1 ROBIN SAGE 7:30 P.M., THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 1992
The helicopter ride was surprisingly boring. Ken Swanson had heard stories about the daring of the 160th Aviation Regiment, the U.S. Army’s secret helicopter unit. The all-black MH-47 Chinook, souped up with fancy avionics and electronic countermeasures equipment could juke and dive so fast that its passengers would be flattened on the ceiling. Swanson expected the pilot to put the chopper through its paces for him and the rest of his student detachment. The fifteen Green Beret students squatted on their rucksacks, crammed together like sardines on the helicopter’s deck. Four dim blue lights overhead cast an eerie pall inside the chopper’s belly.
But except for flying blacked out with their night vision goggles, the Chinook’s pilots kept a steady course above the pine forests and tobacco farms of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont. The ride would be the only calm moment for Swanson for the next two weeks.
Kenneth Swanson. Infantry captain. The insignia on his uniform revealed he was one of the Army’s rising young officers: an airborne patch showing he could parachute from planes, a pathfinder insignia designating him qualified to guide aircraft into remote jungle landing zones, an expert infantryman’s badge, a Ranger tab on his shoulder.
Winning that Ranger tab had been hard. Sixty-five days of constant marches, two hours sleep a night, half starving in the field sometimes with just one meal a day. On lonely listening posts soldiers would become
so hungry they’d start hallucinating about food. Army manuals called Ranger school the ultimate in leadership training and physical stress. Swanson felt like a physical wreck afterward. Never again, he vowed.
But now Ken Swanson was on the verge of completing the most unusual training the Army had to offer. In two weeks—if he didn’t screw up—Swanson would be able to add another patch to his uniform. This one would say “Special Forces.” And on his head he would wear the Green Beret—that is, if he got through these next two weeks.
Over the deafening whine of the chopper’s engines a helicopter crew member shouted into Swanson’s ear, offering a headset to monitor the radio traffic of the pilots.
Swanson waved it off. The chopper would be landing soon enough, he thought.
That was his first mistake. If Swanson had listened to the radio chatter, he would have heard the pilots tick off their checkpoints along the way to the aircraft’s final destination. He could have confirmed for himself that the pilot had landed at the right spot. Helicopters get lost when their high-tech direction-finding equipment malfunctions. The first rule of clandestine operations: never trust anyone or any machine to do what you’ve been told they’ll do.
Swanson was forgiven this mistake. The MH-47 was not lost. A chopper crew member in the rear of the plane held up a finger. Each team member did the same down the line. One minute to touchdown.
The helicopter landed with a bump. The rear ramp door flopped down. The team members struggled to shoulder their rucksacks in the cramped quarters, shouting “Go, go!” as they piled out.
The helicopter had landed on a farmer’s dirt airstrip, about three miles southwest of the village of Coleridge in Randolph County, North Carolina. As the team clambered out the rear ramp, they took up positions in a half-moon perimeter. The chopper stayed on the ground less than a minute, then lifted off.
The team crouched in the tall grass and waited several minutes more to let their ears adjust to the silence of the night. No one spoke. Only hand signals were exchanged.
A farmer wearing a tan jacket and baseball cap leaned against a white two-and-a-half-ton truck with a tan canvas top, which was parked at the other side of the runway. The farmer waved them over.
Swanson and half his team quickly crept up to the vehicle and circled it with a security perimeter.
The other half of the team raced up. Never taking his eye off the
open field behind the truck, Swanson motioned his team to pile in the back. They were sitting ducks if counterinsurgents attacked.
“Hurry,” he whispered a bit out of breath, as he climbed up himself after the last man had boarded.
The truck sped south on a dark two-lane road. Swanson and several team members hunched over tactical maps with pen lights, desperately trying to keep up with the twists and turns the driver made, the bridges he crossed, the miles he had driven, so they would have some inkling where they would be when the truck stopped.
Swanson craned his neck out the back of the truck looking for landmarks in the darkness that he could match on his map. He had wiped clean the acetate-covered map the night before so that if it ever ended up in enemy hands it would reveal none of the coordinates for his dropoff and linkup points with the guerrillas. Those he had committed to memory.
The driver was supposed to take Swanson’s team as far as he could to Pleasant Hill Church, where they were to meet a guerrilla contact. But Swanson’s intelligence file had warned that these drivers, part of the guerrilla auxiliary, were not particularly reliable. The first rule of clandestine infiltration: don’t begin a nighttime walk in the woods to meet a distant contact unless you knew exactly where you were starting from. You would only end up hopelessly lost. If the driver decided to dump the team along the road somewhere short of the church, Swanson knew he had better have pinpointed where the truck stopped on his map or he would never be able to match the map’s legends and contour lines with whatever terrain features he could make out around him at night.
Ken Swanson was not about to get lost at the start of this mission. He was a conscientious officer. Twenty-seven years old and strikingly handsome, he had bright blue eyes, wavy brown hair brushed back, a deep voice, and a gentle manner. An avid outdoorsman, he was a marathoner when Army field exercises didn’t disrupt his training schedule. Ever since he was a child in Moline, Illinois, Swanson could remember wanting to camp out in the wilderness. He packed off to the University of Idaho in 1983 to major in wildlife recreation management. He wore flannel shirts and blue jeans and became a committed environmentalist.
But Swanson did not mix well with the other environmental activists on campus. They were too liberal politically. He may have been an environmentalist, but he was also deeply conservative. It was a conservatism nurtured among the small towns and farms of the Midwest,
where people rose with the rooster crow and worked until dark and had little time for big government or taxes or welfare programs.
The Army seemed a natural place for Swanson. He won an ROTC scholarship after his freshman year and applied for the infantry after he graduated in 1986. It was a branch the recruiters were only too happy to give him. The infantry meant he would be outside, not in some stuffy office.
As Swanson expected, the truck stopped about two miles short of his linkup point with the guerrillas. If he had calculated it correctly, he was just north of Benchmark 121.9 on his map, on a road two miles east of Antioch Church. The driver walked to the back, unhooked the latch and dropped the cargo door. It clanged noisily.
“This is as far I’m takin’ y’all,” the driver said firmly with a Southern twang. “They’ve had roadblocks all up and down this road and I ain’t gettin’ stopped by one.”
Swanson’s team piled out of the back of the truck. The driver stared at the captain for a minute, grumbled, then climbed into his truck cab and sped off. Swanson had forgotten to pay him for the ride. The driver might be even less reliable the next time.
Swanson had made his second mistake. There would be many more during the next two weeks of Robin Sage.
• • •
From the minute he joined the Army, Swanson had had his eye on Special Forces. There was a romantic quality to the Green Berets, or so he thought. They served in faraway lands on their own with no chain of command breathing down their necks. There was a laid-back sense of confidence in Special Forces. Swanson liked that. Ranger combat battalions were so regimented, he had found, so tightly wound like a coiled spring, you could quickly burn out. In Special Forces, everyone had a specialized skill. An officer didn’t have to micromanage sergeants and sergeants weren’t afraid to tell officers a better way to run a mission.
They were a cocky group. Green Berets hated to admit that anything was new to them. If a Green Beret was heard beginning a sentence with “The first time I . . .” he could end up owing his team a case of beer. The joke in student training: Green Berets lived by three rules. One, always look cool. Two, always know where you are. And three, if you can’t remember where you are, at least try to look cool.
With luck, Swanson would study German or Russian and serve in Europe with the 10th Special Forces Group. The Green Berets were divided into five groups, which specialized in different parts of the world. The desert commandos of the 5th Group were responsible for the Middle
East and Southwest Asia. The 3rd Group’s territory was Africa and the Caribbean. Seventh Group’s was Latin America, a popular assignment in Swanson’s detachment. Everybody wanted to fight drug traffickers.
That didn’t interest Swanson. During the Cold War the 10th Group’s mission had been to be ready to infiltrate behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe with exotic weapons to disrupt a potential Warsaw Pact invasion. Now Green Berets were preparing for military training missions in the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Who knew, he might be in the old Soviet Union one day training Russian soldiers, Swanson thought.
