With the writing of this essay about my friend Samuel Booth Foster, I have concluded the essays on the men I served with while in Delta Force, with whom I have been comrades and much more than just fair-weather friends, and who have died in the line of a selfless and honorable duty to their country. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country. Geo sends.
There have been ten in all—one for each year of my service with Delta—whose passings have each been more hellish than the last. I am convinced that I have become a better man for having known these men, and am positive that I will never be the same man I was before them.
I confess there is a measure of ethical struggle to include decidedly negative things about a person when memorializing them in writing, but as Sam’s father asked of me after Sam passed away, “George, please write stories about Sam for me. Write all the stories; everything you can remember, both the good and the bad.” Be careful what you ask for, Mr. Foster.
The Air Force load crew of our taxi, the mighty C-130 Hercules, cracked open, rolled upward, and locked the paratrooper exit doors on both sides of the aircraft. Inside the Herc, the ambient air was gradually displaced by the heavy, humid, tropical atmosphere of Key West, Florida. The aroma was a melange of sea salt, the bacon-like smell of paper bark trees, and the methane sting of low tide in the muggy Key West summer.
My Green Beret team was ODA-155, an underwater operations team from the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) out of Fort Lewis, Washington. We had projected a water operations trip to the Florida Keys for two weeks of waterborne operations: submarine trunk escape operations, closed-circuit rebreather tactical infiltration dives, small boat operations with inflatable Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC)…and perhaps a recreational lobster excursion in the shallow warm waters offshore of Cayo Oueso, Key West.
Our journey to Key West included this initial paradrop to pay for the aircraft; an Air Force shuttle would not cost the Army if it included a tactical training operation for the Air Force. Below us was Fleming Key, Shark drop zone (DZ), and the white wakes of several safety boats racing in tight circles in the ocean below, indicating to me, the jump master, that all was safe below for the personnel drop.
I proudly put my team out and, once the last man safely broke away from his deployment bag, I put my knees in the tropical breeze of the southernmost point of the United States. It was a ‘Hollywood’ jump—quite a pleasant experience. No combat equipment, no helmet, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. What a sham, I thought as I ker-THUNKED for a warm splashdown.
A safety boat made its way to me immediately. These were the boats and the men of the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course. The cream of our Green Beret crop. They were physically elite specimens, one and all. Frankly, it was an honor to have them support us in our training operations. What better place, and what better people to partner with for the next few weeks?
The safety boat drew closer. There at the bow, but for all meddling reality, stood Tarzan of the Jungle, complete with non-regulation bright blond hair whipping in the wind. He had one leg up on the gunwale (side) of the Boston Whaler and was looking at me intently through a pair of Ray Bans. He put me in mind of Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic,” minus the pretty girl, of course. Well, he didn’t really. Back then that movie hadn’t even come out yet. Still, I offer that image for the reader’s consideration.
“Ahoy!” Tarzan called out.
“Er, a…ahoy!” I reciprocated.
I gave a thumbs-up signal to the adonis as he instructed me, “Swimmer, turn your back to the hull of the boat and prepare to be hoisted aboard, on the count of three.” Two Key West cadre easily ‘fultoned’ me aboard, and I was on my way to shore with several of my bros. That had been the first time I had seen Samuel Booth Foster, and I had been slightly intimidated. He was ripped, and clearly intelligent above the norm.
Not long after our trip to Key West, I left my team in Fort Lewis to take a Special Warfare Center (SWC) assignment. It was a mandatory career progression assignment for a Green Beret NCO. Rather than get stuck in some loathsome monotonous trap, I proactively gunned hard for a position in Key West. Go big or go home, I always said. I fought long and hard—really hard—to get my position in Key West. The fight ultimately paid off.
Once settled in with the cadre, Sam Foster and I hit it off swimmingly (no pun). We became great friends, and even neighbors in the Navy housing district. Sam would stop by my house as he circled the block nightly on his unicycle. My then-wife would hear us talking in the garage and fall all over herself to just ‘coincidentally’ come outside and say, “Oh, hi Sam. I didn’t know you were here….” Well, I mean, what are you gonna do, right?
