Monday, November 04, 2013

The Army I Knew: Grenada 2, or, Bo-ring Backstory

To understand Grenada you have to understand that in October, 1983 the United States had a peacetime Army.

Not that the United States was really "at peace".
(Is the United States ever really at peace? I mean, we're almost as bad as the Romans - if we had a Temple of Janus I'll bet the doors would be as open as a Kardashian's zipper.)
We were all in the midst of the then-thirty-eight-year-old Cold War and although the political tensions between the Soviets and the U.S. were a lot less naked than they had been when the two almost went to war over missiles twenty years earlier there was still a lot of ugly posturing and proxy fights.

In particular the Caribbean and Central America was in the middle of an unusually brutal period in a long, brutal history. The rebellion in El Salvador was going on its bloody way, and the Contra war in Nicaragua had been raging for the previous four years. Everybody in the region knew that los norteamericanos had their little patty-fingers in both the Nicaraguan and El Salvadorian pies along with a lot of quiet dirty business in the surrounding countries of Honduras and Panama.

But the Army - the "regular" Army, not the snake-eaters and the secret snoopy-poopy boys - was a peacetime Army.

I know, I're all, like "WTF, dude? What's with all the backstory? When do we get to the embarrassing personal anecdotes and Army toilet humor? We gotta sit through all this shit first? This is bo-RING!" And I apologize, but to really understand what happened at the edge of the Caribbean Trench in October, 1983 you gotta get this, you have to step into the Wayback Machine and really grok who we were and where we were back in the day.

So get over it.

Anyway, it's hard to emphasize enough how cherry we were. Most of us hadn't seen an angry Viet. The relative handful of Vietnam vets were all very senior NCOs and field-grade officers; there was almost nobody to teach combat's hard lessons.

We were trained, sure. We trained hard five days a week, in the piney woods around Fort Bragg, where I was a medic in the Third Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Now things had been changing since I'd joined in 1980. The cartoon VOLAR guys, the fuckoffs and dope smokers and sandbaggers, were slowly being chaptered out, and the barracks were not dangerous places for duty NCOs and officers after close of business anymore.

Training standards were being pushed back up; Ft. Irwin, the National Training Center, was forcing the mech guys to learn to fight again, and the training center for light infantry was getting spun up at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas (it came on-line in '85, too late for me, St. Barbara of the artillery be thanked. Going to the later incarnation at Ft. Polk was bad enough, thanks...)

But we were still, fundamentally, a peacetime Army. The whole "it's not just a job, it's an adventure" spirit hadn't sunk it. It was just a job.

A little dirtier and more time-consuming than most, but, still, a job. We looked at it as a way to make a living. We, at least most of us privates, saw ourselves as working stiffs with a steady paycheck, not some sort of warrior or ferocious mercenary. We still told the old jokes and sang the old songs the draftees had invented about the Vietnam Army. You still heard pissed-off GIs talk about FTA; "Fuck The Army", the slogan of the unwilling draftee.

We figured that it would be decades, if ever, before our country stuck its dick into other peoples' wars again, that when we fought it would be in the Big One, the next World War, or, at the very least, when some other country really cocked a snook at us as the Iranians had back in '79 with the Tehran hostages.

So could hardly have payed any less attention to what was happening on a little pissant island in the southeastern Caribbean that month.

Back in '79 the then-Prime Minister of Grenada was a truly bizarre mook named Sir Eric Gairy.

This character, the first PM of independent Grenada, had a monster kink about UFOs. He used a pantsload of Grenada's tiny budget "investigating" why the visitors from Alpha Centauri used Grenada like other tourists used La Guardia Airport. It was while he was in New York City at a UN conference on UFOs that his political rival, a guy named Maurice Bishop, took over the whole darn island.

Bishop, like a lot of people who took over their countries from the old colonial powers in those days, found that if he wanted help he needed to get it from the Reds. He invited Castro to send money and "volunteers", took whatever he could from the Soviets, and generally made himself a Commie nuisance to the new U.S. President Ronnie Reagan.

Bishop and his "New Jewel Movement" bubbled along in a lazily-tropical sort of soviet fashion for about four years. Then here's what happened, according to the BBC:
"Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard and General Hudson Austin, commander of the Grenadian Armed Forces, objected to Mr Bishop's decision to try and forge closer ties with the United States.

On 13 October the ruling party met and decided Mr Bishop should be put under house arrest. On 14 October, official radio reported the resignation of Mr Coard because of rumours he had plotted to kill the prime minister. And on 17 October, General Austin denied there had been a military coup but said Mr Bishop had been expelled from the NJM for refusing to share power and disgracing the revolution.

Following the release of Mr Bishop from house arrest, he and his supporters had marched towards the military headquarters Fort Rupert where he believed loyal army officers were being detained. On his arrival in the early afternoon, troops, commanded by General Austin, fired on the crowd and it is reported that dozens of demonstrators were killed. General Austin has said that Mr Bishop was threatening to bring down the leadership of the armed forces and the NJM, and was killed as soldiers stormed the fort. But other accounts say that Mr Bishop was taken prisoner and shot dead at Fort Rupert along with three ministerial colleagues and two union leaders."
I won't kid you; I have no idea what life was like on the Spice Island under either Gairy or Bishop but from what I can tell it sounds like there was little to choose between the two of them; Gairy the tinfoil hat loon and Bishop the wanna-be Lenin. Both had their goon squads in an attempt to be Papa Doc on a vest-pocket scale. Both sound like fairly useless pains-in-the-ass if you just wanted to have a decently honest government and a quiet life.

