In 1983, a driven young man joined the United States Army. He was a patriot at heart and a protector by nature, and military service was a perfect fit. He was able to join as an E3, making him a Private First Class (PFC), and his drive and determination immediately distinguished him from the field of new recruits. His rank was the result of eighteen months in college, but his moral code was the result of his personal standards of conduct. Even as a new PFC, loyalty and honor were key to Brian Birchell. He had extensive experience being on the receiving end of the lack of both, and unlike some, who would either give up or walk that same path of waste themselves, Birchell chose to become a protector.
Back when Birchell was discussing his options with the Army recruiter, he knew he wanted to learn true fighting tactics, which meant combat arms, Infantry specifically. The Army’s infantry has the richest history of all branches, having been authorized by a Continental Congress resolution on the 14 of June, 1775, with the oldest Regular Infantry being constituted on 3 June, 1784. And in 1983, the United States was strengthening its infantry as the Cold War détente of the 1970’s ramped up into the significantly elevated tensions of the 1980’s. Ronald Reagan was president, McDonald’s introduced the McNugget, and for the U.S., the Soviet Union was a major concern. It was into that time historians refer to as the “second Cold War” in which Birchell enlisted as 11B/11M, an MOS that has since been re-categorized under the B specification.
A year prior to Birchell’s enlistment, in 1982, as a sign of the times, a young girl by the name of Samantha Smith penned a heartfelt letter to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) General Secretary Yuri Andropov detailing her fear of nuclear war. As a result, Andropov invited Smith to visit the Soviet Union, which led to her becoming known as American’s Youngest Ambassador and garnering worldwide media attention. She visited in July of 1983, and her letter, which stated, “I would like to know why you want to conquer the world, or at least our country [the U.S.],” received a vehement denial from Andropov. He denied any aggression, claiming instead that the Soviet Union’s focus was on “growing wheat” and “writing books.”
“I am my country’s strength in war, Her deterrent in peace. I am the heart of the fight, whenever, wherever.” Infantryman’s Creed
Just months prior to Smith’s visit to Russia, then-PFC Birchell enlisted, and then, only months after he completed Basic, the stark realities of the second Cold War were driven home to the U.S. On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Flight 007, a commercial aircraft traveling from New York to Seoul via Alaska, was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor, a jet fighter armed with Kaliningrad R-8 missiles. Autopilot problems had caused the Boeing 747-230B to wander unwittingly into Soviet airspace, however, due to their own broken radar system, the Soviets did not even know it had happened until the commercial flight had returned to international, and therefore neutral, waters. The Soviet jet pilot later admitted he was well aware he was firing on a commercial flight as well. There were 269 people on board including 22 children under the age of 12 and U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald of Georgia. In fact, former president Richard Nixon had been booked to sit next to McDonald but changed his mind at the last minute, a sudden absence that saved Nixon’s life.
According to a Boeing report and the release of recordings a decade after the airliner was shot down, missiles struck “the back of the plane, destroying three of its four hydraulic systems, severing some cables” and also punching gaping wounds into the walls of the 747. Cabin pressure was maintained, and all four engines continued to function, but the airliner was fatally wounded. For twelve minutes, the 747, with 269 souls on board, spiraled slowly to the ocean below, where passengers were either crushed from the impact or drowned. They were horrifying, drawn-out deaths that stirred outrage in the United States. Then-President Reagan had previously referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire,” and he called the 269 deaths over neutral waters a “massacre” and “a crime against humanity.” Thirty years later, current-President Obama said, on August 9, 2013, that there has always been “some tension” in what he referred to as the “U.S.-Russian relationship.” Some tension, indeed.
“There’s no bigger task than protecting the homeland of our country.” George W. Bush
It was during this, one of the most strained moments of the so-called second Cold War, PFC Brian Birchell served. He was tasked as opposing forces while at Fort Benning to act as enemy personnel in order to train students in combat situations and served with Delta Company 2/16 and 4/16 for three years. The men he trained and served with came from diverse backgrounds by many means including race, culture, and hometown. They joined under similar circumstances, coming together first as strangers, then, as brothers. Throughout the three years they were together they formed their own true band of brothers, forming bonds that have withstood the test of time thirty years later.
