By Robert Adams, MD
My family and I arrived at Ft Bragg (now Fort Liberty), NC, in the oppressive heat of July 1994, NC. I was a newly certified and residency-trained Army physician. My previous 18 years in the Navy and 12 years as a SEAL were only memories now. I had a new Army job and a new mission. Heal the sick and injured. I was immediately invited to recertify in static line parachuting so I could be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division if it went to war. The PROFIS (Professional Filler system) is used by the military to fill voids in medical personnel needed when a unit deploys to combat. There were ten other jump-qualified doctors in the Bragg system, but they would need more if they got the call to go somewhere ‘hot.’ The 82nd Airborne was America’s ready force, able to be airborne in 48 hours. I was assigned (on paper) to the 2/325 Airborne Infantry Regiment – the “White Falcons.” This system had not been activated in a very long time. I had not jumped from an airplane in seven years during medical school and residency. I had tried to but was informed it was against regulations for doctors in school or residency training to participate in hazardous duty activities.
My first refresher jump at Ft Bragg, in my new Army uniform with a SEAL insignia and master jump wings above my left pocket, was easy and fun. I had been jumping static line and freefall for many years and had served on the Navy SEAL freefall parachute team (the Chuting Stars) that traveled the U.S. doing freefall parachute demonstrations. This was a reminder of why I liked being a doctor in the military. Workday time was allotted for physical training and jumping out of airplanes – and it came with extra jump pay to boot.
September arrived with a surprise bombshell. I had the family settled into our new house and made the qualifying static line jump and a freefall jump with Navy SEALs in the area. Life was calm and enjoyable. “Sir, this is the Womack Medical Center Staff Duty Officer. You are released from your current duties and assigned to the 82nd Airborne, 2nd of the 325 Airborne Infantry Regiment, effective immediately. Please report to their command headquarters immediately. They are expecting you,” ordered the voice on the phone. After a brief discussion, with me trying to find out more, all I could discover was that they needed me there now. They instructed me not to call home until briefed at the new unit. This was an unexpected development for a new physician still learning how the Army worked, but I knew what it meant. The 82nd Division was going somewhere operational.
The hours that followed found me in a briefing announcing an invasion of Haiti. Operation Uphold Democracy would begin in 48 hours. They planned a 3,500-man parachute assault onto the island of Haiti. Holy shit. I went home that evening and began packing my gear for a combat parachute invasion of another country. We would all report back in the morning to begin a lock-down phase to prepare for the assault. Phone lines were blocked. Roads in and out of the Division area were manned with police. No one was to come or go. Interestingly, every military surplus store in Fayetteville, NC, and every dry cleaner where light brown desert camouflage uniforms hung, remained open all day and all night for 48 hours as soldiers arrived to collect uniforms and items needed. Nothing was said. A knife sharpening booth suddenly appeared at the Navy Exchange manned by a veteran who offered free knife sharpening. There was a line waiting for his service.
I was scheduled to work at a civilian hospital the coming weekend, where I covered weekend hospitalized patients. I called the woman who scheduled me and left a brief message. “I will not be able to work this weekend due to military duties. I am not sure when I will be able to help again. Thank you, and I am sorry for the inconvenience.” The woman who heard the message later told me she immediately burst into tears. Everyone in Fayetteville was aware that their boys were going to war. Mouths stayed shut. This was their secret now – as in the past. At the first division sand-table briefing, I learned that they had assigned me to jump from aircraft number one and tasked me to jump in with the unit commander. They would place me in the middle of the jumper line so that if we jumped too early or too late, I would more likely end up where I was needed. The others might find themselves on rooftops, as the time over the drop zone was very short. Our drop zone was to be a cement airport runway covered with trailers and other high obstacles. Damn. “Sir, I understand you requested me to be on your aircraft. I was told you liked the fact that I was a SEAL and more senior than the other docs. I just need to tell you that I have no Army operational experience and do not know what I am supposed to do once we hit the ground.”
“Doc, listen. All I need you to do is go where I go and keep me alive if something happens to me,” he stated commandingly. “Can you do that?”
“Yes, sir. I can do that,” I responded with false confidence.
The story of 3.500 paratroopers launching in the night to fly four hours to Haiti and take the island by force was suppressed. My wife later reported the local news had done a live broadcast of 64 large aircraft taking off from the local Air Force base that evening. The reporter stood on a hill outside Pope Airforce base and commented on the constant and seemingly unending stream of combat aircraft leaving one after another. Local air traffic had been rerouted out of the area. She observed that the entire town was aware that all the military surplus stores had stayed open all night the previous night while soldiers bought needed supplies and that the entire stock of summer field uniforms had been withdrawn from the dry cleaners in town. Not much more was said. My wife watched in silence.
Two hours after the night launch, the acting Haiti president surrendered. GEN Colin Powell had waited until our point of no return and informed him we were two hours out. His only option to avoid war was to surrender and accept the inevitable. He surrendered and accepted cash and a plane ride out of Haiti. The 64 aircraft were turned around and brought back.
When the message clipboard worked its way down the cramped line of jumpers to me, now stuffed uncomfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with a 60-pound rucksack on my legs. I noticed unusual silence caused by simultaneous feelings of relief and disappointment.
The message read, “Mission canceled. Returning to base.”
We were tired and wet from loading that same evening in the rain, but in retrospect, we had just
won a war without firing a shot.
The story above is an excerpt from his book Swords And Saints – A Doctor’s Journey by Robert Adams