Here is a personal military history of being stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Greece from 1985 to 1989 by Bonnie Bartel Latino, co-author of the compelling military love story YOUR GIFT TO ME and a former columnist for Stars and Stripes/Europe. Click here to visit her Amazon Author Page.
When my husband Tom was vice commander (and later commander) of a U.S. Air Force Communications Group in Greece, among his units were mountaintop sites scattered all over that country.
One site was on the gorgeous island of Lefkada, which recently in 2015 had killer earthquakes that basically went unnoticed in the U.S. because of the ISIS’ terror attacks in Paris. I particularly liked visiting this site because it overlooked the Onassis compound and helipad.
Two American Embassy attachés, who were also U.S. military pilots, used to fly Tom on many of his visits. Before Christmas he visited all the sites, and I was allowed to go.
I’ll never forget my first flight in a C-12 (seating for 10-12). I looked out the window and saw the Acropolis!
I thought I was hot stuff. In reality, I was the Communications Group’s Cookie Lady delivering Christmas treats to the personnel serving their tours of duty at remote locations.
For about a week before those December flights, all the female spouses at Communications Group headquarters at Hellenikon Air Base near Athens baked cookies. LOTS of cookies.
We’d box them up and off Cookie Lady and her Lt. Colonel would go in the embassy plane. The mountaintop sites were “unaccompanied” tours. The guys at those sites seemed to appreciate receiving this little touch of home, especially during the holidays.
During this time (late 1985-1989), Greece was a personal challenge for me. I never like to speak for others, but I believe living in Greece at that time was often a challenge for most military spouses.
Terrorism was rampant. Before Tom was named commander of the 2140th Communications Group, he served as the group’s vice commander.
There was no base housing at Hellenikon. Personnel lived in Greek neighborhoods rather than “compounds” as in certain third-world countries.
I was nearly kidnapped by two Mediterranean men who tried to force me into their vehicle while I was unloading groceries from my car (parked on the street in front of our apartment building).
After I escaped from the men, I ran inside up three flights of stairs and called Tom and the base Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to report what had happened.
OSI said I’d done everything right. I had been able to provide a brief description of the men and their car. They were set up to look like a taxi — with one man in the driver’s seat and another man sitting behind him. In retrospect, I realized their car had no taxi markings. I even remembered part of the license number.
Much to my shock, Tom said he was really busy at work and would be home as soon as he could. That ended up being at 11 p.m.! I was not a happy wife.
I was absolutely terrified the would-be kidnappers would come back. In Tom’s defense, that was the only time in 30 years of Air Force life that I felt he put the Air Force before me.
I would soon find out that Tom had a valid reason not to leave work that day!
The very next day the U.S. bombed Libya, and I realized the Communications Group at Hellenikon was making sure the pilots of those missions had excellent communications capabilities.
Then, I understood why Tom hadn’t run home to me the day before.
At that time we lived in a charming, third-floor penthouse apartment with a broad terrace looking out to the Aegean Sea. I loved watching the white cruise ships in the turquoise waters coming and going to Piraeus, Greece’s major deep water harbor.
Later, when Tom unexpectedly was made commander of the group, we were moved to a “command sponsored” villa with marble every where, including the kitchen sinks and floors. For a klutz like me, a dropped plate or glass meant a broken dish!
The outside grounds were lovely. There was even a pergola with climbing lilac. The Air Force subsidized the cost of commanders’ villas or apartments, which for safety purposes were in better neighborhoods than most of us could probably have afforded.
Our villa had a terrorist-proof bathroom with a steel door and a red hotline (landline telephone) that went directly to the base. The idea being if a terrorist or kidnapper got in your home, you were to lock yourself in the master bedroom bathroom and immediately call the base for help.
All eight or so of Hellenikon’s commanders had command sponsored villas or apartments. These were mostly scattered around Athens’ seaside suburbs.
The wife of each commander had a security code name (nicknames known only to us and those who worked security in the command post). If one of us were kidnapped, rather than saying over the security police/OSI airwaves (which might be comprised) that Mrs.Latino or Mrs. Teele or Mrs. Foley had been kidnapped, they were to use code names for the commanders (who had their own unimaginative code names) and their wives who were in jeopardy.
I could NEVER remember my code name. One day I called the command post and asked if I could change mine. They informed me that code names were assigned based on personality. That made the fake names easier to remember in a crisis situation. Mine was Ripcord!
