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.
The COMINT was clearly poorly analyzed, not to mention the translation and originating source itself. Most lacking was an on-ground operational assessment by a cryptologic operator attached to the unit preparing to engage. Furthermore, there was no COMINT tasking effort made to assess the strength of the opposition forces on the airfield. They were not provided the COMINT support that may have saved those lives. This was the post-mission assessment that lead to the eventual creation of Tactical Cryptology.
The concept was to identify, train and deploy Cryptologic Technicians – Interpretive (CTI) to deploy at the platoon and boat team level to intercept enemy communications and provide direct firsthand special intelligence to the ground commander. Of course, inter-community and intra-community squabbles between Naval Cryptology and SPECWAR occurred. Who would own these phantom billets? Who pays for training? How are the language skills maintained and who pays for that? Why only linguists? And the biggest concern: do these SPECWAR Cryppies respond to national tasking requests or only provide Force Protection (FP) to SPECWAR — in other words, who do they report to? This led to eight years of discussion before the first billets were created. Special Warfare Combatant Craft-Crewmember (SWCC) class 26 would have the first four CTIs. Two Arabic linguists and two Spanish linguists (though one was also a Russian trained linguist). SEAL Tactical training blocks would be taught at the gaining East Coast and West Coast NSW Groups respectively.
The eight-year delay may have been a blessing in disguise. Technology advanced so quickly that military communications changed, and cellular advancements altered the COMINT methodology entirely. Successful deployments to SOUTHCOM and CENTCOM (supporting the counterdrug and Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO) in the Persian Gulf respectively) provided credibility to NAVSPECWAR and a grudging respect from the traditional Cryptology and Special Intelligence Communities.
September 11, 2001 allowed for the first direct action missions for the TCS program as I was assigned to ST-3E with the help and support of Brandon Webb. TCS proved that it could function in the field. Additional world-wide combat deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, etc. continued to show the promise and potential and even some of the harshest critics from both ends of the spectrum began to understand the potential for increased mission success, new target creation/development and increased safety for all operators involved.
When I was assigned to a new platoon, I would give a simple brief: “Anyone who watches the NFL knows that the coaches communicate to the field by radio transmissions. I play offense and defense, can intercept and translate the messages and best of all I have their playbook.” Don would have been accepting of TCS and there was not one mission that I conducted where I thought that I had an additional responsibility to perform, just as if I was working with him.
Ironically, my last combat deployment before retiring was with SEAL Team 4. Prior to that final deployment to Iraq, I would often walk by the plaque of Don in the hallway where his Navy Cross Citation is displayed. The following is the summary of action:
For extraordinary heroism in action while serving as Platoon Chief Petty Officer of SEAL Team Four Golf Platoon at Paitilla Airfield, Republic of Panama during Operation Just Cause, 19-21 December 1989. Golf Platoon was an element of Naval Special Warfare Task Unit Papa, a force consisting of three SEAL Platoons, special purpose U.S. Army and Air Force Operations Aircraft and U.S. Navy Patrol Boats. Task Unit PAPA’s mission was: to deny the use of Paitilla Airfield to General Noriega and key Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) personnel; to disable General Noriega’s personal jet aircraft and other selected aircraft; and to hold the airfield until relieved by conventional forces at H + five hours. This mission was crucial to the success of Operation Just Cause because it blocked a principal means of escape for General Noriega and his associates.”
As nightfall settled over Panama on 19 Dec., ENC McFaul and his platoon launched their combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC) from a beach near Howard AFB, rendezvoused with a waiting U.S. Navy patrol boat off the coast, and began a clandestine transit to a loitering point 3000 yds. off the southern approach to Paitilla Airfield.
At 2315 the SEAL elements began their infiltration to a beach at the southern end of the airfield. As the force clandestinely moved ashore, sounds of artillery fire began to fill the air from the battles unfolding in and around Panama City. Concerned that the force would soon be compromised, his platoon was directed to move quickly to its objective.
As the platoon patrolled up the airfield, an intelligence report was received indicating that General Noriega was possibly flying into Paitilla in four minutes aboard an unknown aircraft. The platoon continued with all possible speed to the PDF hangar on the northwestern side of the 4,300 ft. runway to ensure that General Noriega would not be able to use his jet aircraft.
As the first squad of Golf Platoon closed to within fifty yards of the hangar housing General Noriega’s aircraft, they became engaged in a fierce firefight with well positioned Panamanian Defense Forces in and between the hangars. As the engagement continued, ENC McFaul and the second squad fought fiercely, attempting to suppress the enemy fire. The platoon’s first squad had sustained heavy casualties in the initial volley — eight of the nine men had been wounded. ENC McFaul came to realize that the men from first squad were not responding to orders and were, in fact, all lying wounded in their exposed positions. Most were barely able to operate their weapons. He immediately responded to help the numerous wounded, since his was the closest element — approximately 25 yards south of the first squad during the initial firefight.
ENC McFaul, realizing that the first squad was in extreme danger, instructed his men to continue their suppressing fire directed at the PDF hangar while he and a corpsman moved forward to rescue his stricken teammates. As he progressed toward the beaten zone, ENC McFaul encountered LTJG Casey dragging a wounded teammate from the firefight. In the absence of effective cover fire and with disregard for his personal safety, ENC McFaul entered the kill zone with the single focus of saving his teammates’ lives. Moving quickly, he located Petty Officer Moreno, who had suffered a severe head wound, and courageously began to drag him from the deadly enemy fire. As he desperately pulled Petty Office Moreno to safety, ENC McFaul was savagely raked by enemy automatic weapons fire, and upon succumbing to his mortal wounds, he laid himself across his teammate, protecting him from enemy fire.
ENC McFaul demonstrated the highest possible level of personal sacrifice and valor. His extraordinary heroic actions, in total disregard for his personal safety, saved the life of Petty Office Moreno and inspired other heroic acts that unquestionably saved more lives. He set the highest possible standard for the leadership by example in combat. His selfless and extraordinary heroism clearly warranted the special recognition of the Navy Cross.
The Arleigh Burke-class Frigate DDG-74 bears the name USS McFaul. The Chiefs’ Mess at Little Creek Amphibious Base also carries his name and I have sat in the McFaul room on many occasions, yet his unrecognized legacy is the TCS program which hopefully still strives to achieve the same level of professionalism, honor, and courage that Chief McFaul displayed.
On this day, I wish the McFaul family a wonderful Memorial Day weekend knowing that Don’s legacy continues.
Featured image: Gulf of Oman (Apr. 1, 2004) – Members assigned to the Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) team aboard the guided missile destroyer USS McFaul (DDG 74) — named for U.S. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Donald L. McFaul — don their equipment after getting orders to conduct a search of a fishing dhow. McFaul is on a regularly scheduled deployment in support of the Global War on Terrorism. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Alan D. Monyelle. (RELEASED)