Whenever I relate wrestling to my military experiences, one example always comes to mind. In the hot summer of 1992, I was one of nine paratroopers our of 260 who had made it through two weeks of food and sleep deprivation and practically 24 hour a day ardourous physical exhertion in full combat gear. This was the 82nd Airborne’s pre-ranger course, a condensed and exaggerated version of the two month long Ranger school. The 82nd had a few slots prime military courses, like the Ranger course, and General Ninja Nix insisted that we only send the best of the best and represented the Division well. I had previously won a brigade-level contest for Air Assault school at the home of the 101st Airborne and of the five of us from the 82nd attended, and we all graduated in the top ten out of hundreds of soldiers. But, by then we had already rappelled out of helicopters and rigged equipment for helicopter extraction and marched dozens of miles in combat gear, so the course was relatively easy for us and Air Assault felt like merely a 10 day formality where we were given three meals and allowed 12 hours a day to relax or sleep. Pre-ranger, on the other hand, was two weeks of constant stress, 24 hours a day, and the closest thing I would experience to real world combat feelings and fatigue, and at the end I felt not unlike how I had felt after two weeks in high school wrestling camps, cutting weight for junior nationals to best represent my state in nationals.
The 260 men had of many nationalities had been given the same criteria and most were E4P to E6 – I was a newly promoted E4 and the youngest soldier there – and all of us should have been prepared, but not everyone practiced and we lost more than 140 candidates the first day during physical fitness and swimming tests. We didn’t have to earn perfect scores, but we needed to do 70 pushups in two minutes and 50 situps in another two minutes and run two miles in under 15 minutes, and, in addition to standard PT tests we had to do seven perfect pull ups and a few balance and coordination drills swimming pool drills. That eliminated approximately 70 men. Next, we had been blindfolded and tasked to walk across a high diving board approximately 12 feet above water in full battle gear until we walked off and plummeted into the deep end. Anyone who lost control of their M16 or didn’t surface and had to be rescued didn’t continue, and we lost another 70. Over the next week, approximately 100 men were removed from the course or collapsed and had to be carried away. We had been allocated three MRE’s per day to eat hastily in simulated combat scenarios, but, though they were 2,000 calories each, we were in motion 20 hours per day and probably burning 4,000 to 8,000 calories. Most people lost weight and toned muscles, but if you’re not used to fasting the added mental stain weakens your resolve, and many men found reasons to quit and no one judged them. Those who could remain focused as their bodies digested themselves were allowed four hours a day of sleep because of an army policy following a few deaths from exhaustion; but, there was a loophole, and the pre-ranger cadre realized that those four hours didn’t have to be consecutive, and in our simulated combat situations half of us would guard the other half sleeping and the cadre would simulate a bombing or our opposing forces would stage a midnight attack and we’d have to wake and act quickly and hope for another nap another time. According to the cadre, each of us technically received four hours of opportunities to nap. At the end, nine of us remained, and as we chatted for the first time in two weeks about things other than our missions, we learned that 6 of the 9 of us had wrestled in high school. Everyone felt that was remarkable. We talked about our coaches and our matches and mental and physical fatigue, and how many people quit before their bodies failed.
Many soldiers choose to quit. I had, too, six months before, when I was the final person to fall out of a 4am 12 mile march to a new mission on the final night of the course. I had collapsed and my muscles had spasmed; but, deep down, I know I had quit and exaggerated my situation the same way I had exaggerated the pain of being bullied in middle school, either protecting or creating an ego. I suspected that many of the soldiers who failed exaggerated their injuries to justify being removed from the course, whether they realized it or not. I had reflected on when I collapsed and pondered if I could have stod up again, and came to the conclusion that if I could recall the events then at least my mind was functioning and, if I had concentrated, I could have stood up or asked for assistance from a teammate or done anything other than lie on the side of the road ruminating about how much it hurt to move. I had sworn to never do that again, and had been given a rare opportunity to repeat the pre-ranger course.
Most of pre-ranger is repeating what we already knew in theory, but is difficult to obtain in reality. There are no skills that someone can teach you, and people expecting cadre to coach them quickly dropped out. There is no one motivating you – cadre are invisible guides, well rested and following the participants with blank grenades and bombs and radios to call in attack troops. Anyone expecting to be motivated dropped out when they could not motivate themselves. We were a team, but each person had to find something within themselves to function, and that something was often called “intestinal fortitude,” guts, will power, or whatever else you call something deep within an individual. But, to find your intestinal fortitude, it helps to know that you’re not being judged and that you won’t die alone or be left behind because of your weakness or, as often happens, broken bones or bullet wounds or head injuries that no amount of guts can overcome. You want to feel like you trust the people you’re working with on a level so deep that even at the end of your physical and mental limits you know someone will be there for you.
At the heart of Ranger training is two things: the Ranger creed, and a Five Point Operation Order. Both are easy to summarize but difficult to practice, especially when food and sleep deprivation and the stress of bombs and machine guns accumulates and we’re left with our core selves. We all had memorized the Ranger Creed:
Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers.
Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite Soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other Soldier.
Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one-hundred-percent and then some.
Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained Soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.
Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.
Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor.
Rangers lead the way!