His fellow Ranger officers considered him a traitor for wanting to join Special Forces. Green Berets were nothing but a bunch of fast-talking unconventionals, as far as they were concerned. Though the Green Berets have been mythologized in ballads and adventure movies, their history has often been sad and disappointing.
Born out of the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—which had parachuted “Jedburgh teams” into occupied France to link up with partisans—the Green Berets were organized by the Army in 1952 to harass Russians behind their lines if World War III broke out. The fighters were divided into eight-man units called Operational Detachments-Alpha, or A-teams. Each team, commanded by a captain, had experienced sergeants specializing in communications, demolitions, weapons, intelligence, or medicine. (Today’s A-teams have been expanded to twelve.) Cross-trained in each other’s skills, team members became experts in clandestine warfare: raids, reconnaissance, ambushes, sabotage, underground resistance networks. But the Pentagon questioned whether the force would be of much use in the instant wars of the new atomic age. Europe would be in rubble before A-teams could organize guerrillas. The Green Berets languished in search of a mission.
John Kennedy found it. Obsessed with communist insurgencies, the new president had a romantic view of unconventional warfare and quickly became infatuated with the jaunty Green Berets. Counterinsurgency became the trendy military doctrine in the Pentagon. Special Forces grew fourfold. Hundreds of A-teams were dispatched throughout the Third World to train foreign militaries battling communists. In Vietnam, however, the Green Berets and their counterinsurgency tactics were largely ignored by an Army bent on free-fire zones and body counts. Yet even if the Green Berets had been allowed to fight their kind of war, they would not have won. No Western counterinsurgency strategy would have succeeded.
After the war, the Green Beret ranks were decimated. It was just as well. During the expansion of Special Forces for Vietnam, standards
had been lowered to attract recruits. The force was full of screwballs, alcoholics, and cowboys with their Montagnard tribal bracelets from Vietnam and sapphire rings from Bangkok. Ronald Reagan, who shared Kennedy’s obsession with guerrilla insurgencies, rebuilt the force in the 1980s. Green Berets became the military ambassadors of the Reagan Doctrine to roll back communism in the Third World. Mobile training teams fanned out to more than thirty countries, instructing militaries in counterguerrilla tactics, building bridges and clinics, paving roads, and preaching human rights. Progress was made in some countries. But for unsavory regimes, the military training simply increased their proficiency in killing political opponents. El Salvador became the new testing ground for the Green Berets’ counterinsurgency strategy. But it ended up being an impossible assignment. America could no more build a democratic nation in El Salvador than in Vietnam.
The quality of the Green Beret force nevertheless improved during the Reagan years, as did the training. The Vietnam generation of lone wolves and killers faded from the force. Before beginning formal instruction, which for some A-team specialties lasts a year or more, Green Beret applicants now must pass a grueling three-week selection course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the headquarters for Special Forces. Half drop out. Students march day and night with forty-five-pound packs to test physical endurance. They spend five days in a sleep-deprivation course to stress mental stamina. In one exercise to test how well they improvise, students are presented a jeep with its wheels off and an engine that won’t start and told to move it from one point to another. If there is a flaw in a student’s personality the testers believe it will surface from the mental and physical grind.
The vetting is important. A Green Beret must be both a maverick and a team player—two contradictory traits for a soldier. A good sergeant in the regular Army follows orders with layers of officers watching over him. A Green Beret sergeant can find himself plunked in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home advising foreign soldiers on his own. He must operate on his initiative, by his wits—yet not embarrass his own government.
After enduring the grind of selection, students begin the Special Forces Qualification Course, or “Q Course.” First they spend three months to a year in classrooms studying an expertise such as demolitions, weapons, or communications. Then they are packed off to a Spartan camp fifty miles west of Fort Bragg, the Nicholas Rowe Special Forces Training Center. It was named after Colonel Nick Rowe, a Green Beret who escaped from a Vietcong prison camp after five years of captivity
only to be gunned down twenty-five years later by communist terrorists in the Philippines.
For about two months at “Rowe U,” students learn unconventional warfare tactics, many of which were borrowed from the CIA. During this field phase of the training, teams of seasoned Special Forces officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) teach courses in small-unit assaults, marksmanship, survival skills, escape and evasion. The final thirteen days are spent in Robin Sage, the code name for one of the most unusual exercises the U.S. Army has ever devised. Robin Sage covers the guerrilla warfare scenarios a team might face in the field during one year. By learning how to conduct insurgent operations, the students also learn how to combat them as counterinsurgents. Robin Sage takes students back to the original guerrilla warfare of World War II. Only this time they are jumping not into the countryside of France with the Jedburgh teams, but into the hamlets and farms of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont.
Guerrilla and counterinsurgency tactics cannot be learned on an Army post with its fenced-off firing ranges and whitewashed barracks lined neatly in rows. The tactics must be learned where such a war would be fought, among people and villages, dogs and cats, churches and schoolhouses.
To an outsider driving on North Carolina’s back roads, the villages of Troy and Biscoe and Siler City along the way seem no different from other Southern towns. But for the past thirty years, these towns and the farms that surround them have been the training ground for the unconventional warfare of the Green Berets.
Practically everyone gets in on the act. The townsfolk and farmers not only allow the Green Berets to use their pastures and forests, they also join in the exercises. Some villagers play the part of guerrillas driving Green Beret students around the countryside in their trucks for their clandestine missions. Others act as area commanders for fictional resistance forces the Green Beret students must train. On weekends, local police armed with paint guns square off with students in mock battles. Others lend land for drop zones that the Green Berets use to resupply student teams in the field.1
The civilians who play guerrillas take their parts seriously. In some
families, the roles have been passed from one generation to the next. Patriotism runs deep in these towns of the Piedmont plateau with their quiet wide streets, general stores, and 4-H Clubs. Folks hang their flags out on holidays, attend church every Sunday, and host pig pickin’s afterward to devour mounds of barbecue and hush puppies. On weekends, farm families in pickups watch student teams assault bridges.
The civilians and the soldiers look out for one another. Farmers offer up chickens, goats, and deer that the students learn to skin and cook for survival training. In return, Green Beret trainers have their students repair barns or chop firewood as part of their civic action training. The local townsfolk warn of rednecks looking for trouble—the Green Berets call them “Billy Bobs”—or strangers nosing around asking too many questions. When they spot a student lost or trying to sneak into one of the gas stations to buy a soda, the townsfolk will telephone the trainers. Students quickly learn that they can’t get away with anything.
8:45 P.M., THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20
Dan Moran was not happy. A sergeant first class, he was the trainer for Swanson’s team, which was officially designated Operational Detachment-Alpha 941. Each team was assigned a seasoned Green Beret adviser who monitored their every move during Robin Sage. In this case, the exercise was barely an hour old and Swanson’s team already was fouling it up. First Swanson didn’t wear the headset in the chopper. Then he forgot to pay the guerrilla driver. (The Green Beret training cadre had printed up play money for the exercise. It was called “don,” and Swanson’s team had 20,000 don to grease palms and pay the guerrilla force it would train.) Now the team had climbed out of the truck, and, as far as Moran could see, was just milling around the open road with no perimeter security and no idea which side of the road it would cross to march into the woods.
The team half suspected that the driver wouldn’t take it to the church. But the students never thought the guerrilla driver would stop the truck right in the middle of the road and order them off. (Moran had instructed the driver to do just that, to see how the students would react.) Swanson never bothered to even ask the driver where he had stopped. It would have been a good cross-check for where he thought he was on the map.
The unexpected always happened on these kinds of missions, Moran knew. Before the students ever left their staging area, they should have planned for this type of glitch. The team should have rehearsed exactly
how it would climb out of the truck, how it would set up security while exposed on an open road, which side of the road it would race down. Contingencies, contingencies, contingencies. Moran had been drilling that into their heads since the beginning of the Q course. But the students were only paying it lip service when they put their plans on paper.
