The charge of quarters woke me at Oh-Dark-Thirty on 19 November 1978. I was told the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) had been activated and I might not return for a couple days. I walked the block and a half from the barracks to XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters and climbed three flights of stairs to a six inch thick vault door just to the right of the third floor landing.
Pressing the cipher lock – rocker switches numbered 1 to 5 and hidden behind a grey steel panel, I pushed the EOC vault door open and walked along a dark narrow hall with darkened offices for 50 feet or so before it turned sharply to the right and into a bright florescent lit room filled with steel desks and lined with maps, clocks, classified, secret and top secret cover sheets.
The duty officer, a major and a highly decorated helicopter pilot, told me US civilians had been attacked and killed by the Guyana Army. I sat at my desk as an operations assistant and was told I was one of the first to arrive while others were driving in from their homes on and off post. The major handed me a telex with a Secret cover sheet stapled to it and told me he had a secure call to make.
I lit a Marlboro, tossed the match in an army issue glass ashtray and turned the cover page over. Following the distribution of military and government offices, two paragraphs described how a US Congressman was shot and killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip along with hundreds of US civilians. I remember thinking, “Why would the Guyanese Army do that?”
The EOC filled with men and talk of kicking Guyana ass and taking names. The Airborne motto, “Travel to Exotic Places – Meet Interesting People – And Kill Them” was finally going to happen. I was told by the ops sergeant that as infantrymen our lives as Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers (REMF) would soon be over and we’d be re-assigned to a line infantry unit in the 82nd Airborne.
My stomach dropped just below my knees as I imagined Guyanese commandos with machetes chopping my unprepared REMF ass into tiny bite size pieces and then fighting over my Rolex and boots. At 20, I was a huge smart ass but I worked that morning without saying a word and wondered if I shouldn’t leave my watch behind.
It took almost four hours before a telex told the true story. A US Congressman and five civilians, mostly media, had been killed at the airstrip. The Guyanese, our enemy seconds earlier, were helping us and had reported 200 – 300 dead at a camp of American farmers. In another couple hours we learned it was mass suicide—some 900 dead. A G-3 officer wrote in red wax pencil over a Sortie board, “Operation Bag-A-Bod.” A call for volunteers went up to to assist 1st COSCOM with the body removal. I called my father and told him I was thinking of going. He told me not to and went into vivid detail as to why.
I learned a lot 34 years ago today. I learned not to believe everything you hear or read. I learned a an officer had his heels locked and his ass chewed over a Sortie board. I later learned he retired a major and I think I know why. Mostly, I learned time changes everything.
Originally appeared at The Trad