Of course, the Ranger Creed wasn’t always followed, as the televised 1993 Ranger battles in Somolia showed the world, when bodies of fallen Rangers were drug naked through the streets of Mogodishu after a Blackhawk helicopter crashed. But, the Creed is a goal worth striving for, and we’d later learn former Rangers turned Delta Force commandoes jumped from their escape helicopters and huddled around injured American soldiers they didn’t know and fought off the warlords surrounding them until they ran out of bullets, then a few carried their bayonettes into the forests to continue fighting. All fell, and no one died alone. The Delta commandoes would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. Few want to die alone, and the Creed is more about a united belief in self sacrifice for the good of your team, however you define your team.
The army was changing by 1992, especially in units claiming to be All American. We were white, black, brown, red, and yellow; Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, and aethiest. Most of us had family all over the world, including in countries America had invaded or was likely to invade. But to be an effective team you have to have no doubt that your team will be there fore you regardless of their nationality or belief or faith or opinion. That’s easy to say in words, but difficult to practice because so few people test themselves to a level that exposes their deep down essence, and sometimes it takes learning who you are not to learn daily habits that change who you are deep down. The cadre were not there to repeat words, they were there to keep us safe when our minds were sluggish during parachute jumps, helicopter mission, or simulated combat with blanks. They went home and slept and rotated shifts, and were always alert, watching us from hidden locations in the woods, and issuing maor and minor failures. A major was two points, a minor was one, and four points removed you from the course. If you fell asleep while on guard duty, your leader received a point. If you were caught hoarding food, your leader received a point. The leaders were constantly being killed by cadre and the next HMFIC – highest mother fucker in charge – would instantly take over in the midst of combat in a seamless transfer of knowledge and accountability driving us towards a common mission. Random attacks at 3am would kill off some of us and we’d quickly have to reunite and adapt, and if anyone or any body was left behind as we tried to escape the simulated bombing and fight back against the opposing soldiers, all of us received two points; knowing that, people are still left behind, and the desire for self interest was what was being trained.
We did have classroom moments, because there are standard proceedures that must be understood and applied in order to function with other teams via radio. Most of those classes take place outside of focused training, things like understanding different radios and weapons and methods, but the Rangers focused on a method of communicating called the five paragraph operations order: situation, mission, execution, command and signal, and service and support.
The situation was the first paragraph of a five point operations order, and it was everything our of our control and subject to change often and without notice. The next paragraph was our mission, which was what we should do to improve or help the situation, and therefore it changed as the situation changed. An example situation would be that an enemy platoon was inside a bunker and we don’t know their numbers or weapon capabilities, and the area was scheduled to be bombed any minute. Our mission may be to infiltrate the bunker and collect anything useful to higher command before it was bombed to oblivion. A team’s mission became their world until that situation changed.
The third chapter was Execution, the step by step plan to accomplish each mission, and that may require more simplified situations only available to that team, such as the size of a bunker tunnel or the weapons on on hand. The next paragraph, Command and Signal, were details of instructions on how and when to communicate with higher authorities and collaborators, like communicating with our nearby French allies during Desert Strom and requesting back up or air support. The final paragraph was Service and Support, jokingly called “beans and bullets” from days when soldiers were shipped beans and bullets and that was sufficient, and not much had changed except that it was more like MRE’s and an amazing array of new technology that flooded the military after all the government defense contractors had been given extra R&D money for Desert Storm, before we knew it would end so quickly.
Those five paragraphs are used with every military special operations small team and practically every senior commander for large-scale events, and though they may sound easy, it’s extremely difficult to focus on a situation and not what you think you should do about it. A situation can’t be subject to opinions or biases or conditioning; it is what it is. Most people have a hard time separating their beliefs from the situation, and that clouds a clear view of what a mission should accomplish. To be effective, everyone must communicate the situation, and listen to ensure it’s understood by all regardless of how tired and hungry they are, and then a mission becomes more focused and easier to put into perspective. It was said that the American focus on a situation and mission had allowed our elite soldiers to outperform other country’s methods simply because it empowered soldiers to see their place in the bigger picture of the situation, and allowed adaptability in how they executed a plan to achieve a mission.
Most importantly, though, was the shared commraderie of men who didn’t know each other but would leave no one behind who had the same uniform or patch. This was becoming especially challenging because of the diversity of our soldiers, especially the All Americans, and something had to unite us deeper than race, nationality, or religion; Hernandez would have to be trusted to watch my back if we invaded Peru, where his family lived, just as Ahmed would have to watch my back in Iran or Sven in East Germany. Leave no one behind. No one has to die alone. The world won’t see your body naked and battered and being drug through the streets of Somolia. You’re part of a team, and that team is less defined by the race or beliefs of others and more by the depth of trust you have that they will not leave you to die alone.
At the end of two weeks, the nine of us were sitting around, hosing ourselves off and talking for the first time in two weeks. We had spoken brief commands and signals, but didn’t know anything about anyone. Our uniforms had been stripped of rank, and we rotated command so frequently that leadership had become a moving target, literally. Another benefit of our methods was that no one person was more important than any other; all that mattered was communicating the situation accurately and effectively, and ensuring everyone was okay.
