The Loudmouth Project

Then and Now

In this episode, Tom Luoma and Amy Donaldson have a very candid and insightful conversation with Bart Thomassen whose Army career spans the front lines of the cold war, to Afghanistan and to Africa. Comparing how our warriors prepared and fought before the end of the cold war to how our warriors prepare and fight post 9/11 provides a picture into how our armed services have evolved over the past 30 years.

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Thomas Luoma
Hello, I'm Tom Luoma.

Jason Comstock
And I'm Jason Comstock, and welcome to We Happy Few, our podcast that allows veterans and their families to tell their stories,

Thomas Luoma
Stories that will cover a broad spectrum of lived experiences, from time in service to the return home and beyond

Jason Comstock
Experiences shared with the hope that all listeners will better understand this sometimes complicated lives of veterans and their families.

Thomas Luoma
Thank you for listening to We Happy Few.

In this episode, my guest host Amy Donaldson and I have a very candid and insightful discussion with Bart Thomassen, whose army career spans the front lines of the Cold War to Afghanistan to Africa.

Bart Thomassen
My name is Bart Thomassen I come from Kaysville up north. I was born there. Built a house there. Growed my childen's there. Got a wiff, still I'm homestead'in. I joined the military in 1986, right after graduating from Weber State. I have a degree in history and I majored in poli-sci too. So they're not like massively lucrative career options there but uh. Anyway I I joined the army I chose the the tanks. I was in the second Armored Division and I wanted to go to Germany. I studied history all my life and I want to go and see the things I'd read about. Went to basic training Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Then I went to OCS, Fort Benning, Georgia. And after 90 day wonder, I became a Second Lieutenant and shipped off to Germany. I remember one of the transformative things in my life.

I was flying to northern Germany to to Hamburg and so midway I remember we're over the Atlantic and all of a sudden, everything changed into German. And I could not understand anything. And it freaked me out. And we landed in humbug. And there were supposed to be some guys waiting for me. And nobody was there. I had no clue how to communicate with anybody or what to do and I felt totally vulnerable. Because of that incident. It spurred me to learn language. So today I speak French and German. And it's because of that because previous to that experience, I was pretty, English is best. I don't need to learn anything. I'm just, you know, they want to speak to me and learn English, that kind of stupid mentality, right? But it changed my entire worldview. So yeah, it was in Germany. I was in northern Germany. It was during the Cold War for I was there from 86-89 just before I left Germany, just before the Berlin Wall fell. I was in Berlin multiple times during the Soviet occupation. It was a striking thing to see The difference between East and West.

I always choose imagery of black and white, because West Berlin during that time period in the 1980s, in my view was the most vibrant city in the world. It was an amazing city. It was beautiful. It was pumping with energy. And as soon as you went across, into into East Berlin, it was literally like going into a black and white world. Everything was so stark and so bleak. And literally gray that it was shocking. You'd go into a store and they and and they would have, for example, shoes. And so you think, Oh, nice leather shoes, I'll go in, you go in and there was nothing to buy. So they just had them for display, say, Can I buy a display pair and they say, no store after store. And this was in East Germany, which was the richest of all the Soviet bloc nations. Anyway, it was shocking, and it kind of left an imprint on me the perils of communism, if you will.

Right before I left, I was in East Berlin when Reagan signed the SALT II Accords, the intermediate range missile things with Gorbachev and Iceland, that was a shocking thing. I remember listening to that, as I was doing it, this is going to change the world, this is going to change the world. And it did, because right after that, everything started to go for the Soviets. And, you know, Poland went up, and all the sudden we had refugees coming across the border into West Germany, where I lived. And by the time I was leaving, it was 1000 a day, 1000 people were crossing over from Hungary and from Austria, and from East Germany, into West Germany. And they're all these from these communist countries. And it was just a flood thousands and thousands and thousands. And I know I remember thinking it's over communism's done and it was it was shocking. And then when that when the wall came down, it was like, holy cow. I was really happy when that happened. That was an It was an amazing thing and for multiple reasons for the Germans and for for the west for my country because it was the end of the Cold War, we had won. That was a great feeling.

