Thursday, September 21, 2017

Isle Royale National Park

My first few months of retirement have been very busy with a whole variety of activities, including catching up on family and household activities, getting used to living in the same home as my wife, re-engaging with the local community, and (especially) sorting out issues with Tricare, VA, VHA, etc.  I sometimes wonder when I’ll feel “retired”!  One of the things I have been thinking about is what happens to this blog.  It started as a chronicle of my mobilization and deployment with the Army to the Middle East, and continued with my experiences during the remainder of my military career until retirement.  Now that I'm retired, I certainly don't think my adventure is over, so I will continue it as a personal chronicle as I move on to more personal adventures.  

Because we are planning to move from Michigan to Idaho next year, I thought that I’d like to visit Isle Royale National Park before we leave.  I’ve lived in Michigan for over 30 years and never been there, so it was now or never.  I chose now.  

I planned it rather quickly, starting in late August.  Since the last NPS ferry off the island was on 16 Sep, I didn’t have much time.  But I was already pretty well-prepared, and everything came together very well.   I had a book already, and picked up a map at REI (National Geographic “Trails Illustrated”, a very good series of maps).  There are a lot of online planning resources available as well:

Map:


National Park Service Website:


Wiki article:


I planned an eleven-day trip that included seven full days of walking on the island, as follows:

Thu 7 Sep. - Drive to Houghton, stay at the Holiday Inn Express.

Fri 8 Sep. -  Ferry from Houghton to Rock Harbor, then a water taxi from Rock Harbor to the Hidden Lake dock (in Tobin Harbor). Camp somewhere near Lookout Louise.  I planned to  have what they call a "cross-country" camping permit, so I wouldn’t have to use established campgrounds.

Sat 9 Sep. - Visit Lookout Louise, then hike the Greenstone Ridge, turning off at Mt. Franklin to camp at Lane Cove.

The rest of the plan was open, dependent on my ability and the availability of water.  My idea was to hike down the Greenstone Ridge trail to the vicinity of Chickenbone Lake, then head for the north coast of the island via McCargoe Cove.  I hoped to hike from there along the Minong Ridge trail, cut back south to the Greenstone Ridge at Hatchet Lake, and go back north to the inland lakes.  Then I’d head south past Lake Ritchie to the trail that leads up along Moskey Basin back to Rock Harbor.

This was an aggressive, optimistic plan.  I knew that it might turn out that I’d have to cut out the Minong Ridge-to-Hatchet Lake loop if it turned out to be too far for me to walk in the time that I had.

The other problem with this plan was that both Lake Ritchie and Chickenbone Lake had algae blooms and I wouldn’t be able to use the water there.  So I knew I might have to modify the route, even if it turned out that I could do it.  But in any case I’d always be on the northern half of the island, never any further south than Hatchet Lake.

Fri 15 Sep. - Back to Rock Harbor to camp somewhere nearby, probably the campground.

Sat 16 Sep. - Ferry back to Houghton, then drive awhile until I got tired and found a place to stay.

Sun 17 Sep. - Home to Northville.

I ran with this plan and departed on 7 Sep.  The trip was certainly an adventure, but not in quite the way I had planned or anticipated.

My photos are posted here:

https://www.facebook.com/bradley.j.foster.1775/posts/10159242644035371?pnref=story

Before leaving home, I had my hiking boot soles re-glued, as they were starting to come loose.  I wanted them completely re-soled, but the local shoe repair shop said he couldn’t get the replacement soles, and there was no time to send them anywhere.  I didn’t want to be breaking in a new pair of boots on a trip, so I settled for re-glueing the old soles.  He said “I guarantee this glue will hold.”  You can imagine what’s coming.

The first day went as planned - I arrived at Rock Harbor about 3 PM, and took the water taxi around Scoville Point to the Hidden Lake dock in Tobin Harbor.  Then I hiked about 1 1/4 miles up onto the Greenstone Ridge to Lookout Louise.  The views were great, and I enjoyed an overnight stay with a beautiful sunset, starry night, and peaceful morning.

The next day I hiked south on the Greenstone Ridge trail for 5 1/4 miles, then turned north for the steep descent and the hike to Lane Cove, for a total of eight miles.  The campground there was completely full and all the sites were already doubled up, so I went off into the woods and bivied overnight.  It was my plan all along to avoid campgrounds, but Isle Royale has different terrain than I am used to, and in many places it is almost impossible to find a place to camp other than where the park service has cleared out and leveled campgrounds.  But I found a space between a couple of trees that was somewhat level and barely wide enough, and got a great night’s sleep on a soft bed of moss.

Unfortunately the day’s hike had been too hard on my boots, and the soles had come loose starting in the middle under the instep where they flexed the most, and progressing towards both ends.  The heels were also coming loose from the back, so there was simply no way to continue without some kind of repair.

Fortunately I had a tube of “Seam Grip” (seam sealer/glue) in my repair kit, so on Sunday I moved into a campsite at Lane Cove and spent a very quiet and peaceful day cleaning my boots and glueing the soles back on.  I used parachute cord to tie the soles on while the glue set, which gave me the idea to tie them on my feet when I walked, for extra insurance in case the glue didn’t hold.

On Monday I made the somewhat difficult climb back up to the Greenstone Ridge.  That was the decision point - whether to turn south and continue the trip as planned, or not.  Unfortunately my field-expedient repair job was barely adequate, and was already coming loose.  I determined to return to Rock Harbor and modify my itinerary.  I spent the rest of the day hiking back there, and set up camp in the Rock Harbor campground.  (As an aside, one of the rangers recommended a company called “Rocky Mountain Resole” to get my boots resoled.  The uppers are in good shape and have a lot of life left in them, so I plan to give them a try). 