A soldier whose name I don’t recall was scraping my back with his knife, wiping my blood and pus off on his dirty fatigues. A few had finished, and a few were waiting. Beside me, another soldier was being scraped, too. We had prickly heat, an incredibly distracting inflamation caused by our skin pours continuously opening and closing as we alternated between intense sweating and plunging through cold water, trapping salt crystals under our skin. Our ruck sack straps pulled heavily on our backs and caused more sweat there, and most of us had developed strips of swollen, inflamed, and infected prickly heat where anything had rested against the salt crystals. The sensation can be maddening, and the only relief is scraping the inflamed tissue and causing fresh bleeding that irrigated our dirty and pus filled skin, and most of us knew by then that a new pain was better than the constant, relentless, maddening irritation we had felt and tried to ignore while lying still and silently waiting to ambush others; any movement was a minor violation for that moment’s leader.
We had begun joking again, and laughed at how miserable we felt, and tried to relate prickly heat to other experiences. I offered up that it felt like being covered in biting fire ants, the plague of southern Louisiana, and I mentioned that my dad had a giant burn scar on his leg from being doused with gasoline to kill the fire ants – someone had been smoking when my dad was screaming from the fire ants, and someone had poured gas instead of flame resistent diesel, and most of us who had experienced fire ants felt that pouring gas on them was a rational response to end the overwhelming sensations that make you scream and run around. Prickly heat was like that, but we had to learn to focus even with it, and now the cleansing sensation of being scraped was an improvement over the constant distraction of persistent discomfort, not unlike someone with chronic pain may feel after a long time of pain making the mental suffering as bad if not worse than the physical sensations. Someone made a comment that prickly heat looked like ringworm on a wrestling team without fungicide, and that led to a conversation about wrestling, and six of us had wrestled and our conversations evolved to our coaches and mentors and our growing inability to relate to anyone who can’t develop discipline; and the challenge of returning to our platoons where few people felt that way.
I could memorize all types of information and perform radio and weapon tasks so automatically that my hands functioned without needing my mental attention, and I had already demonstrated unfaltering support of my teams, yet that doesn’t mean that at a deep level I could do everything perfectly all the time or that I was helpful enough to be a valued team member. On the final day, we completed a survey of sorts, ranking each other from one to nine, and I was ranked 9th. Last. I had completed the course, but wouldn’t graduate and wouldn’t go on to Ranger school unless I repeated pre-ranger again.
After everyone but me collected their diplomas, I was surprised to see Sgt. Weber and Foster waiting for me. I had expected to take the shuttle and be dropped off at D-Company, and I was happy to see them because I was the only 504th soldier who had made it to the last day, and I hadn’t wanted to ride the 504th shuttle by myself. Foster laughed and said how bad I looked and patted his belly and talked about how much he had been eating that week, and tossed me a chicken and rice MRE and smiled broadly, pleased with himself. I couldn’t help myself and I laughed, and he told me to toss my ruck sack on the Humvee seat and hop in.
Sgt. Weber read my review from the course and saw my expression and surmised what had happened. He had recently earned his Ranger tab, and had told me that there are ways to collaborate on a ranked choice system so that no one person is eliminated, but that requires intentional effort and planning by the team to essentially rank everyone the same. Most of my team knew that, too, but even though we got along well enough and commensurated about wrestling, no one wanted to fake our cohesiveness, and no one initiated collaborating on the ranking. My back was bleeding through my dirty uniform and I felt tired, hungry, and ashamed to be near people who had expected me to excel. But, Sgt. Weber told me a joke about a man who said his dog was dumb, and that was because the man could beat the dog in 3 out of 5 games of chess, and I began to feel better. I was ranked 9th out of 260; and that 260 had been in the top 1% of the U.S. Army. Sometimes, words help.
They dropped me off that Friday evening and said they’d see me Tuesday. We were just beginning DRF1, and the only reason I had been at pre-ranger for two weeks was that we had been on DRF 7 then. I was allowed to have three days off to recover and could sleep in on Monday, but I still had to remain on two hour notice, like all 900 of us on DRF1. I went upstairs and tried not to react to all the back-slapping from D-Company welcoming me back.
The next morning, I drove to the War Zone for a haircut and to indulge in an all-you-can-eat buffet, and then I went to see Frank. A few guys from the Devils in Baggy Pants were there, like they usually were on DRF 1.
“You look like poop,” Frank said, just before producing a small rubber pile of poop that honked when you squeezed it. I said I was happy to see him, and I plopped into one of the chairs and winced and leaned forward, forgetting that my back now hurt from the healing knife scrapes. But, at least it wasn’t prickly heat any more.
I caught up on the Infinity War, and Frank and I chatted about the heroes. Frank always thought they were our modern versions of Greek or Norse gods, and pointed to Thor and Loki in the Avengers and a few other characters. Like the gods, Marvel comic heroes were extreme versions of ourselves and subject to the same emotional turmoil as us. Iron Man was an alcoholic; The Hulk had anger issues and was probably more like Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde than a god; Captain America was frustrated by the failings of his fellow team, and almost all had father issues.
