Let's go, said the U. S. air attaché to Bulgaria, my superior currently riding in the passenger seat on this mission. We both knew that this road on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria, usually had a sign prohibiting our entry. On this January day in 1988 it was gone. Now, I admit that the line made by a snowplow during the previous night's heavy snow seemed to have strayed past the edge of the pavement and gone over the place where the sign once stood; but we were at war, albeit a Cold War, but war nonetheless.
Warsaw Pact Bulgaria in the late 1980s was an interesting place. Assigned as an assistant army attaché, I arrived as a young twenty-seven year old sergeant in the U. S. Army in 1986. I earned the rank of staff sergeant shortly after my arrival in Sofia. My training in Washington, DC, lasted over fifteen months. This training included Bulgarian language at the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute and operational training at the Defense Intelligence College, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). All during the training, we were told that persona nongrata (PNG) status was something to avoid.
According to the Geneva Convention and other diplomatic protocols, the worst thing a country to can do to one of its hosted diplomats, if a diplomat does something the host country does not like, is to declare him or her persona nongrata and kick the individual out of the country. During the Cold War, this usually resulted in retaliatory PNG's of the other country's diplomats of equal standing, which then often resulted in more retaliatory PNG's. This expulsion activity continued until one country called uncle, and decided it had more to lose than gain with the ever-expanding PNG cycle. It cost a considerable amount to train diplomatic personnel. Even I, relatively low on the diplomatic list (if I was not last I had a good view of last place), with my six months of language training and nine months of operational training would have been a costly PNG. My mission superior, the U. S. air attaché to Bulgaria, if PNG'ed, would have been even more costly.
Our job, however, was to constantly push the envelope and to put pressure on the other side as we overtly gathered intelligence. Every war has casualties and in the Cold War accomplishing your mission sometimes resulted in a PNGa casualty of resources. Today, the sign was gone. It was like a free pass. We had plausible denial. Let's go! We proceeded down a road we had never traveled before. We knew what was at the end of the road, a Bulgarian army command and control facility built inside of a mountain many years before as a refuge for the Bulgarian leadership in the event of a nuclear exchange should the Cold War become hot. While the late 1980s threat of nuclear exchange was much, much lower than in it was ten or twenty years before, this facility still remained as a very sensitive site and was the reason the Bulgarians maintained the round white sign with a red border, signifying prohibited entry, on the road at least a mile from the site entrance.
Thanks to providence, or an incompetent snowplow driver, we proceeded up the snowy, signless, road with our four-wheel drive OD green Nissan patrol vehicle. We went up the road approximately half a mile when we spotted the guarded gate. Unfortunately, they spotted us at the same time. Unfortunately, while we drove a patrol vehicle that was very similar to a Bulgarian army utility vehicle, we had a red license plate on the front and rear that by its number, DT-02xx, identified us as U. S. diplomats. A young Bulgarian army captain ran down the snowy road from the gate as we tried to turn around and leave. Given the snowy conditions, we were unable to maneuver our departure as the (incompetent) snowplow driver had only removed about one lane of snow, making a three-point turn very difficult.
The young captain reached our vehicle and while holding one hand on his holstered sidearm, asked for identifications. We had been well trained on this procedure in exercises conducted jointly with U. S. counter intelligence personnel assigned against Warsaw Pact diplomats in Washington. We lowered our window a half inch and passed our lichna kartas (personal identifications) to the young captain. He posted two very young, very armed, and very shaky soldiers to guard our vehicle. He returned to the guard shack and got on the phone. For the next four hours, a flurry of activity went on around our vehicle and at the guard shack. We were asked by civilian-clothed persons (in English and Bulgarian) why we were there (open road), why we drove up a restricted road (we did not see a restricted sign), and did we miss home because we would be there soon (implying being PNGed). After the four-hour ordeal, the Bulgarian security personnel released us and escorted us back down the mountain where we passed a newly installed restricted-zone sign at the end of the road.
Bulgarian Naval Captain Peter Stranchevsky, foreign liaison officer in charge of all military attachés assigned to Sofia, summoned our defense attaché, Colonel John Handley, to his office the next day. We knew we were on solid ground as the sign was not there and the Bulgarians had recently removed several areas of the country from the permanent restricted zone. How were we supposed to know that this area was not one of the newly opened areas? Additionally, we did not believe the Bulgarians wanted to start a PNG exchange over this incident. We were correct. Nevertheless, a very upset Captain Stranchevsky wanted to impress his displeasure upon our defense attaché. Upon his return from Captain Stranchevsky's office, Colonel Handley told us he knew the captain was angry because he did not once offer the customary shot of rakia (local Bulgarian brandy).
In March of 1997, I received notice that I would return to Bulgaria when my current assignment ended as a recruiter on Long Island, New York. My family and I departed for Sofia in February of 1999. Our first stop was Stuttgart, where I received briefings that lasted for three days on the mission of my office, the Office of Defense Cooperation, housed in the U. S. embassy in Sofia. It was impressed upon me that I was not working for DIA this time I worked for the European Command (EUCOM). Our mission was to administer a robust contact program that would assist the Bulgarian military modernize so that it could jointly operate with U. S. and NATO forces and become a stabilizing influence in the volatile Balkans. The ultimate future goal for Bulgaria was to join NATO and gain admittance to the EU. *
Upon arrival, I became familiar with several of the ongoing projects we had with the Bulgarians. One project was of keen interest to me. We were upgrading the Bulgarians command and control facility with an air sovereignty operations center. Yes, this was the same command and control facility where the Bulgarians had detained me for being too close to some ten years earlier. Although knee deep in the paperwork, I received several high level tours of the facility. It was surreal to drive up that road and arrive at the old gate, eat and drink with the leadership at the facility, walk through the 1960s style facility and equipped passageways, and then find oneself at one of the most modern and protected facilities in Bulgaria a facility my government helped build, yet one remembered under substantially different circumstances.
Several weeks after my first tour of the facility, I attended an official social function at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Sofia. I was standing there in uniform when a familiar face approached from the crowd. He walked over to me. Although indoors without headgear, I snapped to attention and smartly saluted the flag officer who stood in front of me. A big smile appeared on the face of Admiral Stranchevsky, now military advisor to the Bulgarian president. We toasted and spent the next thirty minutes catching up over several shots of rakia. I asked if he remembered that day in 1988 when I had gotten too close to the facility in the mountain. He had. But today we are friends and doing important work, he replied, holding up his glass signaling another drink for the two of us. After downing the clear liquor, he looked out over the young crowd of diplomats and Bulgarian government officials who were certainly unaware of our shared history, and with a sigh he added, What a difference a decade makes.
and that has made all the difference - with apologies to Mr. Frost.
2 During the time of the Cold War, Bulgaria gained considerable respect for NATO, not just as a rival of the Warsaw Pact. It was much more than that. Bulgaria saw how NATO was able to keep relative peace between its historical warring neighbors, Greece and Turkey. As someone once said, anything that can keep the Greeks and Turks from killing each other for so many years must be a good thing.
Editor's Note: The Colonel John Handley mentioned above, now retired, is a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of directors. - Ed.