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Cold War vets get the cold shoulder

by Trinity Gruenberg

    “Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but poorer still is the nation that having heroes, fails to remember and honor them.” —Cicero

    The Cold War is considered one of the most important historical events in world history. It spawned many things from infrastructure to spy novels, such as James Bond, the space race and more. 

    The era of conflict from post WWII (1945-1991), which some argue started before then, and even continues today, was essentially a standoff and arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that was defended by troops in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization  (NATO) Alliance. There is an estimated 35 million Cold War era veterans, of which roughly 22 million are still with us. Some of these veterans feel they have not received the recognition they deserve.

    NATO was created in 1949 when the Soviet Union created nuclear weapons. Countries included in the alliance were Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the United States. An attack on one of these allies was an attack on them all.

    The Soviet Union and its affiliated Communist nations in Eastern Europe founded a rival alliance, the Warsaw Pact in 1955 that consisted of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary, Poland and Romania.

     The alignment of nearly every European nation into one of the two opposing camps formalized the political division of the European continent that had taken place since World War II. This provided the framework for the military standoff that constituted the Cold War.

    The term Cold War came from Bernard Baruch, an adviser to presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Harry S. Truman. He coined the term to describe the “chilly” relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a state of conflict between the nations that did not involve direct military action, but was pursued through economic and political actions, propaganda, espionage and proxy wars. Despite the term Cold War, there were still soldiers on the front lines, waiting to defend from the country Soviet threats. 

    One of those soldiers was Jerry Zimmerman of Bertha.

    Zimmerman was raised in Bertha after his family moved to the area in 1966 when he was nine years old. He graduated from the Bertha-Hewitt School in May of 1975. That same month he took a two year enlistment option with the Army. He served in the National Guard out of Wadena then went active duty. After he returned from his two years of active duty, he rejoined the National Guard for another 10 years, serving three years out of Wadena and the rest in Idaho.

    He joined the Army for two reasons. He wanted to see Germany and to use the GI Bill for school. He was guaranteed a tour in Germany and was able to pick what branch he wanted to be a part of.

    “I chose artillery because I could play with the cannons,” chuckled Zimmerman.

    That June he attended basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and took his advance training for cannon crewman in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. 

    A month after his training was completed, he was sent to Germany where he was given nuclear self propelled cannons and a NATO Alliance assignment.

    He worked with the First German Corps a base in northern Germany. 

    He was assigned to the German Seventh Panzer Division, 81st United States Army Field Artillery Detachment, part of the 570th field artillery group, under  the 59th Ordinance Brigade that provided the nuclear weapons throughout Europe.    

    He was stationed in the town of Duelmen and the atomic storage facility was by Visbek.

    “America had developed nuclear weapons and we had to keep the ownership and the control over the weapons. Even though the nuclear weapons were assigned to NATO countries, we had to keep our fingers on them. We were the fingers. We had the control, maintenance and security of the nuclear weapons for the German unit,” explained Zimmerman. 

    He was considered a Custodial Agent and for 19 months he and his unit guarded two types of artillery cannons containing nuclear rounds and Honest John nuclear rockets. 

    One of these rockets is on display in Underwood. These rockets were removed from Germany in the 70s to make way for new ones coming in. Underwood’s arrived in 1979.

    “I was amazed to see that. It is the real nuts and bolts of the Cold War,” said Zimmerman.

    He calls the Cold War “the active nuclear and conventional defense of western Europe.”

    “We were sent to Germany to defend against the Soviet threat,” he said.

    NATO relied on the nuclear triad for defense and deterrence of a nuclear strike that consisted of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs),  strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).  There were possibly 7000 nuclear weapons on the ground in Europe. NATO felt they needed these additional arms, beyond the triad so they would have the capabilities to stop the Soviets if need be.

    One of their more immediate threats came from the Baader-Meinhof Gang, later known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). It was a West German far-left militant group. The West German government considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization. 

    The RAF engaged in a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. 

    “We were afraid of attacks, that they would hit thebase,” he said.

    Zimmerman and his family returned to Minnesota from Idaho as the Cold War ended in 1989 and the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union fell in 1991 effectively ending the Cold War. None of those weapons exist today. They were all dismantled. 

Veterans Organizations

    There are many groups for Cold War veterans, atomic veterans and those who served in Europe. Two of the largest veterans groups, the VFW and the American Legion don’t accept Cold War veterans into their ranks. The biggest reason being they were never issued service medals that would quilify their time of service.

    “The Department of Defense sent a letter saying the Cold War was a time of conflict, not a war time period. Therefore, they believed the period was covered in terms of honoring the veterans that served during that time period and would not pay for the medal,” explained Zimmerman.

    Congress has to make that time of service official so the veterans can be awarded a service or expeditionary medal. Almost every year for the past 20 years some type of legislation has been introduced for this purpose.

    “The Cold War vets are an international issue. The British vets have the same problem. Part of the problem is NATO never issued any recognition for its veterans. It blows my mind that they could do this defense of Germany for 50 years and never recognize the very guys that are part of the alliance,” said Zimmerman.

    If they would have issued a service medal, things would be different. 