I couldn’t sit still. Or, more truthfully, I was aggitated from the irritation on my back and no longer would cause penalty points on that moment’s leader, so I chose to move around and excused myself and walked from the Dragon’s Lair to a new coffee shop and used book area. A lot of businesses came and went from the giant War Zone flea market, and two retired first sergeants had opened a business. Like Frank, they probably catered to kids who were looking for companionship and a reminder of home, and a supportive place to be without alcohol. Their shop was nothing more than three tables with four seats each, a standard home coffee maker and expresso machine and a small refrigerator of milk and cup of sugar packets, and the bookshop looked like a few home bookshelves arranged carefully and with a carefully curated selection of used books. One of the shelves had a handwritten note with the first amendment, the right to free press and religion and public gathering, and it was focused on books that had been banned in America at some point, and I was surprised to see Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But, what caught my eye the most was the strikingly beautiful young lady browsing the banned books.
She had a few books under her arm and I assumed the cup of coffee on the table was hers. She was smiling subtly as she browsed and wore no makeup, and I instantly recalled the Lord Byron poem Mrs. Abrams had shared with me, She Walks in Beauty, and the line, “a smile at peace with all below, and a heart that’s innocent.” She was stunning. No makeup, a simple sun dress, and a smile while browsing banned books. The only time I had ever felt that way around a girl was when I had met Leah, coincidentally at the Baton Rouge public library when I was researching mythology and she was looking up Renaissance period clothing for the annual Renaissance Fair. But, something was different inside me that day, and I believed it was more than indigestion form indulging at the all-you-can-eat buffet. I approached non chalantly, paying attention to my grumbling belly so I wouldn’t introduce myself by farting, and reached for a copy of Huckleberry Finn as gracefully as I could pretend to be.
“I loved that book,” she said in a soft voice, never breaking her smile. Her eyes were hazel and twinkled as she spoke. She radiated someone at peace with all she saw. Her name was Cristi. I introduced myself as Jason, and I was surprised when I said that. I hadn’t used Jason since I before I was in 10th grade, at least six years. Later, when Mrs. Abrams heard that, would say she had told me that she always knew I’d use my given name when I had forgiven the past and was ready for the future.
I hadn’t read Huckleberry Finn, but like most kids in America I had read Tom Sawyer in middle school and had met young Huck Finn there. And like most people I knew who lived on the Mississippi River, we knew a lot about Mark Twain and his memoirs, “Life on the Mississippi” and “A Tramp Abroad,” and of course we knew that Huckleberry Finn had been banned because Huck kept using the word nigger to describe Nigger Jim; it didn’t matter that he had been conditioned to say that and his true nature saw Jim as a human and his friend, the book was banned in the south amidst, ironically, rampart racism and hypocracy. But all I said is that I loved it, too, and at that moment it was true. We talked about the book and first amendment for a while, and I told her about Uncle Kieth and his thoughts on the word, and it would be years before I’d meet her family and learn that Cristi’s father had been an African American jazz player from New Orleans who had met her mom at a jazz club in Los Angeles, where Cristi was from and her mom still lived. As I first noticed, she was at peace with all below, and had a heart that was innocent.
Frank came over and told me the CQ sergeant had called, and I had to return. That meant DRF1 had been activated. Still acting non chalantly, I replaced Huckleberry Finn and begrugeounly told Cristi I had to go, that I was on call.
“Oh, you’re one of those 82nd guys,” she said, smirking more than smiling. “We’re used to seeing you in bad shape.” To my surprise, I learned she was in the army, too, and worked in the blood lab of the post hospital. She said she hoped to see me again, and told me that if I ever want to get my blood taken I should ask for her.
“There’s a new policy that probably came from you guys, anyone wanting a STD test can take one as often as they’d like.” Her smirk implied that she had a low opinion of drunken 82nd soldiers spreading sexually transmitted diseases in Fayetteville, and that she probably knew the mayor and post commander had been trying to solve it for years, especially now that AIDS had finally been acknowledged by the government and was no longer considered just a gay disease, especially among soldiers returning from ports all over the world and indulging in whatever they could when at home. I told her I’d try to do that, and collected my comic books from Frank and was back at Fort Bragg within 20 minutes.
The 504th was in chaos as people rushed back to the barracks and suited up. Our phone lines were cut, and no one was allowed to communicate with their loved ones. On television by the CQ desk, reporters converged on the airport and around our barracks and speculated on where we could be going. Most of the time, it was a drill and we were parachuted into an unknown location for a training mission while DRF2 and 3 were increased in readiness to DRF1. But, every two years or so, we deployed on real world missions. The last one had been Desert Shield. Before that was Panama, and before that was Honduras and the Dominican Republic. This time, it would be Haiti.
The situation was that a Haitian coup had left American dignitaries stranded in the embassy. 75% of the civilian population carried the HIV virus, and their blood was assumed to be deadly. We were authorized to shoot and kill any unarmed civilian before they were within splattering distance of any American. Our mission was to capture the airport and protect all Americans and await further orders.
This would be my first time as a squad leader, and I returned from our LT’s situation summary and plopped down with my team and communicated with them.
“I feel like shit,” I began, just to get that out of the way. I didn’t have an abundance of energy, and wouldn’t be joking as much as usual.
