Cold War veteran recalls Cold War high stakes

Photograph by Dennis Anderson

LANCASTER, Calif.–For a long time Danny Bazzell, one of the Antelope Valley’s foremost advocates for bridging the civilian-military culture gap, wondered openly if he was really a veteran. And for years, he never told anyone that he was a veteran.

“My unit, the 2nd Battalion, 77th Armored Regiment, was a reinforcement unit trained to replace combat losses in the Fulda Gap should a shooting war break out,” Bazzell told an audience of about 300 gathered at the recent Veterans Military Ball. “However, I never fired a shot in anger. In fact, I never even left the United States, spending my entire tour at Fort Lewis, Wash., attached to the famed 9th Infantry Division.”

The Fulda Gap was a wide valley straddling the former Cold War borders of the Federal German Republic, and East Germany, the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic. It was through that valley that war planners believed a Soviet armored strike would be most likely to sweep into the Western European states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Veterans Military Ball, organized by a committee gathered at Coffee4Vets, was held at the Grand Ballroom of University of the Antelope Valley, exactly one week before Veterans Day.

The group honored Bazzell, general manager of the Flight Test Historical Foundation, and Col. Angela Suplisson, vice commander of the Air Force Test Center, of which Edwards Air Force Base is a critical component.

Veterans at the Nov. 4 event, held in advance of Veterans Day, turned out in black tie attire, and in dress uniform, and even “mess dress,” the most formal suit-up for members of the armed forces. Mess dress is the equivalent of a tuxedo combined with a dress uniform and decorations will be worn.

In a room full of Vietnam War veterans, veterans of the Korean War, and even World War II, plus the Post 9/11 Wars, Bazzell bridged the topic of what did America’s troops contribute to the nation’s security during the Cold War.

The Cold War was that long duration of “containment,” a standoff between the world’s two global superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. It began nearly with the ending shots of World War II in 1945 and ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the “greatest historical catastrophe of the 20th century,” untold millions and most historian conclude it was the war with the highest stakes, that ended without a breakout of nuclear war between the superpowers that could have ended civilization.

When Bazzell enlisted in the Army in 1979, the nation’s scars from the long Vietnam War had barely begun to heal. The Soviets would invade Afghanistan, and hostages taken from the U.S. Embassy were being held as “guests of the ayatollah” in Tehran for 444 days until the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan.

“At the time, the United States had been facing down the Soviet threat for 32 years and would continue to do so for another 12. As Cold Warriors our job was to train, and be prepared to fight, should the call come and to be thrown into the fray like so many before us, and so many after.

Bazzell continued, “The Soviet Union had built their military forces to become the largest on the planet.”

In Europe some 250,000 U.S. troops were part of a force of nearly 1 million NATO troops facing off against roughly 1.5 million Warsaw Pact troops along the West German-East German border in the Fulda Gap.

“My unit was a reinforcement unit which trained to replace combat losses in the Fulda Gap should a shooting war break out,” Bazzell recounted.

“Day in and day out we trained and honed our battle skills so in the event we were called to action, we would be ready to answer that call as professional soldiers,” Bazzell said.

The Cold War exacted a cost in lives, in addition to the burdens required from the national treasury to sustain a global force to counter the challenge, principally from the Soviet Union.

There are “likely few of my fellow Cold Warriors who do not know of fellow soldiers who lost their life or were seriously injured as we prepared for the possibility of a shooting war with the Soviet Union … Despite the absence of a formal declaration, there were many casualties as a result of the Cold War.”

Bazzell cited statistics from the American Cold War Veterans organization:
— An estimated 22 million military, Department of Defense civilian employees, intelligence personnel, foreign service and other federal employees did Cold War duty.
— More than 3,500 Army personnel died of gunshot wounds, fragmentation and rocket-propelled grenades and truck bomb blasts between 1965 and 1975 outside the Vietnam War operations area.
— In Cold War incidents involving U.S. aircraft, 346 American pilots were shot down. Of them, 187 were recovered alive; 36 recovered dead; 123 pilots listed as missing, with 269 civilians missing. The U.S. government has not revealed the fate of the missing to next of kin.
— From 10 separate Cold War covert operations, 124 U.S. soldiers are listed as Missing In Action.

“It is hard to estimate how many U.S. military personnel died in captivity as a result of the former Soviet Union’s transporting U.S. POWs to Soviet bloc nations during and immediately after World War II, Korea and Vietnam since there is no reporting on those who died in captivity that is reliable … most Cold War losses went unacknowledged until a decade or so ago,” Bazzell said.

He added, “We know that several hundred men were interrogated by the Soviets as these interrogation reports have been discovered, but those men never returned home.”

From September 1945 until August 1991 — the approximate span of the Cold War — the Associated Press reported “an astounding 407,316 service members died while serving.

But Bazzell noted that while Cold War duty often carried with it conditions of danger and hazard, it was not combat in the hot sense of the word.

“After all, how could I hold a candle to the men and women of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ the men of the ‘Frozen Chosin,’ or those of you who served in Vietnam?”

He put the question to the large audience, many members who had served in combat.

“It was only after realizing that what we Cold Warriors accomplished as a deterrent force that I started acknowledging to people that yes, I am a veteran,” he said. “I served with pride beside some of the best people I have ever known, people I am proud to call my brothers, and I served knowing that it took millions of individual men and women like myself who put their lives on hold and personal safety at risk, to be ready if needed.

“Without their efforts we would never have had a hand in putting an end to the 44-year Cold War, one of the most dangerous times in our nation’s history,” he said.

“To all my fellow Cold Warriors, and all veterans, I say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Stand tall, be proud of your service and take comfort in knowing you did your duty faithfully,” he said.

In the veterans grouped at the Veterans Military Ball, whether they served in World War II (and some did), or in the Korean War, or the Vietnam War, or Desert Storm, or the wars that came after 9/11, all, all stood up and gave Sgt. Daniel Bazzell, Army tanker, Cold War, a standing ovation.

Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a clinical therapist who works on veterans and military mental health issues. Like Bazzell, he also is a veteran of the Cold War.