Not wishing to give up my plan to see more of the island, I had decided the best way to do this would be to turn the trip into a canoe outing, so I rented a canoe, changed my itinerary, and re-packed my gear for stowage in a canoe.  I set out at 3 PM on Tuesday.  I have canoed on calm inland lakes and rivers, but this was completely different. Unfortunately, I am not a boat person, and within ten minutes on the Lake Superior swells I was already feeling seasick.  I knew that “Plan B” would never work, so I turned around and went back.

Feeling somewhat discouraged, I decided to temporarily suspend my adherence to my austere backpacking menu, and went to the Greenstone Grill for a hamburger and fries, washing them down with several beers (Keewenaw Brewing Company Amber Ale, which was excellent).  This took the edge off my disappointment, and helped make “Plan C” a more palatable option.  Plan C was to simply remain in my base camp at Rock Harbor for the rest of the trip, and do day hikes in sandals from there to wherever I could reach.

I spent Wednesday through Friday this way, hiking to various points within a few miles of Rock Harbor and returning there at night.  It made for a very different trip, albeit still beautiful and interesting.  

Rock Harbor is the hub of activity at the northern end of the island.  In addition to the ferry dock, various services,  and the  campgrounds, there is a lodge where people can stay in relative comfort without camping at all, and eat in one of two restaurants.  So there are lots of people there.  The trails around Rock Harbor are very well-travelled, and you can hardly walk for even an hour at a time without running into people.  Usually it’s more like every 20-30 minutes.

There are also lots of different kinds of people who visit, as is the usual case with National Parks. Most of them “get it”, and have gone there to try to experience wilderness.  Others don’t get it at all, and walk down the trail in tightly clustered groups, jabbering at each other about various subjects and completely missing the point of being on the island.  I quickly developed an SOP for these encounters:  as soon as I heard voices, I would simply step off the trail into the woods and wait until the people passed out of earshot.  Sometimes I was hidden, other times I was simply standing off to the side in plain view, but I was never noticed.  It was kind of remarkable how unobservant some people were, considering how much effort it takes to get to the island.  But it takes all kinds, and I suppose some people just aren’t comfortable with silence.

From this standpoint, I was very fortunate in the campground.  I was able to get the last campsite on the end (lucky #13), so I was isolated down a winding trail, out of sight and with with nobody passing by on the way to their own sites.  People were generally quiet and respectful there, so it was actually very nice.  Not the deep wilderness experience I had been seeking, but worthwhile and rewarding nonetheless.

Isle Royale is a very unique place, well worth visiting if you love the outdoors.  When I was up on the Greenstone Ridge, it reminded me of the Rocky Mountains.  When I was deep in the forest, it was often so moist and overgrown that it made me think of a jungle or rain forest (perhaps something like the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, a place I’ve never been but would like to go).  And the rocky shorelines had their own kind of beauty, reminding me of the Oregon coast or photos I’ve seen of Maine.  The cool part is that this is all contained in one compact area, and you can move back and forth between these environments in the course of a single day.

I took  quite a few photos, and was able to capture some of the beauty I saw there.  But I found using the iPhone as a camera to be challenging when it came to managing the exposure and focus.  It has some controls available, but I think an SLR with a zoom lens would be a much better choice for any really creative photography.  I wonder, though, whether I’ll ever want to carry that weight on a trip like this again.  

Leaving aside the issue of my boots, I can tell that I will need to be more careful of my pack weight.  My base pack weight on this trip was 58 lb.  Food and fuel for eight days added another 18 lb.  I have the capacity to carry 2 gallons of water, but the most I ever actually carried was 5 quarts, when I knew I wouldn’t be able to get any all day.  So my pack weight on the first three days hovered around 85 lb.  I used to do that with no trouble at all when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, but now that I’m pushing 60 those days are long past!  I spent some of my time on the trail composing a mental list of things I will consider leaving behind next time.  :)  I also realized that I did not train nearly hard enough in advance.  Walking 2 miles a day on level ground through my neighborhood didn’t even come close to preparing me.  I should have known better, but now my aching legs and knees are a reminder to make darn sure I put a much more thorough training regimen in place before my next backpacking trip.

I took the book “Natural Navigation” along, but didn’t spend much time reading it.  Although I had glorious weather and slept out under the stars on all but the last two nights, my view of the stars was usually obscured by trees, and I could only catch glimpses of parts of a few constellations.  I saw Hercules, Perseus, Andromeda, Lyra, Draco, Aguila, Cygnus, Aries, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Cassiopeia.   I know that other constellations must have been visible to me, but I just couldn’t identify them from the stars I could see.  I also really wanted to see the Northern Lights, but I never did.

I took quite a few of photos of the flora on the island.  I didn’t take my book “Michigan Wildflowers”, but plan to try to identify as many of them as I can from the photos I took.  It was late in the season, but there were still a surprising number of flowers visible, as well as a profusion of lichens and fungi.  

All in all it was a very worthwhile week.  I felt a twinge of sorrow as the ferry pulled away and we left the island behind.   Usually when  trip is over, I can tell myself “I’ll have to come back here someday”, and it doesn’t seem to be a final farewell.   But with so much to see out west, I am unlikely to go back to Isle Royale after we leave Michigan for Idaho next year. 

This is perhaps a bit ironic, considering the song that played over and over in my mind while I was on the island.  It surprised me when it popped into my head, because the last time I remember singing it was at YMCA camp when I was in third or fourth grade.  But hiking on Isle Royale brought the memory to the surface, and the lyrics seem like a fitting way to close my account of the trip:

Land of the silver birch
Home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose
Wanders at will

Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
boomdidi boom boom, boom boom.

