It’s about three months since I broke my ankle. It was a fluke accident – I still don’t know how I fell. When I finally got to the emergency room I found that I sustained some very serious damage when I fell – which doesn’t surprise me as it sounded like someone tearing a drumstick off a Thanksgiving turkey as the fracture happened. They had to use pins and plates to put my ankle back together and I had to spend five days in the hospital before they let me escape. I’ve spent more than a month in a wheelchair and I’m now wearing a “boot” and using a walker. I’ve wanted to “murmur” about this but the thought keeps coming to me that while this kind of injury is very common in airborne units it never happened to me in the dozen or so jumps I made while I was a paratrooper.
In the mid-1980’s I spent two years as the S2 (Intelligence Officer) for 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group ABN (UTARNG). Given our mission it was a very interesting experience but the duty was always a bit surreal for me. I was part of the unit, but at the same time I was separate in many ways. I was a Military Intelligence officer adrift in a sea of infantrymen (this was before the 18-series MOS) and I had been on active duty while most of the other officers had spent their entire careers in the National Guard. That made for some awkward moments when I joined the unit as a captain; I would encounter individuals who had been a year or two ahead of me in R.O.T.C. but through the vagaries of the Reserve Officer Personnel Act were serving a rank below me as a first lieutenant.
I think my motivation was a bit different as well. It wasn’t so much an ego boost that I was after when I joined the unit as it was the desire to do interesting, relevant work. Ego had very little to do with it, in fact I felt just the opposite. One day I was sorting through some publications and came across a bulletin on Russian Naval Infantry and Spetnaz units – our counterpart in the Soviet force structure. I looked at those grim-faced hardened professional fighting men and the thought came to me “If I’m the only thing that stands between these guys and my country we are in BIG trouble”.
But ultimately it all came back to my being a square peg in a round hole – my weapons of war were photos, maps and a briefing chart while those around me carried rifles. At times I felt isolated but I loved my work, my interest in intelligence work went back to sixth grade when I watched Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin battle the nefarious agents of T.H.R.U.S.H on the Man from U.N.C.L.E every Tuesday night at 9:00 PM. That was also just about the same time I found out about Special Forces; along with every other eleven-year old in the nation I kept my transistor radio constantly tuned in waiting for the DJ to play “The Ballad of The Green Berets” by SGT Barry Sadler. Cool song, but I didn’t know enough about Special Forces mission to understand all the jargon in the song. For quite awhile I thought the opening verse “Fighting soldiers from the sky!” meant that Green Berets literally fought other paratroopers as they dropped on them out of the sky like giant pigeons.
When I first came on board with the 19th I spent a lot of time studying to make up the gap in knowledge; that and my active duty experience got me up to speed fairly quickly…which isn’t always a good thing for me. When I am learning something new that off-balance feeling keeps me working hard. I like to do a good job so I’d work hard to make up for any gaps in my knowledge. It’s when things get easy that I get “difficult”…or as the saying goes “Morale is the lowest when the duty is easiest”
There was also a bit of frustration built into the S2 position itself. During peace-time most of what you do is fabricated for training, so little of what I said outside of weather briefings and map issue was taken seriously. I was also very uneasy about how I would handle things if we did get mobilized. I was confident in my own abilities but that confidence could only go so far. We had very limited resources but some very big promises had been made about what the battalion could do if called to active duty. I often wondered “what they’d been smoking” when our readiness plans were put together – and hoped they’d saved a little of it to use when Mobilization Day came.
For example, contrary to the usual TOE (table of organization & equipment) I had no regular trained Intel sergeants working for me; rather each time we would operate I had to train personnel drawn from the operational detachments or an associated Military Intelligence unit based in another state. It worked about as well as you’d imagine so in order to deliver good product I had to spend long hours outside of paid drill to gather information and prepare intelligence annexes to the battalion’s many operation orders.
I was rarely compensated for the extra work and as you might well imagine my attitude began to slip. I took great pains to be the consummate professional but in my best passive-aggressive style I acted out my frustration. During classified exercises we all had to wear photo identification tags clipped to our lapels. I went a step further – underneath the lapel with the badge I clipped a triangular yellow I.D. badge that came with the Man from U.N.C.L.E. rifle I got for Christmas in 1965.
During the summer of 1984 the site of our Annual Training period was abruptly changed from a fairly exotic location to Gowan Field just outside of Boise Idaho. Maybe it was because I had just seen Star Trek III: The Search for Spock but as I frantically worked long hours to change all of the materials I had prepared for the first area my voice fell into William Shatner’s trademark staccato pattern of speech ( ‘We have four hundred…and….thirty-three-men-in-this-battalion. I can’t…..allow any of….them to…come-to-needless-harm!”). I have been known to stutter when under extreme pressure so I imagine that is how the Kirk-speech stared, but once it started I couldn’t stop. I was extremely fortunate that the neither the battalion commander or command sergeant major were Trekkies.
There finally reached a point where I needed to move on. I had come to reconciliation with the idiosyncrasies of an elite unit functioning in a Reserve setting, but fate – or rather a wicked wind-shear during a night parachute jump intervened. I ended up with two compressed discs in my spine, but had to pay my own medical care because the report had been left overlooked and unprocessed for months in an in-box. I had mixed emotions; at one fell swoop over half of the stress in my life was gone and I no longer had to hide my beret when my mom came to visit…. but at the same time I would be leaving two friends who were some of the finest soldiers I had ever known, and to this day I know that if I ever had to move books, a piano or a body I could count implicitly on John Taylor and Jerry McNinch
It’s not a part of my life that I regularly reminisce about. It was one of the shortest duty assignments of my military career and the most impact it had on my life was the aforementioned back injury which has plagued me for my entire life. Even when it wasn’t causing pain that injury was negatively impacting my health. Positive diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis was delayed for at least 10 years because symptoms from that spinal condition were consistently misdiagnosed as stemming from “that old jump injury”, and had not my recent ankle fracture resembled a classic jumper’s “tib-fib” I don’t think I would have been prompted to write this blog.
There were definitely benefits. The pay was good and helped sustain us while my freelance career was just starting. I was privileged to participate in some very “interesting” training exercises conducted in some “interesting locales”. I met people from all over the world, made a couple of solid (to this day) friendships and I still have my beret, only now I hang it in plain view.
Best of all? I was no longer confused about the lyrics to Barry Sadler’s song!