Ground rehearsals were critical for any small-unit operation, but even more so for special operations. Because their missions were so difficult to execute, special ops units normally had days, even weeks, to plan and rehearse. It was not enough just to point on a map where everyone should be positioned in a critical maneuver. You had to go out in an open field, have everyone physically walk through where they would be positioned so it would sink in and the team would react automatically during the mission. ODA-941 obviously hadn’t done that, Moran realized. It was a sloppy start.
“Well don’t just stand there like a gaggle of geese,” he growled. “Do something!”
The team scampered down the twenty-foot embankment off the right side of the road. Moran would have gone to the left side. He unfolded his map to check the course the students were plotting. They may be lost, he thought. Christ, I don’t want to wander through these goddamn woods until they find their way.
An Irishman from the suburbs of Chicago, Moran was a fifteen-year veteran of the Army. His Chicago roots and his last name had quickly earned him the nickname “Bugsy” in the service, after the famous gangster.
This was Moran’s first student team as a trainer for the Special Warfare Center, or “swick” as the cadre called it from the acronym. He had just been transferred to Fort Bragg after serving seven years as an A-team communications and assistant operations sergeant with the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Moran had spent four months in the Persian Gulf advising Saudi and United Arab Emirate soldiers who breached the Iraqi defenses along the Kuwaiti border.
Living with Arab soldiers had been a hoot, Moran found. “Boogsie, Boogsie!” they would yell at him and laugh. “Boogsie, the Chicago gangster.” Four months of eating rice and roasted goat with your right hand.
Duty in the small towns of eastern North Carolina was almost like being stationed overseas. Moran found himself having to practice the same diplomacy he employed with foreigners. The weekend before, he had hopped in his truck and driven from farm to farm along the paths
his student detachment would take, to socialize and warn the locals that there might be a ruckus at night. More than 200 students in thirteen detachments would be roaming the forests and pastures during the two weeks of Robin Sage.
As student teams go, Moran thought his was a good one. Most were seasoned Rangers, already skilled in small-unit tactics when they showed up for the Q course. After years of drills and regulations and barracks bullshit, they had a healthy disrespect for the Mickey Mouse aspects of the Army.
But they were a bit too smug to suit Moran. He’d heard them talking about how the selection course was really the toughest part of Green Beret training, how the fifty days of the field phase training hadn’t been that bad so far. Now they were just thirteen days away from putting on a Green Beret and they thought that all they had to do was coast through Robin Sage. Bugsy Moran would make sure that what his students remembered most from the Q course were these next thirteen days.
• • •
Swanson wasn’t lost. He had managed to keep his course plotted during the twisting and turning truck ride. He knew he was about two miles short of Pleasant Hill Church, the primary linkup point with the guerrillas. Traveling off the right side of the road seemed the more logical route to him. But he had to get away from this damn road and fast. The team plunged into the forest.
Swanson was confident. He felt as if he had rehearsed every minuscule detail. If there was anything he had learned about the Green Berets the past year, it was that they were maniacs when it came to preparing for an operation. His team had spent the past five days in isolation planning for this training mission.
Every A-team went into isolation to prepare for an operation. Contact with outsiders was forbidden to ensure that no details of usually secret operations leaked. It also ensured total concentration to the task. Isolation could last as long as a month depending on the complexity of the mission. Swanson’s team had been quarantined in a tin hut ringed by a barbed wire fence. At the mess hall they sat as a group by themselves. They traded colds or stomach viruses from being in such close quarters. They felt like dogs in a pound.
But every waking moment of isolation had to be spent planning the operation. Just the “Detachment Mission Planning Guide,” the bare outline every Green Beret used to organize a mission, was nineteen pages long. A team had to consider 381 separate requirements and
contingencies: infiltration plans, micro-terrain analysis, meteorological surveys, rules of engagement, demographics, local politics, terrorism threats, drop zones, passwords, weapons loads, training plans for guerrillas, the list ran on in eye-watering detail.
When the team first walked into its isolation compound, the trainers had dumped into Swanson’s arms a three-inch-thick binder marked “Mission Analysis.” It was crammed with intelligence on the battlefield, memos from his higher headquarters, plus a sixty-eight-page “Pineland Area Study.”
The area study, a standard Green Beret briefing document, gives an A-team as complete a picture as it can of the foreign country it will enter. In this case, Swanson’s team faced a classic guerrilla warfare scenario. Pineland was a fictitious country, what was once North and South Carolina. It had seceded from Opforland in 1915 (“opfor” in Army jargon is the abbreviation for opposition forces). Opforland consisted of the states east of the Appalachian Mountains, which had themselves seceded from the United States in 1880.
In November 1978, Opforland reinvaded Pineland, installing a puppet regime. Pineland’s legal president fled to Columbia, South Carolina, where he set up a provisional government. Meanwhile, Opforland installed a repressive regime in the occupied northern territory. In the Robin Sage exercise, Opforland’s conventional forces that ruled Pineland were played by 82nd Airborne paratroopers from Fort Bragg, who lusted after the chance to spend two weeks away from the nearby post pestering Green Berets, even if they were students.
Small guerrilla bands, made up of former soldiers who hid from the Opforland invaders, roamed occupied Pineland. But untrained and poorly armed, their resistance was fragmented. The exiled government of Pineland had asked for Washington’s help in training and organizing the guerrillas—although neither the exiled government nor Washington knew just how receptive the resistance fighters would be to American advisers.
Swanson’s mission was to infiltrate his detachment into Pineland, link up with one of the guerrilla bands, and try to whip it into shape. Army intelligence had supplied him with a biography of the guerrilla chief he would soon meet. A CIA asset had sneaked out of Pineland and briefed him on the guerrilla band’s battle record so far. It was clear Swanson had his work cut out for him.
For five days and nights, Swanson and his team wrote on notebook paper their plans for slipping into Pineland, linking up with the guerrillas,
and molding them as a fighting force. Never before had the men considered so many details. In a conventional unit, a headquarters staff attended to most of them. But a tiny Green Beret team had to think like a self-contained division and plan for the entire campaign. In the field, it would be cut off from its higher headquarters perhaps for months. There would be no medical evacution helicopters, no artillery, no tanks to come to the rescue if things went wrong. A Green Beret’s combat support force had to be carried on his back.
9:30 P.M., THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20
John Klapperich flipped open the lid to his pocket compass and cupped his hand around the instrument to see the glow of the bobbing needle, which pointed north. It took years of experience for a soldier to become expert in navigating through a dark forest at night with only a compass and a map. The skill had to be learned: matching the brown contour lines of a tactical map to the peaks and valleys the eyes tried to make out in the dark.
Night navigation could be tricky. Distances appeared shorter than they really were. Zigzagging around obstacles could throw off a compass reading. In a dense forest, disorientation could come quickly if a soldier missed a benchmark, a tree line, a bend in a creek bed.
A soldier also had to know when not to trust the map. Defense Department maps of foreign countries could be notoriously inaccurate. Army Rangers, who were among the best in the world when it came to long-range land navigation, could feel it in their bones when a map was fooling them.
Klapperich was a Ranger. After five years of leading infantry squads he wasn’t about to get this team lost. He had been a fast riser in the Army, making staff sergeant in just four years. With blond hair and a mustache, he acted older than his twenty-two years. He was usually one of the first in the team to see a solution to a problem that others didn’t. He wasn’t afraid to tell others on the team how to solve it. Anyone else this young would be resented by older teammates. But Klapperich had an air of quiet authority to him that compelled others to listen.
But he detested the idea of being an officer. He didn’t even like being around officers. With few exceptions, they were nothing but politicians, self-centered ticket punchers, he thought. Klapperich once had an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, but lost it when he fell in with the wrong group of kids and got into trouble in high school. He joined
the Army at seventeen, his parents signing a consent form allowing him to enlist early. He grew up quickly.
Behind Klapperich no more than ten yards away, Drue Loiselle counted his paces. A twenty-two-year-old Army Ranger, Loiselle had seen combat in Panama. He considered himself lucky just to see the combat. He had parachuted with the Rangers into Río Hato Airport, jumping just 400 feet with a 100-pound rucksack onto the concrete airport tarmac. Loiselle survived the jump only to have his uniform torn to shreds as his parachute, caught by a burst of wind, dragged him along the runway as if it had been hooked to a speeding car.
