11th September 2001 – Images that none of us will forget, and a global impact that can still be felt today. In the same year, the German Bundestag deployed the first servicemen and women of the Bundeswehr to Afghanistan. This was the start of the most demanding operation in the history of the Federal armed forces so far. Around 93,000 servicemen and women were deployed to the Hindu Kush, many of them several times. Fifty-nine German service personnel lost their lives there, 35 of those fell in combat or as a result of attacks. Others returned with physical or mental wounds. Brigadier General Michael Bartscher is one of them. This is a personal insight into his story.
Brigadier General Bartscher is a serviceman with passion. Since 1976, he has been wearing the Air Force uniform, and he can look back on a wide variety of tasks. His rank places him among the top-level Bundeswehr personnel – approximately 200 service members are generals and admirals.
In July 2014, Bartscher arrived on his second deployment in Afghanistan. He was a military adviser in the Afghan general staff, working closely with its chief and the two deputies. On 5th August 2014, during an advisory talk with members of the armed forces and of the administration, together with military leaders of the ISAF mission (Key Leader Engagements), there was a serious attack. A member of the Afghan National Army fired an automatic rifle at the advisory group of the ISAF mission. A US general was killed in this attack, and a further 14 service members were injured, one of those Michael Bartscher.
Evacuation of casualties (symbolic picture)
Source: Kraatz/Bundeswehr 2021
Brigadier General Bartscher underwent multiple surgeries still in the German camp in Mazar-e Sharif, before being flown to Germany for rehabilitation. Only four weeks later, on 5th September 2014, he returned to Afghanistan to continue his task there.
When ISAF changed to Resolute Support, Brigadier General Bartscher stayed on in Afghanistan – longer than originally planned. From January 2015, he was responsible for the personnel recruitment and training of the Afghan security forces. However, even in his new position, fate was not kind to him: ‘Just before the end of my deployment, there was a second incident, which resulted in another deployment-related health issue for me within a rather short time. Back home, I then had a motorcycle accident, the cause of which was probably my two deployment-related health issues from Afghanistan,’ Bartscher said in our conversation.
Three strokes of fate within 13 months, complex health impairments related to deployment, and a six-month inpatient rehabilitation stay after the motorcycle accident – for the Bundeswehr, the situation was clear. In 2017, Brigadier General Bartscher entered into the protection period for personnel with deployment-related health issues under the Act on the Continued Employment of Personnel Injured on Operations.
‘My acceptance into the protection period ensured that I would receive extensive rehabilitation. I was given the chance to participate in complementary medical and non-medical rehabilitation measures at the Bundeswehr Centre of Sports Medicine in the Westphalian town of Warendorf, and at the Bundeswehr Sports School, which is also located there. The excellent physiotherapy and orthopaedic treatment helped to improve my physical impairments.’ In addition, the physical performance level of the former marathon runner was increased significantly.
Sports therapy in Warendorf (symbolic picture)
Source: Wilke/Bundeswehr 2019
After rehabilitation, Brigadier General Bartscher was admitted to the training course ‘Sports Therapy and Special Sports Therapy for the Treatment of Deployment-Related Health Issues’. The objective of this training course at the Bundeswehr Sports School is the reintegration into duty of personnel with deployment-related health issues. This is a reactivation through sport of servicemen and women on extended sick leave. The course is an essential support measure for medical rehabilitation. Physical fitness is progressively increased, so that participation in ‘special sports events’ can also be achieved as part of the therapy.
The German team in Sydney
Source: Bartscher/private 2018
‘I was given the opportunity to participate in the international sports event for service personnel with deployment-related health issues, the Invictus Games in Sydney. However, in contrast to other nations, the German team is not assembled on the basis of exceptional athletic performance of individuals, but with a view to the therapeutic benefit to be expected. This also means that the sports disciplines in which we compete in the Games are selected in close cooperation with the Bundeswehr Centre of Sports Medicine,’ said Michael Bartscher about the composition of Team Germany.
Due to his continuing impairments, Bartscher received medical and therapeutic approval for the disciplines swimming, recumbent bike, and archery. Archery in particular set a special task for me; I had to learn this sport from scratch. Archery per se is a technically complex process requiring permanent muscular tension and, simultaneously, high concentration on a complex sequence of motions,’ the General remembers. After an intense training phase, he participated in the Invictus Games 2018 in Sydney with Team Germany.
Competitors in archery
Source: Dondorf/Bundeswehr 2018
A team does not travel to the Games on its own. On the contrary – as in the preceding therapy measures, family members and friends of the competitors are strongly integrated. In this way, a large ‘Invictus Family’ is formed after only a short time. The role that ‘Family and Friends’ play for the members of the team should not be underestimated. The opportunity to accompany the impaired partner is also recognition for the achievements and the efforts made in the families during the deployment and in the course of rehabilitation. Because of course the absence during deployment and the consequences of the deployment-related health issues also affect the individual family situations.
