Sea story: Who, him? He’s NATO. (1986)

US Navy HQ, London

US Navy HQ, London

Spring of 1986. It is time for the United States and Italy to re-negotiate their Joint Forces Agreement, the document that articulates the details of the military alliance between the two countries. As part of the process, the military delegations of the two allies meet to work on those details. 

This year, the meetings are in London, England, hosted by the Commander-in-Chief, US Navy Europe (CINCUSNAVEUR). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) monitors the talks, as well as the closed national deliberations between negotiating sessions.

I am there as a NATO Observer to the talks. The most relevant thing on my uniform is the red shield with a gold lion, indicating that I am on the staff of the Commander, Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH), in Naples. AFSOUTH shieldThe oak leaves of my junior rank (Lieutenant-Commander) do not matter.

On the first morning, we gather for a plenary session in the large auditorium. The generals in charge of the respective delegations each welcome the other and outline some of their general objectives.

After the first joint session, the two national delegations separate to go into private discussion groups. Naturally, I trail along with the Italian delegation, because there are plenty of English-speaking officers to observe the Americans. I know a few of the Italian officers, all Army, who happen to serve in Naples. One of them, Colonel Michele Santini, is also on the AFSOUTH staff and is the other observer. The others are assigned to the Italian Army support command that runs the AFSOUTH base. In a way, we are mess mates, because I have long known that the best place for lunch on base is the Italian Army mess. I don’t know the others, mostly colonels and lieutenant-colonels from the various armed forces, stationed throughout the country.

We file into the large conference room, and I pick a spot near the back of the room, against the wall. It is a place where I can unobtrusively take notes, but from where I can see everyone in the room.

Just as we finish sitting down, the general presiding over the meeting glares at me, and asks in a loud voice (in Italian, of course) to no one in particular,

“What is an American officer doing here?”

One of the Italian colonels from Naples looks at me, then at the general, and shrugs, “But he is not American, sir. He’s NATO.”

After a silent pause, there is a discrete tittering. The general scowls, then asks me who I am. I rise and identify myself (in Italian, of course).

“Why are you here?” he insists.

“Sir, because the other observers all speak English, but only Colonel Santini and I understand Italian. I was assigned to this delegation.” Santini nods in confirmation.

The general smiles at the irony of the situation and motions me to sit. He looks around the table.

Allora, cominciamo…” he says [Well, then, let’s get started…]

Until next week,

Smooth roads & tailwinds,


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