It may sound corny, but a trip to Aviano Air Base would make any American feel proud. This is the latest weekly column for CBS.com by CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver. An archive of The Braver Line is available. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
It was one of those situations that made me wish I was anything but a television reporter...a bank teller perhaps, something with nice regular hours.
My crew and I arrived in Brussels, Belgium to meet up with Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his entourage as they made their first visit to U.S. forces in the Adriatic, Macedonia, and Kosovo since the end of the war.
The Cohen group was to fly in from Helsinki, where the secretary was negotiating with his Russian counterpart over how Russian troops would be integrated into the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
One big problem however: the negotiations were dragging on and on. I had come all the way across the ocean, bringing a cameraman and a sound woman with me, and if the secretary never got to Brussels there were no commercial flights that could get me anywhere to catch up with him for the rest of this trip.
My stomach started break dancing. I started calling the Pentagon and the Cohen staff in Helsinki. "He's definitely going to Brussels," everyone kept assuring me. "All the defense ministers from the NATO nations are waiting to be briefed."
The day dragged on. I stayed in my hotel room watching every channel that was broadcasting from Helsinki, no matter what language it broadcast in. I felt like a fool, too, the woman in that cartoon who says "Nuclear war! There goes my career!"
Here the secretary was trying to avert a confrontation with Russia that could take us back to the Cold War, and I was worrying about how I would explain to my executive producer that there was no "Sunday Morning Cover Story" for this week, but there were three round trip tickets to Belgium.
Finally, at 8 p.m., the inevitable word came down. "Yes, you were right after all. The secretary is not coming to Brussels." Normally I am thrilled to be right about anything, but not this time.
The good news from the point of view of my Pentagon contacts was that the U.S. and Russia had finally come to an agreement about the deployment of Russian forces. Unfortunately, there were stills "i"s to be dotted and "t"s to be crossed. Everyone would be working late, but victory was at hand.
I was very happy for the secretary. Honest. However it was all I could do to stop myself from screaming out "But What About Me?!" I stifled myself, instead asking meekly, "Is there any way we can connect with you guys?"
Not to worry. Commander Jim Fallin and Admiral Grog Johnson were on the case. Before you could say Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, they hitced us a ride on the SACEUR's plane from Belgium to Aviano Air Base. We were to be carried as excess baggage by General Wesley Clark.
This is a long and admittedly egocentric way of telling you that I was mightily impressed by the straightforward efficiency of the U.S. Military that I saw all along the way. There didn't seem to be much bureaucracy or bull. People knew what needed to be done, and just did it.
On his plane, General Clark was friendly and justifiably proud about what the forces under his command had accomplished. He was also openly worried about the dangers ahead. At Camp Monteith, the brand new outpost of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a new tent city had been erected in a sea of mud. But the Marines were so clean they sparkled in the Balkan sun, and so gung ho their very demeanor sent out "don't mess with us" vibes. They liked the idea that they were trying to make the world safe for democracy. At Camp Able Sentry in Skopje, Macedonia I struck up a conversation with a table full of nurses. Were they nervous? No, just happy to be there.
Secretary Cohen had a few security guys traveling with him, but they didn't shove people out of the way or block the SECDEF, as they call him, from soldiers, sailors or marines who wanted to come up and chat. A lot of them did. Most just talked about the missions they'd been on or where they were from, but a few complained openly about their pay. Cohen told them he was working on it.
Aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, we listened in as Rear Admiral Winston "Mad Dog" Copland, with a wonderful command of military lexicon, briefed the secretary on missions that had been flown from the air craft carrier.
"The weather spanked us good," he said, but went on to brag about how his pilots had "shacked" their targets. "The challenge was that we had never done this before, never done close air support from 24 and 25,000 feet," he explained. But the old F-14 "as it turned out was the most effective close air support fac."
Cohen beamed: "Job well done."
I felt kind of proud myself.
Later the secretary talked with me about his concern that except in times of crisis, most Americans don't appreciate all that our fighting men and women do: "We're in a different time and era now, where the American people don't see a Soviet Union, they don't see a visible threat on the horizon, even though it's a very, very dangerous world. Technology that is spreading so rapidly...the lack of a central control over weapons of mass destruction, proliferation of these weapons, all of that I think is not on the minds of most Americans day in and day out. "
Cohen said he'd made this trip to call attention to "what extraordinary men and women are serving us...how professional, patriotic and committed and dedicated they are and the pressures that they have to operate on."
Indeed, a few days after we returned from osovo, when Serbs opened fire at a check point, it did not surprise me that in a few seconds the Marines, taking no casualties themselves, had completely dominated the situation, killing one of the attackers.
Of course it won't always turn out this well for our side. But if discipline and preparation have anything to do with it, the American armed forces are going to prevail. It may sound like a corny line from a World War II movie, but there is something about that "Can Do Attitude" that makes a grateful civilian like me stand up and salute.