Portrait of a soldier: The Ray van Linden story

Ray van Linden was born in Roosendaal, Holland in 1968, the youngest of five children, which made him by default “the black sheep”. His father was a very renowned orthopedic shoemaker who died in 2001. His mother was also working in his fathers firm, as did all five children. Ray van Linden was also a Croatian soldier who fought to help liberate Croatia from both Yugoslav tyranny and Serbian aggression.

D: Tell me about your early life and family

R: I grew-up with two friends, Olaf and Robbie, and we always played soldiers together after school and weekends, and that’s how I kind of rolled into being a soldier ever since. I did school of course, but also that did not fit me right. I have a very high IQ so I did zip at school, and always just got over to the next class somehow… At high school the problems started, as I did not wanted to go to school anymore, I wanted to join the army, but in Holland you couldn’t before your 16th. So I had to waste my time at high school, and damn was I good at it, so good I never finished it! When I got 16 at last I asked my father if he would sign for me to join the army… and amassed as I was… he did!

On my last day at school I was very happy, I had my draft-call in my pocket, and man did I let them know it at school, the last hour I just stood-up and said goodbye to all waving my draft-call around and left school to never return. So, finally I was in the army YES, welcome 1986. I was reborn, however, I was a bit young… and pretty wild as well, but no matter what happened in the army, I always got trough the problems I created for myself, just because I was simply the best soldier in my unit (425 I.B.C.) and I was highly respected for it…

My luck was, that my unit (425 I.B.C.) was a specialised unit within the “van Hertz” Brigade, with more specialised training than what the rest of this Brigade received, simply due to the fact “van Heutz” was a know “criminal unit” where those ended-up that the Dutch army actually had no idea of what to do with these guys, and so “van Heutz” is know for guard-duty all over the country. But my unit did not, we were working together with the U.S.A. army, and with the Dutch artillery 203mm howitzer with had nuclear capability, of with the Dutch army had the shells, the howitzers, but the nuclear detonators were held by the Americans. A unit like this would be in a case of war be targeted by Russian Speznatz forces as a high priority target, and so we had training accordingly. It also was a good time and place for me to practice my English.

In the early days of my army time I met my first love, Estella, a red haired beautiful 1/8 Indonesian girl, whom I have a son with (never married though) Alexander, born in 1989. And shortly after our relation came to an end. So…here I was, ex-soldier, ex “husband” and brand new “father”… and no idea what to do or where to go… but I wanted out of Holland…to see some of the world! So… whilst I was looking for a way to enter the Foreign Legion, which wasn’t that easy anymore in the late 80`s. And whilst looking how to join, a friend of mine told me he saw a newspaper Ad that asked for volunteers for the war in former Yugoslavia… and that got my attention ASAP. The Dutch N.K.W. (Dutch-Croatian Work-committee) was looking for volunteers to help the Croats in their fight for freedom and Democracy… wow what a honourable task! SOLD! That was good enough for me, I applied, got interviewed, was accepted and ready for some real changes in my life!

D: Before coming to Croatia, did you know anything about the country?

R: I had no idea of Croatia…neither about former Yugoslavia…only from my history lessens at school… and from my parents who used to go on holydays in Dubrovnik… So I started to sneak around to find-out where I really was going. And so I ended-up with my uncle Leen, a former SS volunteer of the WW2, who had at least some knowledge I needed, and so I started listening for the first time to some one…and man was I surprised indeed! He was at the end of the war in Varazdin, and with Mate Boban’s army he made his way to Bleiberg, but as being Dutch and SS, the English did not stop him as they did with the rest, who all ended-up in the Križni put. It was he who told me, “Ray, go there where the Red-White-Blue flag waves, and those who are close to you (referring to Croatia), there you will best respected and most secure…besides the fact it was war of course. So, that was it for me, I knew what I thought I had to know, trained, informed, and full of adrenaline.

D: When did you arrive in HR and why did you decide to go there?

