During Thanksgiving, we all give thanks for spending time with our families, friends, and loved ones. We enjoy food, football, and spend time reminiscing. Early this Thanksgiving morning, I spent some time reading some excellent posts on Thanksgiving experiences and what the holiday means.

We had a conversation at our home over morning coffee sitting outside enjoying a nice cool Florida morning about how many holidays were spent away from home… and there were many. Some were spent in schools (NCO Academy during my enlisted days) and others at SERE School which I wrote about a while back.   


That One Thanksgiving

One particular Thanksgiving stands out, thanks to what transpired in a typically bizarre set of circumstances that always seemed to make life interesting and funny in Special Forces. But first, a bit of background information.

Back in the day, the 7th Special Forces Group was supporting the U.S. Andean Ridge counter-narcotics policies by sending A-Teams throughout South America to work with and support DEA teams (Snowcap). The DEA teams were trying to eradicate cocaine labs and processing and stop the drug from making its way to the United States. One can argue whether those missions succeeded or failed, but for years we constantly had A-Teams in areas all over Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. 

One such area was the “lovely little village” of Chimore, Bolivia. Then-Captain Charlie Cleveland was the first A-Team commander who carved out a little base in Chimore. The base was in the strategic spot where the Chapare River intersected with the highway (Highway 4) that ran from the Chapare Valley where the majority of the coca-growing (and illicit drug labs) were being farmed. The drugs were transported to the capital of La Paz through Cochabamba to the west or Santa Cruz to the east. Cleveland later became a lieutenant general and headed Special Operations Command. 

The 7th SFG built up the camp at Chimore and expanded it where a battalion of UMOPAR (Unidad Móvil Policial para Áreas Rurales), counternarcotics paramilitary police was then stationed. Ostensibly, the UMOPAR fell under the Bolivian Special Anti-narcotics Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico — FELCN) of the Bolivian National Police (Cuerpo de Policía Nacional). But the reality was much different. The UMOPAR really worked for the DEA and to a lesser extent the U.S. military. 

Successive A-Teams under Operation “Red Dragon” and “Stonebridge” continually built up the base. It ended up including an airstrip that would handle C-47/DC-3 aircraft that the U.S. sold to Bolivia as well as UH-1Hs as the U.S. provided the Bolivians with their own rotary-wing capability, called the “Red Devils.” Later, more A-Teams would do some great work just down the road in Villa Tunari as they’d be co-located with folks from the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS). There are some great stories from there…

As Chimore grew, it became the major DEA hub in the area. Eventually, the embassy and the MILGP wanted to cut the SF advising group from an A-Team to just two-three advisory teams. I had been there with an A-Team and then found myself back as part of the two-man team with my bud Dave O. 


Our Life Gets Better

Special Forces in Bolivia
The old SF living quarters (shacks) behind the haul of a night raid where about 80-90 pounds of uncut cocaine and precursor chemicals lay. (Courtesy of author)

The living conditions became much better. The A-Team lived in small plywood shacks that were hot as all hell during the day. When Dave and I got there, we moved into a small house on the Bolivian side of the base. It was run by NAS and our liaison (a great guy who wasn’t Bolivian but Paraguayan… go figure) did all the logistical work to keep the base running smoothly. He could and did get us anything we asked for… within reason.

Our house that we lived in with our NAS liaison was fairly austere by conventional standards but was the Taj Mahal by what we lived in with the A-Team. We even had a housekeeper/cook. Life was pretty darn good for being in the middle of nowhere in the jungle. During the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we asked (frequently) for us to get a turkey since we weren’t getting any football (the internet was science fiction for Bolivia at the time). We were told that the turkey was coming but it might be a bit late… fair enough. 

Thanksgiving came and went (we ate roasted chicken and fish caught in the river) and we were happy enough.

A couple of days later we were preparing to spend a long day at the demo range where Dave was going to teach the UMOPAR troops, cratering, and steel-cutting charges. 

I was getting dressed sleepily in my room dying for some coffee when I heard a commotion in the kitchen and our cook screaming in Quechua, the indigenous Indian language.

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I walked out and saw that she had cornered a large armadillo in the kitchen and was beating it to death with a broomstick.

In between whacks, she asked me “Would you like some coffee and breakfast?” “Ah no thanks,” I replied, “we’ll just skip that this morning.” Such was life in the jungle camp. 

We stayed on the range all day and the troops had a ball. There is something about blowing sh*t up that brings out the little kid in all of us. Morale was high. We ate MRE’s for lunch and were still out there as the sun was beginning to set.


Be Thankful!

Around mid-morning, we got the great news from our NAS guy that the turkey was supposed to be arriving on a DEA plane ASAP. And sure enough soon after we saw it swoop in over at the airstrip…We must have mentioned turkey for dinner about 10 times during that day. We just hoped our cook would know enough to prepare it right. 

About 5-6 p.m. we cut the UMOPAR boys loose for their evening chow and headed for the little casa that was home. Upon opening the door, a delicious smell came upon us… that was a plus. Our cook told us that dinner was almost ready. Since we were waiting for our NAS guy (his name escapes me), I jumped in the shower to wash some Bolivian funk off me, and got ready to eat. 

We all sat down. Dinner was served and my first thought was…what the heck had she done to the bird… It was quartered but roasted with potatoes and veggies… ah well. As soon as I took a bite, I was taken back by some awfully nasty taste. She totally f**ked up our post-Thanksgiving turkey. 

A few more bites didn’t improve matters. It was then our NAS bud asked our cook about the “pavo,” the Spanish word for turkey in Quechua. “No, no, no,” she said and rambled on in her native tongue for a few moments. “What did she say,” Dave and I asked in unison? 

Our NAS started laughing. “She said no turkey came in on the plane, we are eating the armadillo,” he said.  

Is it an armadillo or a Bolivian turkey? (Wikimedia Commons)

I could feel the color drain from my face. I wanted to hurl. Knowing that armadillos carry leprosy, I immediately imagined that in a few months Dave and I would look like the guy in the village in Papillon who gave Steve McQueen the boat. 

So, the next time a family member complains about your turkey being dry and overdone, remind them that it is better than a freakin’ armadillo!