My heart grows sick for thee
Here in the low lands
I will return to thee
Hills of the north

Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
boomdidi boom boom, boom boom.

High on a rocky ledge
I'll build my wigwam
Close to the water's edge
Silent and still

Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
boomdidi boom boom, boom boom.


Mood:  Happy

Monday, April 03, 2017

Preparing for Retirement – Back to Bragg

After my last active duty tour in Germany ended on 30 Sep 2016, I returned home to Michigan.  After a few months at home, I am now back at Fort Bragg, NC for my final weeks of service in the U.S. Army.   Shortly after I leave here I will retire from the Army, having served a total of 28 years since I first joined on 11 April 1980, 37 years ago.
It’s kind of a strange feeling being here at Fort Bragg, and knowing that when I leave I will take off my uniform and hang up my dogtags for the last time.   
On the one hand, I am enjoying being around the “Big Army” again – Fort Bragg is home to the XVIII Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division, as well as U.S. Army Forces Command and U.S. Army Reserve Command.  Everywhere you go here, you are simply immersed in the Army.  Troops doing PT, tactical vehicles driving around and parked by the hundreds in unit motor pools, planes and helicopters flying overhead, and the occasional sound of artillery and small arms fire from the ranges are part of everyday life.  Driving around the installation and knowing that I’ll soon be finished with it all has put me in a strange frame of mind over the past few weeks.  I often find myself reminiscing about the many experiences I have had over my military career, and feeling a bit wistful that it’s all coming to an end in just a few more weeks.
On the other hand, preparing for retirement as an Army Reservist has been an extended reminder of all the irritating bureaucratic inefficiencies I’ve experienced over the years, and has contributed to a feeling that I’m really ready to go – these are the kinds of things about the Army that I definitely will not miss.
Preparing to retire as an Army Reservist has been like a game of “Where’s Waldo?”, as I have worked over the past few years to assemble a coherent set of plans and procedures.  Like so many other aspects of serving as a Reservist on active duty, there are multiple sources of information and guidance, many of which are incomplete, unclear, or inconsistent with each other.  It isn’t as though it’s deliberate – everyone means well and there are lots of resources intended to help the soldier preparing for retirement. But as Mark Twain once said: “It isn’t what people don’t know that can hurt you, it’s what they know for sure that ain’t so.”
First and foremost, Reservists are treated differently than active component soldiers.  In the active component, when you retire after 20 years or more, you immediately draw retirement pay and qualify for medical benefits.  Reservists, on the other hand, do not draw their retirement pay or receive their medical benefits until they reach age 60.  There are some benefits that start immediately (including the option to purchase health coverage), and others that you can’t use until you’re drawing retirement pay.
These different stages of retirement/eligibility are one potential source of confusion.  
When a Reservist has served 20 years of qualifying service, they receive what is known as a “20 Year Letter”, which is the main document that proves they are entitled to retirement pay and benefits.  There are some personnel actions that must be taken upon receiving the 20 Year Letter, others that must be done at retirement, and others when you turn 60.
When you retire from the Army Reserve, you are not actually “retired”, per se.  You are actually a member of the “Retired Reserve”, unless you choose to be discharged at that time.  If you remain in the Retired Reserve after retirement, you continue to accrue a certain type of seniority which can increase the value of your pay at age 60.  People in this stage (whether in the Retired Reserve or discharged) are referred to as “gray area” retirees.  Upon reaching age 60, you are placed on the Retired List.  At that point you are fully retired, just like an active component soldier is immediately upon their retirement.
One additional complication to this is that in an effort to compensate Reservists for the multiple extended deployments required by the transformation from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve, Congress gave us a significant benefit as part of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  For every 90-day period served on mobilization or active duty orders in support of a contingency operation (what we used to call “war”), Reservists are entitled to collect retirement pay 90 days earlier than we otherwise would have.  For example, if you were mobilized for six months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and were otherwise entitled to retirement pay as a Reservist, you could begin to draw it at age 59 ½ instead of age 60. This is known informally as "Early Age Drop". There are some esoteric details as to how the actual time is calculated that have to do with fiscal year boundaries, so figuring out exactly what this means is not quite as simple as it sounds.

Most retirement-related publications and processes assume that there will be a several-year gap between when someone moves to the Retired Reserve and when they move to the Retired List and start to draw their pay (usually at age 60).  But because of the early age drop, those Reservists who, like me, have been on extended active duty since it took effect in January 2008 have several years of eligibility built up. In my own case, I will move to the Retired List the next day after I enter the Retired Reserve.  (I've actually been eligible since August 2013). This has created some interesting challenges resolving conflicting instructions and policies with respect to the timing of certain processes, submission of forms, insurance coverage, etc.  But I can live with these challenges - overall it’s a Very Good Thing.
So how does one begin the process once they receive their 20 year letter? That depends upon who you are, and whom you ask.
The central office for personnel actions in the Army is Human Resources Command (HRC) at Fort Knox, KY.  They set policies, establish processes and procedures, manage the central records repository, and manage personnel actions such as promotions, selection for military schools, awards, and retirement. They have a website that has information and forms available to help you get started.  But they are not generally the people you are supposed to talk to about it.
Individual Reservist personnel actions are usually managed by their reserve unit.  Additionally, there are several Regional Support Commands (RSCs) that cover different geographic areas of the country.  Each of these has a Retirement Services Office (RSO) that provides support for Reservists retiring in their area of responsibility (AOR).  Since historically most Reservists have been members of Reserve units doing traditional Reserve service, the system is oriented towards that model.   Being from Michigan, I am part of the 88th RSC, which covers most of the upper Midwest.  I have been getting email notices from the 88th RSC RSO for some time now.  They have informational publications and checklists, as well as regular retirement briefings that they hold in various states.  Having been on active duty almost continuously since 2006, however, I was never located anywhere near any of these briefings and was never able to go to one.  But at least I had access to their materials, and could read them and ask questions.
While I was in Germany, I went to a retirement briefing held by the RSO in Stuttgart.  It was somewhat helpful, but was oriented towards active duty soldiers.  Not only did some of the information not apply to Reservists, the people presenting it really had no idea about many of the details of reserve retirement.  So I walked away from there with some information, but there were a lot of gaps.  
As I looked for additional information about how my own process would work, I learned that a couple of other aspects of my status have further complicated things for me.

