The infamous Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. The cement and barbed wire barrier built in 1961 split Berlin in half. It was a physical barrier between Communist East and Democratic West Germany. It separated families and friends. Movement between the two parts of the city was highly controlled. It came to symbolize the Cold War period.
About 10 years before the wall came down, I toured 40 miles of the Wall with the U.S. Army's Berlin Brigade. At the time, I was a staff writer for the European Stars and Stripes.
Traveling in jeeps mounted with loaded M60 machine guns, the recon patrol looked for anything out of the ordinary. At towers along the American sector route, we would stop to peer into the other side to identify Soviet vehicle movement, people activities and construction projects.
Later, I joined a small group of other American military men and women who got more than just a peek over the Wall. They were part of a program to help European-based GIs understand why their service over there was important. After seeing the Communist-built "wall of shame," they took a very controlled tour of East Berlin.
It started at Checkpoint Charlie. Right away our busload of wide-eyed adventurers experienced its first brush with the untrusting attitude of the Soviets. Soldiers with red stars on their hats and loaded weapons at their sides stared at us as the bus moved slowly through a maze of barriers. They used lights and mirrors to check under the bus.
On the east side, we viewed the past and the present. There were many bombed-out buildings untouched since World War II and a rare but modern, showplace shopping center. However, for the most part, the wide streets were void of heavy automobile traffic. The place looked abandoned.
We also visited a war memorial where more than 5,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the battle for Berlin were buried. An East Germany goose-stepping honor guard was always present.
The tour was too short for me and the others, but all agreed that although it was an interesting place to visit, we wouldn't want to live there. We were all glad and proud to be Americans.