that people talk about for years, and certainly the kind of trip fight fans dream about. My buddy Reed and I basically spent 96 hours partying and having a good time hanging out with celebrities, fighters, UFC executives, and beautiful women (including Suzy here, who has the trifecta of being hot, a fighter, and exponentially smarter than I am). These were not the moments that an ordinary infantryman like me ever expects to be a part of, and I was reliving them all in my head on that train as I thought about the first story I was going to write for the Ranger Up fans.
That’s when she walked in.
No, not a Maxim centerfold – a woman in her seventies trudged up the stairs into the packed train car. Her legs weren’t working all that well and you could tell that she had a hard time standing. She was with four other women and one man – all about her age. There were four seats left in the train car. She and the gentleman were left standing. I was sure that someone near her would offer her their seat as it was obvious she could barely stand, but it didn’t happen – cultural differences, I guess. I asked her in German if she would like to sit down and she smiled an enormous smile and took me up on my offer. I sat on the ground in front of her, as there was nowhere else to go.
As I sat down, she began thanking me profusely in very broken German. Of course, I told her it was no problem at all and was about to go back to thinking about my awesome trip of excess when she looked at me oddly and said, “Sie sind nicht Deutsch, stimmt?” which is a rough way of asking me if I was German. I told her that I was not, and she responded that she could tell. She asked where I came from. When I responded “America” her eyes lit up. She asked if I was a soldier. I told her that I had been one, but was not any longer.
“Can I practice English?” she asked.
“Of course!” I responded.
Moments later I learned that she was a Polish concentration camp survivor. The German government paid her to come here once a year and speak to schoolchildren and let them know what she had experienced.
I have read about the Holocaust. I have watched the videos. I have seen the museum. Nothing I have experienced came close to generating the emotion I felt when I looked into this woman’s eyes and heard her recount her trials and tribulations. We spoke for two hours, but the first story she told encapsulated the abject horror of that place and time unlike any I have heard. In her words (slightly altered for proper English and to the best of my recollection):
“I was a teenager when my family was taken. There were six of us, including my parents. Very early during my time there, the Nazis started killing us. They would play games and pick a different number every day. If they picked three, they would shoot every third person. By the end of three months, I was the only one of my family that was left alive. I had watched them kill every person in my life that mattered to me. I didn’t know why this was happening, why they hated us so much, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. They just killed them all and laughed about it. I knew I was going to die soon. I was afraid. I was always very afraid.”
“One day they pulled us out of bed and lined us up like they always did. The number of the day was ten. They told us they were going to put a bullet in the head of the tenth person in line. They started counting. I was number eight. The man next to me, number 9, was “Father” Maximilian, a clergyman. The Nazi soldier counted number ten – it was a man who had just been brought into the camp. He had five little children. His wife had already been killed. The Nazi pulled him out and kept walking down the line. Number ten took one step out and Father Maximilian stepped in front of him and pushed him back. When the Nazis were done counting, they lined them up in front of us and shot them, slowly, one at a time in the head.”
“The next day was the greatest day of my life – a day I will never forget. U.S. and British troops stormed the compound and rescued us – they saved our lives. They were very kind and gave us food and warmth. They let us know it would be all right. I have loved American and British soldiers every day since then. I also always think of Father Maximilian. If it was not for him, those children would have been alone in a terrible world. He was very brave.”
When she was done, I had to dab the tears out of my eyes. I could see on her face that every time she told the story, she relived it. Her eyes went black, like she was looking inside herself. For a split second I could envision myself in that situation with my brother, with my family, with my friends, and emotions coursed through my veins.
As she took a break from conversation to eat some German sandwiches and look out the train window to take photos, one other feeling grew inside me – that of pride. Our troops had fought through immeasurable challenges to save those people – losing many of their brothers in arms along the way. What would have happened without them – without their sacrifice – without their compassion? I shuddered to consider the answer.
The American and British militaries, regardless of public sentiment day-to-day, are a force of good, as they were during World War II. We are imperfect, of course, but the soldiers that carry the flags for Uncle Sam and Tom Bull put their lives on the line, not with the intent to conquer, dominate, and pillage, but to make the world a better place – to provide people the opportunity to live their lives on their own terms.
Our soldiers make decisions in combat that put their lives at risk so that they may protect civilians. Our soldiers see an Iraqi or Afghani child and they see a life that they must protect – not a future enemy that must be destroyed. Our soldiers know that genocide and cruelty are not characteristics limited to the past and they do everything in their power to stop it.
Our soldiers fight so that men and women like Father Maximilian will never have to make that noble sacrifice again.
My new friend began to doze and I sat and watched her for a while and thought about what she had been through. My pride subsided a little. I thought about the soldiers that finally stormed into the camps and freed her. I could envision their horror and their guilt – guilt for not being faster – for not saving more people – for not saving everyone. I’m reminded of the things I’ve seen – of the evil that people do to each other. I’m reminded of the stories my friends still serving have imparted to me in those dark moments at the end of long nights that start with fun and drinks and end with confessions and hope for atonement – not for doing harm, but for not doing enough good.
Our soldiers walk into hell, every single day, and absorb its horrors – not because they enjoy it – but so that we don’t have to.