First of all, I am what is known as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA).  This is a Reservist who is assigned to an active component unit as their permanent assignment.  As such, we do not have a reserve unit, but are managed centrally by an office at HRC.  For this reason, some of the guidance put out by the RSC RSOs does not apply to us.  As an IMA, finding out who to ask questions and where to send forms at HRC is its own special challenge.  
Furthermore, I am an O6 (Colonel), which means that my records and personnel actions are supposed to be managed by the Senior Leader Development Office (SLDO), a separate office at HRC.  This made finding the correct information even more interesting.  As you might expect, there are both overlaps and gaps.
I’ve run into much the same thing here at Fort Bragg that I did in Stuttgart.  I have tried to go through parts of the retirement preparation process here so as to take advantage of all the resources on an active Army installation.  Because they are set up to deal with active component personnel, they not only do not know a lot of the reserve information, but many activities simply will not talk with a Reservist at all. Even if they are willing to help, they usually cannot access your records to do anything for you, because the reserve and active component personnel systems are on different platforms and can't talk to each other.  The RSO here at Fort Bragg simply gave me the number for the HRC RSO and said to call them.  
One group that has been very helpful is the Veterans Administration (VA).  They have an office here, and there are also representatives from several  veterans service organizations to help a prospective retiree get started with the VA.  I went to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and their representative was extremely helpful in getting me started down the right path.  One thing I learned was that the VA and the VHA (Veterans Health Administration) are related but distinct entities.  You have to deal with both of them, each for different things.
So far I have at least four or five different pre-retirement checklists produced by these various organizations.  No two are alike, and each has at least one piece of information that the others lack. I have folders and envelopes full of information, including one very useful summary publication.   I have dozens of sheets of paper on which I have kept notes of conversations I have had with people in different organizations regarding various aspects of retirement, which include contact names and numbers, email addresses, websites, and process details.  I have a large box of military medical records to organize, and requests out to civilian doctors for their records of treatment I have received.  I have a to-do list a mile long, most of which has to be accomplished before the actual date of retirement.
Here are a few links that should be helpful to someone getting started in this process:
HRC Reserve Retirement  (Requires CAC or DS LOGON):
https://www.hrc.army.mil/content/Reserve%20Component%20Retirements 
Army Reserve Non-Regular Retirement Guide:
www.armyg1.army.mil/rso-migrated/docs/ARReserveRetirementGuide.pdf 

Soldier For Life - Reserve Retirement Services Offices
https://soldierforlife.army.mil/retirement/reservecomponent
Tricare on how to get a Retirement Physical (SHPE):
https://tricare.mil/LifeEvents/Retiring 
More SHPE information on Health.mil  (I never heard of it before either):
https://health.mil/SHPE  
Veterans Administration:
https://www.va.gov/ 
VA Disability information:
http://militarydisabilitymadeeasy.com 
The bottom line for any Reservist approaching retirement is that you have to be aggressive and persistent in ferreting out information.  Don’t rely on one source alone, and don’t assume that just because you’ve gotten an answer that it’s the right one.  Ask your retirement questions the way they vote in Chicago – early and often.  Compare the information you have with what others around you have learned, and be prepared to adjust your understanding, read between the lines, and submit the same forms more than once to different offices.  Keep copies of everything.  And above all, be prepared to manage and track the process yourself.
Mood:  Ready to go
Music:  Joe Walsh (Life's Been Good to Me)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Information Security

So I got to work yesterday, and I had an email saying my required annual information security certification was out of date, and I had to take the mandatory online training. It's listed as a one-hour course, but it really took all morning, due to having to wait for screens to load, plus being interrupted by actual real work I had to do. But I got through it by lunchtime.

It could be accomplished in about 15-20 minutes of reading (at the *most*) if the Army would present it that way. But instead, they insist on making an animated, narrated cartoon production of it with multiple sub-screens and interactive progress tests of your comprehension.

Leaving aside my feelings as a taxpayer about the hundreds of thousands of dollars they probably paid some contractor to produce this monstrosity, think about the enormous drain on productivity inherent in requiring every soldier to go through this training every year. Must be pretty important, huh?

As I was going through it, I couldn't help but think about the way Hillary Clinton was treated for her massive violations of information system security at the State Department. Any military person who did what she did would be out on their keister, never be allowed to work for the Federal government in any kind of trusted capacity again, and maybe even end up in prison or paying a fine.

I took a few screen shots as I went through the training - see for yourself. Hmmm - do you think SSG Harris understands that the rules should apply to him and his coworker? They certainly apply to me. But why not Hillary Clinton?




 
Massive, massive hypocrisy and corruption. This should not be over, by a long shot. And, oh yeah, Benghazi....

Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day in Bastogne and Margraten

I decided to spend Independence Day weekend in the area where the Battle of the Bulge took place during WWII, driving over the terrain and visiting museums.  I also wanted to take the opportunity to visit the American cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands, where Don Case, a comrade of my wife’s father Bud Irish is buried. It was a very meaningful and rewarding weekend.
The Battle of the Bulge was an important, major battle in the campaign to free Europe from the Nazis. It started on 16 December 1944 when the Germans launched a surprise counterattack into Luxembourg and Belgium in an effort to split the U.S. and British armies and capture the port of Anwerp.  The battle lasted until late January, and caused the highest number of American casualties of any operation in the war. It had several names, but was popularly called the “Battle of the Bulge” because of the westward bulge it caused in the Allied lines as shown on battle maps.  I won’t re-tell the story of the battle, but here is a link that tells all about it: 
My trip started out with a drive to Luxembourg from my home in Sindelfingen, Germany.  I decided to stay in Vianden, a little town on the Our river, just over the border from Germany.  I got there about 1500 on Saturday, and had time for some sight-seeing in the town.  It is a quaint, picturesque little town nestled into a steep, narrow valley, with a restored castle dominating the heights over the town.  I had read that Luxembourg has three official languages – French, German, and Luxembourgisch (which sounds to me like German with French consonants and a French accent).  I don’t speak French, so for any extended conversation I’d ask if they spoke German or English.  They invariably chose German, which was fine with me.  But for casual interactions I quickly got used to “bonjour”, “merci”, “pardon”, “au revoir”, etc.  I think my most common phrase was “Je ne parle pas francais – parlez-vouz allemagne?”    J
Naturally I had to take a walk up the hill to the castle and walk through it.  It had some interesting exhibits, including one showing the progressive development of the castle’s fortifications from its start as a Roman fortification up through the height of its power in the late 1600’s.  It subsequently fell into ruin, and was restored to be a tourist attraction beginning in the 1970’s, with reconstruction continuing today.
Vianden Castle
This castle had a couple of exhibits unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere.  One was a fully-equipped medieval kitchen, with period-costumed workers cooking and providing food samples.  It something straight out of “Game of Thrones”!  The other was in one of the larger halls, where more period-costumed attendants allowed kids to put on helmets and showed them how to use some of the weapons.  I was glad to have had a chance to visit this town and castle.  On my last visit to Luxembourg in the 1980’s, I had seen a Bing & Grondahl plate with a scene of the Vianden castle on it.  I liked the looks of it and bought it as a souvenir, even though I hadn’t actually been to visit the town.  Now that omission has been rectified. J

After my walk up to the castle, I had a leisurely walk back down through the town, enjoyed a meal at my hotel, and went to bed with the sound of the river outside my open window.  Very pleasant!
The view from the Hotel Victor Hugo

The view looking up the Our River
Sunday was my day to visit Bastogne, famous as a key center of American resistance during the Battle of the Bulge. Part of the reason I had chosen Vianden for my starting point was so that I could follow the path of the attacking Germans, observing the terrain as I approached Bastogne from the east.  This area of western Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium are known as the Eifel, which is basically a low mountain range mostly covered with forest (the Ardennes).  The terrain is very steep and rugged in most places, although there are also high, wide, open plateaus that are mostly open cultivated fields.  It was easy to see why the Our River forms a natural border between Luxembourg and Germany, as the valley is particularly steep and narrow.
I started by driving north along the Our River until I was somewhere north of the town of Stolzembourg. Then I turned west and climbed up out of the valley.  I found myself climbing a very steep and winding road, and after reaching the top of the ridge, I descended a similarly steep and winding path on the other side.  I wanted to head toward the towns of Eschweiler and Wiltz, trying to follow more or less the southern part of the route followed by von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army, along the boundary with Brandenberger’s 7th Panzer Army.   The northern attack route of Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army and the northern portions of von Manteuffel’s sector are better known, but this was the route that led most directly toward Bastogne, and I didn’t think I had time to drive further north, turn southwest toward Bastogne, and still have time to visit the museums I wanted to see in that town. 
On the ground, it was very hard to keep track of where I was, as the terrain was so broken and wooded, and the roads so serpentine.  At one point during my descent from the first ridge west of the Our, I got out my phone and took a video.  Unfortunately, it is too large a file to load here.  :(
It was really something to drive through this area and try to imagine moving massive numbers of vehicles and men in some sort of regular order.  It would be hard enough to do without opposition, let alone in the face of resistance that included artillery, anti-tank fire and blown bridges. This just isn’t the kind of terrain that allows for the effective employment of large armored formations.  I could see how small groups of American soldiers in key positions could hold up the advance of far superior forces.
Eventually I came out of the forest into more open, rolling countryside, which lasted until I reached Bastogne.  As I approached my first destination (the Bastogne War Museum), I realized that my Garmin GPS doesn’t have quite as good a handle on the roads in Luxembourg and Belgium as it does in other parts of Europe where I’ve used it.  It took me on what was probably the most direct route to the museum, but it went from a gravel road to a two-track farm road to a muddy cowpath.  This would be fine in my Jeep, but in my little low-slung VW it was dicey.  I had to laugh – it reminded me of a postcard that I had recently bought in Germany:
 The German word for GPS is “Navi”

After surprising a mother walking with her children and coming eye-to-eye with some cows, I came out into the back corner of the museum parking lot.  It is a fairly large museum, located northwest of Bastogne on the outskirts of town.  It is collocated with a large monument to the liberation that is quite impressive.  I took some photos, but it would undoubtedly look better from the air, as it is shaped like the star symbol that was painted on American military vehicles at that time.
Mardasson Memorial at the Bastogne War Museum
 
