A Charmed Life
Chapter 18: The Dogs of War
Copyright© 2016 by The Outsider
19 December 1989 - Airborne - Southbound, over the Gulf of Mexico
The cadence got it wrong.
Jeff’s little trip was on a C-141 Starlifter aircraft, one of hundreds delivering an early Christmas present to Panama. Follow-on troops may be traveling on C-130s, but not the initial wave. Jeff woke from his nap. He reviewed the plan for the jump one more time before putting the map away. If he didn’t know it by now he never would. I don’t think this is going to end like ‘Golden Pheasant’ did, Jeff thought. He referred to the not-quite combat insertion he’d taken part in last March; unlike that jump into Honduras, combat looked to be a certainty for the 504th PIR this time.
He saw a mix of emotions on the faces of his fire team when he looked down the row of seats. The new members of the squad, Adler and Feller, didn’t look nervous at all; they were sleeping. Both were experienced soldiers and transferred into the 82nd at their own request. Williams and Sledz, however, looked scared.
“Hey!” he yelled to Williams over the scream of the plane’s engines. “Take a deep breath, man! You scared?” Williams nodded. “Good! Me, too!” Williams shot him a surprised look. “You’d have to be crazy not to be! There’s only one way off this plane, and that’s through those doors back there! The first step’s like a thousand feet high!” Williams appeared to chuckle, shaking his head. He nodded to Jeff.
Jeff motioned for Williams to switch places with Sledz. The two privates swapped places and Jeff repeated his little speech. Sledz was more nervous than Williams before Jeff’s pep talk. The man started laughing uncontrollably after; he thanked Jeff after three minutes of laughter.
“Just remember, Manny, that ‘bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.’ You and Rick have performed properly since you guys got here. Shit, you didn’t even budge when Doc cut Oscar Infante’s neck that day! If that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is!”
“Where have I heard that first thing you said before?”
“The person who said that was the first ever division commander of the 82nd, General of the Army Omar N. Bradley. That might be why you’ve heard it before.”
The interior lighting was “rigged for red” the entire flight; this was to preserve the night-vision of the troopers before they jumped. Now the red pre-jump warning lights came on near the doors they would be jumping out.
Third Squad was assigned a security sweep outside the LZ perimeter. They were one of the units pushing the American-controlled envelope around Omar Torrijos Airport outward; they’d be far from other supporting units, but they weren’t worried about it. Their assigned reconnaissance patrol was routine, up until the point it was not, up until about thirty minutes ago. It was then that they’d stumbled across a Panamanian Defense Forces patrol which launched a hasty ambush at them. Years of training the PDF in American tactics came back to bite them in the fourth point of contact; the PDF knew where to concentrate their fire to do the most damage to the squad. They caught squad leadership conferring when the patrol stopped.
John Tyler and Frank Breckenridge were killed immediately while Cory Song was wounded; he was now unconscious. The squad bounded away from the site of the attack after assaulting through the attempted PDF ambush and wiping the enemy forces out. Williams and Sledz carried the dead. American forces did not leave their fallen on the battlefield.
SPC Herman Adler and PFC Norm Feller limped along, carrying Song in a poncho between them. Feller was the squad’s RTO - radio-telephone operator, or radio man. He also carried the destroyed radio as they made their way away from the ambush site; the PDF would know they were out of contact if they found it. Jeff carried Adler’s M-60 and extra ammo, his own weapon slung across his back. While the squad eliminated the PDF force that tried to ambush them, the Americans knew another PDF force would find their trail and try to hit them again. Survival was far from assured.
Ken was acting squad leader with Tyler and Breckenridge dead and Song out of action. He looked over the terrain he’d selected for the squad’s hasty patrol base site. It was nasty: partial swamp separated from the trail by thick brush, and buzzing with mosquitos; in other words, it was the perfect place for a patrol base. The enemy would have to look hard for their trail in, and the site allowed them an escape route. Third Squad needed to hole up. Ken began to pick out spots for the members of the squad to use as their fighting positions.
“What now, Ken?” Jeff whispered. Jeff spoke in English to avoid any possible confusion during translation. Jeff looked at Ken but it was too dark to see Ken’s face, just his silhouette. Jeff was also lucky that Ken couldn’t see him, either. Jeff suspected his left arm was bleeding and already soaking through his BDUs.
“We’ve got to get this perimeter set up quickly before the PDF come back,” Ken whispered back to his friend. “Conserve ammo, water, rations and hold out until the sun comes up and we get relieved. If they hit us and we can’t get away, we give ‘em everything we’ve got.” The pair and the rest of the squad bent to the task and got the perimeter set up. Ken and Jeff, who was now Ken’s assistant squad leader, met to discuss what else needed to be accomplished.
Before they could start, they saw a flash of something outside their perimeter; without a moment’s hesitation Ken shoved Jeff backwards. He landed hard as he heard Ken’s grunt of pain. Williams and Sledz returned fire while the rest of the squad held steady; the shot came from outside of their sectors. A cry pierced the darkness and the two ceased fire. Jeff rushed to Ken’s side, his heart in his throat.