I explained the situation and listened to what they understood, and I was surprised at how little anyone knew about how the government worked. Perhaps I knew more because growing up around my Partin family discussing government policies and how that affected the Teamsters union and how the Teamsters union affected the government. My dad would tend to go on long rants with details far above my ability to understand, but over time the words coallesced into a pattern and I was able to understand news more quickly. And I had studied army policies for two years and had progressed in various soldier of this-or-that and had been drilled and questioned; I was up for soldier of the year that year, and a big component of the process was understanding and communicating policies. Or, perhaps I had earned that A in 12th grade civics class and had learned a lot. Regardless, it seems shocking to be given permission to kill unarmed civilians in their country simply because the president deemed it okay.
A nuance of American policy is that the president can order the military to do practically anything they want for 30 days without congressional approval. The policy is meant to cut through bureaocracy for emergencies – no one wants an act of congress to stop invading forces – and the 82nd was America’s Quick Reaction Force and therefore on call to world events that were planned months in advance, like planning to jump into Panama and capture Noriega, or happened surprisingly, like Iraq invading Kuwait and America responding within a few hours. The president is, by definition, the commander in chief and responsible for all branches of the military and our nuclear weapons, and for thirty days they have almost unlimited freedoms. A constitutional amendment added in the 20th centruy allowed congress the ability to deem the president unfit for that power and temporarily remove them from office or, in the case of sickness or surgery, to place the vice president in temporary power, but that ability required an act of congress and was therefore useless to us when we were on DRF1.
Bill Clinton had just become president, and was the first American president without a military background. Many soldiers who voiced their opinions thought that wasn’t right for a commander in chief, and though everyone knew that being a veteran doesn’t mean you’re talented or knowledgable or even care, there was something unsettling about being commanded by someone who had never stared down an enemy and decided who should live. And, Clinton was infamous for his tolerance of homosexuality in the military. Until then, being gay was a less than honorable discharge; more than a few had feigned it to simply get out, or hadn’t feigned it and thought that coming out was safer than staying in a hostile environment with opinionated people who drank freely and may not have believe the Ranger Creed deep down. Clinton had implemented the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that would pave the way for allowing anyone to serve who could meet the requirements, but in 1992 most people were still inclined to believe the late 80’s association of AIDS with gays, and it was common to say that AIDS was God’s way of dealing with homosexuality, as if God were above his own commandments. Clinton, gays, and AIDS were sensitive subjects, and a couple of my young squad members voiced opinions that I felt I had to squelch, so I told them that my foster father had been gay and died of AIDS, and that I had learned a lot about the disease. It was a small lie born from being tired and needing to move the conversation forward, and I proceeded to tell them facts around HIV contamination and to remind them to remain calm in Haiti and follow their conscience and everything would be fine. By then, cherries outnumbered troopers with combat patches, and probably because of that I had credibility and avoided a long debate on morals. I told them about the Ranger Creed, and reminded them that we were a team, and I added that several of the All Americans were latino and could have family there, and to be respectful of their feelings, and someone said something wiser than their years: maybe if your creed viewed us as All Humans we wouldn’t need to discuss this as much, and I think he was probably right.
We received live ammunition and boarded C-141 hours under the watchful eye of television crews and newspaper reporters, and at the last minute our mission was aborted. A peaceful solution had happened. We were all dressed up with no where to go, and DRF2 and 3 had already been moved up in alert status, so we disembarked and unloaded live ammunition and accounted for it, and then reloaded with training blanks and conducted a training drill with all branches of the military and their respective on-call units, just like the teams who had landed in Panama. We reloaded the 141’s and took off, and eight hours later were tired and hungry and grumpy and sore.
I had to poop so badly that I was distracted and could think of nothing but my intestinal fortitude. I was wearing a parachute and approximately 80 pounds of gear in my ruck sack, and it was strapped to my lap with my M16, and to poop I’d have to remove all of that and walk across the legs of almost 90 disgruntled grunts and inch my way to the toliet near the front of the plane. A few people did, and it was an elaborate process that woke up everyone on the plane and put them in the spotlight because they had to walk pecariously and awkwardly across the laps of soldiers already burdened by too much weight, then walk back and put their gear back on and be reinspected by a jump master. Many of us restrained our body functions. Some shit their pants. Most of us had already peed where we sat.
I was leaning back against the webbing separating us from the other rows of soldiers. It hurt my scabbed back, but my stomach and back muscles were too tired from the eight hours flying to keep sitting upright. I couldn’t imagine the flights that had taken 18 hours before dropping soldiers off to fight, like Desert Shield. Two years into my military service, I was still getting surprised by moments of empathy that made me grateful I hadn’t had to do what others had.
The man in front of me looked like he would vomit, and a few guys removed their helmets and handed him a barf bag that we all kept tucked inside. I had already used mine. He was on a mortar team, and he carried the heavy and bulky base plate, and after he vomited a few of us shifted our ruck sacks as best we could and helped him rest the baseplate across our legs to distribute the weight. I tried to not vomit and to not shit my pants, because I didn’t have a bag for either.
We began to descend and the air force was training navigating low to the ground. This was before GPS, and pilots still relied on terrrain features like rivers and roads. Roads were easy – they were usually straight – but rivers twisted and turned and the pilots followed them closely, and soon most people were vommitting so frequently that we ran out of barf bags and would part our legs to puke onto the floor. Finally, blessedly, the doors opened and wind rushed inside and we began preparing to jump.
