“How the hell am I going to fill 1,000 sandbags, and how did I get myself into this mess?” I thought. Sometimes life throws curveballs at you and you have to do your best to sit back in the box and hit them the opposite way. In doing so, you can take a bad situation and make the most of it. That’s precisely what I did during my time in Honduras.
Back in the day, the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was a thorn in the side of the United States, especially the White House under President Reagan. The U.S. worried the Sandinistas would try to spread their revolution (with outside help) to neighboring countries.
The concern was justified: Bloody civil wars raged on in El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras had a latent insurgency issue, and later we learned that the Nicaraguan government was encouraging those insurgencies all along.
Although the number of U.S. troops allowed in El Salvador was severely restricted, and very few SOF troops were allowed in Guatemala due to political issues, no such restrictions existed in Honduras at the time. The U.S. maintained a steady presence of conventional and SOF troops there.
Combat engineers were always building and improving roads, and there was a slew of medical and dental units there helping the people. The U.S. constructed an airbase (Soto Cano) in Palmerola that is still in use today. And there were always a ton of 7th Special Forces Group troops on the ground. It always seemed like there was at least a company-sized element of six Special Forces A-Teams and a B-Team in the country at any given time. Many SF guys from that era would have half a dozen deployments to “Hondo” alone at that time, let alone deployments elsewhere.
This one deployment our group decided to run had several teams from 2nd Battalion, 7th SFG working with local Honduran units, and our commander wanted to run several base station communication sites from inside the country instead of back from Ft. Bragg. So a bunch of SF radio operators (18E) from 1st Battalion were tasked to augment the group’s support battalion while the signal company was tasked with working in the base stations during this deployment.
We were starting one such base station in La Ceiba, at the Honduran air base where they based their fighter aircraft (obsolescent Super Mystere), and then moving it after a few weeks up into the mountains, closer to the Nicaraguan border. During the time in La Ceiba, these SF radio operators would fall under the command of the support battalion staff. It was not a marriage made in heaven.
The sergeant major was, to put it simply, a “Rick” with a silent P. He had a “do as I say and not as I do” attitude and was used to bullying the younger support guys—and girls. They had a gazillion rules the A-team guys never had to deal with in past deployments, and it was soon apparent that heads were going to bump.
He instituted a “pass” system and a curfew, which applied to anyone going downtown. Except for him and his cronies. That didn’t fly with the SF guys. “Hey, that doesn’t apply to us, right?”
Well, after sampling some of the local nightlife in downtown La Ceiba and hanging out with a number of British schoolteachers from Belize, we arrived back at the base well after the established curfew. One of his little cronies made sure to rat us out, the little cockroach. We still beat the SGM back. Imagine that.
The next morning, the SGM was going to make a big deal out of it and called us all in. He said we could be restricted to the base for the remainder of our time there (just a few more days, thankfully), or we could fill sandbags for the Honduran base defenses. Most guys said screw it, they’d remain on base. Another guy and I opted for sandbag detail. Anything to get the hell away from those people.
So, we got a driver, a deuce-and-a-half, and 1,000 sandbags. We told the driver to pack as many shovels as he had, which resulted in a strange look, but he grabbed about a dozen. The driver drove us to the far side of the base where there was a pit of clay that was as hard-packed as granite. “This is where our guys have been filling them,” he said. We laughed and told him we weren’t going to spend one minute there. Directing him out the back gate, we headed back down the highway in the opposite direction of town. After passing by some pineapple fields, we told him to take a dirt road to the right. After passing through more fields and over a tiny bridge, we ended up on this tiny beach with the best bar one can imagine.
On an earlier trip, one of the scuba team guys had shown us this place. It had fantastic diving and the bar was open on three sides that emptied right out onto the sand. The driver couldn’t believe it. Nursing hangovers, we ordered the hair of the dog from the young girl behind the bar while my partner spoke to her quietly in the corner. Then, pulling a hammock out of my ruck, I strung it up between two poles on the open part of the bar and reclined with an ice-cold Port Royal while my bud nursed a Salva Vida.
“What are you guys doing?” the driver asked.
“Well, we’re going to chill out, catch about a 20-minute power nap, and wait for the cavalry to arrive,” we said. About the time the first beer was gone, the cavalry had, indeed, arrived.
Kids from the nearby village came flocking in, thinking the gringos were going scuba diving again. They offered us the use of their small boats and their services for whatever we needed.
We explained what we wanted to do, and they quickly agreed. We’d give them each two MREs (that we weren’t going to eat anyway). The two oldest kids were going to be foremen and oversee the entire operation. We gave them a five-minute class on how to properly fill sandbags, and just like in Selection, on how full they had to be. The two “foremen” would get five bucks each for their trouble.
After watching this slew of kids quickly filling up the sandbags, my bud and I retired to the cool shadow of the bar and the hammocks. “Yes, I’ll have another beer, thank you very much.”
In less than an hour, we had 250 sandbags filled and loaded on the deuce-and-a-half. We sent the driver back with strict orders to use the rear gate and bring back more cases of MREs. Most importantly, we told him not to breathe a word of this to anyone.
Around noon the kids wanted to take a break for lunch. They planned on eating their MREs. We can do better, we said. The girl at the bar had already been forewarned and we arranged chicken sandwiches and a few burgers for all of them. We sat in the shade of the bar and got those kids sodas. Afterward, it was time for a dip in the ocean. Punishment details are hell.
By two in the afternoon, all of our sandbags were full. In truth, we didn’t have 1,000, because they’d thought we wouldn’t be able to fill a tenth of that number. Our driver asked if we should head back. “Hell no,” we answered. It was time for some MTT. He asked what that meant. “Max tanning time,” we answered. So until about four, we laid out in the sun, swam a bit more, and bought the kids a Coke. There were about half again as many MREs as we’d originally promised, and we said the heck with it. We told them to spread those out evenly as well. It was money well spent. We thought about scrawling on the side of the truck “7th SFG Sand and Gravel,” but thought better of it. We used unconventional warfare principles to beat the pogues at their own game.
We headed back with the final load of sandbags. Arriving back at the base, we unloaded the last of the sandbags into the huge pile that the guys had made. Our “pal,” the SGM, strolled up and gave us a sneer as if to say, “I guess I showed you!” Then he glanced at the pile and knew something was up. We jumped down from the truck and gave him a “f*** you very much” smile before heading for the showers, dousing ourselves in ice-cold water that could wake the dead.