It was cold and wet, in North Carolina, on December 18, 1989. Our first indication that this would be more than just another training exercise was when the word came down to wear jungle boots and lightweight fatigues. Jungle boots were forbidden during the winter, because the metal plate in the sole of the boots, for protection against punji sticks, had lead to a number of frostbite cases, in the past.
Gear in hand, we moved to a containment area to prepare for what was still being called a training exercise. Not long after we arrived, however, a seemingly endless convoy of ammunition trucks began pouring into the containment area, and the ruse was up. Like 1,500 children on Christmas morning, we began loading-up on bullets, mines, rockets, grenades and whatever else we could find – it was more “toys” than we had ever seen, before.
The North Carolina weather was relentless and by the time we began loading into planes, temperatures were in the low 20’s and it was freezing rain. De-icing equipment was limited, so it took a long time for the C-141 Starlifters to take to the skies and they did so, sporadically, over the next 24 hours. My flight probably consisted of about six planes, each with 120 Paratroopers onboard.
Most were too exhausted, at this point, to be scared. We had been up for over 24 hours and the drone of the jet engines lulled everyone to sleep, quickly. Our target was the Torrijos International Airport, in Panama City. We were to secure the airport so that follow-on troops could land there, and also to keep Panamanian officials from escaping.
It was a shock, when the doors opened over Panama and the hot air began filling the interior of the jet. I guess it was probably around 2:00 or 3:00 AM, on the morning of December 20th, as we folded-up the troop seats and connected our static lines to the long cables that ran down the center of the plane. We would be dropped at 500 feet – some 300 feet lower than our regular training jumps.
As I exited the plane, there was an overwhelming sense of quiet and calmness, which I thought strange at the time. My parachute opened and I lowered my rucksack quickly, because the ground was coming up fast. I prepared to land by putting my body in a position to roll into the direction that I was drifting – and commended to fall through 20-feet of elephant grass and land on my back. The heat and humidity was oppressive, and it took me about 30 minutes to work my way out of the elephant grass, back onto the runway.
The taking of the airport was rather anti-climatic, but the chaos of war would ensue over the next few days, as we engaged Panamanian forces around the city. There is no glory in war, but the bonds that develop among those that risk their lives are as strong as family, and I’m proud that I still maintain contact with many of these great men, to this day.