KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — He was at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin June 12, 1987, when President Ronald Reagan issued his famous challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
While not quite close enough to touch the president, Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Hodges was nonetheless touched by history in the making.
November 9 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On this date each year millions of people across Germany celebrate the reunification of Germany. And almost exactly 20 years to the day, Hodges said he still holds a special place in his heart for this historic date. Hodges, command sergeant major for the 793rd Military Police Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade, served with the 287th Military Police Company's Special Troops Berlin Brigade from 1985 to 1989.
For the young patrolman coming to Germany from Fort Knox, Kentucky, this second duty assignment was something of a culture shock. "Let me just mention that Germans don't do closets in their houses or apartments. And, though I was by no means naive, I had never before experienced night life like that at Kurfuerstendamm with all its pubs, bars and nightclubs. There were hundreds of little things that seemed new and sometimes strange - it was an adventure," he said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Underwood also served with the 287th MPs in Berlin. He, however, was a "military brat" who had already visited the city during his high school days, before it became his first duty station in 1985. Underwood, who currently serves as command sergeant major for the 202nd Military Police Group in Kaiserslautern, fondly recalls his five years in Berlin as his "greatest and most wonderful assignment." For the self-proclaimed city boy, living in metropolitan Berlin was grand.
Different outlooks aside, both command sergeants major agree that their assignments with the 287th and living in Berlin were exciting. Underwood cites the interaction with the allied powers and the diversity of missions the 287th executed as the highlights of his tour.
"For some young soldiers living 110 miles behind enemy lines may have been somewhat daunting, but for me it was just great being stationed and living there," he said. "I began as a young patrolman, then became a noncommissioned officer at Checkpoint Charlie, and I worked drug suppression. But most of all I loved the daily interaction with our allies," he said.
"It was very special working side-by-side with our British and French allies. We even patrolled the American sector with German partners. Technically, the Russians were our allies also. However, at my level there was no interaction. I would see them, but that was all," Hodges said.
Hodges said the Berlin of that time was like an island in the midst of a communist country and came with a number of restrictions. "Far from being paranoid, I still would get a feeling of unease at times. After all, people attempting to cross into the Western sector of the city were shot and killed. And you were restricted in your movements - in your travel. I visited East Berlin a number of times, but had to get a special pass to do so," he said.
Hodges and Underwood said they also remember how easily the soldiers of the 287th bonded and how tightly knit the military community was. They recall the relationship between Americans and Berliners as another positive aspect.
"In general, the Germans were very thankful for our presence, very appreciative and grateful for the things Americans had done. They had a better understanding of the impact, too. Especially those who had lived through the Luftbruecke - the airlift - they went out of their way to make us feel welcome," Underwood said.
"Looking back I recognize the historic implications of where I was and what I was doing. Now I look back and can say, 'I was there. I was part of that,'" said Hodges.
"Just as today's soldiers are a part of what is happening right now. They too will have their part in shaping history recalled some day in the future," he said.