By Paul Wood
URBANA — During the Cold War, Sgt. Mark Friedman spent much of his time in Germany, delivering secret documents.
The courier had a briefcase chained to his wrist, and says, contrary to the usual orders, if anybody tried to take the briefcase — “I was supposed to shoot first.”
The Champaign native, 52, went on active duty in January 1982, serving four years, then spent another four years in the Army Reserve.
He was a combat engineer in West Germany, assigned to be a driver and documents courier.
“We went up toward the NATO/Warsaw Pact border often,” he recalled. He still has maps in German that show Soviet territories, like the former Yugoslavia.
“It was supervised spying. The Soviets knew we were doing it, and we knew they were,” Friedman said.
U.S. explosives were carefully hidden under manholes in some places in Germany, and one of his unit’s duties was to check on them.
“If World War III was going to start, we knew what we should blow up,” he said.
At one point, he stayed in barracks in Nuremberg, West Germany, home of the tribunals for Nazi war criminals. Later, he lived off the base.
“When I was a driver, I always made sure to take the visitor past the war crimes tribunal,” he said.
At one point, Friedman was training in a tank unit, but found confinement was not for him.
“I was not a good candidate,” he said.
Instead, he became a driver in an M113A2 Armored Personnel Carrier, with the rear hatch in the open position.
In Germany, he felt an odd nostalgia.
“In the springtime, the German farmers always used manure slurry as fertilizer,” Friedman said.
“I would climb out and sit on the top of the moving vehicle, drawing the aroma in with heavy breaths. My friends thought I had lost my mind and asked why. And then I had to explain Champaign-Urbana and going down Kirby Avenue when the winds are blowing from the south across the farms. The smell always reminded me of home.”
Before his European service, Friedman was a member of the 101st Airborne, when the U.S. invaded Grenada in 1983.
He received rappel training, which Friedman described as very intense. His unit never was sent to Grenada.
Friedman’s reserve duty included teaching at an Army Reserve School based in Peoria, serving all over the state.
With his Reserve service ending 17 days before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Army declared a stop-loss, where personnel with critical skills are involuntarily extended to meet military needs.
“We’re not letting anybody go right now,” Friedman said he heard from officers.
Friedman had several critical skills, including being a combat engineer instructor and a military courier.
He received his official discharge in November 1990 and was able to finish his senior year.
Through much of this time, he had been working on his education at Eastern Illinois University. He went on to do graduate work in technical directing in theater, and earned a master’s degree in English.
Friedman has been very active in veterans organizations.
He has been commander of American Legion Post 24 in Champaign four times, and Champaign County commander twice.
He was also a state vice commander for the Sons of the American Legion.
Friedman lives in Urbana with wife Dawn and four children.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.