The US military has undergone many changes to how we train and fight throughout the history of our country. comparing how our warriors prepared and fought before the end of the Cold War. To how our warriors prepare and fight post 911 provides a picture into some of the most drastic changes ever to have occurred for our armed forces in order to remain superior in the world as we know it today.

I think it's a massive difference in almost every respect. So when when you and I were in the second Armored Division, regular combat division, which does not exist anymore, it should be noted patents division is no longer existing. It's really sad. Anyway, that's that's another thing. But yeah, regular army Combat Arms is an intense way to live. It's all in encompassing you know, and so when we would roll out we had to be ready with within two hours to fight five millions more soft pack soldiers and we were always loaded over 50 rounds in our tanks and we were ready to go and we were sure we're going to die there was no way we were going to live through that we all knew that so that was not a cheery prospect. However Yeah, we had a purpose it was all good but that that intensity of of living on your tank and you know never showering and and being cold and miserable.

I mean, it takes an impact on you, as opposed to now I'm in the National Guard in intelligence. So it's it's shocking, because when you're in the Combat Arms you are trained to and I was an officer as well, so now I am an NCO so that that's a huge huge difference. All all those things give me a perspective that perhaps is somewhat unique but also just bizarre because What we were training for in the Cold War was to defeat a peer nation, which had the absolute ability to destroy our nation, and everyone associated with it.

And vast amounts of people all over the globe, as opposed to what we're doing now, where we're fighting these these terrorists, and who have no intrinsic threat, or they cannot threaten us, our our way of life, I guess, in our way of life. Yes, they can, but not not the destruction of our country that is not within their capability. They can't do it. So the, the asymmetric versus the force on force way that we fight and the mentality that goes along that and the idea that you're going to lose millions of people as opposed to what did we say in the last 12 years, 5000 Americans have died. That's kind of shocking, right? When you think about things because a lot of people they have this this is a little bit of an ancillary subject.

But I think it's important that people freak out about the death of a soldier and every day I mean last year what do we use 50,000 people to opioid crisis. Holy cow. That's as many as in Vietnam almost right? And yet something because you're wearing the uniform that gives you a type of sacredness to the nation. And, and that's good. It should be. But perspective is important. There's about 330 million of us and we're over there fighting this asymmetric war. It's different. It's very, very different. When I was in while I had volunteered but it was not far removed from the draft. So a little bit but but now everybody in as they volunteers, they raised their arm, they know that they are going to go to a war zone. Now, when I was in the Cold War,

I really I mean, there was the potential but for 50 years we had been in the cold war and we had not directly fought Soviet so I didn't have the the expectation that I was going to Fight as you say, Ivan. But when I came in again after, after 911, I knew and I wanted to go fight to fight for my country. I wanted to. I didn't come in to get the GI Bill. I mean, that would. That's good. But I'd already got my degree. I that was not my purpose. My purpose was to be of service. I mean, when I got out the first time in 89, two years later, my unit was in frigging Kuwait. And I felt guilty that I wasn't there. If I had known I would never have gotten out even though I was burned out at the time, I would not. And so after we got attacked as like, I've got a skill set. I can do it. I can go in and I did.

Thomas Luoma
I think this is a great time to take a break and hear from the businesses that are making this podcast possible. If you support us and what we are doing, please support them.

Amy Donaldson
Hi, I'm Amy Donaldson.

Jasen Lee
And I'm Jason Lee Lewis.

Amy Donaldson
Listen to our free podcast Voices of Reason, unless you enjoy screaming matches.

Jasen Lee
Nope. You're not going to hear that with us. You'll hear folks who may disagree, but seek to understand different views.

Amy Donaldson
That's Voices of Reason on the KSL radio app, or wherever you find interesting podcasts.

Thomas Luoma
in a time where almost everything we encounter as a nation seems to be motivated by knee jerk political decisions. We must ask the question, are we putting our warriors and our society at risk simply to satisfy one body politic or another? Now let's get back to the story.

Bart Thomassen
I was in Afghanistan for a long time, about three and a half years and and we periodically would get attacked, you know, I was on a major base most of the time, but, you know, I still get attacked every once while weird. Everybody has a designated spot to go to where you're supposed to defend. So this alert would go out and everybody would respond and you you know, you pick up your 16, you grab your your flak vest, and your helmet and you go, even if you're just in your underwear doesn't you don't have to be in uniform. You just go your spot. That's cool. I you know, I did that several times. But it's interesting because we would, when I was in the Cold War, we would mount up on our tanks, we would have spontaneous alerts. And, you know, it's like two in the morning and I get a phone call from somebody in there, say, you know, whatever the code order is ice bear, you go.