Loiselle would be happy now if he could just make it through these woods. To navigate on foreign land with a map, a unit always had to know two important things: its direction of travel and how far it had walked. Otherwise it could never match the surrounding landmarks with the symbols on its map. Klapperich walked point with the compass to navigate direction. Loiselle was the pace man. Every infantryman had his own stride, his own number of paces for every 100 meters, which he had precounted hundreds of times in different terrain. Loiselle counted every time his left foot hit the ground. In an open field, his pace was 60 left-foot strikes per 100 meters. In thick brush it was 68 to 70, or even higher if he was climbing a steep ridge.
Loiselle would call out his pace every 100 meters. Klapperich would stop, check his compass heading, then shoot an azimuth to a point ahead to which the team should travel. At intervals, he would stop to compare the pace and compass reading with where he thought he was on the map. The other team members also were counting paces and checking their compasses. Every A-team member had to navigate and know where he was at all times. If the team was attacked and took losses, any team member could end up being left on his own or in command. It was a tedious process, but necessary if the team was not going to become lost and have to backtrack to get back on course—which every compass and pace duo dreaded making its detachment do.
Loiselle’s pace by now was a full 70 per 100 meters. The team didn’t dare take any open trails or walk across bare fields this close to its dropoff point. That meant plowing through the forests, which in Randolph County could be near impenetrable. The woods were hilly and rolling with sharp drop-offs and swift streams that sneaked up on a walker at night. An ankle could be broken in the countless potholes left from rotted pines. Walking through the scrub oak was like climbing through jungle bars in a playground. Low limbs poked eyes and whacked chests.
The team wore thick gloves to keep the briars from shredding their hands. Vines wrapped around them like octopuses. Canteens and entrenching tools sticking out from their rucksacks became snarled, throwing the heavy loads on their backs off balance and tipping them over. Soldiers called them “wait-a-minute vines.” They had to whisper “wait a minute” until they had untangled themselves.
Being the lead man, Klapperich was the first to face the wall of vines and briars. At some points it seemed to him that the only way the team would get through would be for him to simply flop down on the vines and have them walk over his back. The team’s plan had been to fight its way through the forest some 300 yards west of the road, to be sure that it wouldn’t be heard or accidentally bump into anyone wandering around at night. But now it faced another barrier it would never confront in the training areas of military reservations: barbed wire fences.
Klapperich met his first one just fifty yards off the road. He reached up to push the top wire down to climb over. Sparks flew. It felt like someone had taken a thick board and slapped the palm of his hand. The pain shot up to his elbow and knocked him off balance.
“Shit!” he said under his breath. The fence was electrified.
The bad news was passed back to Swanson. The captain quickly draped a poncho over his head, flipped on his pen light underneath, and scanned his map. It showed no houses along the road south for the next 800 yards. Swanson ordered the team to follow the fence line. Maybe there would be a break in the fence further south where they could cross.
If it had caught his eye, a notation in small print on the left-hand corner of his map might have alerted Swanson that this decision would be another mistake: “map information as of 1983.”
Less than forty meters along the fence line, it happened. Dogs began barking. Not just a few. It seemed to the team like a thousand of them were yapping and howling. It was as if they had walked into a kennel. Every mutt in Randolph County must be awake and along that road, they thought. Swanson ordered the pace picked up, which was almost impossible to do because the vines and scrub oak and briars were still thick.
“What a fucking mess,” Moran muttered to himself. They couldn’t have attracted more attention if they had been a brass band marching down Main Street.
Moran had a more practical concern. If the dogs didn’t stop barking the lights in the homes they belonged to would soon start blinking on.
During the last field exercise, a team walking past a barking dog near a trailer had awakened its owner who stormed out in his undershorts with a shotgun. The training sergeant had to quickly intervene to assure the owner that the intruders were Green Berets.
Moran let the team hack its way through another 100 yards, then called a halt.
“Gather around here, I want to talk to you,” he said, irritated. “You’re supposed to be infiltrating. But you’ve got every fucking dog around here barking. You look like you’re out trick-or-treating going from house to house waking up everybody.
“Sure the houses weren’t on the map,” he continued. “But this map is old. You should have realized that new houses would have been built since it was printed. You have to assume that wherever there’s a paved road, there may be houses with barking dogs that can end up compromising your mission.
“An electrified fence shouldn’t have stopped you. You could have taken off your packs, dug a trench under the bottom wire, crawled underneath it, then lifted the packs over the fence. Now if you don’t want the whole world to know that you’ve arrived, you better move west and away from all these goddamn homes!”
12:30 A.M., FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 21
Swanson and a two-man reconnaissance party squatted in the tall brush at the base of a hill, on which Pleasant Hill Church sat. A lone street lamp illuminated the church parking lot and the cemetery to its rear. Swanson, who had left the rest of his team on the other side of the road 500 yards north, could see anyone walking into the graveyard. But no one had come. The linkup with the guerrilla contact was supposed to have occurred at midnight. Swanson’s orders were to wait until 12:30 A.M. If the contact hadn’t shown by then, it meant something had gone wrong and he was to meet the guerrillas at the alternate linkup point.
Moran was the reason something had gone wrong. He had ordered the guerrilla contact not to meet Swanson at the primary linkup site. This would be one of a number of glitches Moran would introduce into the exercise.
Swanson wasn’t surprised. It was probably too much to expect that the students would be allowed to meet the guerrillas on the first try and get a decent night’s sleep before they began training them. But he still groaned. The team had fought its way through three miles of lousy
terrain. The alternate linkup site, Riverside Church, was about four miles south by road. But they would have to travel west first to avoid the houses, then wind their way through the forest, which would make the total trip about seven miles. The time for the alternate linkup was 7 A.M. Friday. Swanson would need the next seven hours to get there. That meant no sleep tonight.
The team already was beginning to feel the wear and tear of the first three miles. North Carolina weather was fickle in February. One day could be springlike, the next day snow would be on the ground. The afternoon before, the temperature was in the high 60s, now it was in the 30s and dropping quickly. Weapons quickly became too cold to carry with bare hands. The team had to pack more “snivel gear” as they called it, cold weather parkas and liners, which added weight to loads.
Weight was a Green Beret’s nemesis. With few resupply drops on missions, he must live off what he carried. Each man on Swanson’s team had to pack: a spare set of boots and clothes plus extra socks because the first set would inevitably become wet; enough rations to survive for a week; two quarts of water; the Army’s cold-weather sleeping bag, which weighed twice as much as civilian bags; ponchos to serve as “hooches” (military slang for the place where soldiers slept); and an assortment of insulated liners and pads. On top of that was the team equipment: demolition charges, batteries, radios, medical supplies, generators, ammunition, entrenching tools, thick ropes for bridges, two heavy machine guns. Equally distributed, each man’s load weighed eighty to 100 pounds.
Packing and carrying a rucksack was a science a soldier learned after miles of painful marching. The indigestible Meals Ready-to-Eat, which the Army had spent years researching to replace the bulkier C rations of Vietnam, still contained too much excess weight and space. The MREs came in thick brown plastic bags, which the team members ripped open to redistribute their contents. Excess items and cardboard containers were thrown away and plastic-wrapped meals were repackaged. In doing so, a dozen meals could be crammed into four MRE bags and the weight reduced by one third.
Equipment like radios could be centered in the bag so the weight fell more squarely on the back. Styrofoam padding taped to the shoulder straps could make the load more bearable. Special Forces and Rangers had long discarded the infantryman’s clunky leather boots. Green Berets could be found wearing lightweight black Addidas, which looked like high-top basketball shoes and were less punishing on the ankles and
soles. On long marches in cold weather, soldiers dressed lightly, wearing only camouflaged fatigues and thin polypropylene liners that breathed. If they dressed too warmly, they overheated, then became chilled when they stopped. If it rained, they slipped on lightweight Gortex jackets.
