Gen. Bernard W. Rogers died on Oct. 27, 2008, after serving our country for over 47 years. He served honorably and valiantly through three wars and rose to become chief of staff of the Army, lead the U.S. European Command, and served as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. By any measure, he was a truly great man.
I’ve become convinced that while great men are remembered by the great things that they have accomplished, they become great through sequential little things they have done.
I was assigned to Army Gen. Omar Bradley as a rostered duty officer for Operation Rainbow. It seems that Bradley was keen on dog “racing” and, in spite of his frail health, traveled to Mexico routinely. The powers that be decided it wouldn’t do to have our final surviving five-star general breathe his last in a foreign country, and Operation Rainbow was all about getting the general back across the border “alive” no matter whether his heart was still beating: “The general is fine, just a bit faint.”
I worked briefly for Gen. (then Lt. Gen.) Colin Powell when he commanded V Corps in Germany. He had the uncanny skill of treating each and every person he met as though he genuinely cared about who they were, where they were from, and how they were doing.
While escorting Surgeon Gen. C. Everett Koop back to his limousine after addressing a packed house at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on the evils of smoking, I had the temerity to mention that my alcoholic, chain-smoking father was getting on in years but seemed in excellent health. As the surgeon general swung into the rear seat, he shook my hand, winked, and replied through the open window as the limo began to roll: “Good genes, my boy. Good genes.”
My time with Gen. Bernard W. Rogers was as fleeting but much more memorable. I’ve been interested in travel and languages since my midteens, when I shipped out in the Merchant Marines for all points Asia. After college, joining the Army, and punching my company grade combat arms tickets, I was assigned Public Information Officer Training at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Casteau, Belgium. The class size was extremely limited (25) and included students from Belgium, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, all the Scandinavian countries, Spain, and the United States of America.
I like to think that I have an aptitude for languages. I can easily absorb large vocabularies and basic grammar skills, although I have never developed anything approaching native fluency in any language other than English.
Imagine my discomfort when, midcourse, a youngish French commandant briskly marched into the classroom, reminded the class that French was one of the two official NATO languages, and proceeded to deliver the entire lecture in French. Within five minutes, he’d lost a full third of the class.
At the end of the lecture, the commandant opened the floor to questions. I thanked him profusely in Swahili for his efforts, expressed my concern that not all the students present understood French, and asked politely (still in Swahili) if he’d be willing to repeat his presentation, this time in “Ingleezy.” He blinked his eyes, squared his shoulders, and stiffly stated that he did not understand the language that I was speaking — but if I was asking him to repeat the lecture in English? The answer was no.
I was gently tweaking his nose for wasting the time of that third of his students who lacked fluency in that “other” official language. After all, the prerequisite language for the course was English, not French.
I wasn’t expecting the major schism that divided half of the class into Anglophobe/Francophile versus Anglophile/Francophobe. A Belgian classmate had served in Africa, thought I was “aces,” and invited me out for “a night of it” at a local bar aptly named “The Congo.” A fellow student from Luxembourg who I’d previously gotten on pretty well with pointedly established a chilly distance. The Danes adopted me as their mascot, followed me to “The Congo,” and paid for the drinks.
A few days later, I was summoned before the provost, who just happened to be a Yank and who seemed to be at more than a bit of a loss as to just how to proceed. For my part, I was more than willing to proffer my apologies for any injured egos. I offered to shake hands with the French commandant and forget about it.
But au contraire.
The French and the Belgians and Luxembourgers wanted me pilloried. Their national honor(s) had been sullied, and a noble language had been compared to a “primitive African trade patter.”
Conversely, the English, Germans, and Scandinavians wanted official apologies from the French instructor and threatened to lodge protests if I was sanctioned in any way. The Italians, Dutch, Spaniards, and Liechtensteiners were in the “bemused observer” camp. The Americans (who, one would have thought, should have been in my court) were notably silent.
Incredibly, the silly little squabble percolated up all the way up to catch the attention of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), four-star Gen. Bernard William Rogers. His multi-national staff, both military and civilian, universally loved him, and when they used his title, they pronounced it reverently as “Sacré-Coeur.”
I was summoned from a rather boozy breakfast (the Danes were a jovial bunch). The Sacré-Coeur was ensconced behind an enormous desk, in a paneled room decorated with flags, photos, and 40 years of military memories spanning four wars. A half dozen attendants, staff members, and dignitaries were fussing about with folders, reports, and signatures. The great man himself looked up and smiled. He asked me about my time in Central and Eastern Africa, congratulated me on my choice of secondary specialties, and asked how I was enjoying Belgium.
Ice broken and pleasantries exchanged, he introduced me to the deputy provost, who, with surprisingly good grace, proceeded (in French) to express his devastation at the previous misunderstanding (quel dommage). The best I could gather was that the instructor in question was a last-minute substitute who “didn’t understand the consequences of his actions” (this last, with a pointed look in my direction).
So, the French deputy provost apologized to me, in the holy shrine of the Sacred Heart, for one of his countrymen having delivered a lecture in French to students whose “Lingua Franca” was English — while rendering the apology in French.
“Asante Kanali,” I thanked the colonel, in Swahili.
“Kwa ajili yangu?” I smiled. “Ni wamesahau.” For me? It has been forgotten.
And — before you could say “Et voilà!” or “Allez-oop!” or even “Ce qui s’est passé?” — the issue went away.
Lucky me. Seriously. I suspect that it could have gone either way.
On the other hand, while I wasn’t expecting to be inducted into the Légion d’honneur any time soon, I did receive an Army Commendation Medal shortly after returning to my home garrison in Germany.
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