And in two hours, you're rolling out the gate fully loaded. And you don't know if you're coming back or not, probably not. But at the same time, that's that was the idea. But when we would go to these places like in Africa and Afghanistan, go to our spa. You got there and you're sitting there hunkered in with your troops with your guys. And one of the thing that was so weird is the army has changed in a significant way. And, and in my view, it's a very negative thing. We are we are we have a whole generation from top to bottom from flag grade officers down to the basic trainee who is taught from the very beginning now 20 plus years of this that safety is the most important element of of your commitment.

Everything from the time you're going to basic training is about safety, safety, safety, drink water, where you're protected belt, have you done your, your risk assessment, all the stuff? safety, safety, safety. Yeah. Okay. So in the Cold War, we didn't talk about that we had our mission and we went down our mission. And nobody really talked about those things. We didn't have safety belts. We didn't have risk assessments, per se. It was not a thing that officers had to do. So here I am in Afghanistan, right, the perimeter has been breached. And literally 50% of the guy sitting next to me are wearing their bright orange and fluorescent green safety belt. That's an issue in my opinion, and it's something that was mandated in a war zone that all soldiers had to wear all the time. That's insane. I resisted that I got punished for not wearing my safety belt by my first sergeant. In any case, that's it. That's a contrast. That's a huge contrast and it shows you something and in my view, it's one of the reasons why you can spend 12 years in a country and not when I don't think we've lost but we haven't definitely one.

And then there's, there's something to be said about this idea that we are so afraid to lose the soldier under any circumstances an accident or combat or whatever, that you will sacrifice a larger mission to accomplish this political, I would say, goal because the the people at home are so mortified by the loss of a soldier. And of course, everybody who's raised their hand they they know that that is a potential reality and they're willing to do it. I'm willing to do it. I'm willing to die. I have no problem with that. And I think 90 plus percent of my brothers and sisters still the exact same way that's a contrast for you.

Amy Donaldson
You're not the first person to talk about this, including my father. This idea that once you kind of surrender to this idea that you're not coming back that it's not about your safety, that it's about your duty.

Bart Thomassen
Absolutely.

Amy Donaldson
You're actually safer does that Impact sort of decision making when you're there when you're in the situation and

Bart Thomassen
I think so I remember when I was in Afghanistan there came a point where I just felt that kind of thing but I'm totally down with what your your papa says that is exactly right.

Thomas Luoma
Not every mission to sign to our military lives in the headlines our service to the world is often done without much fanfare yet it has a far reaching diplomatic and humanitarian impact.

Bart Thomassen
So I'm still in the army. I meant still National Guard. I'm still an Intel guy. I still do missions all the time. I'm in Africa, most of the time interpreting Not a lot of people, especially Americans go to Africa. And I think it's eye opening. I think it's brain opening to go there and not just for the traditional reasons that you know, there's poor people and look how miserable they are. You know, there's poor people everywhere. You can go to Los Angeles and you can see the same conditions that you see. I mean, literally like the third world now in some parts of southern California. It's not like that, you know, a lot of people go on these missions, and it's like if you go over there and you give some soccer balls to people, and you come home and you how great Am I.

It's not like that for me when I go to places I talked to people because must place I'm going are Francophone their French speaking and that's my gig. So I talked to them, I talked to them in language. And not only is it improve my language skills, but it lets me understand their culture lets me understand where they are. And and, and they tell me their lives. And it's awesome. It's so cool to speak to people from all different, you know, rich people to poor people and Africa is incredibly stratified, as I'm sure you know, there are hyper rich people in Africa, hyper educated people in Africa that, you know, they're, they're trained in Europe, and then they come back and they live like royalty in their homelands. And then there's the poor, I mean, but all of them have stories to tell. They're there. They're just fascinating. It's so fun and so mind opening. That's the word I want to use.

Amy Donaldson
When you reflect on sort of your career. Do you have regrets about how you opened your mind? Or do you have Are you glad? Like are you grateful for certain paths you took?