R: I arrived in Croatia around midnight, 17-09-1991 in Zagreb and man what a shock that was to me, outside the train station, nothing but people in uniforms, with weapons. I thought I must be only a few kilometers away from the front-line. Whilst waiting for my “guide” from the Ministry of Defence, I really had some things to look at and think about… beautiful town… how long can it survive if this is at the front-line.

After a hour or so my “guide” arrived, and we went to his place where I spend the night, to be put on a train for Rijeka the next morning in a hurry we were, so breakfast we skipped…but he bought me some “burek” for the trip… my first “taste” of Croatian food… oh boy…what a hideous bullshit that cheese burek -one bite and I had to run to the toilet!

A military police sergeant picked me up, and drove me to the army base in Rijeka, where I got lessons with the AK-47, the TT 7.62 pistol and the “Zolja”(a portable one-shot disposable 64mm unguided anti-tank weapon) at the army base firing range. The next day we would leave for Gospić I was told, two buses would go there with the 111 Brigade front-line replacements for the Lika front…boy oh boy…I was on my way to see what war was all about…and boy… did I got a surprise on my way there! Whilst driving from Rijeka to Gospić, the bottles of rakija went around like it was water; I was offered a drink many times but just as many I refused it.

Then half way to Gospić, the rakija really set in and it was time for some target practice…at road-signs. In the late afternoon we arrived in Gospić at the army base… got a bed in the room with these Rijeka guys and I just could not get any sleep…I did not feel safe enough I guess… I waited for ever it seems for the sun to rise, as I knew Johan Tilder would come for me the next morning… man…time can pass slowly when you are desperate and waiting…

But, the next morning my rescuer arrived in a jeep, and took me to Perušić, where there already where a few Dutch volunteers, got my bunk, got my gear, an real AK-47 in my hands…and some instructions from Johan, about the people, customs and habits, what not to do, and how to behave, besides the usual info about the military situation, our job, and my place in the group. It felt like a dream come true for me, like I had arrived in my very own fairiy-tale! But, my goal was to help people, and not to live my dream here…so of we went the very next day! The next morning I’d find-out there wasn’t much “fairy” to it at all… going on my first scout mission into no-mans land.

Dutch volunteers in Domovinski rat

D: Why did you join the Croatian army? What motivated you at the time? How long did you serve and in what units where you in?

R: The reason I joined were multiple reasons I would say, first of all to be a soldier in war, the adventure, the fight for democracy and freedom, to give my knowledge to those in need of it, and make my life worthy again after my hideous childhood and my wasted time in the Dutch army. But my biggest motivation was, I would say, the fact to be part of a team, a team in wartime, something I have met in the Dutch army only without war… and that was something I really missed after I left the army, that brotherhood!

And man…did we had that on a level I had never ever seen before… family is crap compared to this! So, I arrived in the “First Dutch Volunteers” unit lead by the late LT. Johan Tilder, 18-09-1991. A scout-diversion platoon made-up of Dutch Volunteers, all regular soldiers at least, professionals at best. This unit stayed active until 15-03-1992 the day the U.N. off. entered Croatia to “take on her mission”…(and what a joke that turned-out to be!)

After the First Dutch, I did not wanted to leave as 80% of that unit did, but I wanted to stay with Johan and Rik Grauwert, who both decided to stay, and so had I! So, seeking my way into other units (as Johan could not help me at that time), I tried HOS (not knowing then what I know now, the First Dutch was a HOS unit all along!) Tried with the Sixth Bat. HOS, but the C.O. V. Rajković refused me! So, off I went to meet “Dida” the Rijeka HOS C.O who accepted me on first sight, and off I went to my first stationary position during the war, “Hotel Granata” in Lički Ribnik…the name says it all! Here I stayed and fulfilled my duties, until that day we from the Rijeka HOS went to the XIX Bat. HOS to invite them for a roasted pig we had organised. In Ornice, a Serb village held by the Sixth Bat. HOS, there was this beautiful blonde woman, in a US uniform, long blond hair, with an AK-47 in her hands… Jesus am I dreaming I thought.

Here is where I met my wife Tania…

Interview by Branko Miletic

(End of part one. You can read part two here)