An April 2006 trip to Germany, prompted by George Bush's 2004 announcement that American military bases abroad would begin closing in 2006, turned out to be an inside peek into today's Army.Schweinfurt's Ledward Barracks, the Army base where I served with the Third Infantry Division in 1959-60, was rumored to be on the close list."You can't go home again," Thomas Wolfe wrote in his 1940 novel of the same title. Would this be true of the visit to Schweinfurt? After 46 years, an old Army buddy and I set off with anticipation and trepidation.As we approached the main gate of Ledward Barracks we found it closed to us and were directed to a rear gate. This provided the first inkling of change: American soldiers no longer guard the base. That function now is contracted out to German nationals, as is the Army's venerable KP.We were ushered through to the Public Affairs Officer for orientation and told that, in fact, Ledward Barracks would not be closing, due to its close support relationship to the fighting in Iraq.Most troops at Ledward had served one tour in Iraq and would deploy for another in the summer of 2006. As long as they served in Iraq, and for several months thereafter, the base would serve their needs. The 2006 closing, originally mentioned by the President, might now be 2008.Oriented to the base's current mission we began our visit to the past, to see what else might have changed over four-plus decades. We would try going home again.
We were surprised. The base's appearance had changed little. It was eerie. The same buildings were there, though the usage of some had changed; all were painted the same color; motor pools were in the same locations; even the cobbles on some streets were unchanged.
The real changes were not in physical plant, but in day-to-day operations. Transition to an all-volunteer Army had dramatically changed Army life.For most of the 20th century the U.S. Army was one of volunteers. With the approach of conflict (WWI, WWII, Korea), a draft or "Selective Service System" appeared to supply the needed troops.
The end of the Vietnam era gave rise to today's all-volunteer military. Three major changes were required in 1973 to successfully create the all-volunteer Army: pay scales had to become competitive to attract America's youth; the grind and hours of daily life had to become more civilian-like; and the Army had to get into the business of marketing itself with successful recruitment campaigns.Such changes, it was hoped, would translate into a smaller, higher quality all-volunteer Army; reduced military budgets and an improved daily life for troops (resulting from contracting out certain military functions); and better-armed and more effective troops.Prior to 1973, the last all-volunteer Army existed between 1920 and 1941. That period encompassed The Great Depression, when civilian work was scarce. Joining the Army was often the only opportunity available for work. Thus, military pay could be low, hours long, discipline rigid, and work and training often physically and emotionally demanding.The all-volunteer force of 1973 was created against an economic backdrop far different from that of the 1930s.
Pay scales seem competitive. Basic pay scales are used here to indicate the change.A Private recruit in 1958 was paid $78, once a month. The lowest ranking officer, a Second Lieutenant with under two years of service, was paid $222; a four-star general, as much as $1,700.Troops are now paid every two weeks. In 2006, pay for a Private recruit had risen to $1,178 a month; that for a Second Lieutenant, to $2,416; a four-star general, to $12,820. So, pay scales are up way ahead of inflation and seem attractive to recruits.
Most obvious were changes in the every-day routine of Army life. Of these, the most noticeable was the presence of women and men in the same units — a culture shock to this 1950s soldier. It's a complete change of environment, but the change seemed to be working well.In the 1950s, we were considered frontline troops, facing Warsaw Pact countries a few miles to the east. Our mission: be a "speed bump" against Russian and East German forces; slow them down pending NATO troop deployments. Thus, daily life was one of constant formations, inspections, physical training and field maneuvers.
Most of us were draftees, ruled over by career sergeants and inexperienced junior officers who gave orders and allotted punishment to promote discipline. The process was constant.While training is still important, much of the hassle we experienced seems to have vanished. Interpersonal relationships seem more cordial. Enlisted troops are treated with a great deal of respect, more as team players than order-takers.Other changes also make daily Army life easier or more enjoyable—take clothing and footwear, a seemingly straightforward thing.In the 1950s, fatigues, the day-to-day uniform for work and field duty, were high-maintenance olive-drab cotton. Today, they are a desert camouflage cotton-poly fabric needing only to be machine-washed, no starch or ironing.Insignias and rank were sewn on fatigues at specific distances from seams; today, volunteers live in the world of Velcro. Insignias are simply slapped in place on matching Velcro pads, while collar pins denote rank.What of combat boots? Now made of a rough leather and Cordura nylon, they need only be brushed off to pass muster. In the "brown and black boot Army" of the 1950s, all leather boots required daily polishing.Such changes remove some of the old hassle, giving back to soldiers hours each week that once were spent on uniforms.Other daily traditions have vanished that, too, make Army life more pleasant: arising at reveille, company formations and personal inspections. In addition, the soldier no longer must eat in the mess hall. He or she simply shows up for duty at an appointed time.Mess halls remain at Ledward Barracks, but just a short walk on post are fast-food restaurants. Since eating in the mess hall is now voluntary and requires a deduction from a soldier's pay, many find it more attractive to eat the fast food at Wendy's or McDonald's.The barracks at Ledward were built in the 1930s (then known as "Panzer Kaserne") for the Wermacht, and were well constructed. Our rooms generally housed six men; hallways and communal lavatories had marble floors; over each entry to the building was a frieze with a military motif. Now, after remodeling, there are two soldiers to a room, two rooms sharing a bathroom.Barracks used to be completely free of personal decoration. No curtains adorned the windows; nothing was allowed on the walls but paint. Everything visible was military. Not so in 2006.
The barracks looked more like college dorms than military barracks. Windows were open, with curtains billowing out in the breeze. Wall posters of movie stars or rock musicians were visible through some windows.Other changes also provide opportunities for soldiers to spend money. Social clubs for off-duty enlisted personnel focus less on alcohol and smoking and more on coffee and donuts than in our day. In fact, we saw no smoking at Ledward. Something else was new; a couple of automobile dealers were now on base.
Basic training comprises the first four months of a soldier's service. Soldiers told us, and an April 16, 2006 article in the "Army Times" newspaper (Volume 66, #39, pp. 14-16) confirmed that basic training had undergone drastic change, most notably in the area of physical training.Traditionally, new recruits are pushed hard physically and mentally, to get them in shape and show how much they can accomplish.Today's basic training is less physically demanding and more thoughtful; less in-your-face, and more in-your-head. It is the product of all-volunteer sourcing and generational differences.Finally, it appears that today's Army is more a 9-to-5 job, closer to the Air Force model. It was clear to us that its members are, for the most part, better educated than ever.
Perhaps the best measure of soldiers is their professionalism. We had an opportunity to talk with many troopers on and off base. In every case they were focused on their mission, and seemed well trained, patriotic, proud of their work and dedicated to their fellow soldiers. They certainly gave the impression they were serious about their job and proud to be serving their country.Leaving Ledward Barracks we knew the U.S. Army was very different from our day. We also knew that in all likelihood this would be our last time to see the base. How did we feel about our visit?It is safe to say we felt Thomas Wolfe's warning did not apply. We could go home again. In spite of many changes one strong constant surprised us: a tie between past and present.
All those on base we interacted with were welcoming, courteous and friendly, especially once told of our former ties to the base. They realized, I suspect, we were a part of their past, relics of an earlier time in the same place. They respected that, sometimes asking about our experiences at Ledward at a time before they were born.We had come full circle at Ledward Barracks. Our experiences there, past and present, dovetailed nicely. We left with the satisfaction and knowledge that Ledward Barracks exists in good hands, although staffed by a vastly different U.S. Army.