Bart Thomassen
If I were to do it again, knowing what I know what I got out of the army, the first time regular army, I made a big mistake. I didn't resign my commission. And that's why I got passed over somehow, when I my name was just on a list. And I thought I was out of the army. And so I had to come back as an NCO, I probably wouldn't do that. Even though in retrospect, being in the Intel world officers are are not used well in intelligence,

not like when I was in the tanks where the takes we are with our guys, we lead our people and we did things that our guys did, and we did them better than our guys did. So we can show them what to do, but in the intel world side that intelligence officers are not trained to be specialists in what they do their managers and so that is terrible. It puts the officers in a really bad place because it's very difficult to manage people effectively to lead people when you don't technically know what they do. I remember for example, I was I taught and intelligence course here in Utah for a while, and we did these mock interrogations cuz that's what I do. So. So we're,

we have these booths, and these guys are, we're watching them, and we're seeing how they're doing the thing. We're taking notes, and we're going to critique them later. And this Colonel comes in. So you've got the book and they sign. I'm Colonel blah, blah, you know, and he comes in, he's an intelligence Colonel. It feels great officer, and he's watching for a few minutes. And he's like, so this is what an interrogation is like, I'm like, Sir, this is nothing what a real interrogation is like, this is just training and it's nothing like a real interrogation that he was a field great office, he had no clue in Intel. Oh my god. It's like if I if I was a battalion commander of my tanks, and I was like watching somebody load around into the breach. So that's why it's like to load. I was like, my God, that's pathetic, is it not? Anyway, so it's it's mixed because I'm glad that I am an NCO because I get to do things i that is real.

Tom Luoma
You had mentioned before. Yeah, if you knew then what you know, you do some things differently for sure. What are some of the things that came out of it that you wouldn't do differently

Bart Thomassen
I'm really glad for the time that I have spent in country like in in Afghanistan. I I have a little bit different thing there as well, because I did 18 months as a trooper and then I went back for two years as a contractor. A lot of people hate contractors and you hear about that in the media, you know mercenary, and I remember seeing that, but almost all contractors are ex soldiers. But everybody I was with were soldiers. I mean, we're all soldiers were in civilian and when I was when I was over there as a trooper. We're all dressed in civilian and beards and all that kind of stuff. So it looked exactly the same and I was doing roughly the same job but just getting paid better. So so anyway that that's one thing I would definitely not change um I would not change the my language stuff I'm passionate about my languages I would not change that I would not change the travel that I've had

I would not change the comradeship that I have developed the you go serve in a war zone with somebody and even if you're not you know fixing bayonets and charging trenches there's something about that experience that is transformative and and and molds you together I mean put you together you see somebody that you that you were in that kind of situation with a year later two years later and you know you hug that guy. anyway you know there's it's always that way you just feel a bond with that person it's and that's that's pretty amazing so I definitely wouldn't change that.

Amy Donaldson
Would you have any reservations about your soon to be grandchild joining the military?

Bart Thomassen
Not at all. In fact, my daughter is a captain in the Air Force right now. She's a nurse she's down in Henderson right now. And I had recommended that she do that and it has been very good for her. And I think she has learned some real leadership skills, some character skills that I think are long term and much more profound. So it's been a good gig for her and I would definitely say yeah, people should come into the military.

Tom Luoma
Join us again for the next episode and We Happy Few if you have comments about the show please contact us by email at tips@loudmouthproject.com or on Twitter @loudmouthjason or @loudmouthtom

Jason Comstock
check out our website at www. loudmouthproject.com and navigate to the We Happy Few page. You can also find and subscribe to free episodes of our podcast on Google podcast, Apple podcasts and other places where you find interesting shows.

Tom Luoma
Be sure to review our show as well. We love to get your feedback and it helps us grow our audience

Jason Comstock
we would like to thank our producer and editor Josh Tilton and our creative director Amy Donaldson, adding the spit and polish to our show, remember

Tom Luoma
That the more we allow ourselves to listen, the more we allow ourselves to learn. I'm Tom Luoma,

Jason Comstock
and I'm Jason Comstock, and until next time, keep listening, keep learning and stay engaged.

Amy Donaldson
We Happy Few is a production of The Loudmouth Project.

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