“There’s a need for peace and peacefulness,” said David Habedank, 31, a chef who was visiting the New Guard House on Unter den Linden on a recent afternoon. Once a monument to the German military, it is now a memorial “to the victims of war and tyranny.”
“It’s okay to honor not a passion, but a kind of work,” Habedank said.
But soldiers who have served in Afghanistan say that there remains a stark divide between how their country treats them and the reception that their American, British and other counterparts get upon returning home.
“If you look at the U.S. guys, you look at the day they return from Afghanistan or Iraq. In Germany, there’s no one who is greeting them at the airport. There’s no comparison,” said Andreas Timmermann-Levanas, head of the Association of German Veterans, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has pushed for a veterans day.
Treatment of veterans in the United States is far from perfect, he said, but the country has a broader awareness of the areas that need improvement.
“You discuss the problem, because you know the problem,” Habedank said. “We still don’t know the whole problem.”
And sometimes, as a result, soldiers fall through the cracks.
“I lost everything: house, car, family,” said Martin Jaeger, 41, who was driving a German military bus in Kabul in 2003 when a suicide bomber in a taxi drove up alongside him and detonated his explosives, killing four soldiers and injuring dozens. Jaeger walked away from the blast, but the devastation had a deep psychological impact. For years, Jaeger battled with the German military to have his post-traumatic stress disorder recognized so that he could receive benefits and treatment. He only recently won his fight.
“There wasn’t any acceptance that I was affected,” he said, even though he was for a time homeless, battled alcoholism and found himself struggling with violent rages and flashbacks, which he attributes to his PTSD.
Just two months ago, he moved into a government-subsidized housing complex of trim red-brick buildings that was built for disabled veterans of World War I. He and a friend are the first veterans of Germany’s modern conflicts to live there; the last World War II veteran died a couple of years ago, he said. For now, the bloody images of the attack are kept at bay, confined to his head and to the hard drive of his PlayStation 3.
Soldiers as victims
But not everyone is comfortable with more recognition for soldiers.
“In German tradition, soldiers aren’t heroes, but rather victims. And sometimes they committed crimes,” said Rainer Arnold, 61, the ranking opposition Social Democrat on Parliament’s defense committee. He has fought against the proposal for a veterans day. Arnold said that the breadth of Germany’s social safety net, with its inexpensive health care, relatively generous unemployment benefits and open access to higher education, means that fewer services are needed specifically for soldiers.
German soldiers volunteer for overseas operations. In theory, those who are seriously injured while deployed are eligible for long-term compensation, although advocates say that it can be difficult to qualify with psychological trauma alone.
Though Germany’s history makes dealing with veterans issues here more difficult than for many of its neighbors, other countries may confront similar challenges in the coming years, analysts say.
“Every country will have an issue, with a far larger number of returning veterans than they have in the past. This was the biggest NATO mission ever,” said Tomas Valasek, a defense analyst at the Center for European Reform in London. And, because of improvements in battlefield medicine, he said, many more soldiers are surviving injuries that not long ago would have been lethal — compounding the challenges when they come home. Countries “are dealing with it badly,” Valasek said, making deep cuts in spending at the same time health-care costs are rising.
Some German veterans say they aren’t asking for ticker-tape parades, just a little recognition.
Christian Bernhardt, 35, served in Kuwait in 2003 at the time of the Iraq invasion and says he has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience. A special day, he said, “would be a chance to say thank you to veterans. Have a bratwurst, a little party in the park. It doesn’t even cost much.”
Special correspondent Petra Krischok contributed to this report.