by Wesley Jurena
Author’s Note: This was posted on my personal blog around the 20th anniversary of Operation Just Cause (OJC) in 2009.
It’s my version and my opinions, everyone else’s mileage may vary.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Many of you who read this know that quote above and many of you know that I have always subscribed to the “Quiet Professional” ethos that was beaten into my head as a young Ranger. I don’t talk much if at all about any of my accomplishments or things I did or participated in. I will share humor that is relatable simply because we can all relate to it. I don’t see my accomplishments as worthy to stand with the GWOT Rangers of today.
But as 12 /20 arrives and as the 20th anniversary ( now 32nd!) of Just Cause has arrived, I look back and realize that I have stood in the arena, my face has been marred by dust, sweat, and blood. I have known the greatest of enthusiasms and devotions and spent myself in a worthy cause. And I have dared greatly and my place will never be with those cold timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.
So, for this weekend, I’ll hold my shoulders a little further back, I’ll stand a little taller and I’ll share a story with those great men with who I was lucky to have served side by side.
The apartment was 800 square feet. It was just off Abercorn, past the Krystal Burger about 4 miles from the Hunter Army Airfield Gate. It was a 2-bed room, 1 bath decorated in junior enlisted “motif”. The couch was a twin bed with plastic milk crates for end tables. The recently purchased entertainment center was warping under the weight of the television as only Wal Mart craftsmanship can. The dining room table was chrome and bamboo put together with an allen wrench also purchased at Wal Mart.
1989 had been a busy year for myself and 1/75 Rangers. We deployed early in the year to Panama for the Jungle Operations Training Course, then I would head off to Ranger School which with Pre- Ranger comes to about 90 days. Shortly after that return, we deployed to Jordan to train with their special forces. It seems right after that we began a JRT rotation with all the other special operations forces. Which led right up to December the 15th. Married 1 year, home for about 3 months. Oh and just like a Ranger, I almost forgot, Erica was born in August of 1989, so a busy year indeed and I was ready for block leave.
We were finally getting Christmas leave and the parents had chipped in to purchase the tickets for us 4 to fly home. This JRT rotation was interesting as typically each module was a different objective somewhere in the world / US that we would fly away to and rehearse a different mission. This time we kept hitting the same objective, just in different locations. The last one was in Florida and the pyro that was on the objective was quite impressive and there was a C130 as well as some other birds on the concrete runway we were jumping. Usually, for safety, all aircraft were removed. Two things about this last mission. My Squad leader, John M., landed on the wing of the C130, fell off, and broke his shoulder. My good friend, Eddie N., lost his Kevlar helmet on the jump and I found it on the way to exfil, which means he owed me a case of beer. So, I was sad about John but happy about the beer. I was even more excited about block leave! Time to get some real Mexican food in Texas, see La Famila, and recharge the batteries. Two weeks later the train would be leaving the station and who knew what 1990 had in store.
I had one thing to get ready for on my way, PLDC, Primary Leadership Development Course. It is the first in a series of mandated promotion schools run by Big Army. It is every Rangers nightmare. The thought process in those schools is nothing like we are used to and it is in most cases a waste of time. I was already Ranger qualified which is known as “The Army’s premier Leadership School”. I had the damn thing the day after block leave. So, in the middle of the living room floor of the apartment, I had all my gear out. Getting it inspection ready as the entire course is pretty much a daily inspection. Taking tie downs off, removing tactical tape, etc. Call it a guess, but I was probably about 5 beers into a 6 pack as well.
The rest of the boys were at a party at Doc Cook’s house. If I did not have to get all my crap ready for the school, I may have been there with them. Then my phone rang… “Specialist Jurena… xxxxx notification”. Now the call-out roster dictated who called you and this voice, though familiar, was not the one who called me. So I said, “bullshit, who the hell is this”. The response was “It’s your Platoon Sergeant and this is not bullshit”. It was then, at that very second, I knew. There was a huge knot in my stomach. I’d often heard the Grenada guys say, when it’s real, you will know. And I always thought that was just macho talk, but I knew.