But for all the careful packing, the marches were physically punishing. Green Berets, Rangers, and Navy SEALs usually retired with back and leg problems, like professional football players, because of the years of carrying heavy loads.
The U.S. Army has been marching for more than 200 years and it still has not developed a backpack that makes sense. The current Army version the Green Beret students use is called the Alice Pack, which is little more than a large green nylon bag with side pockets and flaps. It attaches to a lightweight aluminum back brace with a kidney pad at the bottom to rest against the hips.
The physics of the Alice Pack work against the body. Civilian backpacks distribute the load up and down the back, with the pack sometimes several feet above the camper’s head. Green Berets don’t like those kind of packs because the tops become hung up in low branches. The load of the Alice Pack, or rucksack, is distributed away from the back—as much as three feet away. That causes the pack straps to tug more at the shoulders and the kidney pad to push harder into the hips. The pressure from the straps can rub shoulders raw and cut circulation to the arms. Soldiers call it “The Big Green Wart.”
The wart was already beginning to hurt as the team fought its way now through the woods. The knees were the first to become sore from the load. Emerging from patches of forest, the team came across freshly plowed fields, the furrows more than two-feet high. The pace was increased to make up for lost time. But the soft red clay was punishing on ankles turned and twisted from the furrows.
At short stops, the students would bend over as if in a formal bow to rest the weight of the rucksacks directly on their backs instead of their sore shoulders. Straps were shifted and tightened and loosened, anything to move the weight of the rucksack from one part of a shoulder bone to another. The hips began to ache from the pressure of the kidney pad. At longer stops, which came after every grueling mile, the students not on perimeter guard would simply fall back and roll to one side to relieve the load. It was called the “rucksack roll.” But now the stops were not rejuvenating—only temporary relief from the pain of the ruck.
At a rest stop halfway to Riverside Church, George Seemann, one of the team medics, moved from man to man asking if any had foot
problems. To some, he gave 800-milligram tablets of Motrin to kill the pain. They looked like red horse pills. They were nicknamed “Ranger candy” because Rangers popped them regularly on long marches.
A thirty-year-old Floridian, Seemann joined the Army intent on becoming a Green Beret. But he was waylaid in the Rangers for a little over four years. A hulk of a man with tattoos on both arms—he weighed 220 pounds and was six feet four inches tall—Seemann loved to joke and carry on with the other team members. But he was a conscientious medic, busy all the time, it seemed, during the exercise. It was in the Rangers where Seemann learned that a medic had to be always interrogating the men in his squad on their condition, or they would end up out of action without warning. A Ranger considered it unmanly to volunteer that he had a medical problem. Too much time in a dispensary was frowned on by superiors. So Rangers tried to hide their aches and pains.
Seemann was doing the same himself. Green Beret medic training had taken him two years. During a small-unit tactics exercise in the Q course, Seemann had broken his right ankle. He had to be recycled back four months in the Q course while it remained in a cast. When the cast was removed, the doctors told him he needed an operation to reattach the torn ligaments. But that would mean being recycled again.
No way. Seemann postponed the operation until after Robin Sage and continued the course with his ankle wrapped in a tight brace. Now the pain in the ankle was excruciating from stumbling through the plowed fields. On top of that, he still had a stomach virus from the week of isolation. He had already vomited twice on the march. He drank water so he wouldn’t dehydrate, swallowed another Motrin, but kept his condition secret. He was too close to the end to stop now.2
Finally at 4:30 A.M., the team halted, exhausted and sweaty from the march, their eyes burning from lack of sleep. Riverside Church, the alternate linkup point, was 500 yards to the southeast.
Swanson moved out again with a two-man recon party to check out the church graveyard, where he would meet his guerrilla contact. The route to the church was fairly clear and took less time to reach than he had expected. They were ahead of schedule. Swanson ordered sentries posted and let the rest of the men sleep for an hour and a half until they had to move out for the linkup.
Too hot from the grueling march, most of the men decided not to unpack their sleeping bags. They simply wrapped themselves in poncho liners and fell instantly asleep.
But the cold would rouse them before the hour and a half was up. The temperature had dropped to 20 degrees. The men woke up shivering. Even worse, their overheated muscles had stiffened from the frigid temperature. They had calf and thigh cramps. It took some as long as five minutes just to prop themselves first on their knees, then stand. The rucksacks would have to come later.
6:30 A.M., FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 21
Moran had walked ahead, to the rear of Riverside Church. The team had done well since he gave them the initial chewing out. Their infiltration techniques were sound. Now Moran wanted to watch how Swanson would link up with his guerrilla contact.
The linkup wasn’t simply a matter of two people walking up to each other and shaking hands. Certain rules of tradecraft had to be followed or Swanson could end up getting his team or himself shot. The young captain crawled up to the wood line bordering the church cemetery to watch for the next half hour, making sure no enemy forces were lurking to spring a trap. The rest of the team remained several hundred yards to the rear. By prearrangement, the contact was to walk up to a gravestone that bore a name each side knew in advance.
Moran waited to see if Swanson sneaked into the graveyard to first find the right headstone where he would meet the guerrilla later. That was important. Anyone could walk into the graveyard to pay their respects at any headstone. Swanson didn’t want to make contact with the wrong person.
Swanson knew what to do. He checked the headstones until he found the right one. Then he retreated to the wood line.
At 7 A.M., Keith Phillips, the guerrilla band’s sergeant major, emerged from a stand of pine trees on the other side of the road wearing jungle fatigues with no insignias on them. Trailing him was a large mongrel dog, half Labrador retriever half German shepherd, named Hank.
Phillips was a sergeant first class in the 7th Special Forces Group, on temporary assignment for the Robin Sage exercise. Although he played the part of the guerrilla band’s sergeant major, its top enlisted man, he would not tell Swanson that until later. For now he was simply a contact. The dog was an unwelcome intruder. Loyal only to his next meal, Hank during the last exercise had led a team of 82nd Airborne counterinsurgents to a guerrilla base camp.
With Hank loping along behind him, Phillips walked up to the designated grave. He peeled off a glove and laid it on the headstone, the signal that it was safe for Swanson to come out.
Crouched with his M-16 rifle at the ready, Swanson walked cautiously up to the headstone and knelt by its side.
“It’s too late to pray for him,” Swanson whispered the password.
“It’s never too late, my son,” Phillips answered with the correct response.
Hank walked up and gave Swanson his paw.
The guerrilla base camp was another two miles from the church. Phillips would take them a way that would make the trip at least three miles. He wanted to confuse the student team on the true location of its base camp—Moran would check the team to see if it became disoriented or kept up with its position on the map—and to wear them down even more before they met the guerrilla chief.
For the next three hours, with the exhausted team trailing him, Phillips zigzagged north and south as he moved west to the base camp. Four times the team had to cross the same creek. They would slide down its five-foot bank on one side, then claw at roots and branches on the other side to climb back up. Like zombies, the students of ODA-941 took one step at a time, turning their minds off to the pain in their legs and backs and shoulders.
The zigzagging stopped when Phillips reached Fork Creek, the base camp’s main source of water. Fork Creek was more like a small river, its swift current running over large boulders. If there had been one saving grace from the long march, it had been that the team had managed to remain dry. That would not last for long. Phillips veered south to cross Fork Creek at a point he was sure would leave each student soaked to the knee.
Swanson and one of his sergeants, Clay Ruppenthal, left the rest of the team at the creek bank and trudged—almost in a daze from fatigue—the final 200 yards up a steep hill to the guerrilla base camp. Their boots, filled with water, squished with each step.
10:30 A.M., FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 21
Mark Goode leaned against an oak tree that supported the guerrilla base camp’s makeshift command post—bamboo poles and birch branches lashed together in a lean-to with ropes. A corrugated tin roof on top kept out the rain. In the center, a hole had been dug and ringed with large rocks for a fire pit. Goode had an M-16 propped against the tree. The skull of a cow, the command post’s symbol of authority, was tied to the top of the oak.
