I’ve written in the past about some of the absurd and funny things you see and experience as a Green Beret — this is another one that came to mind.
I was in Boston recently and a family of tourists were driving by. As I was crossing the street they stopped to ask for directions. That’s how I could tell that they were tourists: no one in Boston asks for directions. Apparently, their GPS was on the fritz.
Something about the man’s accent or the way he pronounced a word sparked memories of a different time and era. But first a little background information.
Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, the 7th Special Forces Group began spending a lot more time in the country of Honduras. There was already a big insurgency problem in El Salvador; a bloody civil war in Guatemala; and of course, the Marxist takeover in Nicaragua that had put Soviet-made tanks and vehicles in the streets of Managua. But Honduras? That was considered a backwater by Washington. They were wrong.
The new commander of the 7th SFG was a breath of fresh air after his predecessor. Colonel John D. Waghelstein was a brilliant officer and a career Special Operator. He spent about 25 years of that time battling insurgencies in Vietnam, Southeast Asia, Panama, the Dominican Republic and was with the team that trained the Bolivian soldiers who caught Che Guevara. “The Wag” as he was known by the guys, was convinced that a Stage 1 or early Stage 2 insurgency was in place in Honduras. He managed he to convince John Galvin at SOUTHCOM. Waghelstein would eventually be proven correct.
So, from one or two big missions a year in which 7th SFG would send a battalion down there for three-four weeks, under “the Wag”’s predecessor (he who shalt not be named), everything changed. There were constantly at least four to six A-Teams in Honduras spread out all over the country. When the planes would fly in to take them home after six to eight weeks, other A-Teams would replace them. They were to observe and report — “read the tea leaves” as Waghelstein put it. Honduras was a success story because it got nipped in the bud, and “the Wag” was never credited with it — but it was his doing. However, I digress…
So, if you were a SF team guy in 7th SFG back then, you would have spent plenty of time with the different battalions spread out all over the country, as well as in the Regional Training Center known as the CREM (Centro Regional de Entrenamiento Militar) that was located in Trujillo.
We spent multiple deployments with the 4th Inf. Bn in La Ceiba as well as with the 6th Inf. Bn and the anti-tank company in Ojo de Agua or, as we called it, Ojo de Nada. During one deployment to La Ceiba, the Hondo unit cleared out a small building for our team to use right by the front gate. It was fairly new and located on the left of the long driveway where the base’s entrance was. We set up a weapons cleaning area right behind the building, where we would gather to clean the jungle funk off our weapons whenever we came back, and to talk smack to one another.
And it was an open spot for the gate guards to walk by on their way to and from the gate. Many would stop to gawk, but most wouldn’t say much other than to give us the greeting of the day. Except for Mack Bolan. We nicknamed this one Honduran kid because he always had the same Mack Bolan the Executioner book sticking out of his back pocket. And he’d stop and ask us to translate English slang in the book for him, because he wanted to learn English.
I befriended him quickly as he was a good kid, probably only 16 or 17 when he was “drafted” into the Hondo Army. Their draft? Show Rambo or Chuck Norris films in town on Saturday nights. As the end credits roll, the Army enters the theater and asks every military age (or even close) male if he had his ID card that said he served. If not, congratulations, you’re drafted. Get in the truck and we’ll let your family know later that you are now in the Army.
Anyway, Mack Bolan wanted to learn English and learning it from a smartass Bostonian, who speaks his own version of it, is a perfect storm. Our Company Commander, Major Dave Kinder would zip in to visit us and the scuba team that was co-located with us on the backside of the base. Mack wanted to know the proper greeting when an American officer approaches the gate. And I taught him, Boston accent and all, until he got it down pat. Excellent.
He also had a picture of the U.S. military ranks and asked for the pronunciation of each, which I gladly helped him with…of course with the addition of “helpful” adjectives. A few days later, I see our Commander’s rental truck pulling into the base, but Dave Kinder wasn’t alone. He had our Battalion Commander and the Sergeant Major with him. Dave had a great sense of humor. The Battalion Commander? Not so much.
My team sergeant and I were cleaning our pistols behind the building as we watched the truck pull up. We saw Mack, his newly learned English practiced to perfection, step to the window, look in at Dave and say, “good rafteroon Sir! He nodded at the Colonel and said, “would you like to peek at my peckah?” Glancing in the back, Mack said, “Sergeant Major Muthafuckah, good rafteroon.” Kinder roared with laughter. The Colonel’s face was purple.
My team sergeant threw the butt of his cigarette on the ground and scooped up his pistol parts in a t-shirt and said, “You enjoy this one…I’m out.” So as the truck pulled up, it slowed down and stopped right across from me. I was happily putting the pieces of the pistol together, as if it were a foreign object that I’d never seen before, and wouldn’t look over. Finally, Dave K, said, “Uh-hmm” I looked over as if seeing them for the first time. “Hey sir, Danny (our Team Leader) is inside.” The Colonel wasn’t having any of that.
His neck craned and I swear it grew two inches like E.T. “Stow it,” he yelled. “I don’t even have to ask what idiot taught that other idiot that!” Summoning up my best fake perplexed face, I said the first stupid thing that came to mind. “What sir?” He glared at me and with that, they pulled off.
While the officers went first to the Honduran Colonel to pay their respects, the Sergeant Major came over to the building. He was trying to not to laugh but he was actually pissed off at me. “That was fucking brilliant,” he said. “My suggestion is for you to make your ass scarce when the old man comes out of the head shed.” I tried to explain to the Sergeant Major that in Boston, “muthafuckah” is a term of endearment. He wasn’t buying it….I wouldn’t have either.
We had two different classrooms starting after lunch and my team sergeant sent me to the second, which was going to take place at the far end of the base, which was the opposite of what we had planned.
About 18 months later, I applied to the Warrant Program and in doing so I needed to get my Battalion Commander’s endorsement. I got with the Adjutant and got on his schedule for a late afternoon appointment.
When I reported, he said, “Steve, I saw you requested this meeting with the Adjutant, but he didn’t tell me what it was about, is everything okay with you?” I glanced over at the Adjutant who smiled and left the room.
“Oh yes sir, I just submitted a packet for the Warrant Program and needed to get an endorsement from you.” “Oh okay, I thought something was wrong…OH?” The relieved look that had come over his face replaced by another. His eyes narrowed, “Sit down.” I have to admit, the old man had an amazing memory. He quickly ran down some of my “accomplishments” as he put it. Beside the gate guard, I had forgotten the serenading we had the host nation troops give him while he spent the night at one of our bases on a deployment. (I had our host nation troops sing to the old man outside his window “Under the Boardwalk” that I thought was a nice touch…)
And he reminded me of how I personally messed up his training film with my “smartassery” is that even a word? But that is a story for another time.
His face turned red again, “quite the accomplishments eh,” he asked? Not knowing what to say I just nodded. “Despite all that, you always did a great job and we always got the tasks done, so I will approve this on one condition.”
“What is that?” I asked. “That when you become an officer you never take a team to Peru (he was tasked to be the next MILGP Commander there). I don’t think my blood pressure could take it.”
But a year or so after that, at a meeting with several MILGP personnel and diplomats in attendance in South America, I glanced over and saw the old man. He shook his head, “Jesus Christ, there goes relations for the next 10 years.” All eyes in the room went to him. He pointed me out and introduced me to the room as a “former colorful NCO” from his old unit. Wow, the old man really did have a sense of humor. Who knew?
Photo: Courtesy of the author