This photo is a relic. It comes, very literally, from another millennium. It was taken in 1999 with a disposable, film-using camera at Fort Benning, Georgia, after a long field training exercise at the Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC). That's me, Rob Divis, on the left. The other guy was one of the toughest soldiers I ever met. His name was Vlmars and he was one of our foreign officers. Vlmars was a member of the Latvian Army. He told us all kinds of stories about what life had been like for him that decade. Vlmars was in the last class from his secondary school that was not conscripted into the Soviet military. He came of age when the Red Army packed up and left and the whole thing fell apart. He talked about massive price inflation, ridiculous interest rates, and scarcity. There was some violence. He said it was pretty chaotic for a while. From what I gather, people made due. Groups of people got together and formed what really sounded like vigilante mobs to keep something like order until the country could develop something like self-governance. Latvia had been under Soviet occupation/annexation for a very long time. Latvia got a lot of help from the United States and from other western countries but before that happened, people just had to do the best they could do.
Vlmars was grateful for American help. We enjoyed hearing about how his army trained, running in the snow; eating rations of onions and black bread; and worrying, worrying, worrying that Russia would come back some day. In 1999 Latvia was in the process of gaining admittance to NATO and Vlmars was very hopeful about that. He believed that if that happened, he wouldn't have to worry anymore about Russia, at least not in the same way. Vlmars was one of the toughest people to beat at just about anything - running, push ups, shooting. He was smart and had a quick sense of humor. He wanted to make only the very best impression. He was one of the guys I tried to spend time with rather than avoid. He had humility and it was easy to like him. I trained with Vlmars in my squad and platoon for about six months. We spent a lot of time out in the woods exchanging stories.
I think about what my problems were in the 1990's and they were things like the Cleveland Indians losing the World Series (twice); things like my college course load; things like my student debt. There is really no comparison between what my problems were and what his were; but we were friends, and we could relate to each other, generally over the sharing of a meal or the last canteen of water, or over the nightly ritual of cleaning the weapons before packing them in the arms room. He was under no illusion that his country would really make NATO that much stronger. I learned from that experience that if what you're expecting from your friendship is a 1-for-1 exchange of value, you have the wrong view of what a friendship is.
This photo is a relic. It shows friendship in 1999. In it, you just see two friends standing together. You do not see a big country and a little country; or a strong one and a weak one; or a rich one and a poor one. You see two soldiers, indistinguishable, except that in my fatigue, I'm holding my rifle upside down and he's not (the grenade launcher is on the bottom, not the top, duh). We're both filthy; we're both cold; we're both tired; and we're both smiling. Friendship isn't about what you get or about who's-contributing-what. It's about standing together. When you stand side by side with a friend, it doesn't make you less tired; it doesn't make you less filthy; it doesn't make you less cold. It doesn't always make you more likely to win a fight. It does, however, always make you less alone.