The land Goode used for his base camp belonged to Sherman Hussey, whose cattle and grain farm bordered the forest. For the past five years, the Green Berets had been using Hussey’s property, which was located about twenty-five miles south of the small town of Ramseur. A burly man with a gray beard, Hussey liked to wander into the base camp every now and then to sit around the fire pit and chat. He also supplied the students with chickens and goats for their survival training. In return, the students mowed the lawn for Sherm’s frail aunt as part of their civil affairs training.
Goode was a thirty-four-year-old sergeant first class in the newly formed 3rd Special Forces Group, also headquartered at Fort Bragg. As an assistant operations sergeant, he had spent twelve years on A-teams serving in remote posts all over the world: Oman, Egypt, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. An outgoing Southerner with jet black hair and mustache, Goode had fallen in love with El Salvador. He had married a Salvadoran woman—many Green Berets married women from the countries in which they serve—and one day planned to retire there on a farm along El Salvador’s coast.
For the next two weeks Goode would be in costume: blue jeans, plaid shirt, Oak Trail hiking boots, desert parka, a fluorescent orange baseball cap with “Pineland” and a pine tree (the country’s official crest) printed on the front. His men wore orange arm bands with the Pineland seal.
Goode’s name in the exercise was Colonel Davis, chief of the guerrilla band Swanson had been sent to train. A dozen young enlisted men from Fort Bragg’s 18th Airborne Corps were detailed to Goode to play the guerrillas under his command. Because they wanted guerrillas to be unskilled and unmotivated soldiers the students must train, the Green Beret trainers specifically asked for support troops unaccustomed to infantry life. That way the guerrillas were learning combat skills for the first time, much as an Afghan mujahedeen or Salvadoran campesino would. Female soldiers also were asked to play guerrillas. In his hip
pocket Goode carried a thirty-eight-page script titled “Guerrilla Chief Field Training Techniques,” which instructed him on how he should act toward Swanson.
Goode planned to play hard to get. He had spent years “on the receiving end,” as he put it, working with lazy and suspicious Third World colonels who first had to be convinced that his A-team was qualified to teach them before they would let him in their inner perimeter. So what if they were Americans. That meant nothing in the jungle. In real life it could take a training team as long as a month to gain the confidence of their foreign students.
Moran had walked ahead to Goode’s base camp to brief him on the problems the team experienced at the beginning of its infiltration. Colonel Davis would have a reception Swanson would never forget.
• • •
A young guerrilla, who had been briefed to treat the student team like the enemy the first day, ordered Swanson and Ruppenthal to halt about twenty yards from where Goode sat. The guerrilla, whose nom de guerre was Smokey, ran up to Goode, saluted, and announced in Spanish that the Americans had arrived.
Smokey waved to Swanson and Ruppenthal to come forward.
Swanson, standing at attention, saluted and recited a formal introduction of his detachment.
Goode looked indifferent and spat a wad of tobacco juice toward Swanson’s boots.
“So what have you guys got for me,” Goode finally said, looking at Swanson as if he were a used-car salesman.
Swanson began to recite the speech he had prepared on how his team was trained in guerrilla warfare, but Goode cut him off.
“You don’t understand, Captain,” Goode said with a snarl. “I don’t care what you can do. What kind of supplies can you give me?”
“Well, we have ammunition and rations and medical supplies,” Swanson said, a bit taken aback. He gave Goode a detailed inventory of the team’s weapons and number of rounds of ammunition.
“Okay, let me get something straight with you,” Goode interrupted, giving Swanson a mean look. “Whatever deals my president made with you are not my deals. You understand.”
“I make the deals for my guerrillas, not my president, not your president. Now what do you want to teach me?”
“Well, let me look around first,” Swanson answered. “I have a group
of specialists and if we can get them in here and let them ask some questions, we can tell you how we can help.”
Goode laughed, then turned mean again. “I think we’re pretty good at it already,” he retorted. “Hell, we’ve been fighting this war for thirteen years. Any of your people been fighting for thirteen years?”
“No,” Swanson had to admit.
“So a bunch of goddamn Americans who’ve never fought a guerrilla war are going to come into my camp and teach me how to fight!” Goode roared.
“At least let my team in to do an assessment of your needs and where we might help,” Swanson said, ignoring the insult.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Goode said, lifting his cap off to scratch his head. “Like I said, my boys need bullets and rations. You just came out of the woods. If I let you in, for all I know you might just turn around and shoot us!”
Swanson was so exhausted he could have fallen asleep while standing in front of the colonel. His muscles were sore and stiff. His head ached from being up all night. But he kept calm.
They were U.S. soldiers, he said. Goode had nothing to fear from his team. “All I can do is show you my credentials and show you my team,” he added wearily.
“You don’t need to show me nothing,” Goode said impudently. “I’m in charge of this bailiwick. I’ll decide whether I can trust you. And as far as the U.S. coming in here to help us. Well shit, it took you this long to give us any aid. You people go into a country and make all these promises. Then every time you bug out. You bugged out of Nicaragua. You bugged out of Iran. So I don’t want to be left high and dry when you decide to bug out of here!”
“Do you have any wounded personnel?” Swanson said, trying to change the subject.
“Wounded?” Goode laughed. The guerrillas around him smirked. “I can’t afford to have any wounded. They slow us down too much.”
Goode returned to his shopping list. “What have you got in the way of rations and weapons and ammo?” he asked.
Swanson gave him a rough estimate.
Goode sat silent for several minutes, then sent another missile of tobacco juice toward Swanson’s feet.
“You let me have 750 rounds of ammunition, two dozen MREs, and your two M-60 machine guns and then we’ll talk about your team being allowed in my perimeter,” Goode finally said.
Swanson thought about it for a moment.
“The ammunition is no problem and the meals are no problem,” he said. “But I can’t give you the M-60s.”
“And why not?” Goode said indignantly.
“I’m just not authorized.”
Goode stood up and looked Swanson squarely in the eye. “What you’re saying is you’ve come here all loaded for bear for yourself, but that doesn’t protect me,” he said, becoming angrier as he went along.
“We can help you protect yourself,” Swanson said, trying to calm him down.
“Does that mean you’ll follow my orders and fight for me?”
“Yes and no.”
“Yes and no?” Goode asked, mocking Swanson’s answer. “What the fuck does that mean?”
“I can’t relinquish my command authority over my men.” Swanson gave him the school answer.
“So what good are you to me?”
“We can enhance your security.”
Goode laughed again, swatting his cap at his side. “Enhance my security! You guys were four kilometers from your linkup point and you woke up every goddamn dog and family in the area. Now you tell me, Captain. What kind of security can you give me?”
Moran had been quietly sitting on the other side of the base camp hooch. He smiled. Goode was following the script perfectly. He hadn’t forgotten Moran’s briefing about the infiltration problems. Swanson looked like a schoolboy trying to explain a bad report card to his dad.
Goode leaned back against the tree. “Okay, give me a plan,” he said finally.
“We can train your auxiliary,” Swanson said. The auxiliary were the townsfolk who provided Goode’s guerrillas with supplies and warned them of Opforland patrols.
“I’ll never let you get close to my auxiliary,” Goode said, shaking his head.
“Okay, we can improve your communications security,” Swanson continued. “We can help you build an air defense so you aren’t ambushed by helicopters.”
“And you say you got some doctors?” Goode asked, appearing interested for the first time.
“We have two trained medics who can treat your men and your animals.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Goode said. “You fellas go back. Smokey, you go get their ammunition and food.”
“Can we bring our team into the base camp?” Swanson asked.
Smokey led Swanson and Ruppenthal back down the hill. Goode and Moran huddled to evaluate the captain’s performance.
“They weren’t bad,” Goode said, turning to Moran.
But Moran wasn’t pleased that Swanson and Ruppenthal had come up without their weapons.
“My guy told them they couldn’t bring them up,” Goode said.
Swanson should have insisted on keeping his rifle, Moran said. He could have offered a compromise, like coming up with the weapon unloaded. At least he knew enough not to give away his machine guns.