We stood up and hooked up and walked to the door. The policy for a 141 was to not shuffle, because the 141 had improved space for the increased size of soldiers and our ever growing amount of gear we carried, and new wind deflectors meant we no longer poked our foot out the door. Instead, we stood just behind the door and would take a bigger leap to exit the plane. I was third in line, and I had no doubt I’d leave that plane; the people behind me would push all of us out if we hesitated, and no threat of trees or helicopters would stop us from leaving that plane and pooping and peeing and vommitting outside of that flying casket.
I was right, and as I jumped my peripheal vision saw the green light turn red, and a handful of us kept jumping or falling out as people pushed them. I probably would have pushed me, because anything would have felt better than being stuck inside another minute.
I tumbled through space in the dark of night and counted to 4 and my parachute yanked me after 250 feet and began to slow me down. Even in the best of circumstances our parachutes are designed to fall quickly so that people don’t shoot us in the air, and the impact force of landing is the same as jumping off a two story building. We practiced parachute landing falls religiously, and that minimized the impact and reduced risk of breaking legs, but it never felt good, especially when we added 80 pounds of gear. I can’t imagine what the guy with the base plate would have experienced if he had jumped, and I’m sure he would have preferred to fall quickly with his bulk than to remain in the plane, but he hadn’t made it out in time.
I had just begun to slow down, and I knew it took approximately 200 feet to slow down to falling from a two story building, so I was shocked and alerted when my feet began hitting tree branches. Only combat jumps are from 450 feet, and they’re supposed to be 800 feet, like our DRF1 training jumps or 1200 feet like our casual training jumps, and I quickly surmised that I was in trouble, and then realized we were all in trouble.
I crashed through a few branches and quickly made a choice to lower my ruck sack. This was a conscious choice with a bit of thought, not an action from deep values, and I had quickly wieghed my options: landing with a ruck sack still attached was painful and could break my legs, and lowering it by the 20 foot cord into trees when I was still drifting vertically could create an anchor that caught on a tree branch and slam me into the ground as if I had been swung by a 20 foot rope and generated centrifugal force that would be much greater than just falling. I chose to pull my drop cord, and I had been right in being slammed, though I would never know what would have happened if I had kept the ruck sack on.
My ruck sack caught and I swung downward and automatically collapsed into a parachute landing fall on my right side, and my helmet hit a fallen tree and my head was forced all the way to my left shoulder and I faded in and out of consciousness for a few minutes, surprisingly aware of my parachute drifting around me and wondering how it hadn’t been caught by tree branches. Out of habit I reached for my parachute release straps, the two buckles on my chest harness that released the parachute so you wouldn’t be drug across a drop zone by the wind and could quickly stand up and recover your ruck sack and the M16 still strapped to your leg and commence fighting. I instantly realized I couldn’t move my right arm, and without pausing I undid both buckles with my left hand and tried to regain enough consciousness to focus on the situation.
My arm was numb and sluggish, but I could move it with effort. I’d later learn that I had radiculopathy, radiating nerve damage, and that the nerves that leave our cervical spine radiate down our arms. When my head snapped against my left shoulder, it pulled the nerves so hard that they were strained and became inflamed and blocked or hindered signals to my arm. It’s temporary, and with focus you can use different muscles to move, but at the time I didn’t know that and was concerned that I had broken my neck. I tried to remain still, and used my left hand to inspect my body.
I ran my hand over my torso and right arm didn’t feel broken bones – if you broke your neck, you may not notice broken bones and try to move and severe an artery – and slowly sat up and ran my hand over my legs and I thought I was bleeding and almost paniced, then calmed down and smelled my wet fingers and recognized the stench of vommit and urine that probably covered all of our boots and pant bottoms. I was both relieved and disgusted, and I said out loud that I should have gone to college instead of joining the army.
I was tangled in my parachute cords, the hundreds of thin 550 pound test parachute chord that connected us to the domed ‘chute, and I realized that my parachute hadn’t faired as easily as I had imagined, and though I had released the straps I was still wrapped in a spider web of 550 cord entangled in trees and bushes around me. I took out my Swiss army knife and tried to open it with one hand but couldn’t. Frustrated, I reached for my bayonette, but I had one of the new ones that I felt was useless and hard to weild and sacrificed sharpness for durability and the ability to cut wires, not the yielding thin nylon parachute cords. I cursed and leaned back and cursed again when my scabbed back contacted the log.
By most people’s definition, I was having a long day at the end of two long weeks.
As my consciousness began to settle into a state of consistent awareness, my status as squad leader began to drift into my thoughts and I looked around for lights or reflectors catching moonlight, but the moon was obscured by clouds. I listened, and began to hear a few people struggling among the trees. I concentrated on my right hand and opened the Swiss army knife and cut my cords and disengaged my ruck sack and left my M16 there, and limped into the night. Five of us had left the plane. We didn’t know where we were – we could be anywhere within an eight hour flight of Fort Bragg – and though no one was hurt in a way that needed immediate medical care, no one was happy about being there. We gathered and, like soldiers tend to do, began joking to make things more tolerable. Of course, someone joked that it could always be worse, that it could be raining, and it began raining almost immediately after.
