Ah, life in the military is very rarely boring. You get to travel to some exotic — well, different — places and meet some of the most interesting types of people. But one time-honored tradition was celebrating the 4th of July, our Independence Day, while deployed outside of the United States. For me, there are several memorable ones that come to mind.
On one 4th of July, we were leaving Ft. Bragg at about 0230 on July 4th with the temperature already pushing 100 degrees at Pope Air Force Base, and then arriving in Asuncion, Paraguay with the temperature in the high thirties. Asuncion, farther from the equator than New York City, had one of their coldest winters on record that year.
On another, in Honduras, had us and our allies involved in much reveling and throwing pyrotechnics. Yet, having no actual fireworks, we instead used star clusters, parachute flares, artillery, and grenade simulators in abundance at the back of the cuartel. After that, we had a war film fest on a VHS system (yes, it was THAT long ago) on the back patio where our allies joined us in watching the Duke (John Wayne) win several of our conflicts and take a scalp in “The Searchers.”
“Juan Wayne is a baaad muthfuqa,” one Honduran soldier said with a mastery of English that only a Bostonian could love.
But Colombia was the best of the best for deployed Independence Day celebrations. For those who have never been there, Colombia is an awesome place. Many Americans who have never been there have a distorted view of what the country is like. Their misconceptions are fueled by countless films that portray it in an unfavorable and very different light from how the country really is.
That said, the country was at that time still a dangerous place in many areas. Nevertheless, many Americans who worked there loved the place and the people. One of my friends, who was the American liaison officer to the Lancero (Ranger) School, ended up marrying a Colombian doctor and moved there after his retirement.
That particular year, we had quite the day planned. We had an early mandatory appearance at the American ambassador’s residence where he had some high-level Colombian politicians visiting for a quick “mandatory fun” party, complete with a Colombian military band that played a spirited, yet slightly off-key, rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
After that, the plan was for several of the MILGRP personnel to retreat to a designated place with people from another government organization and the Colombians who worked for them. That was an opportunity to let our hair down a little bit. But then, the SOUTHCOM (Southern Command) commander threw a monkey wrench in our plans.
The SOUTHCOM boss was a four-star general stationed in Panama, but for the Special Forces guys, he may as well have been on the dark side of the moon. We never saw any of those people during our deployments, but that was about to change. The general had instituted an infamous no-alcohol policy to all deployed troops operating within SOUTHCOM’s area of operations.
After a couple of alcohol-related incidents — worth noting that the most serious one was committed by a member of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) — the general decided that the military would lead the way and banned the use of alcohol for deployed troops. As professional, extremely self-disciplined Special Forces officers and NCOs, we would brief the command and SOUTHCOM that all of their policies were adhered to. And then, like the good Special Forces troops we were, we disobeyed the policy… within reason of course. Nobody was out there painting the town red (officially), but we weren’t teetotaling it for 180 days, either.
Then, just a few days before Independence Day, we got a message that the SOUTHCOM commander was flying into Colombia to spend July 4th with us. No one was jumping with joy.
Instead of showing up at noon at the ambassador’s residence, the general wanted all of us there at 1030. Several State Department and Colombian politicians were there, along with several higher-ranking officers from the Colombian military. That crowd was imbibing at the well-stocked bar, but the general’s staff, nearly to a man, was drinking Diet Coke. I imagine that was by his request.
There were a few brief moments of excitement when the Colombian bomb-sniffing dogs were alerted around the ambassador’s garden and there was nearly a panic among the civilians. But the ambassador’s residential staff had put sparklers between the shrubs to be set off at the appropriate time. One of the Colombian colonels had watched the staff emplace them and laughed, saying at least the dogs were well trained.
The general, as many four-stars are apt to do, made a speech about the “big-picture” and promptly pissed off our Colombian allies. Ignoring what he’d been briefed on, he insisted on telling our allies that he was all in on helping them with “their drug problem.” Colombians didn’t like that. Very few of them used cocaine, with about 80 percent of their product ending up on the shores of the United States. They had a supply problem. While that may be splitting hairs, to them it was an insult.
So, we sat there with a water bottle in hand as he began addressing us. “Phil,” who worked for that other government organization and whom I knew pretty well, sidled up beside me with a plastic cup of straight “Old #7.” He smiled and said, “Are we having fun yet?”
With each of the general’s remarks, Phil would punctuate it with a derisive comment or a “hear, hear.” Then he’d take a drink. I was trying — unsuccessfully — to keep a straight face during the entire speech.
The general told us we were the tip of the spear in the War of Drugs. “And you can’t have none,” droned Phil. But the best was when he told the Special Forces guys that, “We trust you with our national security… yada, yada,” at which time Phil stated, “But we don’t trust you with a f***ing Budweiser on Independence Day.” I nearly gagged on my water.
We didn’t wait around for the food, and with our appearance at the residence checked off the list, it was time to withdraw gracefully. The SOUTHCOM staff guys actually asked us to hang out with them at the party. “Sorry guys, I have to go.”
It was back to our residence, where a “Juan Wayne” double feature of “The Searchers” and “The Longest Day” — along with my stash of “Old #7,” strictly for invited company — awaited. My buddy arrived shortly after I did, having picked up some food for the festivities.
As the Duke told Jeffrey Hunter, “C’mon blanket head,” that was our cue to begin our own celebration. Somehow that seemed apt.
Happy Independence Day.