After 20 years of Bundeswehr missions abroad, Germany has a new generation of young army veterans. Now they're fighting for more rights and facing the difficult relationship with the word "veteran" itself.
The scene looks a little menacing. Almost 100 motorbikes are rattling through the German capital in a huge column. But there are no biker club logos anywhere to be seen. Instead, there's khaki, camouflage, and now and then a large "V" with a golden laurel wreath.
The drivers are European veterans who have adopted the motto "Gone but not forgotten" to commemorate their dead comrades - and to demand more rights. This demonstration, which took place at the start of May in Berlin, was the first public campaign for former Bundeswehr soldiers.
"It's the first time we've ever been really visible, and that was an amazing feeling for a lot of us," said Christian Bernhardt, the 35-year-old deputy chairman of the German Veterans' Association (BDV), which helped organize the motorcycle parade.
Bernhardt was a soldier himself for a long time. He was stationed in Kuwait shortly before the start of the second Iraq War in 2003, where he was meant to protect the population from chemical and biological weapons. "There were no suitable bunkers," he said. "We walked around in protective suits and got shot at by the Iraqi army." On his return, doctors diagnosed Bernhardt with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Bundeswehr has been taking part in foreign missions like this for the past two decades, and as a result Germany once again has a growing number of veterans. Many of them come back healthy, but others sustain injuries to both body and soul.
The BDV campaigns on their behalf. No easy task, because many Germans still react apprehensively whenever words like "soldiers," "war," and "distinction" come up. And there's even a little discomfort when people talk about "veterans."
Stefan Paris, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, confirms this. "It raises very dark elements: the Wehrmacht [Germany's World War II army], the Third Reich, old men and their Kameradschaften [Nazi era organizations]," he said. The ministry also wants to strengthen veterans' rights, but it wants to do it without allowing former Wehrmacht soldiers or SS members to feel they are entitled to anything.
For that reason, Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere has redefined the word "veteran" - it now refers to those who took part in active service for the Bundeswehr and were honorably discharged.
Recognition and rights
"We want these young soldiers to be recognized for their service as Bundeswehr veterans," said Paris. De Maiziere has also proposed establishing a day to pay tribute to veterans, though that idea got a cold reception from MPs in the Bundestag.
Paris added that it was too early to discuss further support, because, he claimed, German veterans are already well-provided for. "Every soldier who has served in the Bundeswehr can claim certain benefits: pensions, help with finding work, and medical help are all well-regulated."
Bernhardt disagrees. "Most soldiers have temporary contracts," he said. "The Bundeswehr's official benefits only affect active soldiers. As a veteran without active status, I can't take advantage of any of it." The BDV wants to change that, and is calling for veterans to have their own legal status, which would help soldiers who still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder decades after a mission has ended.
Little recognition among Germans
Recognition from the German population is also important to the veterans, but there is very little of it. According to a recent study by the Bundeswehr's social sciences institute, Germans have barely even noticed that there is a discussion about their veterans - even though the Bundeswehr's image among people remains generally positive.
Could this indifference have anything to do with the fact that many of Germany's foreign military missions enjoy little support from the population? If the German people could vote directly on the army's Afghanistan mission, for instance, the Bundeswehr would have been withdrawn long ago. That mission's approval rating is currently at a new low: only 38 percent of Germans still support it.
But Bernhardt doesn't think this makes a difference. "We don't send ourselves on missions, the parliament does it, and the parliament is elected by the people," he said. "The parliamentarians won't face up to the issue, because that doesn't win elections. The conflict is being carried out on our backs."
Bernhardt and his comrades would like parliament to throw its weight behind a veterans' day, but they don't need it. "At the end of the day, we can't wait 10 years until maybe the politicians say: 'We're going to have an official veterans' day and will take part in it.' We're can do it ourselves," he said.
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