We were found a few hours later, huddled under ponchos and with first aid splints tied to us, grateful to have pooped and peed in the woods and debating whether or not we should have all gone to college instead of joining the army. Our consensus was a resounding yes. Sometimes, something new is better than something old, like being scraped by a knife is better than feeling prickly heat, and we couldn’t imagine anything not being better than being there that morning with rain drops falling from our ponchos and chilling our fatigued and battered bodies.
A few hours after sunrise, a rescue convoy finally reached us. The planes had landed and RoboTop had rallied the troops and they unloaded Humvees that had been packed for extended combat with beans, bullets, water, and fuel. RoboTop was our new first sergeant, a massive human who moved and spoke so methodically that everyone called him RoboTop after the 1980’s movie Robocop. He had no Ranger tab, no Air Assault, and no combat patch. He had an EIB and a heart of gold, and he would never leave any human behind. Beside him was Doc, the D-Company medic, and his professional opinion was that we looked like hell. I didn’t disagree, and I let him help me with my ruck sack and collapsed into the Humvee and fell asleep on the ride back to base. When we arrived, RoboTop asked if we wanted to go to the hospital and all of us said no – all I could think about was sleeping – and he gave us all a pass for the week and he returned to the training exercise. After all that time, the air force had simply done an eight hour loop and practiced their land navigation skills on the way to Fort Bragg, but they had missed McCall Drop Zone and pulled up at the last minute and dropped everyone else off about 30 minutes after our small group had exited the aircraft. No one was at fault, not that it mattered, and even the most ruthless leader would recognize that we needed rest and recuperation, not more training in simulated enviornments.
I woke up the next day and sat in a neighboring battalions chow hall because our cooks were at the training event, and I sat through two breakfasts and even drank a few cups of coffee, a rarity for me. I limped back to our CQ and scheduled an STD test at the post hospital and struggled to walk up the three flights of stairs to our mostly empty barracks. I collapsed in a chair in our common room with a television and VCR machine. A stack of VHS tapes was beside the machine, a random collection of what the 90 men on that floor watched, sort of like a free lending library. There were many porns, a copy of The Blues Brothers that I had watched at least a dozen times, a few of the 1980’s war movies we all knew so well and quoted so often, and a copy of JFK, the Oliver Stone Film that had been released in theaters in December of 1991 and on VHS some time in 1992. I hadn’t thought about President John F. Kennedy since staring at the special forces display in Fort Benning’s infantry museam; a lot had happened since then, and a year and a half seemed like a long time ago. My interest was rekindled and no one was around and I had no energy to go elsewhere for a while, so I rewatched The Blues Brothers and went to lunch and ate two servings and then watched JFK.
Oliver Stone was one of the most famous movie producers of my generation and a household name, but I was still only 19 years young and uninterested in the types of movies he had made. But, the list of cast members was impressive, names I recognized from many other movies I had seen. Kevin Costner portrayed New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Kevin Bacon as a name I didn’t recognize; but I recognized Kevin. Back then, a game a lot of us played was finding seven levels of connection between any film and Kevin Bacon by tracing his appearance with other stars until you saw the pattern. I watched JFK more to see another Kevin Bacon role than interest in the film, which was unsubtle in laying out facts that implied that people inside the FBI and CIA had orchestrated Kennedy’s assassination.
Many facts are not disputed, and many more can be dissected by anyone with biases. Here’s my biased summary:
John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22nd, 1963, at 12:30pm. He was riding through downtown Dallas in the back seat of his open convertible when shots were fired and he was hit and rushed to a nearby hospital and police and federal agents and people and newsmen were a chaotic mess rushing through Dallas; riding with him was the Texas governor, John Connally, who was also shot. A few hours later, Kennedy was pronounced dead, and the governor would live. At approximately the same time, Lee Harvey Oswald was found in a downtown movie theater and arrested under suspicion of killing a police officer immediately after Kennedy was shot. Almost immediately after, he was charged with killing Kennedy and replied by saying he was a patsy, being set up. Two days later, Oswald was handcuffed and being escorted through the Dallas police station on live television, and 110 million people saw him shot and killed by Jack Ruby, a local night club owner and low level strongman for the mafia. Ruby had walked through the police escorts and stood next to handcuffed Oswald and removed a Colt .38 special and shot Oswald in the stomach. Oswald died later that day down the hall from Kennedy.
Ruby was arrested and would be tried and found guilty of murder, and though his defense tried one of America’s earliest “temporary insanity” pleas, Ruby was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison and would would die in prison two years later, frequently changing his story and eventually claiming the government was trying to kill him by giving him cancer. He died of complications related to lung cancer on January 3rd, 1967. He had been a lifelong smoker. Of his many claims from prison, one that I recall most often is that no one would ever know his part in history. He may have been right.