He then wanted to know if I knew where the rest of the boys were and of course, I did. He told me to go get them. I don’t remember what I told Lisa, the clock is ticking and I now have to get across town to round up what I knew were going to be shitfaced Rangers. I think I told her it was real, she asked about Texas, I said..”go”. Then I had to gather up all my damn gear that I had just taken apart, shove it into my duffel bag and I was gone. Married a year, gone again.
When I got to Doc Cook’s house things were in full swing. Lots of booze and plenty of women. Some wives, some not. I pulled Dismus M. aside who was the ranking E6 and the weapons squad leader. He was trying to get me to do a shot when I whispered in his ear. He called bullshit at first and I told him, he could call bullshit all he wants but by this point, we had 1 hour to be at work, or else. Dismus tossed all the broads out of the living room and told everyone the scoop. The place cleared out faster than if the boys had been caught with the General’s daughter.
As we approached HAAF, the activity everywhere told me all I needed to know. It was “Go” time.
December the 19th was typical southeast weather. Cold and rainy, probably 40 degrees and alternating between a drizzle and hard rain. Rehearsals had to be done, manifests called and pre-jump completed. Though I will give my jumpmaster credit, he looked at the platform we were supposed to practice our falls off of and the standing water around it and said..”fuck it, we are not doing them”. It was absolutely miserable.
The night prior was spent writing your “goodbye” letter and giving it to the person you wanted to deliver it. Honestly, I never wrote one. I think I told someone to tell my family I loved them, but I just was not going to sit down and write one last letter, it went against everything I learned as an athlete about visualizing your victory. I slept in Steve E’s room and we talked about life and beer and love and everything else, but I don’t think he wrote a letter either. For all of us, testosterone was not in short supply and we all felt bulletproof, at least at that moment.
As we stood there freezing, it was suddenly time to get your ammo issued. Now, I knew what “basic load” was but until they hand you a sandbag with it in there, you just don’t realize that it is not or does not seem to be very much ammo. I’m thinking that if I’m jumping into someone’s country and I have to fight until I can get re-supplied, this sure does not seem like I’m going to last very long. Everyone felt the same way. Then we got the opportunity to ease our fears, this would prove to be a tactical error, which General Downing later reprimanded us for, but more on that later. Somehow, someone was able to get into the back of the ammo supply point and start shuttling crates of ammo out to the boys. Next thing you know we have way more ammo than we were supposed to have.
I pretty much jettisoned everything out of my rucksack except, ammo, water, and other squad items I would need. No food, no hygiene kit, nothing. Again, this would prove to be a bad move later. Speaking of food, the “last supper” at Sabre Hall was steak and lobster. That’s right, fatten up the hogs before you lead them to slaughter. Another strange thing, it was like the entire clergy from Savannah was there, all wanting to pray over us, for us, etc. It was just an odd scene, a feast presided over by clergy, with like Motley Crue’s, Kick Start my Heart blasting in the background.
We broke off into chalks, hugged our buddies, shook their hands, looked them in the eyes, and said, “I’ll see you at the rally point”. My machismo was a bit down at this point because honestly, you did not know if you were going to see them again or not. It was a bittersweet moment. Doors closed, finally some warmth as your BDU’s were soaking wet. It was dark outside and in the bird, I can remember knowing we were gaining altitude over the Savannah mall wondering if anyone other than our families knew we were locked and loaded and going to invade another country.
Now if I was a SEAL, at this point, my writings would spend 5 or 6 chapters on the training that made me a Ranger But I Digress.
If you stumbled on this blog randomly on the internet and you don’t know “Us” or who we are, then perhaps navigate away or do a quick Google search of “75th Ranger Regiment.”
If you don’t know the “why” then I would also suggest you do some quick internet research on why we invaded Panama. You will find multiple reasons all recorded in the history books. Now let me give you the layman’s version.
I believe No soldier in the modern era has ever assaulted a bunker in pursuit of any political ideology. Nor have we ever deployed based on our beliefs coinciding with some politicians.
As “Hoot” from Black Hawk Down Says..”When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it, man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” And there you have it, in its simplest form.