The Bastogne War Museum is very well put together, and tells more than the story of the Battle of the Bulge.  It is really a museum of the war in western Europe, documenting the rise of Nazism in Germany, the German invasion and occupation of other European nations, and of the invasion and liberation of the continent by the Allied armies.  Naturally, however, it focuses heavily on the actions that took place in and around Bastogne.  It is designed to guide the visitor through the museum on a specific path to follow the chronology of the war. An audio device with headphones is provided, and is automatically activated by the exhibits to narrate your visit as you walk through.  There are three separate movies along the way, in each of which you are seated in an immersive environment and experience different aspects of the war.  (One was a sort of conference room where they discussed war plans, one was a forest scene where you felt you were on the front lines, and one was a café in a town).  It was really quite creatively done, and seemed to be to be pitched at a level that was appropriate for just about any age.
There were a large number of displays, with a mix of artifacts and photographs, along with a lot of uniforms and equipment and a few vehicles.  I only took a few photos, as most of them were things I’ve seen elsewhere.  I did think these were interesting:
General Hasso von Manteuffel's leather
overcoat, worn during the Ardennes
offensive (Battle of the Bulge)
 
The unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies

Additionally, I was sorry to note that that vast majority of weapons in this museum were in relatively poor condition.  I doubt if any of them have tasted a drop of oil or been wiped down or cared for in any way since the end of the war.  It was quite disappointing to see, as they did have a pretty good representative assortment.  As a student and collector of martial arms, this probably had more of an effect on me than it might for the average visitor, and tainted my overall impression of the museum. 
In contrast to the weapons on display, the Willys MB Jeep and the German Kubelwagen they had were both in immaculate condition.  My photos, unfortunately, did not come out very well.
Overall I’d say this is a very good museum and well worth a visit, providing a good overview of the war in Europe and an understanding of the battles that took place around Bastogne during the liberation.
I next drove into downtown to visit the 101st Airborne Museum.  While there are a number of other museums in Bastogne, I knew I didn’t have time for all of them, and thought this one looked like a good bet, especially because of the special role of the 101st in the defense of the town.  I was not disappointed!
This is a privately-owned museum, and is comparatively small.  Located on a quiet street off the main thoroughfare, from the outside it just looks like a rather large brick house.  Unlike the larger museum, it does not attempt to tell a narrative or guide you through the exhibits in a certain order. It has three floors and a basement, and you simply walk around looking at the various artifacts and mannequins on display. In spite of its small size, I have to say that this is one of the best military museums I have ever been in, from the standpoint of an immersive experience.  Every nook and cranny is crammed with displays and artifacts.  The displays are very well put-together, and the collection is astonishing.  They have hundreds of small items from the everyday life of the soldier, from uniforms, weapons, and equipment to all the little personal items they would have handled in everyday life.  An amazing variety of things like soap, razors, sewing kits, C-rations, K-rations, writing paper, magazines, etc. are on display in cases throughout the museum. There are also several very realistic dioramas in which mannequins depict scenes from soldiers’ wartime experiences.  The mannequins in this museum are different from almost any others I have seen. Rather than the bland department-store type mannequins with featureless faces, blanks stares, and stiff poses, these are works of art.  They have realistic, unique, expressive faces and are placed in realistic poses. Their uniforms and equipment are accurate down to the last detail. 
The combined effect of these dioramas and the displays of personal equipment and effects was that I felt drawn-in and immersed, and at times almost overwhelmed.  It was a very personal and intimate experience, particularly in the basement, where there were graphic scenes of a medical aid station and a hand-to-hand struggle between German and American troops. 
I found afterwards that I had taken almost no photographs, probably because of how drawn-in I was to the whole experience.  I did take one photo of a display that I thought was an interesting technique. They took a photograph from a magazine, of actual people, and recreated it in every detail using mannequins wearing real uniforms and equipment.  The effect was very interesting, almost literally “bringing the photograph to life”:
 A depiction of the scene in the contemporary
photograph shown in the foreground 

About the only detailed photos I took were of a StG44 in a display case.  This is as close to one of these rifles as I’ve been able to get in a museum setting. The display of the weapon along with its accoutrements and other items is typical of the attention to detail in this museum:
StG44 - Note the MP44 markings

The magazines are also marked MP44 and MP43

The StG44 (Sturm Gewehr, or “assault rifle”) was one of the most significant arms developments of the 20th century.  Although it came too late in the war to help the Germans win, it had a profound effect on subsequent military firearms development.  The pattern of a select-fire, intermediate power rifle with a pistol grip and high-capacity detachable magazine became the standard for infantry weapons from that point forward. Interestingly, it was originally designated "MP44" for Maschinen Pistole 44".  This was an effort to hide its development from Adolph Hitler, who had disapproved of the concept.  When he finally became aware of it, it had been so successful and popular with soldiers on the battlefield that he not only reversed his decision and encouraged maximum production, but also coined the term "Sturm Gewehr" for it. (That's right - the term "Assault Rifle" is a propaganda term invented by Adolph Hitler.)   I don't know how many of them were actually marked this way - as you can see, all the items in this display are marked "MP44" or "MP43").
One item in particular caught my eye as a collector and shooter of the M1 Garand rifle.  I saw an M1 Garand clip loaded with 8 rounds of .45 ACP pistol ammunition instead of the .30-06 rifle ammunition it should have had in it. Initially, I assumed this was a mistake by the curators, until I saw another clip loaded the same way in another display case.  This second clip was badly rusted, and the ammunition corroded together, making it clear that this was a genuine battlefield artifact.
I asked the museum proprietor about it, and he told me that veterans have told them that they only had a limited number of 1911 magazines, so this was how they carried and shared extra .45 ammo. The vets told him that this kept the ammo in convenient packages that they could toss to their buddies in another foxhole if needed. Cardboard boxes would fall apart, whereas a Garand clip was sturdy and also held just enough ammo to fully load a pistol.  I thought this was fascinating, and shared it on an M1 collector site.  Apparently this TTP is not widely known among M1 shooters and collectors, although one or two people did come forward and confirm that they had also been told this story by veterans of their acquaintance. I love learning historical tidbits like that!
After leaving the museum, I spent some time in downtown Bastogne.  Unlike Germany, where everything is closed on Sunday, the town was quite active and most of the stores and restaurants were open.  I had an ice cream cone and walked up and down the main street.  In the town square I saw a display consisting of a Sherman Tank and a statue of BG Anthony McAuliffe, whose reply of “Nuts” to a German surrender demand immediately became legendary.
Memorial at the main intersection in the center of Bastogne