Let’s get one thing straight: Sam was an excruciatingly intelligent guy, and he was moderately to heavily eccentric. I mean, we all say vapid things like, “I never quit. When I come to an obstacle, I find a way to surmount it…etc.” Those are cool-guy things to just say, but Sam never said that. Rather, he demonstrated it time and time again, never bragging about it because it bored him.
One Friday after work, Sam built a rope-and-pulley system that he used to lower an 80-foot pine tree in his backyard through a three-foot space between another pine tree and his house, after he chopped it free at the base. He did it all by himself while suspended 40 feet up on a neighboring tree.
That weekend, he invited us over to his house. During the visit he mentioned, “George, I wonder if you could step outside and give me a hand in the backyard.” Once outside, he shimmied up one of the pines as I marveled at the Rube Goldberg of a rope-and-pulley contraption he had fabricated, not fully understanding what I was seeing.
“OK, I’m going to lower this tree. Please watch and tell me if it looks like it is going to collide with the house.” Down the titanic truck came, slowly and smoothly, inching clear of the house as it came. The trunk of the tree came to rest silently. “You can go now, George.” As I half-stepped my way back into the house, I calculated that my contribution to this operation could have been full covered by a rhesus monkey.
Sam built all the furniture in his house using a makeshift tablesaw that he fabricated out of an upside-down circular saw wedged into a hole cut in a folding picnic table. To us mere mortals in Key West, furniture-grade woodworking consisted of an unintentional rocking chair, or tilting shelves in the garage or laundry room.
“Really? You’re building an armoire and matching bookshelves, Sam? Whose tablesaw are you using?”
“Oh, well, I built one.”
“Built a tablesaw…Sam, how the hell did you build a tablesaw without, you know, a tablesaw?”
“Well come on over this weekend and have a look. You can help me hang the doors.”
“Hang the doors?” Just what kind of Taj Mahal does this Jethro think he is going to build with his picnic-table saw, in his no-tool-havin’ garage? Stick to Adirondack chairs and patio benches for Christ’s sake. Save yourself some grief, Bob Villa.
“Well, if is isn’t the New Yankee Foster!” I blurted out as I arrived that Saturday. “Let’s get to hanging those doors-a-yours, brother! Oooh, wait…let me do some stretches and limber up a bit before I chase that burn!” I teased as I jogged in place, pumping and swinging my arms.
My frivolity soon turned to humility and reverence as I entered the hallowed ground of the armoire assembly area. Before me stood the cavernous cabinet—doorless, yet majestic. Flank guard fell to two bookcase sentries, one on either side, standing erect and ever vigilant to their principal. Both boasted a glut of hard-bound tomes. I fell to one knee and whispered my penance. I glanced feebly aloft at the great yawn of the empty armoire. Its cavernous maw frowned at my insolence. I was apologetic to both it and to Sam. I offered nosegays in sacrifice to its excellency, penitent still. It glared down at my insignificance.
“If you hold up the doors, I’ll sink the screws.”
“Hold…touch? Sir, hold thy tongue; I can scarce hold a mirror lest I gaze directly upon it!”
“Just hold the goddamn doors, George. This will all be over soon.” And it was.
I proudly (vainly unawares) brought a couple of modest tomatoes over to Sam’s house one day, two drops of blood that I managed to squeeze from my home garden. In Sam’s backyard, he had a row of tomato vines planted on a slope. The plants were so heavily ladened with fruit, tomatoes would fall off, roll down the slope, and pile up against his cedar fence. There were so many tomatoes rotting against the fence that I couldn’t count them all. Other veggies he grew were peppers, onions, and cilantro, which he had rendered into jars and jars of salsa. He gave me a jar. I grudgingly took my jar of salsa and my two tomatoes home to pout.
Sam was so ridiculously smart that he quickly became bored with people and events. He needed to be challenged constantly, and he found me to be challenging. We agreed on most things, and admired many things about each other. Sam was blatantly, and at times, horrifyingly honest. That is another quality about him I admired, but other people didn’t find that quite as endearing. I found Sam to be utterly selfish—not at all compassionate to the plight of others. His level of self-confidence made him quintessentially fearless. The man simply had no fear.
Featured image: Samuel Booth Foster kitting up in Mogadishu, Somalia, Oct. 1993. Developed by Patrick A. McNamara.