The Hurtgen Forest near the German-Belgian Border
Heinrich Finster had heard that in forty days, more than forty thousand men fell in these woods in the war. On evenings like this, just as the twilight would color the snow in shades of blue turning gradually purple, then a gauzy gray, he would sometimes imagine he could see their ghosts lurking in the shadows. Grizzled hulks of wool and leather, they were but mere boys, yearning for their warm beds, to be a wall’s width away from mother, father, sister. Like all soldiers, they waited for their time to go home, but here, they were lost, deep in the darkening forest.
When he came to a ridge of stones that ran through the woods there, he sat down on a rock, pulled off his headphones and slid them over his right knee, so that the ear muffs hugged them in place on his thigh. He laid his metal detector by his foot, took off his cap and smoothed his white hair back with his hand.
If it had been summer he would have used ear buds to listen for the harmonic buzzes and beeps from his metal detector, that tantalizing tease of treasure hidden just out of sight beneath the leaves, below the soil, long lost and waiting to bear some small witness to the great battle that waged here more than six decades ago. But in the cold of November 2004, especially with this early snow, the headphones did the double duty of warming his ears.
It was more an adventure when he was a boy. The forest was more dangerous then, before the hundreds of unexploded shells were removed and the minefields cleared completely. Even so, for years just after the war, a distant muffled thunder grumbled that some poor deer had found a missed one. There was the occasional lost child too.
But the adventure of it did fade. As he grew into the body of an old man, he came to appreciate the excuse for a quiet walk among the pines, sweeping the metal detector shaft and search coil in a graceful arc, left to right and left again.
It had not been much of a day. One mangled canteen, a buckle of some sort, but nothing special. There was not much left after all these years. Only the numbers of spent bullet slugs and casings never waned. There were millions of them. They were now as much a common part of the soil as small stones and broken bark. The dirt adapts. It is the nature of things.
Still, he never knew what he might find.
An early freeze had knocked down some of the undergrowth and a fine dusting of snow dappled the brown-leaf strewn forest floor. He unscrewed the cup-top off his thermos and poured out some hot coffee. He carefully wrapped his fingers around the cup to gain a little relief from the bitter cold and leaned back against the stony ridge.
He tried to imagine what it must have been like back then, on a November evening like this. Most of the trees had grown back, though many of those topped by artillery bursts stood as ancient relics of the horrific bombarding that went on for weeks, not quite dead, not quite alive, but lingering in some state in between.
His eyes relaxed into a blurry gaze, when all thoughts gradually fade and the heart opens to the forest. The high, new branches, swaying to a gentle breeze, sigh, but below, the ancient limbs, like an old man stretching, groan.
But this evening, on the forest floor he felt no breeze at all, yet when he exhaled his hot breath into the cold air it formed a little cloud that drifted slowly to his left. His eyes idly followed it as it disappeared into the tangle of dead undergrowth at the base of a great dead tree trunk.
Something odd, he thought to himself, as he squinted to focus deeper, past the brush. A shiver shook through him suddenly. What was he seeing?
He rose slowly so as not to lose his line of sight, as all of the tangled brush in this wood looked like any other. As he drew closer he could see something hiding there. He began to carefully pull the branches away with his left hand, revealing a crevice between two boulders.
Then he saw it. He abruptly stopped with a gasp, dropping his coffee cup. Staring back at him were the darkened holes in a skull that lodged between two boulders. Bones of a skeleton were scattered below it.
There was something about the eyes, the holes where eyes once had been, that seemed to express sadness, relief, resignation. He drew in closer.
Standing over the bones, he could see that the corpse might have been sitting. There was nothing left of clothing but for what looked like a scrap of an insignia of some sort, perhaps the number "8”, with an arrow drawn through it from bottom to top.
Around the vertebrae of the neck was a chain. Gingerly, he pulled it up enough to find a flat metal rectangle with rounded corners, a hundemarken, that every soldier wore. With his thumb he rubbed the embossed dog tag to find some lettering. It seemed to be American. There was some sort of code, letters and numbers. And even though he could read no English, it was clear to him that there was a name.
Tom Campbell called the last week of the spring semester The Days of Whine and Ruses. The parade of procrastinators, perpetrators and the merely pitiful who came to plead for mercy. A failed test, a late paper, the perennial dead grandmother and even an imaginative few who had previously never bothered to show up to class at all. Then, of course, there was the alphabet soup of ADHD, PTSD, PMS, etc. which were automatically DOA.
In the last few years the excuses had become more contemporary, he had to admit. Some even novel enough to earn momentary awe of admiration. His favorite this year was a student who missed a test but claimed “They wouldn’t let me on the plane, Professor Campbell. I got the Ebola.” If a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, this fellow had brought a new dimension to going viral.
Tom sighed when he saw them on his desk. “Well, they have finally arrived, the Peptos of Capistrano,” he muttered to himself. At the end of each semester, it came down to skewered squares of bismol-pink call messages impaled on a six-inch pointed steel stick. That was why he called them Peptos.