The big difference seems to be that Gairy was brutal and corrupt mostly in ways that most people in the United States didn't give a shit about.

Bishop, on the other had, was a Commie Red and didn't care who knew about it. You know that had to irk the hell out of the sort of people in the U.S. who were all wrapped around the axle about Commies, regardless that those Commies were largely dirt-poor island shitkickers whose idea of revolutionary zeal meant knocking a half hour off their afternoon nap. Grenada in 1983 wasn't quite the Stronghold of Revolution in the Eastern Caribbean; they didn't exactly have the Caribbean version of the Soviet Red Army or the Red Banner Caribbean Fleet.

What they did have, though, was a big-ass ginormous runway.

This was one of Uncle Fidel's projects, where his earthmovers and pavers went for a tropical working vacation. And I also have no idea whether it was supposed to be there in order to stage Soviet bombers and transport aircraft or 747s full of tourists. But if you asked a U.S. government source, then or since, it was the next worst thing since those missiles in Cuba back in the day, the tip of the mailed Soviet finger pointing towards the Free World.

So - regardless of what was really happening or why - when the Austin-Cooard clown show kicked off in October of 1983 it gave those in the U.S. who had been looking for a reason to "do something" about the whole Grenadian Commie thing an excuse to do that something.

And one of those somethings was me, then-Doc Chief, who on the evening of Monday, 24 OCT 1983 was out in Area J playing soldier.

Playing medic, to be specific.

The Division had held an Expert Field Medical Badge test earlier in 1983 and the Division docs hadn't done well.

In a peacetime Army qualification badges like the EFMB and the better-known Expert Infantryman's Badge were an important block to check; battalions wanted their medics to get badged and Division wanted a bagful of EFMBs to prove that their medics were well-trained.

So tanking the EFMB was Not A Good Thing.

With every swinging richard sporting a Combat Medical Badge these days the importance of the EFMB may seem diminished, but in 1983 the 82nd Airborne wasn't kidding around. Us medics actually liked the EFMB in those days because it meant a week or so of easy duty, in civvies at 5:30 and nights in bed, our own or whosever we could talk our way into. The Division decided that October that this was part of the problem, and ordered all of us to pack our rucks and head to the woods to keep our heads in the EFMB game.

Mind you, the "woods" weren't exactly deep in the trackless piney woods. We were bivouacked out in what was called "Area J", the closest portion of the large range area west of main post and within easy walking distance (through Division headquarters parking lot) of our barracks. There it is, on the map below:

Now for us salty infantry medics all this was ridiculous. Pretending to be hardcore mosstroopers might have been fine for the REMF-medics of 307th Medical Battalion or the even-REMFier docs from MEDDAC who worked in whites at the troop medical clinics or over at Womack Army Hospital. But we were real line doggies; heat-tab toting, poncho-hootch living earthpigs.

As soon as we found a place to string our hootch my buddy Woodus and I slipped out back to our barracks where our pals had brought in beer and pizza to the third-floor medic billets. We laughed and joked and drank and scarfed pizza and finally headed back to the "woods" just before midnight.

That was when we got the first hint we had that the "something" was going on. As we walked through the shadows under the streetlights in the Head Shed parking lot the night above us thundered with the roar and whine of C-141s.

We wondered whether the Division Ready Battalion (that night it was one of the 325s over in Second Brigade) was cycling out on an EDRE, one of the periodic deployment exercises Division would run to see whether the ready unit had its shit together. We talked about our previous EDREs and other military pains-in-the-ass.

As we walked and talked we noticed an Army sedan come barrelling up the driveway like Vin Diesel drifting through the Ginza, slam to a stop in front of the main doors, and the driver bust out and sprint inside.

We could see his beret insignia under the flat, hard electric light. He was a major.

Woodus looked at me and I looked at Woodus.

Majors don't sprint, you see. No field officer does, unless it's some sort of sporting event and he's running for his unit. Field-grade officers march, or saunter, or stroll in the manner of the Princes of the Earth, since they own it and everything within it. Something must have been chasing that major like a burning devil with pitchfork out to make him sprint.

We shrugged, and continued on our way back to our hootch in the woods. Whatever it was it was above our echelon. We had field medicking to do in the morning, it was late, and we were tired and full of pizza and beer.

But between the takeoffs and the sprinting major we later admitted that we were both a trifle unsettled as we bunked down under our ponchos. We had a sort of itching suspicion that there was something going on but just couldn't figure out what the hell it was.

Trust me; we didn't fucking know the half of it.

(Next time: Grenada 3, or, The Specialist Fourth Class History of a Campaign That Failed)


Leon said...

Looking forward to the story now Chief. Looking at your picture, I have to ask: do you have a younger brother who plays hockey?

Brian said...

Great beginning, looking forward to the next chapter!
I was in the Canadian Forces about the same time, our troops had last had hostile fire directed at them in Korea (except for the odd incident on Cyprus, etc.).
A world apart.

FDChief said...

Leon: Funny, Dion looks like Scary Me; I hope I never wore that face unintentionally. 'Course, playing for the Leafs, well...

My ex-wife used to say that in those old pictures I looked like Lance Armstrong with bigger ears. I guess I never saw the resemblance (and I sure didn't see the cash flow...)

Brian: Yep. Seems like a gajillion years ago, doesn't it?

Lisa said...

A good opening, and I must say, your simile -- "doors would be as open as a Kardashian's zipper" -- had me smiling ruefully.

K. ... the mod version of Jack the Zipper. Somehow, the bloom is off the rose. K., whom the AP tells us today has been made "an honest woman".

How can a vulgarian be elevated by another of her ilk? Impossible!