There was also this marker for the Voie del la Liberte (“Liberty Road”).  I either didn’t know, or had forgotten about this, but the road marks the route taken by General Patton’s Army during the liberation of France and Belgium.
It starts in Normandy and ends in Bastogne, and there is a marker every kilometer along the way.  The first marker (number zero) is at Sainte Mere Eglise.  I probably have a photo of that one at home, from my visit to Normandy in 1984. Now I have been here in Bastogne at the last one, number 1145:
The last marker at the end of the "Liberty Road"

On the way out of Bastogne to return to my hotel in Vianden, I headed north.  I wanted to drive through different countryside than I had seen that morning.  A few kilometers outside of town I came to the village of Foy, the scene of a memorable episode in “Band of Brothers”.
How could I come to Bastogne and not stop here?

I decided to drive around the village and see if I could spot the place where Easy Company had attacked out of the wood line.  I don’t know if I saw the spot or not (I doubt if they actually filmed the scene there), but while driving around the little narrow farm lanes I saw an American flag, and then came upon this memorial.  Apparently there was a temporary American cemetery here from 1945-1948. 
I thought it was interesting that the Belgian flag uses the same
color scheme as the modern German flag.  The colors black,
gold, and red are associated with republicanism and freedom,
as opposed to the Prussian and Nazi red, white and black.

 
I drove a little farther north, then turned east and crossed Luxembourg back to the Our River valley. I approached the town of Vianden from the west, and got a different view of the castle:
 
It had been a long day, but it was the kind of day I love to have.  After a lifetime of reading about the war in books and seeing it through historical photographs and films as well as in movies and on TV, it is fascinating to visit the actual historical sites and see firsthand where the events took place.  Had things worked out differently, visiting places like this would have been my actual job while I was here in Germany, but as it is, I’m fortunate to be able to be here and do it for my own personal satisfaction.  I had my evening meal (a steak and a nice glass of wine) outside at a table by the river. J  The next day would be even better.
On Monday morning (July 4th), I checked out after breakfast and headed north up the Our river. While I was still driving with eye for the terrain and noticing all the familiar place names on the road signs (Houffalize, St. Vith, Malmedy, Elsenborn…),  I was headed for Margraten, Netherlands, to visit the Netherlands American Cemetery.  My anticipation of this visit gave the day a different feeling. 
I always feel a sense of reverence and experience powerful emotions when I visit American military cemeteries.  In this case, there was also a family connection to add meaning to the visit. As I wrote earlier in my entry about Steinbergen (9 April 2016), PFC Eldon “Don” Case died in the ambush on 9 April 1945, while lying alongside my wife Teresa’s father CPL Aarol “Bud” Irish.  Bud wrote that they were lying so close together that he could actually feel the bullets hitting Don. He felt a strong sense of obligation and gratitude for having lived through that day, writing to his parents:  “I can’t explain it, but when you know that because someone else took all the bullets that might otherwise have gotten you, a person feels he just can never do enough to make up for them.”
Because this place where Don Case is buried has such significant meaning for Teresa and her family, I had hoped that we’d be able to visit it together.  But it didn’t work out that way, and I decided to go ahead and come by myself while I was here on my final military tour of duty in Germany.  
The cemetery is administered and cared for by the American Battle Monuments Commission.  Their website made it possible for me to learn about the cemetery and to look up Don Case’s grave so I would know where to go once I got there (there are 8,301 graves).  
We had known all along that for some time after the war, a Dutch family had cared for Don’s grave and had been in contact with his family.  What we didn’t know until fairly recently, however, was that each of the graves in the cemetery has been “adopted” by Dutch people, who place flowers there on Memorial Day and otherwise care for them.  This started shortly after the cemetery was established, as a spontaneous expression of gratitude.  The practice has continued on for all these years, as an enduring gesture of appreciation by the people of the Netherlands in recognition of the sacrifices made by Americans for their liberation.  There is an organized foundation that manages the process of adoption, and also works to place the adopters in contact with the families and comrades of the fallen soldiers who rest there:
Even though my decision to visit on this particular weekend was not planned in advance, I went ahead and contact the ABMC people at Margraten a couple of days before my departure, explaining our story and asking to be put in contact with the local person or family who care for Don Case’s grave.  They immediately reached out to the foundation, and I received an email the next day from Mr. Ton Hermes, the foundations’ president.  He offered to meet me at the cemetery, show me around, and explain the foundation’s work, as well as to try to reach the adopters and see if they could come and meet me that day.  It was a very generous and welcoming response, and a foreshadowing of the entire visit.
The approach to the cemetery is beautiful.  A tree-lined road out of the village leads to an impressive entrance gateway to the property. This opens onto a gently winding drive through green lawns and shade trees, ending up in a parking area at the entrance to the cemetery itself. 
A broad, shallow stairway at the entrance is flanked by a visitor center on the right and an open, covered building on the left. This building houses large maps with colorful graphic depictions of the airborne operations in the Netherlands (Operation Market-Garden), the Normandy invasion and battle across France and low countries into Germany, and a more detailed map showing the operations in the invasion of Germany in which most of the soldiers in the cemetery died. 
Inscription on the outside wall at the entrance to the cemetery
 
Operation Market-Garden

The Normandy invasion and operations in Northwest Europe.

The invasion of northern Germany.  You can
see the 102d Infantry Division "Ozarks"
symbol on this map in several places.

