Special thanks to Ranger Douglas Hanks for writing this for SOFREP. -Jack
I arrived at 2/75 on October 3rd 1993. For those of you in the know, or for those of you who pay attention, it was an auspicious day for the Regiment. Needless to say it was a long first couple days as we were palletizing for war. Despite my eagerness (and perhaps naiveté) I was disappointed when it didn’t happen. Sigh…
Less than a year later we found ourselves in the jungles of Panama, knee deep in the nastiest mud and vegetation this side of Benning, yelling at monkeys (because God knows, if we had live ammo there would have been less yelling and more dead monkeys) who were throwing sticks and feces at us; we never did determine what smelled worse, the mud, or the monkey shit.
We had completed a day/night land navigation course through the jungles and were wiped, but when we strolled into the compound near 23 hundred hours there was a buzz. Something was happening; something of relative importance. Not that they told us anything. I was just a Spec 4, untabbed at that, and a 96b, an Intelligence Analyst, so despite my professional station, I was near the last to know anything. My NCOs, SSG Renninger, and SSG Bostic (yes, Renninger was killed working as a cop in Tacoma, and Bostic was immortalized in ‘The Outpost’, having been killed in Afghanistan – great Rangers both) were both pulled out and put on a Blackhawk, headed for God knew where. I hadn’t felt this level of excitement since the first day I arrived in Battalion. I was finally going to see some real action, something real was happening. It was not what I expected.
At about 2am we were loaded into a deuce and half and we began driving, for hours we drove not knowing what in the hell was happening, beyond the unending rumors. We were excited to be a part of something beyond training. We ended up, some 4 or 5 hours later, standing in formation by the side of the Panama Canal with the sun breaking the horizon over the top of the jungle. And while beautiful, it was boring as shit. We split up into our usual groups, S2, S3, PAC, Commo, etc… and then we patrolled – for two freakin days we patrolled while the higher ups determined what was going to happen. Despite the fact that we had no live ammo, and if actually attacked, we would have only harsh words and fisticuffs to defend ourselves, there were actual war photographers taking our picture as we walked around. Somehow it made it all the more visceral.
It was when they handed us axe handles that it became interesting. We spent that afternoon and evening customizing our boom sticks while sitting next to the Panama Canal. Watching the giant cargo ships float by was hypnotic, and led to an almost out of body experience. Is this real? Are we really camped by the side of the Panama Canal waiting to attack a bunch of Cubans who, a couple of nights prior, had rioted and put a bunch of MP’s in the hospital? If this script had been written for Hollywood it would have been shot down for being incredibly implausible. We all slept fitfully knowing full well we were soon going to be awakened and have to go to work.
It was about 3 in the morning when we got the green light. A short motivational speech (I don’t recall what was said, but I’m sure you can guess) and we were in formation heading toward the camp. There were hundreds of us moving but for some reason, whether it was the dead of night, or because we were told to make as little noise as possible, that formation was silent. And not silent like you would normally think, with heavy footsteps and shifting gear as the only sounds, no, it was the silence of a snake moving through high grass. My big ass was even quiet.
We approached the camp from the rear, along a brush line and walked up a hill. The camp was torn up, debris was everywhere and some of the tents had been collapsed. There was no other military presence. And they had not posted any guard – the camp was dead asleep.
A small contingent crept up to the fence at the back of the camp and cut the wire, large enough to get three Ranger’s through abreast. All of the line guys, in full riot gear, wielding those nasty axe handles, streamed into the camp. Ninjas could not have done a better job at being quick and quiet.
I was with HHC so we were in charge of the collection point outside of the fence. I watched as the line guys surrounded the tents. The whole world held their breath. The signal was given and all of the Rangers inside the fence (and outside, I yelled too) let forth a mighty roar. It scared me in its ferocity and duration and I can only imagine what those poor Cubans were thinking. If I had to guess it would be, “Shit. Shit.shit.shit.shit.”
Then we went into the tents. I did not have the pleasure of going into any of the tents, so I can’t say what happened. I didn’t see anything. However, I did hear things; cracking things, and screams of pain, the sounds of breaking. Men of mayhem, indeed.
Back at the collection point we were busy gathering everyone up and processing them. One thing stuck in my mind. Once we had them flex cuffed and on their knees we made them wear burlap bags on their head. I would hazard to guess they thought they were going to be executed, which of course, they were not. I think we were there to scare the living shit, and to punish some of the ringleaders, sure, but the overarching goal was to scare them so much there would never be another riot. It worked.
The next night we hit another of the camps, but more gentle this time. They were ready for us, waiting, but in the way you waited when you knew you were in trouble as a kid. You knew your Dad was going to beat your ass; there was no way you could sleep. At the second raid there were no fights, no drama. They were as docile as lambs. It was almost cordial. “Yes, sir, this way. Would you mind putting on these flex cuffs and following me to the collection point?”
The experience in Panama was more surreal than real but I am honored to have been able to take part.