Goode agreed. Swanson had been a little flustered at first. He could have been a little more tactful about who would be in command.
“But it’s good that he didn’t give up the authority over his men,” Moran said. “That’s ironclad. But what he’s got to do now is establish some type of rapport with you so that you’re both working together.”
When Smokey returned, Moran asked him if Swanson left a contingency plan with his team for what they would do if he didn’t come back.
He did, Smokey recalled.
“Good, he’s learning,” Moran said.
A half hour later, Swanson and Ruppenthal returned with the ammunition and MREs.
Goode finally introduced Phillips as his top noncommissioned officer and sergeant major. He explained that his guerrilla band consisted of two patrols.
“You guys got money to pay our guerrillas,” Goode said, getting down to business.
“That’s correct,” answered Swanson.
“How do you plan to do that?”
“First we want them to swear allegiance to Pineland,” Swanson said. His briefing books had warned him to pay only guerrillas recognized as part of the resistance army. Otherwise he would be throwing money into a bottomless pit.
But the colonel wasn’t buying. “My men owe their allegiance to me, not Pineland,” he argued.
“But by swearing allegiance to Pineland, it makes them part of a formal army,” Swanson explained. “That way if they’re captured they’re treated like prisoners of war.”
Phillips, the sergeant major, laughed. “The enemy already kills our prisoners,” he said.
“If you make us legal now, did that make us illegal before you came?” Goode asked menacingly.
That was too fine a point of international law for Swanson. He continued with his case. “We must make your men fall under the Geneva Convention for their own protection. The only way to do that is make them part of a recognized army.”
“I don’t want my men swearing allegiance to a country that cuts and runs,” Goode retorted.
Swanson ignored the insult and explained that the guerrillas would be swearing allegiance to Pineland, not the United States.
Goode relented—halfway. “We’ll take the pay and sign the oath. But my people won’t give you their real names.”
That posed another problem. Swanson needed some kind of accurate record of who was receiving Pineland dons, which, after all, came from American tax dollars. But Goode was adamant. If the enemy captured Swanson’s records it would expose his men.
The whole arrangement was becoming too complicated, Goode complained. “You Americans with all these forms and all these regulations make everything difficult. Then you cut and run,” he repeated, “just like you did in Nicaragua.” He was better off having nothing to do with the United States.
Things weren’t working out the way Swanson expected them to. He set aside the pay dispute for the moment. If he didn’t watch out, he may not have any guerrillas to pay.
“Look, what have you got to lose?” the captain said finally, trying to be soothing. “Even if we leave now, you’ve gotten some food and ammunition from us. So you’re already ahead. Why don’t you give us a chance?”
So far Ruppenthal had stood silent through the two meetings. A twenty-seven-year-old staff sergeant and weapons specialist, who had spent most of his six years in the Army in a mountain division, Ruppenthal was initially shy and awkward. At first glance he seemed hardly the type to be sent abroad on diplomatic missions. A country boy from a tiny town called Clayton in the northeast corner of New Mexico, he was an outdoorsman, avid gun collector, a patriot. As a kid he loved to visit the cattle auctions with his parents and watch the old cowboys with their dusty hats and leather chaps strutting about or leaning on fence rails eyeing the bulls. They were the real Americans, the real heroes in this country. They represented the way of life he wanted to preserve.
But Clay Ruppenthal was no rube. He was determined to improve himself. A libertarian, he was an environmentalist like Swanson. When not in the field, he had been attending night school to earn a bachelor’s degree in history. Maybe he’d teach history in a high school if he tired of the Green Berets, he would say.
Before the students had arrived for their second meeting, Moran had instructed Phillips to grill Ruppenthal to test how well he performed at rapport building.
As Swanson tried to calm down Goode, Phillips turned abruptly to Ruppenthal and asked, “How many combat guys you got?”
Taken aback, Ruppenthal stammered, then calculated that seven of the fifteen men on the team were combat veterans.
“Which wars?” the guerrilla sergeant major pressed.
The Desert Storm war in the Persian Gulf and the Just Cause invasion of Panama, Ruppenthal answered.
The entire guerrilla band began laughing.
“A hundred-hour war and a war that lasted a week,” Phillips sneered. “Some combat!”
Ruppenthal stood silent.
Goode finally decided that Swanson’s team could move up the hill from the river to his outer perimeter. But the detachment still wouldn’t be allowed inside the base camp. This was hardly an auspicious beginning for the young captain. He had hoped to begin training immediately, but he wasn’t even on speaking terms with the guerrilla chief. Somehow, he had to get on the colonel’s good side. Swanson could not report back that he couldn’t get along with the guerrillas.
Goode dismissed the students. After they had left, he dispatched three of his guerrillas to try to sneak up on the detachment to spy on them and steal more of their supplies. Goode wanted to see if the rest of the team was staying awake during Swanson’s shuttle diplomacy.
Ruppenthal’s first attempt at rapport building had not gone well. It was about to get worse. The three snitches Goode had sent to spy on the team reported back. Phillips, the guerrilla sergeant major, summoned Ruppenthal and began to chew him out. Security around the detachment’s perimeter stank.
“My spies went down and saw your men lying around on their rucksacks,” Phillips barked. The detachment indeed had practically collapsed after they marched up the hill. “How can you teach us security if your men are so vulnerable there? Your people are down there doing the rucksack flop!”
Ruppenthal tried to make excuses, but Phillips cut him off.
“I don’t know if I want my boys around you,” he taunted. “They’ll pick up bad habits from your men.”
Ruppenthal assured him that would not be the case.
Phillips had another surprise for him. “We had been promised 750 rounds of ammunition—you only gave us 340 rounds,” he said accusingly.
Ruppenthal was now caught completely off guard. The team had parceled out several boxes and belts of ammunition not bothering to count every single round. After all, this was still just a training exercise. It wouldn’t matter, they thought. But Goode had ordered his guerrillas to count every last bullet. Ruppenthal was about to have an important rule of guerrilla warfare drilled into his head: always deliver what you promise.
“How can we trust you if you cheat us on the ammo!” Phillips began ranting and raving. He threatened to hang the entire team. “If you cheat us again I’ll have you executed!”
Green Berets constantly faced the problem of American promises like foreign aid not being kept. It didn’t take much in the way of unfulfilled promises to jeopardize a mission, as Phillips had discovered serving in Bolivia. Unlike their military counterparts, the Bolivian narcotics police the Green Berets trained could not accept cash bribes. But in return for being honest, the narcotics police were given extra equipment. Phillips almost had a mutiny on his hands when knives promised by a previous mobile training team never were delivered.
Swanson returned to put out this fire. The ammo count was “notional,” he said.
“Notional,” Goode said, looking at Swanson as if he had just said something totally incomprehensible—which, in a guerrilla’s mind, it would be. There was nothing notional about ammo counts.
Moran made a mental note to jump all over Swanson later if he used that rationale anymore.
Goode was becoming angrier by the moment. He badgered Swanson again about his M-60 machine guns. A fine introduction this was. Swanson waltzed into his base camp promising to beef up his security and he wouldn’t give the guerrillas two lousy machine guns to do it. “How do we know you won’t turn those machine guns around and begin firing on us?” Goode asked menacingly.
If Goode was worried about that, Swanson had a compromise. Goode could take control of his M-60 ammunition.
Goode paused, then smiled like a bazaar merchant who had just fleeced a customer. “Okay,” he said quietly. “You have a deal.”
Swanson walked back to his base, relieved that this mini-crisis was behind him.
Bugsy Moran rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I’ll just bet you that when he tells the team that’s the deal he’s struck, they’ll have him back here in an instant to renege,” Moran told Goode. Swanson should never have given up all his M-60 ammunition. That would make the machine guns worthless, “which is what I’m sure his team is explaining to him right now.”
Swanson was in a pickle, Moran figured. He’d already shorted Goode on the ammunition. Now he would have to come back and renege on his promise to turn over the M-60 ammo. He could have recovered if he turned over half his M-60 ammo and hid the rest. But Swanson had already told Goode that he brought 1,800 rounds for the machine guns and he knew Goode counted his gifts.
