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Commentary: Today’s differences from Cold War service on 30th milestone

This week, the dwindling veterans still serving in the military who experienced the Cold War first-hand may recall their true tales in winning it 30 years ago.

Having served in the U.S. Navy through the ’80s before enlisting in the Air Force, I am very proud to have deployed during the Cold War. Like some others, I hang my Cold War Service Certificate on my office wall, and, yes, my lifer-retirement clock is ticking down to months.

The Cold War’s end is December 26, 1991, many of its veterans remain in uniform; despite the date being older than some in the military today. Younger generations may only know it through books and movies. Some lived through it on BRAC-shuttered bases and scrapped Navy ships.

There are stories only fully understood among those officers and noncommissioned officers who served before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union’s collapse, ending 45 years of indirect conflict.

Over the decades, we filled the ranks where the Vietnam veterans stood as our old-timers during their later service and as the Korean War veterans did before them. But we all make up that Cold War era. The last one will transition out at some time coming, and I salute them now.

I think that the unending contingencies since ’91 obscured Cold War memories, as there always seemed too much going on to reflect. So it’s a good time now to look back. There’s a lot that was pretty cool about the Cold War military, and there are equally bits to celebrate being gone.

Below is my list of top differences from today. Your list could be different, so add on to it.

1. Mail call
Not to knock today’s instant personal communications because it’s terrific to get that text message while away. Maybe I noticed it more on sea duty. But when the C-2 Greyhound hit the flight deck, especially around the holidays, getting mail calls was important. I have a stack of handwritten letters from family and friends, which put me back in that experience when I read them now.

2. Beer in the pop machines
I snuck this little controversial one in here as a goof. But I checked with some fellow veterans, and yes, they too remember beer in the soda machines on some bases. I’m not sure if any bases today still have that option to grab a cold one on a summer day with some spare change in the parking lot. 

3. Smoking
Gone are the days when a Soldier, Airman, a Marine, or Sailor could smoke a cigarette indoors. In the Navy, the intercom on a ship would announce in the morning that the “smoking lamp was lit,” which set off a cloud of smoky blue haze in our breakrooms and common areas. Overfull ashtrays would mess up things too. Restricting smoking in the service allowed non-smokers a fresh breath from all that and made it easier for those trying to quit, thus improving everyone’s health.

4. Diversity
We may not be all there yet with diversity. Still, the military certainly improved much since 30 years ago, especially with combat-deployed women and the removal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Today we celebrate diversity as our greatest strength in our ranks. In my case, being assigned ship’s company for four years, I never worked with women in uniform until I joined the Air Force in 2002, as they did not serve on combatant ships during the ’80s. We would not have it any other way today.

5. Base windshield stickers
Although they continued well beyond the Cold War, vehicle decal stickers seem a leftover from that era. For those who joined after that era, be grateful you did not need to scrape that little year box off your car’s front windshield annually and update it. Ugh!

6. Paychecks
OK, so if you are as old as me and are still serving, you may recall when ATMs first arrived on base. I seem to remember their arrival on my ship around 1987 or ’88. At that point, I think we all signed up for Direct Deposit and no longer got monthly paychecks. It’s certainly nice not having to stand in line to sign for pay.

The abandoned Plattsburg Air Force Base hospital in upstate New York, which shuttered in 1995. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith)

7. Bases
Five rounds of Base Realignment and Closure closed and realigned more than 350 Cold War installations since 1988, with the last BRAC in 2005. It saves the nation many billions of dollars annually. I did a news story in 2004 at the closed Plattsburg Air Force Base in upstate New York, which shuttered in 1995. Airmen went to package the remaining medical equipment from the abandoned hospital to send to Nicaragua. Walking those empty hallways got me thinking of all the successful missions that all of the closed bases made worldwide in winning the war, and that’s where they remain in memory today with our veterans.

8. Pay Telephones
It might have also slipped our minds just where to find a pay telephone on base today. I’ve no clue where one is where I am or how much change I’d need to make a call. 

9. Weapons systems
Cold War veterans have their favorite weapon systems where nothing today compares. Mine? There’s likely little surprise that, as a former conventional aircraft carrier, flight-deck aircraft handler, my absolute favorite weapon system then and now is the F-14 Tomcat. To me, nothing says Cold War more than a face-frying, steamy catapult alert-five launch out in the Pacific with that fighter aircraft on afterburner. I also once interviewed the Air Force’s last serving piston-engine flight engineer, who retired in 2011. He helped win the Cold War with the toggle switches and dials he spent a career monitoring and mastering on the KC-97 Stratotanker, including Operation Creek Party. That’s undoubtedly the Cool Factor that I mentioned earlier about our Cold War vets. The KC-97 engineers and their control panels were incredible, with an abundance of gauges to monitor 224 spark plugs and 112 cylinders of four gas engines.

10. Uniforms
The 45 years spanning the Cold War and the 30 years following it include many significant uniform changes. Check out a Veterans Day parade to see a sampling. From leftover World War II fatigues worn in the Korean War to today’s combat utilities and Operational Camouflage Patterns. But I’ve yet to see someone at a parade wearing those Navy bell-bottomed dungarees and thin, blue button-up working shirts that I once wore. As I mentioned, there are things to celebrate being gone.

(U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith is the Public Affairs manager for the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center in East Tennessee)

By Eartheditor

Hello. I am a prior U.S. Navy sailor and photojournalist serving on active duty with the National Guard – combined, for more than 22 years. This blog features my more memorable stories and photos from that news pile as well as creative writing. All images and stories are by me unless otherwise credited. I hope to backlog more as well as write new stories. Thank you so much.
- Mike R. Smith

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