For vets in Germany, sharing memories of America over breakfast
NUREMBERG — They are graying Cold Warriors now, mostly retired or former noncommissioned officers who served in Vietnam or the Gulf War, or else the men who stood guard in Western Europe against a Soviet invasion that never came.
And they’re still here.
More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, even as the U.S. military has announced a further drawdown in U.S. troops based in Europe, a small, close group of U.S. veterans remains in and around Nuremberg, a city of 500,000 in the German state of Bavaria. They came to Germany because it was their duty. They stayed for love, or for a better life.
Nearly every Sunday since 1994, as many as 18 veterans gather at a McDonald’s restaurant a few miles from the city center. On a recent morning, about a dozen drank coffee, ate egg sandwiches and talked of the lives they’d built as expatriates in Germany.
“I like it over here,” said Herbert Hall, 69, as he sat at a table of veterans. “I go to the States. I have two children and five grandchildren. But I can live cheaper over here, even with the more expensive gasoline.”
“Tell him the truth, Herb!” chimed in Norbert Isaak, 66, sitting three chairs down. “Your German wife didn’t want to go back to the United States.”
“Yeah, my wife didn’t want to go back to the States [either],” said Bruce von der Gruen, 46, who sat between them.
Hall, who retired as a sergeant first class after six years in the Air Force and 18 more in the Army, agreed.
“One out of 10 German wives might later, when they retire in their 60s, say now let’s go move to Florida or something,” Hall said. “But most of them want to stay here. I want to stay here.”
Most of the men said that they had no regrets about choosing to remain in Germany. Besides staying for their wives, some said they’ve never left because they had jobs or because they liked the culture.
Nuremberg has a reputation for having more bars and restaurants per capita than any other place in Germany, and the Americans poked fun at themselves for choosing to gather at a McDonald’s, but it’s one of the few places open Sunday mornings.
“We come from different areas, different backgrounds . . . even cultures. We all did different jobs, but we were soldiers, and we are Americans,” said John Ellis, 56, who served in Vietnam and on the German border.
“The friendship is the most important part,” said Larry Furston, 60, and meeting at a McDonald’s offers the chance to “be around Americans, act like ourselves, relive a little of our own culture, and just enjoy speaking English. . . . If it were in the evening at a Gast Haus, few would come and it would not be the same.”
The men range from 44 to 69. Most married German women. They worked blue-collar jobs, owned small businesses or had retired.
They talked enthusiastically about German culture and the country’s medical system, but said there were challenges, too.
The veterans said they had to work hard, plan ahead and start at the bottom of the economic totem pole.
Hall drove trucks for years. Danny Burroughs, 61, who was medically discharged as a sergeant, owned a cafe and had a cleaning firm before he retired.
Isaak, who has long hair and a beard and who retired after 28 years in the Army as a master sergeant, owned a country-and-western bar and restaurant.
“I stayed because I had a German girlfriend at the time I got out,” he said. “My kids were all grown, and they didn’t need me.”
But, he added, “It’s not as rosy as some people make it out. . . . I’ve been to places where I was not served because I was an American. The younger people here don’t appreciate the Americans anymore like the older ones that went through World War II. The younger ones don’t realize that their freedom was based on what the Americans and English did — the Marshall Plan and the like.”
During the Cold War and immediately afterward, they said that Germans expressed great affinity for Americans. But that began to change when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
“Things are different now,” said Rich Larson, 46, who had been a cavalry scout stationed on the border with what was then East Germany, and who served in Desert Storm.
Von der Gruen said he started by working at a Burger King, “a little guy on the cash register, not knowing how to speak German.”
Over time, he learned the language, became the manager and went on to manage a German grocery store, where he made enough money to buy a house.
In one of the two times he said he’s faced discrimination for being an American, his career success came crashing down. His boss, von der Gruen said, did not like Americans.
“This dude’s like, ‘You’re a chip-munching, television-watching American and I don’t want you working for me,’ ” von der Gruen said.
“And I told him, ‘Well, at least I never gassed any Jews.’ ”
The next day, von der Gruen said, he was out of a job. He eventually found work at a hardware store, but in 2008 he went back on duty in the U.S. Army. He’s now a sergeant working in air defense artillery and stationed in Kaiserslautern. He tries, but doesn’t always succeed, to get back on the weekends to Fuerth, near Nuremberg, where his wife and children live.
“I love the German culture,” said von der Gruen, who adopted a European custom and took his wife’s last name when he got married. (He used to be known as Bruce Martin.) “I’ve been very happy over here. . . . I’m going to get my German retirement, I’m going to get my American retirement.
“And then,” he said, pointing at Hall, “I’m going to be as rich as this guy when I get out of the Army.”
“I have four retirement checks,” Hall said, citing his pensions from the U.S. military and his German employer, along with Social Security and the German equivalent. It’s ungodly, just dumb luck.”