“Through-and-through to my bicep,” Ken said through clenched teeth. “I’m okay.” Jeff thought Ken needed work on his definition of “okay.” Jeff tore away the arm of Ken’s BDU shirt before opening a first aid pouch; under the dim light of a red-filtered flashlight he dressed the wound as best he could. Jeff grabbed the grenades off Ken’s LBE to hand out to others in the squad. He took the Claymore mines out of Ken’s pack and put them in an empty rucksack he’d stripped off one of the dead. He collected more mines from the squad, including the deceased. Jeff thought their lieutenant was nuts when he’d told them to take the mines before they’d left. Jeff was now grateful that he’d insisted.
“I’ll be right back,” he whispered.
“The hell you will!” Ken whispered back.
“Ken, I’m the only one not wounded in the leg. I’m the only one of us that can still move around. The rest of you guys are already starting to stiffen up and we need to get this done before the PDF hit us again.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to make this a very expensive piece of ground for the PDF.” Jeff handed Ken a large, soft-sided case. “These are Tyler’s PVS-7s. I’m taking Song’s and I’m going out to even the odds a little. I’ll flash the active IR source every hour on the hour to let you know I’m okay. I’ll flash a reverse SOS with my flashlight to tell you that I’m coming back in: three longs, three shorts, three longs, okay? Get these guys home if I don’t make it back.”
Jeff was gone before Ken could object. By the time Ken had the night vision goggles out and on, his friend was nowhere to be seen.
That’s what registered first when consciousness returned. The pain centered around Jeff’s left chest and arm. His returning memory let him recognize the pain as a good thing; he’d been in combat so the pain meant that he was still alive, at least for the moment. Next to register was the steady whine he heard even through what he guessed were headphones over his ears. The whine was one he recognized - the engines of a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane. He’d been on one only once, for a trip home last year, but the sound was hard to forget. He tried opening his eyes. Even the low-level lighting hurt at first; over a few minutes he was able to make out the shapes of people near him.
There were two women nearby, officers both. They wore Air Force flight suits and wore aircrew headsets with microphones. His litter was at their waist-height, and he could see their insignia; a first lieutenant was briefing a lieutenant colonel. The colonel, from what Jeff could see of her, looked familiar for some reason. Her height and the patches on her flight suit reminded him of someone he’d met once; when she looked up from what the lieutenant was showing her, he did recognize her.
Jeff thought he was close enough to reach the colonel despite the IV lines taped into his right arm; he reached out to touch her elbow. The lieutenant noticed his movement. Her glance at him caused the colonel to notice and turn towards him as well. She had a hint of tears in her eyes; she rested her hand on his arm and smiled down at him.
“Wrong party, Colonel,” he mouthed in an exaggerated fashion from under his oxygen mask. The lieutenant relayed his message to the colonel through her headset. The colonel nodded and grabbed a pad from her pocket. She scribbled a quick note.
Sleep - Long flight - I’ll come back.
He nodded and drifted back into unconsciousness.
Jane Donnelly looked down at the young man on the litter, wishing that her daughter’s best friend wasn’t so badly wounded. Lieutenant Mia DiNapoli was briefing her on his injuries - penetrating trauma to the left anterior chest and left upper arm, pneumothorax, hemothorax, massive blood loss, dehydration - when they’d both seen his movement. As badly hurt as he was, he wasn’t the worst on the flight. But he was the only wounded soldier she knew.
“Ma’am?” came the voice over her headset. “Are you alright?” Jane turned; she saw Lt. DiNapoli looking at her with concern.
“No, Lieutenant, not really,” was Jane’s honest reply. “This soldier is my daughter’s best friend. I thought, or maybe hoped, that he was going to become my son-in-law, but my daughter and he said that feeling just wasn’t there. They’re very close now, like brother and sister.” Jane sighed. “I’m not looking forward to telling her he’s been wounded.”
“My condolences, ma’am. I knew you were concerned about him, but now I understand why. What did he mean, ma’am, when he said ‘wrong party?’”
“Last December I was flying a cargo mission out of Pope to Westover Air Force Base, which is just outside of Springfield, Massachusetts. The corporal was flying Space-A. His family Christmas party was that day and he was trying to surprise them; he hadn’t told anyone he was trying to come home. He was the only person other than my crew on board, so I let him sit on the flight deck.” Jane paused to compose herself.
“This young man really, really impressed me and my officers. He gives you a good vibe right away. He was reading a book about a possible conventional third World War. The title escapes me at the moment ... I think it had a color in the title?”
“I think I know the one you mean, ma’am. Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising?“
The colonel nodded. “That’s the one. He’s a voracious reader, and a huge history buff. The rest of my flight crew had read it and said that he really had some good insights on the book. They were particularly impressed with his knowledge of the state of NATO and Warsaw Pact forces and capabilities back then, and that he provided a few alternate scenarios based on his knowledge.”