At that moment in time, I could care less about the politics of Panama. My Brothers had saddled up and I had trained with them, sweated with them, and bled with them. At that moment in time, this was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Somewhere, I started to get hot. The heat in the bird became stifling and I was wearing my field jacket liner underneath my wet BDUs. I stood up to take it off and I almost fell. The bird was under red lights, so it was a very surreal environment. It was then I realized, that for the first time since junior high, I was having the onset of a migraine headache. Here I was, part of the Praetorian Guard, rolling in a C141, outboard seats only, about to do Ceaser’s work and I was having the worst headache in 10 years. I was very concerned that in front of my boys I was going to look weak, and honestly, at this very moment, I was. I pulled my 2-quart out and drank the entire thing. It had been cold and rainy and I’m pretty sure I drank only coffee all day. Amazing how quickly we forget all the things we know are important, like hydration.
I sat down and closed my eyes. I realized at this point.. I was scared. I’m not afraid to admit it, at least not now. I was going to exit this aircraft and invade a country that had declared war on us. People were going to die and I could very well be one of those people. I was a city kid from a suburb of Houston and while this all sounded great after physical training, yelling “Hooah !” and talking about wanting to kick ass and take names, I was suddenly less than a few hours out from having to execute this plan. How I got here is another book or long blog post altogether but as badass, as I thought I was at this moment, I’m not sure I was ready to do this and was suddenly doubting my career path. I knew that I was concerned for my fire team, Derome W. was right next to me and was to follow me out the door, just behind him was Russell, who was just out of the Indoctrination Program. My concern was that I would not be able to bring these guys back home alive. For whatever reason, the glass just seemed half-empty on several fronts.
I have no real explanation for that, we trained harder and under more realistic conditions than the majority of the United States Army. We shot more live rounds and trained with more “sister” units than the majority of the United States Army. Perhaps it was because the squad was juggled around a bit as was our platoon. Our platoon sergeant, Stan Goff, had left us to go to Special Forces assessment. Our platoon leader had blown himself up with a grenade just before the alert. My squad leader had broken his shoulder on the last rehearsal. So, Charlie 2, was a bit re-organized as was Charlie 2, Third squad.
At the time when I needed to be the strongest, I was internally weak and physically I had a headache from the depths of hell. As I think back on what was wrong at this moment I can only come up with this. We all live under a social compact which in its simplest form says A. I won’t steal your shit and B. I won’t physically harm you. We typically abide by these because most people are good and also because we have some fear of consequences and or repercussions. I think we all realize the natural order of the world is chaos or anarchy and we all prefer things to be a bit more copasetic. Now, here I was, literally given a license to kill and break this social compact and the only repercussions would be potential harm or death to myself or my teammates if we did not execute properly. It was weighing heavy on me that was for sure, to the point of physical illness.
Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, we loitered until the sister units could link up as well as the fighter escorts and the bombers who would drop ordinance. During this time I dozed off. I don’t know how long I was out but I must have needed it. I was awakened by the air force guy racing back and forth yelling “we’ve been compromised, they know we are coming!” ” They are drawing small arms and grenades, we’ve been compromised!”. Now I see no need to tell me this. Does it make a fucking difference? They might know we are coming when the 500 lb bomb drops or they might figure it out when Spectre starts spewing death out of its minigun, call me crazy but they are going to know we are coming and I don’t need to know that they know. It seemed my headache had gone, but at this point, I was still wondering the wisdom in all this.
Then things got calm and in the glow of the red lights I was able to look into the eyes of the men across from me and to my left and my right and I saw greatness! I saw men who had trained for this very mission for years and I knew at that moment we would succeed and I would be responsible for leading a part of this success. I was at peace and honestly, Now I was ready.
I remember encouraging my boys to drink water, going over some last-minute details about the objective and the rally point prior, they were both sharp, quick learners, my job was easy.
I don’t remember anything else until we hooked up. Ah, yes, all that ammo we hijacked was now weighing very heavy on our lower backs. I would say the average weight was about 75 – 80 lbs, some more, some less but a lot more than we should have been jumping in.
