Reflections on War and Peace . . .

Scott L. Nier        

I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.
Anne Frank

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. By Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress

I had the honor of attending the historic commemorative observance of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy, France at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia on June 6, 2019. The day was filled with special tributes to remember our veterans, and all those who lost their lives in service to our Nation during World War ll. This included an aerial tribute with most of the aircraft flown during World War ll, and speeches by Senator Mark Warner and Vice President Michael Pence. It was an extremely touching event because only a handful of the last remaining survivors of the D-Day invasion could attend, some of whom I met and with whom I was able to discuss their experiences during the “Longest Day.” Their first-hand accounts of the landing were horrifying but reinforced what I had already heard from other survivors before the event, including my own father.

The day had special meaning to me because my father was a US Army Ranger with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, Company C, who landed on Omaha Beach the morning of the D-Day invasion (the same Ranger Company and landing depicted in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” with Tom Hanks). Many of D-Day’s 6,000 American casualties occurred on Omaha Beach, so my father was lucky to survive (hence, I am lucky to be alive). Suffice it to say, what little my father did share with me was equally disturbing, although he never really discussed “Bloody Omaha” much (or what happened afterwards) while he was alive because of his poor recollection — perhaps an understandable defense mechanism to protect him (and me and my siblings while we were young children) from the brutality of war.

My father joined the Army as an 18-year-old because he didn’t want to milk cows on his rural Minnesota farm any longer. Not long after joining, and surviving the beach assault (his family nickname later became “Lucky”), he found himself at the gates of the Nazi-held Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He helped liberate Buchenwald from the Nazis and later said he became an alcoholic to wash the stench of the burning corpses from his nostrils with alcohol — a decade or so later he quit drinking but never forgot the sight and smell of Buchenwald and the Jews who perished there (and those who survived). Fortunately, Nazi-occupied Europe was eventually able to achieve peace with the help of the allied forces. After another two tours of combat during the Korean conflict, my father retired as an Infantry Major, became a school teacher and lived out the rest of his life quietly and assumedly like many of those of the “Greatest Generation”.

Ironically, I grew up on our family sheep and goat hobby farm a short distance from where my father grew up, and experienced a similar restlessness as a young boy as he. When I was 18-years-old, I told my father one evening around the dinner table that there were no opportunities where we lived and I felt “trapped” and wanted to join the military. My anticipated career path, at the time, included attending a two-year Vocational Technical Institute program in water well technology to work in the ground water industry, which I was prepared to abandon (I didn’t think it would allow me to “see the world”) to leave home quickly with the military.

My father listened empathetically but had already sized me up (as a good parent should) as a tad too liberal and defiant for military service. Unbeknownst to me, he had already plotted a proposed career option that I might like and proposed it: Peace Corps service. He insisted that there were other ways to serve humanity and help establish peace (which was an altruistic goal of mine) other than war. After much research, I decided to stay in my water well technology program and join the Peace Corps.

While highly competitive, I was quickly accepted into the Peace Corps because of my water background and left for Burkina Faso, West Africa in July 1980. After some initial technical and cross cultural/French language training, I landed on a large, US Agency for International Development rural water supply project in southwestern Burkina Faso, funded with over twelve-million dollars. It was well staffed and had both hand-dug wells along with wells drilled using expensive drilling equipment bought by the project, and hand pumps for both — suffice it to say, I was in heaven as a budding water well technologist.

In spite of challenges with learning French and several bouts of illness, I succeeded in drilling one-hundred-seventy deep water wells in rural African villages during my two-year service, which later produced an abundance of potable water for the villagers after hand pump installation. Interestingly, I was often asked by the villagers if I was related to John F. Kennedy (who started the Peace Corps) because they said “you have a peaceful way about you.” In any event, like my father, I left my family farm a boy and returned a man, never once regretting the experience that changed my life.

I have often been asked over the years by various family members and friends why I never pursued a career in the military like my grandfather (WWI), father (WWII and Korea) and uncle (Viet Nam) and I reiterate what my father told me about peace (and war) and also cite one of America’s greatest generals:

Indeed, we’re strongest when the face of America isn’t only a soldier carrying a gun but also a diplomat negotiating peace, a Peace Corps volunteer bringing clean water to a village, or a relief worker stepping off a cargo plane as floodwaters rise. — Colin Powell

The writer lives in Castleton

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