May finished forty semesters of teaching. There had been thousands of blank faces, begrudging the mandatory history credits for their Bachelor in Biology or Accounting… degrees for jobs that did not much rely upon the lessons of history, or so they thought. But there were memorable ones too, particularly among the history majors and seekers of masters or doctorates.
Even though twenty years had yielded him a tenured associate professorship, Graffton was a small public liberal arts college, off the beaten path in Huntsville, Texas. Its reputation had decanted to a last resort for students and faculty whose place in academia was tenuous and unremarkable. Yet among its graduates were an astonishing number of public officials and politicians. Residents of the town often quipped that the inmates of the local state prison and the college were separated only by a matter of time.
His office would not have met the state’s standard for a one-man cell in either size or sanitation. Both were his own doing, though. The rows of stacked books and journals were closing in on him and the janitor could not find enough horizontal real estate to clean. He came every day around four in the afternoon and Tom would push a waste basket to the doorway with his foot and Old Zeke would pick it up and empty it into his rolling bin and shake his head.
His weekly lunch with a collection of his male faculty colleagues, at the favorite near-campus watering hole, would just as likely feature the perennial complaint about low morale and “administrative bloat” as it would their respective days remaining to retirement and the comparative proportion of propositioning co-eds, counted by departments. The sciences easily conceded the advantage to the liberal arts.
Tom knew better but never had much interest, though he did meet Elly Asher when she took his class five years ago. And even though a course on Civil War period logistics was not exactly core material for her major in Psychology, she was not one of those who needed to bargain for grades. Like many later starters, she was more mature and focused. She was in her mid-thirties now, nearly done with her doctorate, and worked in Student Advising. They had dated on and off and shared in common an interest in old classic movies.
To his few friends, he was quiet and insular, to his students, easily annoyed and annoying, to the college administration, arrogant and insubordinate. And to all three, he seemed to want to be somewhere else and ever unhappy about it.
It seemed like it had been a longer school year than usual and he was tired. One pepto had somehow missed the stick and was set prominently in the middle of the one cleared space on his desk. It read,
Dr. Tom Campbell,
A Mrs. Brown called.
Your father died.
The offices of the Army Awards and Decorations Branch were clustered in the northwest corner of the Pentagon, on the third floor. The one window with a view out was at a turn in a long hallway. It overlooked Arlington Cemetery and endless rows of perfectly aligned gravestones, blanched white in the cloudless, stiflingly hot Virginia sunlight. Summer had arrived early.
Major Sam Walker opened the door just wide enough to stick his head into Warrant Officer Bob Vardis’ outer office and asked the corporal if he was in yet.
“Yes, sir,” Corporal John Stokes answered. “Do you need to speak with him?”
Walker marched past him.
“Sir!” the corporal said, quickly jumping to his feet to try to head the major off. He knew the hard way how his boss hated any departures from what he called “good order.” But it was too late.
Walker barged into the inner office, waving a newspaper.
“Bob!” he exclaimed, “Did you see The Post?”
Vardis looked up from his report, his eyes magnified by small round lenses, in wire frames so thin they looked to be a pince-nez. He was annoyed at the sudden invasion of his peace. “Yes,” he said flatly.
“Man, that’s good work, Bob,” Walker said, taking the chair across the desk from him. “Let me read you this from the article,” and began quoting from the newspaper. “The U.S. Attorney said, ‘False claims about military heroism demean the record of the real heroes who have valiantly served this nation in the armed services. Those who seek public attention and admiration by misappropriating the mantle of veterans who have served with distinction deserve prosecution.’”
“Amen,” agreed Vardis, adding in an undertone, “and worse.”
“You know, you’d think that after a half-dozen or so of these I’d get used to it,” Walker complained, “but the truth is I get madder with every case. This son of a bitch’s claim that he earned his third, mind you, THIRD, Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for heroism in Viet Nam takes the cake. What was it? Oh, yeah, he claimed he got an ankle wound stepping on a spike, carrying an injured buddy on his back for 25 miles… then, get this, he talks some small town Rotary Club into funding trips for veterans back to Nam to help them ‘bury the ghosts.’ ”
Vardis sat quietly watching his boss rant on. He knew there was no point in interrupting before he had run out of steam.
“Was he ever even in Nam?” asked Walker, then answered himself, “Yeah, when he took the tour group over.”
Vardis allowed a smile at that.
“Well at least you caught the bastard,” Walker said.
“This time,” Vardis said.
“I’ve been at this only a couple of years, but you have been catching these fakers for decades, more than anyone in the history of this department. Tell me. How do you do it?” Walker asked.
Vardis lifted off his lenses, paused in thought for a moment, then said, “Actually, I begin every investigation with one simple assumption: They are all frauds.”
“So, you are the devil’s advocate,” Walker said.
“To beat the devil you have to think like the devil,” Vardis added wryly. “Humans can be perniciously disappointing.”