No matter how hard I begged to change my code name to Zipper or Buttons, or something I could remember, they always said no.
Later, at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where Tom commanded that Communications Group, some of the people who worked for him called me Jaws. At least I could have remembered that in Greece.
But I have digressed from our time in Greece. As at most U.S. military bases, “key and essential” commanders are also provided a staff car. These are normally identical vehicles and are dark navy or black, at least in the USAF at that time they were.
For security reasons, the commanders’ cars in Greece were all brightly colored older vehicles. Tom never got into his — which was bright turquoise — without checking underneath for bombs. I did that in our personal car for the first few weeks. Ultimately, I decided everybody has to die of something — and off Ripcord did go!
Terrorism was real:
The American school buses had guards with Uzi machine guns. I was told there were some children in therapy for nightmares.
Uzi-toting guards also stood watch near the swimming pool at the gorgeous military hotel, which was also not located on the base. Located miles from the base and across the street from the Aegean Sea, the Appalon Palace had been a five-star Greek hotel before the U.S. military bought it primarily to house incoming personnel while they searched for suitable off-base housing as well as out-going personnel whose household goods were shipped to their next assignment a month or so before their tour of duty in Greece was complete.
(That way, when they got to their next assignment, all their worldly goods would be waiting for them in Korea or Biloxi or Alaska.)
Some of the Air Force communications personnel lived near the base but were bused up to mountaintop sites around Athens. One or more of those buses was bombed and people seriously hurt.
Occasionally Tom had to go into Athens for official meetings. Dressed in a civilian suit, he never failed to wear a bulletproof vest beneath his shirt.
Islamic Jihadist and Hezbollah were very active in the Mediterranean at that time, including international aircraft hijackings and murders.
However, the greatest threat to American military personnel and their families in Greece was the indigenous terror group 17 November.
With an anti-American and anti-capitalist agenda, 17 November had a primary motive of the removal of all U.S. military bases in Greece.
On June 28, 1988, this same guerrilla tourist group murdered U.S. Naval defense attaché Captain William Nordeen. His car was destroyed by a car bomb only a few yards from his residence.
Being an American commander’s wife in Greece took on a whole new meaning for what would be our last year in Greece. And we had our own very close call:
When Tom’s father died in Mississippi in late December of 1988, Tom asked the base transportation office to book our tickets on a Pan Am flight. For some time military personnel had avoided traveling TWA because of that airline’s past hijacking vulnerability.
One of Tom’s Greek civil service workers came to Tom, asked about our travel arrangements, and suggested he have our tickets switched to TWA rather than Pan Am’s Frankfurt-London-JFK flight, saying TWA had become THE safest airline because TWA had greatly improved its security. Tom took his advice.
That is the only reason we were not on board Pan Am 103 when it blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988.
For me, many days living in Greece was like waking up with a mouthful of glass, but we had some interesting times!
We went to Austria or Switzerland for Christmas. When military traveling as civilians anywhere in Greece or Europe, most military personnel were advised to create a “cover story.” We were always warned to be careful who we talked to and what we said. Ah, the intrigue!
But the intrigue was very real, even in Athens. Two very attractive young male tourists asked me to take their picture in front of the Greek parliament building guarded by Greek soldiers. This small-town Alabama native was happy to oblige. But my radar went up as I handed the camera back to one of them and the other one grabbed me — for a photo op with him.
I later found out they were Russian. Maybe it was nothing, but this was still the Cold War, and I had already been a kidnap target. Ripcord had to report her encounter with Russians to the OSI.
I’m glad I had the experience of living in Greece. We are still close friends with Greeks and Greek-Americans we met during that time, but it wasn’t always easy.
And other times it was fabulous! When there were bombings in the Mediterranean or Europe, civilians in America and Canada often canceled reservations for trips and cruises in that part of the world. Thus the base travel agent in Greece often had last minute offers of inexpensive Mediterranean cruises.
My best “deal” due to terrorism cancellations was a four-day cruise to the Greek islands of Mykonos and Delos and to Istanbul, Turkey, for $300!
Maybe the security police at the Hellenikon command post understood my personality better than I thought.
In those days, maybe “Ripcord” did fit my personality.
Click here to read the compelling military novel YOUR GIFT TO ME co-authored by Bonnie Bartel Latino and Bob Vale — free via Kindle Unlimited and — as of November 23, 2015 — 247 Amazon reviews and an overall 4.8 rating out of 5.0.
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