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Army veteran who saw the wall come down returns to Berlin 30 years later

By ALYSSA ZACZEK | St. Cloud Times, Minn. | Published: May 24, 2019

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — Nearly 30 years ago, St. Cloud native Gregg Bursey witnessed a pivotal moment in history.

Newly graduated from Apollo High School, Bursey was a military policeman in the U.S. Army stationed in West Berlin.

When midnight rang out in the wee morning hours of Oct. 3, 1989, Bursey was at the Reichstag, Berlin's capitol building, watching as fireworks burst in the sky and the flag of a now-reunited Germany was raised over the Brandenburg Gate.

The Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989. Bursey was there to see that, too.

"Of course, you don't really see the scope of it at that time; you don't see the forest because the trees are in your way," Bursey, now 48, said. "But I think I really understood that it was historic. There was a really positive energy in the city."

Decades later, the positivity continues. Bursey, who lives in Springfield, Virginia, with his wife and two teenage children, was hosted by the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation on a "VIP ... whirlwind tour" of Berlin this month.

The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation was established by the German government in 1994 to continue the work of facilitating goodwill between Germany and the United States. It is named for the infamous Cold War crossing point between East Berlin, controlled by the Soviet bloc, and West Berlin, the free zone landlocked by East Germany.

The foundation's Welcome Home program selects 12 U.S. veterans annually who "preserved West Berlin's freedom and security between 1945 and 1994" for a week-long visit to Berlin to honor their service and re-introduce them to the city since the wall fell, marking the symbolic end of the Cold War and opening Europe to its modern unification.

Bursey, who returned from his trip May 19, said his experiences in today's Berlin were eye-opening and invaluable.

"You know, once you get to a certain age, some of the memories are so fresh it feels like yesterday, but then you realize how many generations have actually passed," he said. "It's really crazy, to see how much time has passed."

The foundation kept Bursey and his fellow servicemen busy, taking tours of the Potsdam district, meeting famed "Berlin Candy Bomber" Gail Halvorsen, attending official memorial ceremonies and taking meetings with German officials.

Perhaps one of the most illuminating experiences of the trip was a meeting with two former East German border guards, one of whom was a former member of the Stasi, the East German secret police.

"It was really weird sitting across the table talking to these guys," Bursey said. "Most of us, as soldiers, can appreciate what their line soldiers were doing — they were drafted, they were forced to do it; it's not much different to talking to guys from Vietnam in that they weren't inclined to do it but they had no choice — but (the Stasi) were on a different level."

Because of such meetings, Bursey said he returned with a fuller picture of Berlin during that time.

"You don't necessarily get the entire picture when you're actually in it," he said. "There's a few individual events that were pretty significant, but it just plays into this bigger arc of events that surrounded (that time,) too."

The "bigger arc," the incredible historical significance of what he and his fellow servicemen did in Berlin: That's what stuck with Bursey, even as he re-entered the city three decades later.

"You realize that everything you do, everything you're afforded today, is the result of what somebody did ahead of you," he said. "And if you're one of the guys at the head of that long line, there will be people for generations after you that will benefit from what you did that day."

On his return trip to Berlin, Bursey got to see that long line in action: He and his fellow veterans went to a German college to speak to students and share what they experienced guarding the wall — a history lesson for people who were not yet born when Bursey walked Berlin.

"These college students in their 20s wouldn't have been there for the fall of the wall or any of that. They wouldn't have seen tanks driving past their homes, or any of the things that we saw," he said.

Ultimately, Bursey said he hopes today's young people learn about U.S. involvement in Berlin during that time and gain a new perspective of the military itself.

"(People) look at the military as this big war machine. My kids are 14 and 16, and there's never been a day in American history in their lives that America hasn't been at war," he said. "The way the military was used (in Berlin) as an instrument of peace, and the commitment to the people in the city, that's the most significant thing."

The simple, small moments, the quiet work of peace-keeping: Those, too, stuck with Bursey after his assignment overseas.

He recalled one day, shortly before the closing of Checkpoint Charlie, when an elderly German couple approached him while on his routine patrol.

"They both had tears in their eyes. The man gave me a big hug and just kept saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' Now, this was a guy who was old enough to have gone through the end of World War II, the Berlin Airlift, the wall going up," Bursey said.

"He was thanking me as an American soldier, and I said, 'Hey, I've just been here a few months, it wasn't me!' And he said 'No, but you never quit coming. There was always a new you.'"

azaczek@stcloudtimes.com

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