    “That would have gone a long ways to solving the problem I have, and other Cold War vets have,” said Zimmerman.

    The date to qualify as a Vietnam era veteran was May 7, 1975. He signed his contract on May 12, missing the cutoff. 

    “I missed being a Vietnam era veteran by days. Maybe you had to be on active duty at that time. If so, I missed it by a month,” he explained. “I don’t qualify because I didn’t serve during the right time periods.” 

    “The Veterans Service Organizations are chartered by congress and have set membership requirements. For example, only recipients of the Purple Heart can belong to the MOPH. The VFW is for vets who earned campaign/service medals. Congress has never authorized a Cold War Service Medal.  Likely, the VFW would add them if that medal was authorized.  As far as the Legion, the Legion is a wartime vets organization. The ‘Cold War’ period is recognized as from 1947 to 1991.  There are several congressionally recognized war periods during that time.  Any ‘Cold War’ vets that served during one of those war periods, even though they didn’t go, would be eligible for the Legion,” said Anna Lewicki Long, Communications Director with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

    “Almost every year for the past 20 years the VFW National Convention passes a referendum asking congress to change our eligibility requirements and allow the Cold War veterans to join our ranks. This has been continually turned down at the congressional level. I do not have any idea as to the rationale behind their discussion. In order for a Cold War Veteran to be able to belong to the Veterans of Foreign Wars they would need to have served in West Berlin between May 9, 1945 and October 2, 1990 for a minimum of 30 consecutive or 60 not consecutive days.

    “Personally, I think all Cold War veterans should be eligible for the VFW. I know many men and women that sat on the Germany and Czechoslovakia border with live rounds waiting for the Czechs or the Russians to come across the imaginary line. They have similar stories and similar disabilities of combat veterans. Not all VFW members have seen actual combat where one has the decision to make of pulling the trigger and taking a human life. However, the fear and the stress of that decision present among all VFW members and those of the Cold War is the same,” said Tate Doom, Adjutant/Quartermaster of the Department of Minnesota, VFW.

    “Veteran’s service organizations such as the VFW, the American Legion, the disabled veterans of America, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the military order of the Purple Heart, Jewish War veterans, the Marine Corps League all have their specific eligibility guidelines,” said Randy Tesdahl, Department Adjutant, American Legion, Department of Minnesota

    Zimmerman enrolled in VA benefits in 2003. In 2005 the VA created categories because there was an influx of veterans and the system was being drained. They were categorized by age, service and severity. 

    “When you say veteran, people don’t know how to define that,” said Zimmerman.

    “I was disappointed and discouraged that the VA doesn’t direct any type of their mental health counseling specifically to Cold War veterans, or toward people that served in Germany or Europe,” said Zimmerman. “They told me every veteran has the same issues, but not every veteran is the same. How can they (the VA) say that?”

    There are eight categories a veteran can fall under after completing service.

    If they make too much money, or get health care through work, they probably won’t qualify for VA health care. If they are injured during service, they will be covered. The benefits are based on need and the neediest veterans are helped first. If you served two years and don’t have any health issues, you probably won’t qualify for benefits.

    “All past service members are considered veterans regardless of time and location of service. So long as you once put on the nation’s uniform you are a veteran. Eligibility to VA benefits are available to all veterans so long as they have a better than less than honorable discharge and have served a minimum of 181 days active duty. This includes the VA hospitals, GI Bill and the home loan guarantee among others,” said Doom.

    “The American Legion will assist any veteran with an honorable discharge to access they’re earned benefits. Honorably discharged veterans of the Cold War era rate VA benefits at both the state and federal levels. Just as any other veteran from any other era,” said Tesdahl.

    “Lastly, all of the veterans service organizations such as the American Legion, the VFW, the DAV, the AmVets the Vietnam Vets of America Marine Corps League, all lobby congress and our state legislature throughout the year. Not only to increase, solidify and strengthen existing veterans benefits, but to assure that all veterans regardless of era receive opportunities and guidance in accessing their benefits,” added Tesdahl.

    The federal government had never made the Cold War era official as a time period of qualifying service. 

    Chris Iacaruso, legislative assistant to Congressman Collin Peterson, shared that the congressman has sponsored some legislation in favor of the Cold War vets. He explained that there has been some push from Cold War veterans for recognition, but not enough. The vets will have to push congress harder to have the American Legion and VFW charters changed, or to get their service medal. 

    Peterson’s office is more than willing to assist any veterans in obtaining their benefits. There is a misconception among veterans whether they qualify or not. All they have to do is ask.

    Zimmerman, now retired, plans to write a book because there is not a lot of books about the Cold War era. He wishes discuss the framework of what the Cold War was and why NATO should acknowledge the veterans. 

    “How do you define war? How do you define a veteran?” questioned Zimmerman.

    After all his years of service, he is not eligible to  join the local VFW or American Legion groups. 

    “There’s no reason the government shouldn’t acknowledge Cold War veterans,” concluded Zimmerman.

    “The cold war was the longest war in United States history. Because of the nuclear capabilities of our enemy it was the most dangerous conflict our country ever faced. Those that won this war did so in obscurity. Those that gave their lives in the Cold War have never been properly honored.”

­—Senator Harry Reid

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