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Checkpoint to history: Pa. vet recalls Berlin Wall falling, Cold War ending on his watch

By STEPHEN HUBA | The Tribune-Review | Published: November 9, 2019

GREENSBURG, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Three decades ago, on Nov. 9, 1989, U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Rafferty was at home in West Berlin when word came over the Armed Forces Network that East Germans would soon be able to travel unimpeded to the West.

The communist government announcement came after months of civil unrest and protests by East Germans seeking more freedom of movement.

Rafferty called one of his fellow noncommissioned officers at Checkpoint Charlie and asked whether anything was different. "No," was the reply, so Rafferty went to bed.

The next morning, at 6 o'clock, he arrived at the famous checkpoint to a scene of pandemonium.

"I had to climb into the window of the checkpoint because I couldn't get into the door," Rafferty said. "It was a mess, and it stayed that way for weeks."

Hundreds, if not thousands, of East Berliners were entering the western part of the city that had been closed to them since the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall. They were coming through the wall at any checkpoint they could, Rafferty recalled.

"West Berliners came to the wall to celebrate. East Germans came across to visit – then they went back," he said.

Rafferty, 53, of Greensburg, said his service as a military police officer at such a momentous time in history – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War – has stayed with him.

"The checkpoint is a major part of my life. I enjoyed every second," he wrote in a recent essay about his experiences. "The final chapters of the Cold War were being written, and I was there to help turn the pages. The whole event was like a dream."

Rafferty's reflections also are included in the new book "Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" (Scribner, $30) by Iain MacGregor.

A retired sergeant first class, Rafferty is an administrative assistant for the U.S. Army Recruiting Company at Westmoreland Mall.

Rafferty grew up in Moreno Valley, Calif., and enlisted in the Army after high school in 1984. He went to military police school in Alabama and was sent to West Berlin in January 1988 with the 287th Military Police Company.

Rafferty worked as a patrol officer in the occupied city until his appointment to Checkpoint Charlie in March 1989. As one of four American noncommissioned officers in charge, he was responsible for maintaining access to East Berlin by Western military personnel.

"Because Berlin was still an occupied city at the time, we had certain occupation rights there, one of which was to control access to the city," he explained.

Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous of three gates, or checkpoints, maintained by the U.S. and it allies during the Cold War. The others were Checkpoint Alpha and Checkpoint Bravo.

The site of a standoff between American and Soviet tanks in 1961, Checkpoint Charlie became increasingly important with the construction of the Berlin Wall that same year. President John F. Kennedy visited the checkpoint prior to giving his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in June 1963.

"The checkpoint was our response to the wall system, to maintain access rights and to maintain accountability (of military personnel going to East Berlin)," Rafferty said.

As the crowds grew on Nov. 10, Rafferty and his fellow officers did their best to maintain a modicum of order. More American soldiers than usual were coming through because of the long Veterans Day weekend. And Germans were creating a traffic jam on both sides.

At the end of his shift, Rafferty took the train home. On the train, he sat next to an East German father and daughter who were visiting from Potsdam.

"I asked them if this was their first time in West Berlin. They said, 'Yes.' I pulled my 'Berlin Brigade' pin off my sweater and pinned it to the young girl's scarf. 'Welcome,' I said, looking at the father. He was definitely getting a little emotional," Rafferty said.

The Berlin Wall gradually became more porous as people chipped away at it in the weeks and months that followed. The old Cold War checkpoints increased in number, and people were able to pass through with increasing ease.

"It made us totally irrelevant," Rafferty said, remembering that he even heard the sounds of chisels and hammers in his dreams.

By March 1990, the NCOs at Checkpoint Charlie stopped monitoring people visiting East Berlin. June 22, 1990, was Rafferty's last day at Checkpoint Charlie.

After the ceremony to decommission the checkpoint, a crane moved in to take the building away. Below it were loose cobblestones that the soldiers took as souvenirs.

"We picked up the foundation stones and walked into the East German checkpoint, handing the East German border guards the stones. They were smiling. It was all finally over," he said.

Germany reunified on Oct. 3, 1990.

Rafferty first came to Greensburg as an Army recruiter in the late 1990s. He met his wife here and has lived in the city since 2003. They have two sons – Noah, 14, and Elijah, 13 – to whom he wants to teach the history he lived.

"I just want them to know their dad hasn't always been lazy," he joked.

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© 2019 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)
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Army Sgt. Michael Rafferty, right, with British and French soldiers outside Checkpoint Charlie in June 1990.
TRIB LIVE / AP

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