We Salute: CPL (P) Brian Birchell

All too many people hear the word “soldier” and immediately picture a Hollywood-inspired image of battle-hardened, dirt-smeared men gripped by the throes of battle, charging into the fray, guns raised, boots pounding. While there’s certainly truth and monumental importance to the combat side of the military, there’s more to our nation’s armed forces than combat. Yes, we need our military to protect our interests overseas, to provide protection from afar in foreign lands, but we also need them right here, in the United States. The men and women who guard our borders from within are more than important to our continued well-being, they’re absolutely vital. Today, we thank CPL (P) Brian Birchell for his stateside service, and extend those thanks to all our service members serving right here in this great nation.

Birchell enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1983. He wanted only to serve; he was a born patriot, a protector by nature, and a badass in the making. He was a Grunt, a member of a rough-and-tumble brotherhood responsible for our interests on the ground, leading the way. He joined as an E3 and set about putting his still-trademark dogged determination to work distinguishing himself for the other new recruits. His rank was thanks to the eighteen months he’d already spent in college; his firm moral code was the result of a code of conduct rarely seen today. Even when Birchell was a brand-new PFC, loyalty and honor were his code, and they remain so today. He’d already gone through a lion’s share of hard times at the mercy of those lacking in both, and so he chose an alternate route. He became a protector, a man who builds up others, rather than tearing them down.

Samantha Smith (middle)
Samantha Smith (middle)

Three decades ago when Birchell discussed his options with his Army recruiter, he already knew what he wanted out of his service. He wanted to become a tactically proficient fighter, and that meant combat arms; infantry, to be specific. The Army’s infantry has perhaps the richest history of all branches; it was authorized by our Continental Congress in a resolution passed 14 of June, 1775, and the oldest Regular Infantory was constituted on 3 June, 1784. When Birchell enlisted in 1983, he did so right as the U.S. was purposefully strengthening its infantry as the Cold War détente of the 1970s began ramping up into the elevated tensions of the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was president, the McNugget was brand new at McDonald’s, and in the United States, the Soviet Union was at the top of the threat list. During that time, which historians call the second Cold War, Birchell enlisted as an 11B/11M, an MOS that’s now re-categorized under the B specification.

A year before Birchell enlisted, a young girl called Samantha Smith penned a heartfelt letter and addressed it to none other than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Yuri Andropov. In it she outlined her fear of nuclear war, and after reading it, Andropov made a clearly politically-motivated decision: he invited Smith to visit the Soviet Union. Smith visited in July of 1983, becoming known as America’s Youngest Ambassador and garnering significant media attention. In her letter she said she’d “like to know why you [Soviet Union] want to conquer the world, or at least our country [the U.S.].” Andropov denied such desires vehemently, saying the Soviet Union was focused on “growing wheat” not aggression against the U.S.
“I am my country’s strength in war, Her deterrent in peace. I am the heart of the fight, whenever, wherever.” Infantryman’s Creed

Birchell enlisted a matter of months prior to Smith’s Soviet Union visit, and just months after he finished Basic, the stark realities of the second Cold War were driven home here in the U.S. That reminder took place on September 1, 1983, when Korean Air Flight 007, which was a commercial aircraft flying from New York to Seoul via Alaska, was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor. The jet fighter was armed with Kaliningrad R-8 missiles. The aircraft had suffered autopilot issues, causing the Boeing 747-230B to unwittingly enter Soviet airspace; due to their broken radar system, the Soviets didn’t even realize it had occurred until after the commercial plane returned to international – neutral – waters. Even so, the Soviets took it down. The Soviet pilot would later admit he knew he was firing on a commercial flight. 269 people were on board, including 22 children under the age of 12, as was U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald of Georgia. Interestingly, former president Richard Nixon had been booked for the seat beside McDonald, but he’d changed his mind at the last minute. It was a decision that would save Nixon’s life.

A Kaliningrad R-8 missile similar to the one that struck the plane.
A Kaliningrad R-8 missile similar to the one that struck the plane.

Boeing’s report and records released ten years after the plane was shot down detailed the missiles striking “the back of the plane, destroying three of its four hydraulic systems, severing some cables” as well as punching gaping wounds in the skin of the 747. Although cabin pressure was maintained and all four engines kept working, the plane was fatally wounded. It took 12 minutes for the plane and its passengers to spiral to the ocean below, where people were crushed from the impact or drowned. They suffered horrifying, drawn-out deaths, and outrage swept the United States. Then-President Reagan had already referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” and he called the 269 deaths over neutral water a “massacre” and “a crime against humanity.” Three decades later, President Obama would say, on August 9, 2913, that there’s always been “some tension” in what he called the “U.S.-Russian relationship.” Some tension, indeed.