“Is it intuition, clues, experience? What?” Walker asked.
“I suppose all of those play a role. For me, though, it’s the ‘order and the method’ that Doyle used in his Sherlock Holmes stories. ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’ But there are typical markers. The over-the-top story, generalities, vague descriptions, and anytime I see or hear the word ‘covert’, the clouds of doubt thicken. And, there always seems to be some convenient reason why there are no reliable witnesses. But, I will say, it’s a gut thing too. I get this sense that there’s something not-quite-right about it.”
“Well, whatever it is, you’ve got it honed to a science,” Walker said, standing up to go. “We’re going to miss you, Bob. Are you sure you want to hang it up? You could easily go another five years.”
“No, Sam, there’s no talking me out of it. Years ago Rose and I bought a cabin in the Smokies and it has been sitting patiently waiting for me too long. I’ve got a lot of hunting to catch up on.”
“Hunting. Ha! What the hell do you think you do here?” Walker laughed. There was an awkward pause. “Can I ask a favor?” Walker asked.
“Of course,” Vardis replied.
“I wonder if you could take a look at something for me when you have the time.”
“I’m just wrapping up some paperwork on this case and have got some slack coming up. What is it?” Vardis asked.
“Some fellow found what looks to be American remains in the Hurtgen Forest, just outside of Aachen, Germany. A Graves Registration team went to collect them. It sounds like it could be a GI. Has some interesting elements. Give me a ring when you’re done and I’ll fill you in,” Walker said.
“Fine,” Vardis replied, absently, as Walker left.
Vardis sat quietly staring at the door. It should feel good catching this latest impostor. It was another notch on his gunstock. But it did not feel as good as the first time and, truth be told, it really did not feel very good at all. These cases churned his stomach. Each one took a little more out of him. His opinion of his fellow humans had been on a long slow decline for most of his career, but in the last few years the slope downward had steepened. Then there was the Cocker case.
Two years ago he investigated the claim of a Green Beret war hero named Stanton Cocker, who was recommended by senior military officers in Iraq for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. After reviewing the case, Vardis had recommended that Cocker receive the Silver Star instead, a decoration two levels lower. A Deputy Defense Secretary requested, which was the bureaucratic euphemism for demanded, an examination to see if there were “any deviations from the standard procedures for processing such valor awards,” as the letter put it.
Someone, somewhere was yanking on a leash. It turned out to be Brent Warren, a congressman from the district where Cocker had lived. He claimed that the Army Criminal Investigations Command was retaliating unjustly against some soldiers and denying them their just awards. But the fact was that Cocker’s father was one of Warren’s major donors. There was a transactional feature to this that Vardis could not allow. He could not fault Cocker’s father’s wish to see his son honored, but Warren, on the other side of it, hoped to turn that sentiment into money. Warren saw Vardis as the obstacle and attacked him viciously, threatening a congressional hearing, budget cuts, withering publicity.
Complicating it was that Vardis did find that Cocker had performed a heroic act. He rushed to the site of a car bomb near the base and, while under fire, used a pistol to shoot a man with a suicide vest, causing it to explode. Then still under enemy fire, Cocker aided a wounded soldier, saving his life. That was all in the report and true. There were numerous witnesses. It was bravery for sure.
But it was not the whole story. Cocker had also been investigated for earlier incidents that indicated he tortured civilians under interrogation. There may have been varying opinions of the legality of his actions, but there was no question in Vardis’ mind that there was a serious question of honor. He did concur that Cocker’s bravery deserved recognition on its own merit. Valor, yes. But honor? There could not be a taint on it. What would it say about all those who have earned it before? That was why he could not recommend the highest award of honor.
It was a difficult case but he was confident that he had made the right call. Still, there was pressure put on him by his own superiors to amend his recommendation. It was pure politics and he hated it. He did not cave in to them, but he could not forget it. Nor could some of the leadership above him. To them Vardis and Warren were simply two kinds of the same inconvenient trouble.
The word had been carefully passed down to him that he was being “unrealistically rigid and needed to take into account the overall mission and challenges of running an army in these times,” as one undersecretary put it. He read it as code that these times required accommodating the new reality of the growing brash boldness of some members of Congress who would do anything necessary to retain their seats.
It was about raising more and more money. Powerful people could pay for anything they wanted and an enabling society seemed to value the appearance of virtue as much as the truth of it. Perhaps they no longer knew the difference. It seemed to Vardis that honor was now measured in dollars, defined in the context of what was legal, not what was ethical.
Vardis had come to wonder if that was to be the new way of things. And if so, what could an award for honor mean coming from a disreputable and unethical society? But, then, maybe it meant more than ever to be reminded, that at least once, we had great character and valor in some few among us, and maybe a little of that in each of us.
Lately, he had come to feel like he was the lone sentinel, the last line of defense against an inexorable rising tide, or was that just his grandiose thinking? Maybe he was an anachronism, a misfit, whose time had passed.
In any case, it was someone else’s turn.