It was July 1995, the month of the massacre at Srebrenica, and I was working as a protocol officer to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). My entire world was all about keeping the General, the Mrs. and their guests happy—it was the most thankless, exhausting job I’ve ever had in my life. I aged about 10 years in the 3 years I served them. However, the education was incredible and the pace was exhilarating.
The cool side of this job was meeting every European leader—the rock stars of the military and political world. I met Kings, Princes, and every military person who was a 4-star or higher from every NATO country (at this time, there were only 16 members of NATO). The headquarters’ official camera man and I would play a game, every time the General had an office call with someone in uniform, he would take a photo of me wearing that persons hat as I walked around the office in it. I wore hats belonging to the King of Norway, King of Belgium, Prince of Spain, Chiefs of Defense and Ministers of Defense of nearly every NATO country…I wonder what they would say if they knew? I wish I had those photos, I wonder if the camera guy kept them? Funny to think about now. Embarrassing to think of how cocky I was at such a young age—I would roll my eyes at my 21 year old self now.
When we weren’t setting up coffee and preparing gifts for the office calls, we (the 3-person Protocol Team) put on countless dinner parties at the Chateau Gendebien (the residence of the SACEUR). The General had 5 house staff (US Army NCOs—led by a Sergeant Major) who would clean and prep the house, set the table, cook and serve the meal. It was our job to place the guests at exactly the correct position (it was a serious offense to seat someone of lower rank closer to the General at the table), we also had to know about food allergies and names of family members. I kept files on all of our guests so we wouldn’t accidentally serve someone with a shellfish allergy shrimp (it happens).
On this particular night, we were hosting several military leaders, including the Dutch Chief of Defense. He was not only a dinner guest but an overnight guest too. The dinner party was uneventful—a good thing in the protocol world but the night was only beginning. After the guests went home, and the Generals had their nightcaps, they were off to their bedrooms when I went to the kitchen to start wrapping things up before I went home. At one point I got in the elevator to go to the basement where the staff kept their personal items and the General was in the elevator in a t-shirt and shorts, holding a cocktail. Talk about awkward moments! He was never uncomfortable since he always assumed he owned the room so why give a shit what anyone else felt. He gently tugged on my ponytail while we were standing in silence and I gave a nervous chuckle—this was how it usually worked. I was happy to walk out of the elevator and pack up my things to leave.
I checked back in with the kitchen staff before leaving when the phone rang. It was an urgent call for the Dutch General, 10 Dutch soldiers were captured Bosnia and I needed to contact the air base and have a plane ready to take him back to The Netherlands immediately. It was like a shot of adrenaline, I had to face the General again tonight (gross) but this was real world shit and I had to move quickly.
I played my part, woke up the pilot, called the drivers and security teams, and made sure everyone was sorted out. When all the work was done, I reached into the refrigerator to get a beer and the General walked into the kitchen (still in shorts and a tshirt) and said, “are you drinking one of my beers?” To which I replied, “yep.”
It was a lifetime later, when I was an intelligence officer (in my 30s) when I would be deployed to Bosnia as a UN Peacekeeper. I read detailed reports about the atrocities committed by Milosevic and his followers, and learned about all of the mass graves and land mines reported by the local farmers. I sat in my closet-sized office on Tuzla Air Base, over 7 years since Srebrenica and the night those Dutch soldiers were captured, and thought about how unimportant my existence looked through the rear view mirror. How stressed out I was over dinner party seating while at the same exact time people on the same continent were being tortured, raped, dehumanized and exterminated. This makes me wonder now what I will think about today—will my stressors of today seem unimportant or insignificant 7 years from now? I really hope so.