“When we got to Westover, my daughter arrived to pick me up while I was cleaning up; the two of them hit it off like nothing I’ve ever seen. Their history debates over the next couple of weeks were very insightful and even beneficial for Heather when she went back to school. She said he provided viewpoints she hadn’t considered, or heard in class; she’s used one or two to construct arguments for her papers since then.” Jane sighed again. “For those two weeks they were all but inseparable; they were always together, either at my parents’ place, his parents’ place, or off somewhere together. My dad’s a retired paratrooper, the former commander of the same regiment the corporal is in now; it usually takes him a long time to trust someone new around ‘his girls.’ That’s my daughter Heather, my mom, and me. He liked the corporal right away - again, something else I’ve never seen.”
“At the end of those two weeks, when it was time for Heather to head back to school and for him to report back to his unit, the two of them had a very adult conversation about their relationship. That’s when they decided that while they loved each other, they weren’t in love with each other and that they considered themselves siblings. Mom and Dad were disappointed that he wouldn’t be marrying Heather, and I think I was too.” She shook her head.
“Thank you, Lieutenant, for listening to me ramble,” Jane said, drawing herself up straight. “I’ll get back to my job, so that you can get back to yours. Thank you for briefing me.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
Jane Donnelly found a dark corner in her cavernous aircraft and cried for the young man she considered an adopted son.
An exhausted Jane Donnelly dropped into a desk chair later that day. She was in her Visiting Officer’s Quarters room at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. She looked longingly at the full-sized bed mere inches from her, but knew she had a couple of calls to make before she could lie down. She picked up the phone and dialed a number she’d memorized in childhood.
“MOM! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Heather; I’m just tired. It’s been a long few days. After I hang up with you and make one other call, I’m taking a shower and sleeping until Christmas.”
“Mom, Jeff’s been wounded in Panama,” Heather told her, near tears. “Kara said they haven’t told her family much beyond that Jeff was wounded and flown back to Walter Reed in Washington.”
“I know about Jeff, Heather,” Jane sighed. “He was on the aircraft I flew into Andrews just now. I need to call his parents; would you give me their number in Enfield?” Jane wrote down the number as Heather gave it to her. “Heather, I talked to the flight surgeon on the plane - Jeff is badly hurt but he woke up and recognized me, and he was awake again when we landed and they unloaded him. The surgeon said those were very good things. He’ll be okay.”
“Thanks, Mom,” her daughter replied, relief clear in her voice. “I love you. Get some sleep. I’ll tell Grammy and Grampy you’re safe and that you’ll call after you wake up.”
“I promise, Heather,” Jane replied. “Love you, too. Bye.” She dreaded making the next call. Taking a deep breath, she dialed the number she’d just written down.
“Hello?” came the emotion-laden voice of Marisa Knox.
“Marisa? It’s Jane Donnelly.”
“Hi, Jane. Are you alright? You sound pretty beat.” It was clear to Jane where Jeff got his concern for others after she’d met his parents; the boy - man, she corrected herself - was raised right.
“I’m fine, thanks, Marisa,” Jane confirmed. “It was ‘all hands on deck’ for this operation, as my colleagues in the Navy would say. Heather told me that Jeff was wounded in Panama? How much information did the Army give you?”
“Very little, I’m afraid. We know he’s been flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. The team that came to the house didn’t have any information for us on how bad his injuries are.”
Jane sighed once again that day. “I already knew Jeff had been injured even before I spoke to Heather, Marisa. I was the pilot of the plane that brought Jeff here to D.C.; I’m calling you from Andrews Air Force Base.”
“JOE! KARA! COME HERE! Jane Donnelly was the pilot of the plane that just flew Jeff to Walter Reed! Jane, please tell us everything you can about Jeff’s condition.”
“As I said, Marisa, I flew Jeff to D.C. today; we landed about an hour ago. I have a list of his injuries here.” Jane read them off to Marisa, who sobbed into the receiver while she did. “When I read Jeff’s name on the flight manifest, my heart was in my throat. I left the flight deck as soon as I was able to see how he was doing and get a report on his condition; Jeff woke up and recognized me while I was in the cargo hold being briefed. He was awake again for the last hour of the flight and stayed awake until he was unloaded, according to his nurse. I spoke to the surgeon on the flight; he assured me that Jeff’s being awake and being able to recognize me was a very good thing. He’ll need lots of rehab, but he should heal up fine.”
“Jane, thank you for calling to give us this information. I know we will be headed down to D.C. to see Jeff as soon as we can. Will you be in town long?”
“Honestly, I don’t know, Marisa. I haven’t received my next orders yet. So far, I only know that I have the rest of today and tomorrow off, then I’ll be checking back in with the host wing’s office on the twenty-fourth. What I have heard is that casualties are nowhere near as bad as they were expected to be, so I might not be flying back south.”
“Thank heaven for small favors,” Marisa muttered. “As for visiting Jeff, Joe and I will coordinate things with your family here.”