I remember the door opening and the stale, hot, humid smell of jungle air rushing in. I don’t remember much yelling or screaming, just the plane rocking side to side once or twice and then the familiar sound of the static lines on the anchor line cable and the jumpmasters yelling “GO! GO!GO!”. I wanted out of the bird. This is a very vulnerable time and all combat jumps to include this one have had Rangers who get shot in the plane. I did not want to be THAT guy.
A Ranger in front of me fell and I did not think he was going to get up (that ammo again) the problem is, the longer he can’t get out, the further I’m getting from my objective. I think he crawled to the jumpmaster and was shoved out. And then I was out… Into the darkness.
So between my last entry and now, I’ve had time to go to Savannah and meet with many of my Brothers who were on this mission. What a great time, with so many great stories. Memories of others, refreshing memories of mine, refreshing memories of theirs. I recently received an email from one of the participants and while I would love to take credit for this, I think he says it best:
“Perhaps an understatement but Panama was such a significant event in our lives implanting memories that will stay with us forever, as the memories of this 20-year reunion…
As one goes through life, hundreds if not thousands of acquaintances are made throughout one’s lifetime with only a handful of true friends coming out on the other side, friends like these men, who stepped out into the blackness of the night sky and into the belly of the beast, with only their sword at their hand. All Rangers, past, present, and future. Men who were and are willing to put their lives on the line so that others may live, in somewhat relative peace and freedom.
Men like these who served their Country and asked nothing in return, true friends of mine….”
Now, where was I…
Traditionally, after the opening shock, the “ride” to the ground is quite peaceful. It gives you time to orient yourself to the object and the rally point before. By this point in my career, I took pride in always being the first in my squad to be first to the rally point. The fact that I was now carrying an M16 and a compass versus my younger years of carrying an M60 made that task much easier. I felt I needed to get there first on this night, I did not want my boys wondering where I was.
The opening shock was a bit more violent than usual, perhaps the Air Force had the proverbial pedal to the metal so they could get out of the kill zone? Jumping from 500 feet gave me very little time to orient myself but I did see our objective and there were some flames from the AC130 gun runs. I had just released my rucksack and was reaching to undo a leg strap when I hit the concrete runway, just south of the centerline. Looking back, I was glad we got to the ground so fast, there was a .50 caliber machine gun firing pretty much the centerline of the runway. I could hear it and see some tracers but I never had time to figure out where he was shooting. If I had, I probably would have been terrified. All he had to do was traverse left some and I would have landed right in his line of fire.
Now, I survived in the military through humor. While the next part of the story was going on, it was not so funny. I was almost a bit panicked, but looking back, it was hilarious.
I always knew if ever did jump a “hot” drop zone, my “silk” or parachute would land right on top of me. It’s like being a fish caught in a net due to all the suspension lines on the parachute. They end up getting tangled on all your equipment, it had happened several times in training, and it’s just a bitch to get out of.
After landing I looked up and here it came, that’s right, my T10 parachute landed right on top of me. So, I’m laying there trying to get out of the harness, with the parachute over my body. I could hear the gunfire from down the runway and knew that if I started thrashing around I would just get more tangled. Now, here is some other odd thing that I was scared/convinced of, I was terrified that somewhere during this operation I was going to get hacked up by a Panamanian with a machete. Don’t ask, where this idea came from but I was sure of it.
So, while laying there waiting for the hacking to commence, I almost forgot a very important part of this operation, put your fucking weapon in operation! Yes, that way I can at least fire rounds while trapped under this parachute so that if the friendlies do find my chopped-up body I will at least have taken one or two with me. I had taped a 30-round magazine to the buttstock of my weapon for easy access. Upon removing the tape, every last round shot out of the end of the spring-loaded magazine onto the ground! This was suddenly becoming a comedy of errors. Here I was trapped under my parachute, my first magazine now empty on the ground, a .50 cal skipping rounds my direction and I’m waiting for the whistle of a machete to be the last sound I hear.
