GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - There were shy smiles, nervous laughs and cautious handshakes as the Soldiers from U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program joined German college students from the Berufliche Oberschule in Hof on a tour to bridge the language and cultural gap and learn about the town of Moedlareuth, July 23.
Berufliche Oberschule (BOS) roughly translates to vocational junior college and this one, located in Hof an der Saale has about 700 students. Students who attend the school come from as far as 50 kilometers away.
"We take classes in physics, English, chemistry, history and math at BOS then we finish at the University," said Simon Wolf, a BOS student and Hof resident.
The trip was the birth child of BOS English teacher and former U.S. Soldier Robert Thern, who after his Army tour ended, chose to stay in Germany with his German wife and children.
"I wanted to find a situation where my students could meet normal Americans," he said.
Thern was assigned to the 511th Military Intelligence Battalion in Ludwigsburg, Germany, and attached to the 502nd Military Intelligence Company of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 1989 in Hof. The 2nd ACR was responsible for patrolling the wall in the area of Moedlareuth during Thern's military tour.
Moedlareuth is often called Little Berlin by Americans because it has one major thing in common with Berlin. It was also divided in two during the Cold War. The northern part of town was in East Germany and the southern part in West Germany.
The group toured the museum and watched a video about the region and its struggles, which included actual video clips of East German Soldiers patrolling the wall and of tractors tearing down the wall at the end of the Cold War. A small section of the wall remains for historical purposes. It is the open-air segment of the museum and still has guard towers, fences and bunkers. An eerie reminder of the days when talking to a friend or family member across the wall just 20-feet away could get a person killed.
Thern shared many personal anecdotes and explained how he was even mistaken as an East German after the wall came down.
"It also seemed ironic," said Thern, "that I, a former U.S. Army border liaison officer should be mistaken by people from both sides of the former Iron Curtain as 'one of those from over there.'"
Despite the reunification of Germany, the town is still split, only now it is between the German states of Bavaria and Thuringia. The Thuringian part of the village belongs to Gefell while the Bavarian part belongs to Toepen.
"Actually seeing the wall and walking around it helped me understand how life could have been for those living in that area," said Spc. Ebony C. Swinson, PAD OPS, Bavaria Medical Department Activity.
"It really makes you appreciate the freedoms that we have now," Swinson said. "I could not imagine being in the same place, but separated from my family by a wall, and having no say in the matter or the ability to interact with them."
The group went to a traditional biergarten after the tour to eat and spend more time getting to know one another.
"The bus (to Grafenwoehr) did not leave until 2100," said Thern. "They were just having too much fun. I have never seen my students speak so much English. They were totally enthusiastic about the experience."