Most of them were too young to vote or have a legal drink, and shaving for many was more an assertion of manhood than an actual daily necessity. Weekend passes usually liberated the youthful G.I.s to disperse and fan out over the surrounding heartland counties in search of various releases for their raging hormones. But now, their unit happened to be the division first ready force, and was restricted to the post.
In fact, the 1st DRF had been further restricted to barracks, which was not unusual. They even had to pack their excess and dress uniforms and civvies in footlockers and turn those in to Supply, along with one of their pair of dog tags. That was not so usual. (Each dog tag has a little notch in it to facilitate jamming between the teeth of an intact corpse, and now one tag only hung from each soldier’s neck.) They were accustomed to unfathomable orders and boring routines. The order to fall out for a jump, however, was greeted with eagerness and relief. These volunteers loved to jump, and while each knew the shaking, accelerating thrill of a runway takeoff with a parachute harnessed to his back, some of them had never in their short lives ever actually landed in an airplane. A jump meant excitement, freedom, and a relief from god-awful boredom.
This jump was to be in full combat gear with equipment, which was an extra hassle, but little grumbling was heard as they donned packs and checked out weapons and climbed in trucks for the ride to the air base. Helmets clanked on rifle barrels. Live ammo was issued. Parachutes were strapped on. The soldiers were marched through huge tailgates into the cargo bays of waiting planes. None of them knew, cared or speculated on which familiar drop zone would be used. The roar of the C-130 turboprops made conversation difficult, and the paratroopers packed closely within the cargo bay were alone with their thoughts.
The flight lasted hours, and then more hours. Much longer than normal. The fidgeting didn’t relieve the growing discomfort. Burp bags filled. Everyone on that flight grew impatient to hear the commands, STAND UP! HOOK UP! followed by STAND IN THE DOOR! … GO!! Every one of those, still in, or just leaving their teen years, whose mothers had borne and birthed them during the uncertainty of one of all of the previous wars billed to make the world safe for democracy, waited for that command.
But the command did not come. At the end of that unremarkable long day, the flight of C-130s landed back at the air base from which they had departed, and the disappointed, somewhat perplexed soldiers were marched out of the cargo bays to turn in their still packed ‘chutes, turn in the live ammo, and climb back in trucks to return to their padlocked barracks. No jump. No fun. Dejection and resignation was the mood.
But those young men didn’t know then, and probably some have not yet figured out, that they had all just made what was, for most, their first, and for some their one and only trip to the exotic islands of the Caribbean. The order to “stand in the door” and “go”, had it been heard, would have been over a drop zone in Cuba.
The reason for the invasion would have been to disarm and remove Weapons of Mass Destruction that threatened America’s security. The Weapons were real. They were not imagined. And the evidence was not falsified. They were missiles armed with nuclear bombs capable of destroying any part of the United States. There was no shortage of advisers, some with academic robes, some from corporate boardrooms, some with spaghetti on their visors, stars on their shoulders, and rows of ribbons on their chests, who insisted that immediate, preemptive war was the ONLY course open to us.
America had a young President then who had been in front line combat and who had been snookered once before into an unwise, illegal military adventure by some of these same experts. The young, reckless soldiers had not yet acquired any sense of history. But their Commander-In-Chief applied a steady hand and took the less dramatic, less reactive course. He stayed the invasion and negotiated a good and lasting resolution of the threat that in actual fact, and at that moment, imperiled our very planet.
There remain some vitriolic fools who wish even today that we had invaded Cuba then, crushed their Revolution, and handed any people who survived, and the land and resources, back to the corrupt dictator Batista, the mafia, the death squads, United Fruit and IT&T. But not me. Not this peach fuzz shaving mother’s son who was one of many willing, eager and ignorant airborne soldiers that historic anti-climactic day in 1962.
I am deeply grateful that, in the face of a REAL threat, we had a government with a President who chose to weigh and exercise his responsibility wisely and carefully. And we have all been remiss in allowing our nation’s destiny to be directed by those who, in the face of a falsified threat, have drawn, half-cocked, and shot from the hip at Iraq.
September 4, 2005