I met Mr. Ton Hermes at the entrance, and he took me into the visitor’s center to meet the ABMC staff who work there. They were very friendly, and had put together two folders of information about the cemetery, one for me and one for me to send to Don Case’s family).  The family’s folder included copies of a certificate from the foundation commemorating his sacrifice and the adoption of his grave.  On the walls of the visitor’s center are letters to the people of Margraten from General Eisenhower and President George W. Bush, as well as some historical photos.  After spending a few minutes in the visitor’s center, we walked out into the cemetery.
A long reflecting pool is in the center of the walkway to the cemetery and the main monument, an area which they call the Court of Honor.  On either side of this reflecting pool, the walls are inscribed with the names of 1,722 missing whose remains had not been found at the time it was built.  Those whose remains have since been located are specially marked.

Reflecting pool and monument

The statue and monument at the end of the pool depict a grieving mother and doves of peace, next to a war-shattered tree from which new life has begun to grow.  I felt it was fitting and moving symbol of the meaning of the place.
 
Ascending another short stairway into the main cemetery, I was immediately struck by the rows and rows of white crosses and Stars of David.  You can look at photos of these places all day long, but walking into one is a completely different experience. It never fails to choke me up – the impact of all those markers, each one representing a life lost in service to our country, is simply overwhelming.  The layout is beautiful – a long green lawn in the center leading to a raised mound with an American flag, wide shaded walkways on either side, and the rows of crosses on either side, curving gracefully in perfect symmetry.  It is beautifully-designed and impeccably maintained.
The side of the monument facing the graves, with the entrance to the chapel
 



We walked to Don Case’s grave, which I had previously looked up as being in Plot G, Row 14, Grave 27. As it turned out, Grave 27 was right on the end, closest to the walkway and under the shade of the trees.  We spent a few moments there, and took some photos. 
PFC Eldon "Don" Case
 




 After our visit to the grave, I invited Ton to have lunch with me.  It turned out that Monday is a “quiet day” for many restaurants in the Netherlands, so our options were limited.  I suggested we just go to my hotel and have lunch there.  We drove there and I met the people, with whom Ton was already acquainted.  I am not 100% sure, but I think they were closed for lunch as well, and very graciously made us something anyway!  The “Hotel Groot Welsden” is a beautiful little place right near the village of Margraten.  It was very comfortable, picturesque, and peaceful, and the people who run it are extremely nice and considerate. The restaurant is also first class.  I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was, considering that I had just picked it from an internet search!  I highly recommend it.
Up until this point, I had not said much to anyone about our own story, other than that our family had a comrade buried at Margraten.  Ton had wanted to tell me the story of the adoption foundation and tell the history of the cemetery, and I had wanted to hear it as he chose to tell it.  But now it was my turn. While we waited for our lunch, I showed him the copy of “A Thousand Letters Home” that I had brought for the adopters and told him the story of how the book came to be, what Don’s death had meant to the Irish family, and how Bud had always felt a sense of “survivor purpose”, trying to live the best life he could after having survived that day that cost three of his friends their lives. We paged through the book and I showed him the various letters that told the details of what had happened that day, as well as the letters to, from, and between the mothers.  In addition to the book, I also gave him a printout of my blog entry “Steinbergen”, describing my visit to the place where Don Case had died.  I hoped that knowing more than just a name and date on a cross would help to sort of “bring Don to life” for the people who had adopted his grave.
Ton and I had a nice lunch and talked quite a bit.  He is a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Dutch Army, so we had some shared background that made for interesting conversation.  Eventually, it was time for him to leave, and I said farewell, with thanks for his efforts to get the information to the adopters.  I was sorry not to have met them, but felt confident that he would faithfully pass on the information to them when they could be reached.  All in all, it was a very interesting and satisfying time. I only realized much later that we had never taken a photo together - I think I was so absorbed in the experience that I just never thought of it. 
The day had been pretty cloudy and rainy up to this point, so I hadn’t taken many photos at the cemetery.  But shortly after Ton left the hotel, the sun came out.  I had been planning to return to the cemetery before driving home on Tuesday morning in hopes of better weather, but I decided I should try while the sun was out, and went back to the cemetery. 
This time, with nobody to talk to, I took my time just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere and meaning of the place. There is something about silence and solitude that makes me feel even more reflective and reverent in such places. When I visited Don’s grave, I placed a quarter on top of his marker. I did this not for me, but for Bud Irish, who I am sure would have visited Don’s grave had he not been diagnosed with cancer and had to cancel his scheduled trip to the 102d Division’s reunion. 
An offering on behalf of Bud Irish

The tradition of leaving coins at military graves:  http://www.snopes.com/military/coins.asp
When I returned to the hotel, they had something for me – Ton Hermes had come back during my absence, and had left me a copy of the book “The Margraten Boys – How a European Village Kept America’s Liberators Alive”.  It tells the story of the cemetery and the adoption tradition, and will be a meaningful memento of my trip to Margraten. 
The rest of my stay was quiet and peaceful.  I spent the late afternoon in the garden reading.  Dinner was a gourmet treat, after which I spent the evening writing the beginning of this blog entry.  Breakfast the next day was hearty and plentiful, and it was only with reluctance that I left to head back home to Germany.   My route led right through Aachen, the first German city to have been captured in WWII.  It seemed fitting that I was traveling over the route along which many of the soldiers buried in the Margraten cemetery had lost their lives.
Overall it was a tremendously interesting and successful weekend.  I can’t think of a more meaningful way to celebrate Independence Day than to visit historic places dedicated to preserving the memory of the sacrifices made by our countrymen to secure and preserve our freedom.
Music:  Silence
Mood:  Reverent