Nov 11, 2011 • By

A Cold War warrior among us

You just never know who may be sitting in the office cube nearby. He or she may have been a bona fide Cold War warrior – straight out of a Tom Clancy spy novel.

Take General Mills’ own Rick Eckstein, for example. The senior logistics operations planner in our Supply Chain area, played a key role during the 20th century Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

(Rick Eckstein, second from left, at a submarine base at Severodvinsk, Russia, in 1995. The American nuclear warhead inspection team is on the left and the Russian team is on the right.)

As a Russian linguist and cryptographer (the deciphering of codes) during the nine years he served in the U.S. Navy between 1988 and 1997, Eckstein spent six months underwater on “fast attack submarines” during the era when the Soviet Union was crumbling. (It collapsed in 1991.)

“It was a lot like that Tom Clancy novel, ‘The Hunt for Red October,’” says Rick. “A lot of the crew on that submarine didn’t know what we were doing or where we were going.”

(Russian and American teams, at Ostrovnoy, Russia, on April 23, 1995, at a submarine base during the signing of the inspection report ceremony.)

Nuclear arms inspector

And he also made 15 different trips to the former Soviet Union as a START Treaty nuclear arms control inspector and interpreter. His job – sometimes in remote locales like Siberia – was to count nuclear warheads on inter-continental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

“We were the eyes on the ground to verify that the Russians didn’t have more missiles than they said they had according to the treaty,” Rick says.

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, and Rick is just one of many veterans who work at General Mills. But his experience may well be one of the most interesting.

I had no idea about his background – even though I see him most mornings at the fitness center at our headquarters in Minneapolis.

Rick had one of the highest government security clearances possible, and has been to many top secret military installations in both Russia and the U.S. (He also served as an interpreter when the Russians inspected U.S. military missile bases.)

And you can tell from the dour expressions in many of the photographs on Soviet military bases that it was no picnic in the park.

“It was a lot like inviting your neighbor in to look inside your closets,” says Rick. “They didn’t want us there and we didn’t want them here, either.”

Join the Navy: See the world

He got the bug to study language on a backpacking trip through Europe with a friend he met while studying at the University of Iowa.

“I thought I need to get a job so I can do this: I’m going to join the Navy and see the world – just like the cliché.”

And that’s exactly what he did.

His first year was spent learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. He spent the remaining eight years in Turkey, Japan, underwater on a submarine, and based in Washington, D.C., when working as an arms control inspector and interpreter around the globe.

“There weren’t a lot of people who wanted to go to Turkey but I said, ‘sign me up,’” says Rick.

To this day, he doesn’t reveal much information about what he did and where. But he does concede that he had a lot fun and cherishes his “military family.”

“You’re with them all the time. You get to be really close quickly.”

‘Peace through strength’

Not only was he a witness to history during the waning days of the Soviet empire, but he also was an active participant in carrying out the policies of one his personal heroes, former President Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s “trust but verify” and “peace through strength” mantra was central to the U.S. foreign policy approach toward the former Soviet Union.

His current role as the deployment team lead within the Snacks supply chain at General Mills – which includes several team members based in India – may not have the intrigue of a Tom Clancy novel.

But Rick says his military training has served him well in being able to relate to people from different cultures and generations.

“On day two in the Navy you are taught to be a leader,” he says.