I managed to get another magazine out and lock and load, I also managed to get out of my parachute, I was blessed with an uncanny sense of direction so I did not need to shoot an azimuth, I knew which direction the objective was. At this moment, there was a vehicle headed in my direction. To my left at this moment, Steve E sat up and fired 3 rounds from his M24 sniper rifle through the windshield of this truck. It came, slowly, to a halt.
Now, I’m not sure if they fired a round or what happened next, but Rangers from 360 degrees opened up on this vehicle like a circular ambush. One problem, some were shooting in my direction! At this point I decided nothing on the drop zone was safe and I decided to head towards the objective. More humor, we were supposed to pull our chutes off the main runway so the air-land package did not suck them up the jet engines. As I began to pull mine, someone pulled it in the other direction and said “this is my chute”, I pulled back and said “It’s mine”, they pulled again and said, “no it’s not, it’s mine!”. I said, “Fuck it you can have both of them” and ran towards the objective. I never found out who was pulling on the other end.
All humor aside, there is a time during one of these operations when it is pure animal instinct for survival. It is when you leave and head to the objective rally point. You are by yourself, in the darkness. You don’t know where your team members are, you don’t know who or what or how many machetes are between you and where you are going. The hair of your neck is standing up and every sense is heightened. I will tell you that it is a feeling like no other and I believe what turns us all into adrenaline junkies.
The aerial photos did not do the ditch on the south side of the taxiway any justice. It was far deeper and much steeper than I imagined. I honestly did not think I was going to get out of it on the way to my objective. Now, I was in the best shape of my life at this point, but all that ammo I had stuffed in my rucksack was just so heavy that I was literally on my hands and knees trying to get out of that thing. I would finally, make it and in the distance, I could see the green chem lite which signaled the entry to the assembly area.
I was out in the open and had to cross more tarmac to get there. THERE, were other warriors, THERE was perceived safety, until this point I had not come across one other C.co Ranger headed in the same direction. At this moment, SSG Porters squad was firing up some folks in the hanger and the little birds were making some gun runs, I believe A.Co had silenced the .50 cal and blew up a guard shack, it was still quite chaotic, but THERE is where I needed to be. I was soaking wet from the humidity as well as the weight of the rucksack, and my headache was coming back. I sprinted the last 75 meters to get there, gave the running password, and headed off in my clock direction.
It has been said that the best of combat plans will turn to shit once the first round in anger is fired. I can say we have done 100s of objective rally points, and I don’t remember one being this screwed up. The elephant grass was over your head, so every movement you did not know who it was until there they were. The first thing I saw was our 1sg taping, with 100 mph tape, IR tape on a kid’s head. We wore IR tape on our helmets so our aerial platforms could recognize us from above, and this kid had lost his helmet on the jump. So, sure, tape it to his head, First Sergeant. Next, two LT’s were fighting over who was in charge and I was early to the assembly area, I guess they thought perhaps the commander had been whacked since he was not there yet. I don’t mean speaking in loud voices, I mean almost coming to blows, pushing and shoving. It was quite bizarre.
Eddie N. had landed on his rucksack and by landed I mean, like between his legs and his BDUs were ripped and one of his balls was swollen like a grapefruit and he kept telling everyone to “look at the size of my balls.” His squad leader was bitching at him because he was late to the assembly area and he just kept saying “but Sergeant, look at my balls”. My boys would arrive, 3rd squad would be 100% up. But the overall scene in the assembly area, you just can’t make it up.
Somewhere en route to the objective, I heard the call over the radio, “1 KIA, Markwell, James W.” It was a sobering moment but you had to stay in the game, we were moving to assault positions.
There is the mission on objective pig to discuss, the slaughtering of “Fred” the water buffalo, a mission involving a Datsun B210, myself, 3 Rangers, and a bottle of brandy, stealing food from the 82nd, Rolling in gun jeeps, smoking stolen Cohibas, the Ice Cream Truck Mission Delta wouldn’t take, kicking doors in Panama City and a vision in a Peach Dress, but perhaps I’ll save those for the book I’ll never write…
RIP PFC Markwell, until we meet again. Rest easy, claymores out, security is in place.
We’ve got your 6.