Bartscher enthusiastically tells us about Sydney: ‘The whole setting was very impressive. A big opening ceremony before the Sydney Opera House brought all the teams together for the first time. The Games in Australia were opened by the patron of the Invictus Games Foundation, Harry, the Duke of Sussex. Already before the Games, we came into contact with comrades from other nations, with whom we had served together in Afghanistan. A special situation was the contact with the Afghan team; they, like all of us, are part of this large family.
The opening ceremony in Sydney
Source: Bransmöller/Bundeswehr 2018
The people of Australia also contributed to this extraordinary event with their consistently positive reactions. They regularly sought out the competitors for a chat, and showed them a lot of appreciation. “Thank you for your service” – this was often called out to us competitors, and it gave us the feeling that it was not all in vain,’ Brigadier General Bartscher remembers from the reception ‘Down Under’.
For the Invictus Games, it is not the number of medals that counts, or the records or success. It is the Olympic spirit of having been part of it that is decisive for the competitors, even if personal goals may not be achieved. This spirit is enhanced by the real comradeship that provides support across all ranks – practically group therapy among peers, but with an audience and a lively backdrop.
M. Bartscher on the recumbent bike
Source: Bangert/Bundeswehr 2018
‘The Invictus Games show that you are not all alone after sustaining an injury, despite the many administrative obstacles, and that you get a prospect of a better future. The participation in this event or other special sports events as a team is a special appreciation, but also an indicator for one’s own capabilities. This gives these events tremendous importance for us participants with deployment-related health issues,’ Bartscher praises the German therapeutic approach.
In 2019, Brigadier General Michael Bartscher was able to take part in another special sports event with the recumbent bike. A team of cyclists with deployment-related health issues and support staff of the sports therapy group from Warendorf participated in the cycling event ‘Project Hero – Ride to Recovery’ in the USA. For this, the 700-kilometer distance from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles had to be completed in seven days. On the Highway No. 1, the ride passed through many places in the USA, and was characterised by a challenging course profile.
Project Hero – Ride to Recovery, California Costal Challenge
Source: Sydney E. Ray 2018
‘Armed forces, regardless of nationality, are held in very high regard in the United States. We were given a very warm welcome in many towns; there were American flags everywhere. Especially when we stopped off at a school, we were met with joy and gratitude by the pupils. The response in the United States, also for the Invictus Games, showed us German participants that other nations have been more successful in integrating armed forces in society,’ said Bartscher. In this area, he still sees major differences to the perception and support in Germany. Therefore, the decision to stage the Invictus Games 2023 in Germany for the first time is right in his opinion.
M. Bartscher (right) in conversation with an Afghan competitor
Source: Private 2018
‘However, until the start of the Games for service personnel with deployment-related health issues in Düsseldorf, there is still a long way to go in Germany for acceptance of military operations of the Bundeswehr abroad, with the consequence of death and injury. I hope that the Invictus Games 2023 will contribute to this.’
Despite his progress in medical rehabilitation, Brigadier General Michael Bartscher is permanently unfit for military service. Therefore, on 30th November 2021, he will leave the Bundeswehr prematurely, after more than 45 years of service. He will remain loyal to the Invictus Games: As a ‘former competitor’, he is part of Team Germany for the Games in the Dutch city of The Hague from 15th to 22nd April 2022.
Source: Private 2015
Michael Bartscher, born in 1958, joined the Bundeswehr in 1976 as a temporary-career volunteer. In 1980, he switched to an officer’s career. After studying business administration at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, he served in various assignments as a supply officer in the Air Force. After attending the National General Staff Officer Course at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College in Hamburg, Bartscher carried out varying activities in the Air Force and in the Federal Ministry of Defence. His work as a lecturer at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College from 2002 to 2004 was followed by an assignment as the military assistant to the Vice Chief of Defence and Chief of the German Joint Support Service.
In his first assignment as a Colonel, as chief of division at the Bundeswehr Joint Forces Operations Command, he was responsible for the logistic support of all operations abroad. After that, Bartscher became Commander of Logistic Regiment 46, and with his four battalions, he regularly provided forces for Bundeswehr operations abroad, particularly the Logistic Support Battalion in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. Both assignments took him to Afghanistan several times a year.
After his promotion to Brigadier General, Michael Bartscher participated in the ISAF and Resolute Support mission of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan, which was the basis for this article.
The Act on the Continued Employment of Personnel Injured on Operations came into force on 18th December 2007. It closed a gap in the provision of benefits and pensions that existed at the time for military and civilian members of the Bundeswehr, and it is a necessary complement to the Special Foreign Assignments Benefits and Pensions Act.
The law is clearly aimed at restoring fitness for duty/work of personnel with deployment-related health issues. For this purpose, a protection period is granted. During this time, the servicemen and women with deployment-related health issues receive comprehensive health care for the treatment of the deployment-related health impairment and, if required, also measures for vocational qualification.
Both are designed to enable these persons to take up their previous activities again, to ensure their continued employment in the area of responsibility of the Federal Ministry of Defence or another type of reintegration into working life.
For former servicemen and women suffering from deployment-related health issues, the law provides the option of reemployment with the Bundeswehr in a special service status. This also gives these persons the possibility of medical rehabilitation and, where applicable, vocational qualification.
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