One of Birchell’s favorite memories brings a smile to his face even decades later in the retelling. During REFORGER (REturn of FORces to GERmany) training, his mechanized unit traveled in M113-A2 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC’s), and food was understandably limited. On the day in question, they made their pre-dawn departure, eating only MRE’s for breakfast – their last MRE’s, and set out on a twenty-five mile convoy to set up a defensive position. At lunchtime they made a stop to resupply, but their supply truck was unable to find their location. The men were running low on the personal food brought along to supplement their MRE’s, but they had a mission, and continued on their way with the promise of a hot dinner ringing in their ears. Finally, they reached their destination and set up, looking forward to the arrival of dinner. But at 2000 hours, Birchell’s team was given orders to do a recon of a small village approximately three to four miles from their position. They were told to move out without delay and that plates would be saved for them. Saying they were unhappy to move out once again was an understatement, but move out they did.
Once in the village, they did a thorough recon and drew a detailed map. The only real activity was centered around a gasthaus – a German inn with a bar and restaurant – and the smells coming from the building made them even more ravenous. So, of course, Birchell made the command decision they should go inside and verify there were no opposing forces using the gasthaus as a command post. Inside they found only a handful of Germans, a few middle-aged and three older men, but no sooner had they entered than one of the older men spotted Birchell, exclaiming, “Americans!” Doing what was polite, the men moved closer as the German continued, directing the barmaid, Helga, to bring them steins of beer. After a moment’s hesitation, they decided to stay. Once they were drinking the beers offered by the older German, the same man asked if they were hungry, which brought on adamant nods of yes from the exhausted men. Soon they were eating, drinking, and exchanging stories with the locals. The older men had been soldiers in World War Two, and the welcoming gentleman had been blinded in one eye during the war. After excellent food and interesting company, it was time to go, and when they stood to leave, the old German soldier had something to say. “During World War Two, we were enemies,” and here he paused, making Birchell wonder if they were about to be forced to fight their way out, but he continued: “but now, we are friends. Bring more beer for my American friends!”
After sharing one final round of beers with the German men, Birchell and his men had to move back out to report in. As they approached the perimeter and headed up the road where their APC’s were positioned, a voice suddenly emanated from behind a bush. It was Birchell’s First Sergeant, asking whether the food in the gasthaus was any good. Immediately, Birchell replied, “I don’t know, Top, we didn’t go in.” The reply came back: “Get your lying ass up there and report in. Did you at least make a map?” Birchell told him yes, they did make a map, and followed the next orders, which were to get out of there.
“Whatever enables us to go to war secures our peace.” Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Monroe, October 24, 1823
As a part of a unit of men constantly training for combat-readiness, he’d taken on a high-stress lifestyle. Serving stateside does not reduce a soldier’s value; without qualified forces within our borders we would be without protection and left open to any and all attacks both from without and within. But there is a certain degree of frustration waiting for a deployment that never comes, and the stress takes its toll. On more than one occasion he was put on notice to be ready to deploy at any moment, but one stands out with special significance. Birchell’s wife was pregnant with their first child and they were coming face-to-face with her delivery date, and a call came in. Although his unit ended up remaining stateside, the idea of not being there for the birth of his child weighed on him.
The presence of combat-ready troops here at home cannot be discounted in the slightest. Men such as Birchell are vital to our national security and play key roles in the protection of this great nation. His service was not only important to this country, but vital. His very existence in the role of protector made all the difference, and we as a nation should be grateful. When it came time to re-enlist, he spoke to the Army about his desire to fly helicopters. After participating in training ops where helos flew close to the earth to simulate combat, he had a keen interest to develop piloting skills. But they were more interested in his staying with his combat-arms designation, and in the end, he did not re-up. When he left the Army he was a corporal on the E-5 promotion list.
To this day, Birchell is a protector. Growing up he did not instigate fights, but he would certainly not back down, either, and he felt from an early age the pull to protect those unable or unwilling to protect themselves. Perhaps one of his greatest frustrations with civilian life is the failure of many to take pride in their tasks. “If you’re going to do something, get it right, and get it done,” he said in a phone interview in July of 2013. A simple concept for a man with strong ethics, and one ingrained even deeper as a soldier trained to high standards. His patriotism runs deep and it is in his nature to defend the weak. He is, was, and always will be, an American soldier.
Today we thank CPL (P) Brian Birchell for his service.
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Author’s note: In honor of Memorial Day, we will be publishing a series of personal stories from service members. All our heroes deserve our gratitude and respect, whether they served stateside or deployed into combat. Infantry grunts, Rangers, SEALs, and all the rest should be thanked not only this weekend, but every day of the year. Have you thanked a veteran today?
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