Our Man in Estonia

updated 08/02/1993 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/02/1993 01:00AM

FOR 33 YEARS, ALEKSANDER EINSELN had enjoyed a distinguished military career, rising eventually to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. Then this spring, Einseln, 61, accepted the challenges of a still higher—and somewhat surprising—post. Lennart Meri, President of newly independent Estonia, had asked him last year to take command of the tiny country's defense forces, a 2,500-troop outfit a tenth the size of the New "York City Police Department. Einseln, a native Estonian devoted to his homeland, didn't really want the job. Since retiring from the U.S. Army in 1985, he and his wife, Lee, 54, had been living comfortably in Mountain View, Calif., where he was a project manager for a satellite communications company. "I tried to find other Estonian-speaking military men in the West but couldn't," Einseln says. "Then finally decided I couldn't live with myself if I didn't take the position."

He has been at war ever since—with the U.S. government. Earlier this year, the State Department, concerned that Einseln's presence might disturb other governments in the region, especially Russia's, refused to approve Einseln's request to work for a foreign nation. Although no action has been taken yet, Stale Department officials say he risks losing his citizenship for violating a law against serving in another country's armed forces. Then, last month, the U.S. Army abruptly suspended his $50,000-a-year pension, infuriating Einseln and Estonia's President. "The U.S. government should decorate rather than banish Colonel Einseln," says Meri, "because he is working for peace on the front line." Explains Einseln: "My role here is to create a democratic military and let the soldiers know they are responsible to the people."

Einseln, a fervent anticommunist, has been something of a one-man prodemocracy movement since retiring. The highly decorated combat veteran has picketed Mikhail Gorbachev and assisted an antigovernment Chinese student organization in northern California. But he was mainly concerned with helping to free Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Soviet rule.

His commitment to democracy was nurtured in childhood, when Estonia was traded between the Nazis and the Soviets like a baseball card. As a boy, Einseln, an only child, delivered messages for resistance fighters. His father, a shoemaker, tried to join anti-Soviet guerrillas but was captured and imprisoned in Siberia. Einseln and his mother, Linda (by then divorced), fled the country in 1944 as the Soviets bombed Tallinn, the capital city, and the Germans retreated. "I did my first serious praying during the bombing," says Einseln.

Einseln spent five years in a displaced persons camp in Augsburg, Germany, before he and his mother emigrated to America. Almost immediately he enlisted in the Army. As a paratrooper he fought behind enemy lines in Korea. Later he served two tours in Vietnam.

Einseln's first marriage, to Estonian-born Hayley Veetousme in 1956, ended in divorce after 25 years and three children. In 1982 he married Lee, a psychotherapist and Estonian émigré, who is staying behind in their California home.

Einseln, who declined a $400 monthly salary in Estonia, receives a modest Tallinn apartment with his job. Both Army and State Department officials say his pension payments probably would resume if Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave Einseln the nod. But what most disturbs Einseln is the threat to his citizenship. "They could go after my pension and bankrupt me; they could recall me to duty and court-martial me, or they could issue an injunction to keep me from continuing," he says. "But they must go to court to revoke my citizenship. And I will fight to the end not to lose it."

MARILYN ACHIRON
JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE in Tallinn, LAIRD HARRISON in Mountain View and PETER MEYER in Washington

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