Under American law, Oswald couldn’t be tried because he couldn’t testify on his own behalf. Newly appointed president Lydon Johnson asked Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren to lead an investigation, and his small team spent ten months assembling and reviewing evidence, and the 888 page Warren Report surmised that “President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald acted entirely alone.” Most of the evidence against Oswald was based on discovering his 6.5mm Italian army surplus rifle and it’s recently added sniper scope in a sixth floor room of the Texas Book Depository overlooking where Kennedy’s convertible had been driving. The rifle was proven to be his based on many witnesses, including his wife, and a photo of Oswald posing with his rifle and scope in left-wing, socialist magazines; before he had moved to Dallas that year, he had been a pro-Cuba, pro-Castro organizer in New Orleans, where he had been born, and he had previously defected to the soviet union and married a Russian woman and brought her and their baby back home, and because of that he had already been monitored by the FBI and CIA for years. During the Kennedy investigation, his wife admitted to Oswald claiming to have tried to shoot and kill a well known army general living in Dallas, General Edwin Walker, and bullets pulled from Walker’s home matched Oswald’s rifle; each rifle leaves telltale markings on a bullet that are unique, almost like a fingerprint, and few people doubt our ability to identify which bullets were fired from which gun. A bullet retrieved from near the governor Connally’s hospital bed also matched Oswald’s rifle, and an autopsy on Kennedy would report a similar bullet matching the Italian carbine. In the book depository, police discovered several 6.5mm rounds laid meticulously on the window still, as if the shooter had left them there intentionally, perhaps preparing to shoot more people or stand their ground in the room. But, the room was empty and it was near the movie theater where Oswald had shot police officer Tippit and had been arrested.
To this day, all reputable surveys of Americans shows that most people do not believe the Warren Report, and that a conspiracy was involved. The reasons are plentiful, and the ones that I recall quickly are the dozens of witnesses committed from the Warren Report. Downtown Dallas had been crowded by people wanting to see the president, so there were many people spread all around town who would testify that before they heard shots, they had seen Jack Ruby handing what looked like a rifle in a bag to someone on what would become infamous as “The Grassy Knoll,” and many others would report hearing multiple shots fired coming from the direction of that grassy knoll, not the book depository. Others reported seeing men claiming to be FBI agents escorting local homeless people onto a train to leave Dallas after Kennedy was shot, and that seemed like a low priority for FBI agents and was remarkable for many people. Oswald was a horrible marksman, and his marine shooting records and former teammates attested to that, and after the trial very few experts felt that they could have made the shot from the sixth floor of the book depository; conversely, several said it was possible. (I think I could have made it.) And then Kennedy’s brain disappeared from the autopsy room, and never could be examined for multiple bullet holes. It’s still missing. Finally, there was the question of why the FBI would allow Oswald to defect to the soviet union and then welcome him home, even paying for his flight back to New Orleans with U.S. taxpayer money, and observing him as he tried to fly to Cuba and meet with Castro and handed out pro-Cuba, pro-Castro, anti-America pamphlets around New Orleans. And, ever since returning, Oswald seemed to have good luck finding jobs despite being a marine discharged for less than honorable reasons, a defector, and, generally speaking, a sullen and aloof person that few wanted to be around; someone had even gotten him a job in the Dallas book depository a few weeks before Kennedy was shot.
Stone had based JFK based on the 1988 book by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, a charismatic 6’6″ veteran from Tennesee who had settled in New Orleans in the early 1960’s and won the election for district attorney in 1962. His father had been over seven feet tall and would dress as Uncle Sam to welcome visiting politicians in their hometown of Knoxville, and his grandfather was also a huge man and advocate of patriotism and democracy and law. Garrison had named his oldest son after a famous trial attorney, and he said he believed in a trial by jury and had become suspect of the Warren Report; interestingly, he portrayed Warren in JFK. Garrison had become famous for being the only person to bring people to trial for the murder of President Kennedy in the mid ’60’s, and he had charged Clay Shaw with Kennedy’s murder based on evidence that’s not unreasonable. Shaw was found innocent by a jury, but the facts of Garrison’s book were hard to dispute. At first, like many people, he had believed Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Kennedy Assassination report, but he felt he had unique insight because of his access to information in New Orleans; like most people, Garrison thought the ease by which Oswald returned to America was suspect, but Garrison had access to local information that most people would never have known existed, and his evidence led to a grand jury indicting Clay Shaw for conspiracy to commit murder against John F. Kennedy.
I didn’t know what to think. I recognized names without knowing how I recognized them. Perhaps my mind was creating false memories that weren’t there, or perhaps I was recalling conversations I heard as a kid growing up, or perhaps a bit of both. Some of the facts led back to Baton Rouge, and I pondered that. Lee Harvey Oswald had been there in the 60’s, training a few miles from my grandmother’s house with the Baton Rouge civil air force under the alias Harvey Lee, and Garrison had tried to indict my grandfather based on a testimony that someone had seen him driving Oswald to the airport and another testimony that someone had a photo of Big Daddy and Jack Ruby, who had been an associate of Jimmy Hoffa after his Dallas dump truck company was taken over by the Teamsters. But, those witnesses either disappeared or changed their story, and the photo of Big Daddy and Jack Ruby hasn’t been seen since, and U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy ensured that Big Daddy was free from all federal and state prosecution until Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and my custody hearings began.
But, none of that was in the JFK film, and I sat alone and wondered what had happened. I recalled the FBI agents at Big Daddy’s funeral and the man I had seen in New Orleans and New York, and for a brief moment my mind jumped at other coincidences and I almost felt that all of my life had been a conspiracy theory. But then I felt hungry again and leaned forward and grimaced at the feeling of my shirt sticking to the scabs on my back, and I walked to the neighboring chow hall and had two servings of dinner and began looking forward to my appointment for an STD test the next day.
The 504th returned a week later, and life continued as usual.
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