The old soldier

One cold April night, I took my friend Doctor A to one of Berlin’s depressing filling stations for the exhausted proletariat. My friend and I had talked earlier about doing an experiment: if I gave a random stranger 50 euros in good faith and asked him to follow his conscience, what would happen?

I swaggered into the place like a freshly greased frat boy and addressed the barmaid and her one shoddy customer in a pretentious tone: “What would you do, if I gave you 50 euros right now?” The lady was about to shout at me, but I repeated my question and explained my motives. It worked.

Although we had only planned to spend 10 minutes in this miserable watering hole, the ensuing conversation kept me and my friend stuck to our stools for the next three hours.

At first, the bar lady just regurgitated boring justifications for her dependency on transfer payments, but by and by the quiet man at the bar started opening up. He told us the story of his adulthood, highlighting the things he was proud of, but with no delusions about the way his life had turned out.

After high school, he had started as an apprentice with the Berlin police. However, his conscience got the better of him in the last year of his training.

A robber had taken the customers of a drug store hostage.  Our new friend and his colleague had been the first officers at the scene and kept the criminal in check while they waited for the special forces to arrive.

As the two regular officers stood gun in hand, the young apprentice saw an opportunity to shoot the robber’s leg and end the situation, but his senior officer rebuked him and reminded him of the rules, which required that they wait for the special forces.

When the elite team arrived, the robber panicked. Things escalated and a sniper shot him dead. The twenty-one year old junior officer had just witnessed his first killing.

I suppose it was temporary insanity which made our new friend join the German army and volunteer for the NATO mission in Kosovo after this shock.  Apparently he spent the greatest part of his 20s getting shot at and bombarded during this historical “reconstruction effort”, which was also the first combat mission of German troops since 1945.

His story was beginning to sound inconsistent. KFOR had started in the late 1990s. He looked at least 50. I asked him for his age. He replied that he had just turned 40. I took a closer look. It was true. He was emaciated and ashy, his hair was falling out, but he was not even a full generation older than me.

In Kosovo, he had been an officer in charge of 200 men. He had seen a comrade ripped apart by a grenade just a few meters away. When he came back home, he had bullets in his belly and his leg and a debilitating cocaine habit.

He told us that many officers of the “peacekeeping” forces had picked up the drug in Kosovo. High-quality cocaine had been easily available – in a country without real road or air traffic, separated from South America by a continent and an Ocean.

German soldiers smuggled the drug. Whether orchestrated, tolerated or promoted by the Bundeswehr, he could not say, but it was enough to keep him and his comrades docile.

Coming back as a war casualty with a cocaine addiction is tough. Going back to your wife and son after spending several years in a war is even tougher. He didn’t make it.

A traumatized, recovering junkie is pretty useless to most employers, even if he is a former army officer. Still, our friend did everything to stay active within his personal ecosystem.

Nowadays, the old soldier enjoys an occasional drink and cheap intimacy. He also works as a paramedic and volunteers at an animal shelter. He sees his son occasionally and is on speaking terms with his wife.

There was no self-pity or even melancholy in the way he spoke. I rarely listen to people, particularly in smoky corner pubs. I am prejudiced that they might be prejudiced.

This guy was never a boy scout. He still used booze and prostitutes to numb his senses and had only been off cocaine for about a year.

But he had also been a young man who tried to do what was expected of him. Even though his current life is miserable by most standards, he does not ask for favors, but tries to help others to battle his own issues.

This random acquaintance has taught me a lot about judging others. Some people face very difficult decisions. Not just is it hard to tell right from wrong sometimes, the consequences of making any decision, right or wrong, can be too much for any person to bear. The old cop/soldier never became the hero he hoped to be, but he’s an example, I guess.

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