“There’s no bigger task than protecting the homeland of our country.” President George W. Bush

During this, one of the most strained moments of the second Cold War, PFC Brian Birchell began his service. While at Fort Benning he was tasked as opposing force, acting as the enemy for the purpose of training students in combat situations, and served with Delta Company 2/16 and 4/16 for three years. The men Birchell trained and served with came from a variety of backgrounds, differing in race, culture, and hometown, joined under similar circumstances, and came together first as strangers, then, as brothers. Over a period of three years they formed their own band of brothers with a bond that has withstood the test of time for more than thirty years.

Decades later, a particular favorite memory still brings a smile to Birchell’s face. Birchell took part in REFORGER (Return of FORces to GERmany) training, and while his mechanized unit traveled in their M113-A2 APCs, food was limited. On the day in question they’d made a pre-dawn departure, eating MRE’s for breakfast – their last MRE’s – and set out on a 25-mile convoy with the purpose of setting up a defensive position. They did stop for lunch to resupply, but the supply truck couldn’t find them, so the men continued on their way with the promise of a hot dinner. They finally reached their destination and set up, but instead of dinner, at 2000 hours the team was ordered to do recon on a small village three to four miles from their position. Birchell’s team was ordered to move out immediately, and that plates would be saved for their return. It would be understatement to say they were unhappy to move out yet again, but move out, they did.

In the village they did a thorough recon and drew a detailed map, but the only activity there was at a gasthaus, a German inn with a bar and restaurant. The smells emanating from the gasthaus made them all the more ravenous, and so Birchell made a command decision: they should go inside to verify no opposing forces were using the building for a command post. Inside was a handful of Germans, a few middle-aged men and three older men, and no sooner did the soldiers enter than one of the older men spotted Birchell, exclaiming “Americans!” The soldiers responded politely, moving closer as the German man directed the barmaid, Helga, to bring them steins of beer. They did hesitate a moment, but decided to stay. Once they had their beer the same man asked if they were hungry, which resulted in adamant nods of affirmation from the group of exhausted men. In no time they were eating, drinking, and, of course, exchanging stories with the Germans. The elder Germans were World War II veterans, and the man who had welcomed them had been blinded in one eye during the war. When the food was gone and the soldiers had to leave, the older German veteran had something to say: “During World War II, we were enemies” – and he paused, causing Birchell to question whether they were about to be forced to fight their way out – “but now, we are friends. Bring more beer for my American friends!”

We salute CPL (P) Brian Birchell
We salute CPL (P) Brian Birchell

Birchell and his men shared one last round of beers with the locals before moving back out and reporting in. As they drew near to the perimeter, heading up the road to their APCs, a voice suddenly spoke from behind a nearby bush. It was Birchell’s First Sergeant, and he wanted to know whether the gasthaus food was any good. Without hesitation, Birchell replied, “I don’t know, Top, we didn’t go in.” The reply came just as swiftly: “Get your lying ass up there and report in. Did you at least make a map?” Yes, Birchell assured him, they did make a map, and the Grunts followed the next orders, which were to get out of there.

“Whatever enables us to go to war secures our peace.” Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Monroe, October 24, 1823

It was a high-stress lifestyle, serving in a unit constantly training for combat-readiness. Serving stateside does not reduce a soldier’s value, in fact, without qualified forces here at home we’d be without protection, open to attack from both within and without our borders. Even so, there is a certain understandable degree of frustration, waiting for a deployment that may never come, and stress takes a toll. On several occasions Birchell was put on notice, told to be ready to deploy at any moment, but one in particular stands out. At that time his wife was expecting their first child, and her delivery date was looming when the call came in. His unit ended up staying stateside, but the thought of not having been there when his son was born weighed on him.

Brian Birchell’s service wasn’t just important to this nation, it was vital. The need for combat-ready troops here at home cannot be stressed enough. Men like Birchell are vital to our national security, playing key roles in its protection. His very existence as protector of our security within our own borders made all the difference, and we as a nation should be grateful. In the end, when it came time to re-up, he did not, choosing instead to protect in a different way: as a husband and father. When he separated from the Army he was a corporal on the E-5 promotion list.

To this day, Brian Birchell is a protector. Growing up, he didn’t start the fights, but he also didn’t back down. He felt from an early age the need to protect those unable – or, as is the case in far too many cases, unwilling – to protect themselves. As a civilian, one of his greatest frustrations has been the failure of others to take pride in their tasks. “If you’re going to do something, get it right, and get it done,” he said during a phone interview in July of 2013. It’s a simple concept from a man with strong ethics, one that was ingrained even more deeply during his time in the army. His patriotism runs deep, and his nature is to defend the weak. He is, was, and always will be, an American soldier.

Today we thank CPL (P) Brian Birchell for his service.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth

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