As I sat in church on Sunday morning, our Pastor asked the congregation if anyone had known a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice. Along with a few others, I stood. Yes, I have known several Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors, but one sticks out on this Memorial Day Weekend — the mission that claimed his life had a direct impact on my career and outlook on warfare.

I first met then Engineman First Class Don McFaul in Monterey, CA (1988), where he was studying Spanish. That was a time at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) where I met several SEALs that impacted my military focus, career goals and daily workout routines. It was this influence and camaraderie that had me and my friend Kip trying to find a way to change ratings to a SEAL source rating (not all jobs [ratings] were eligible) and being a student of Arabic, the chances were below slim. As a boot right out of basic training I felt a sense of privilege being allowed to socialize with Jaime F., Kevin F. and many others.

On a Thursday night at the VFW I was sitting with the guys, drinking and listening. The Team guys had a monster mash beach PT session in Pacific Grove the next day. This is basically a quasi-legit excuse to miss class, but supposedly also met a NAVSPECWAR requirement for physical readiness, recertify dive quals, etc. — followed by the mandatory kegger.

I finagled out of class that Friday to join the Team guys and see where I stood. That morning was a blast. Then came the run up to the wharf. I had been training for the Big Sur Marathon, but it was clear that one individual stood out. Don ran with a style that was elegant. No wasted energy, completely smooth. I would learn over the course of the next few months that he lived his life in that very same manner — balanced.

Don took charge of the Navy DLI running team (we had monthly inter-service competitions) and the command sponsored several trips out of Pacific Grove where we ran 10ks, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon and then the Big Sur Marathon — shortly after which we both graduated. PO1 McFaul headed to SEAL Team 4. I was on my way to Naval Aircrew Candidate School (NACCS) in Pensacola, Florida. I thought that being an NACCS graduate would be the closest to becoming an NSW operator as I would get. Then came Operation Just Cause and an unfortunate, unexpected turn of events.

Chief Don McFaul was killed in action Dec. 18, 1989 during combat operations on Paitilla Airfield. The mission was to prevent President Noriega from using that airfield as an escape point.

In general, the Panama invasion and Paitilla Airport mission is well-known. Noriega never went to that airfield. He took refuge in the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See. This was a diplomatic quarter. Operation Nifty Package used psychological warfare techniques, including blaring music, to extricate Noriega from diplomatic protection.

What is missing is the reason why McFaul and ST-4G were given that mission. Communication Intercept (COMINT) from NSA sent through a third-party advised that there had been an intercept of Noriega’s intentions. He was to get to Paitilla airfield and fly out and escape to a country where he would be provided asylum. This led to the orders that Chief McFaul and Golf platoon received to secure the airfield and destroy the aircraft available for use.