Moran shook his head again. “These guys think they’ve got Robin Sage figured out,” he told Goode. “They think that all they have to do is wait out this harassment and we’ll just move on to the next phase of the exercise.”
But Moran had something else in store for them. The team had dug itself into this hole. He wasn’t going to help them out. Swanson was about to have an important rule of guerrilla warfare drilled into his head: don’t promise more than you can deliver.
As Moran had expected, the team objected to Swanson’s deal, which pleased the training sergeant. At least the team members were thinking things through. They were backing up their captain, correcting his mistakes. That’s the way Green Berets operated.
More shuttle diplomacy. Swanson dispatched Ruppenthal first to try to talk the guerrilla sergeant major into forgetting about the M-60 ammo. No way. “You come up with the ammo now,” Phillips ordered. “And my colonel will talk to your leader about it later after he’s had his lunch.”
Ruppenthal marched back down the hill. The team stalled for time. It was not about to turn over the ammunition, then negotiate to get it back.
Phillips ordered his guerrillas to deploy at the perimeter with their weapons aimed at the A-team. He wanted the guerrillas to act belligerently to see if the team could be goaded into provoking a confrontation.
Green Berets faced this kind of problem in real life all the time. Politicians might decide one country’s relations with another, but in the
jungle, Phillips knew full well, Green Berets were stuck with establishing their own diplomatic relations with foreign armies. Often the Green Berets were threatened as much by the people they were trying to help as by the enemy.
Swanson returned. Turning over all the M-60 ammunition was out of the question, the captain told Phillips.
“My colonel isn’t ready to receive you,” Phillips told him haughtily. For the next meeting, we would meet only with Ruppenthal, the guerrilla sergeant major added.
Another wrinkle in the exercise. Phillips wanted to test Swanson’s reaction to the guerrillas trying to strip him of his authority. Swanson must remain in control. But it was not uncommon for foreign officers to make end runs around an A-team leader if the two didn’t hit it off and try to deal with a favorite NCO in the Green Beret detachment. The A-team officer must be flexible. To accomplish the mission, he sometimes had to forget his own rank and deal with a foreign officer through one of his team sergeants. The team sergeant became the front man, while the team captain directed from the rear. During the Desert Storm war, some Green Beret sergeants even pinned higher ranks on their collars and claimed to be officers in order to gain the confidence of their foreign counterparts.
But Swanson balked for the moment. His mission plan instructed that the Green Berets as a rule should travel in pairs to every meeting with the guerrillas. Swanson didn’t want to give up the lead role so early in the exercise. “Both of us must be here to talk to the colonel,” he insisted.
“Fine. If that’s the way you want it, none of you can come back,” Phillips said stubbornly. “Get out of my camp!”
Moran stretched out in a bed of warm leaves, folded his hands behind his head, and chuckled. He had not walked down to the students’ position outside the perimeter and didn’t intend to.
“I know if I went down there now they’d be crying to me, ‘Oh Sergeant Moran, when’s this going to end,’ ” he said, mocking a child’s voice.
Shortly before 1 P.M., Swanson marched back to the guerrilla base camp. He had lost track now of the number of times he’d had to walk up and down that damn hill. His back and legs ached. He had been up thirty-two hours.
But he had to keep a clear head. He had to stay calm. What he said, how he acted now could spell success or failure for his mission. If he didn’t watch out, he could end up in a firefight with the very people he was supposed to protect.
Swanson decided to be up front and not mince his words. “I can’t give you the M-60 ammo,” he told Goode simply.
“You made me a promise and now you’re reneging on it?” Goode asked, feigning incredulity.
“I can’t jeopardize the security of my team,” Swanson said. “I spoke in haste. I made a mistake.”
“Nobody makes mistakes here,” Goode said, coming to a boil. “If they do they’re dead.”
“Remember, we’re here fighting a common enemy,” reminded Ruppenthal, who stood nervously next to Swanson.
“What do we do to people who’ve made mistakes the last thirteen years?” Phillips asked, turning to Goode.
“I’ll show you what we do!” Goode shouted. He grabbed an M-16 armed with blanks, pointed it at Sparky, one of his guerrillas, and fired. The guerrilla fell, sprawled across a workbench.
Swanson and Ruppenthal stood dumbfounded. Goode turned to them, gripping the M-16, his eyes fiery.
“I’m in full control here,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Here’s what I can do to my own men. And that’s what I can do to you. You’ve got fifteen minutes. You either come back with that ammunition or get out of my camp!”
Swanson turned around and walked back.
Moran broke into a wide grin. Goode hadn’t told him he would shoot the guerrilla. It was a great touch. Swanson would later complain that the shooting was unrealistic. “Just wait until he gets to an A-team,” Goode said. “It happens all the time.”
The days of Vietnam had long passed, when Green Berets themselves disposed of a Vietcong guerrilla with a bullet. That kind of behavior was now officially outlawed in the force. But in the jungles of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala Green Berets had routinely witnessed summary executions of communist guerrillas. Prisoners were tortured during interrogations. Green Berets were placed in untenable positions. The counterinsurgents they were ordered to train were often no better than hired killers. Some Green Berets rationalized that atrocities happened on both sides, but the press rarely reported torture and killing by the communists. Others found it distasteful, no matter who was committing the crimes. Some even hid the fact that they spoke Spanish to avoid serving in Central America. But few Green Berets ever openly questioned the orders. As one Special Forces soldier privately admitted, “you get so wrapped up with soldiers you’re trying to train, those sixteen-year-old
draftees you’re trying to keep alive through their combat tours, you don’t look at what you’re doing from any higher level. You just look at it from your level.”
Swanson now must come up with a compromise, any compromise, Moran thought. Make up some kind of story if he had to.
A guerrilla spying on the student team ran up to the base camp. Swanson appeared not to be thinking compromise. He had ordered his men to pack up and leave.
“Where the hell are they going to go?” Moran said to himself. If Swanson returned to his forward operating base—which was ten miles away—his superiors would just send him back to negotiate a compromise.
The exercise was beginning to unravel. Moran pulled himself up and walked down to the edge of the perimeter where Swanson’s men were loading their rucksacks onto their backs. Moran couldn’t tell Swanson what to do to get out of his predicament. But he damn well didn’t want them wasting the rest of the day evacuating to their forward operating base.
The students were tense. Moran found one of them, Michael Barnes, prone behind a log ready to fire at the first guerrilla who crossed his path. At thirty-four, Mike Barnes was a fairly senior sergeant to be undertaking Green Beret training. But for thirteen years he had drifted from one infantry job to another and had become bored. So to put some excitement back into his work, he had signed up for a completely different military skill, as a Green Beret medic. Barnes was from Maine, where folks didn’t take kindly to outsiders playing games with them. If these guerrillas planned to make trouble he could dish it back with his M-16, Barnes boasted as Moran walked past.
“What happens after you do that?” Moran asked incredulously.
Barnes didn’t know. But if he was going to be killed he’d damn sure take a few guerrillas with him.
“Aren’t you going to destroy relations between Pineland and the United States with a stunt like that?” Moran asked and walked off, shaking his head. Barnes had a lot to learn about living in a foreign country under someone else’s rules, he thought.
Moran found Swanson hurriedly packing his rucksack.
“I just witnessed a war crime,” Swanson said excitedly. “I shouldn’t be here.” Besides, his own men might be the next victims of the colonel’s wrath.
“Fine, but what do you do when you go back to your forward operating
base?” Moran said calmly. “They’d just tell you that this is the kind of thing that you’re supposed to prevent. And remember, you created this problem in the first place.”
Besides, “Did you really witness a war crime?” Moran asked. Technically speaking, Goode had shot one of his own men in cold blood, not the enemy.
“But I can’t just let it pass,” Swanson argued.
“You shouldn’t,” Moran said. Report it to your higher headquarters—Swanson certainly intended to do that—then let them deal with it.
Swanson paused in his packing. He hated confrontations like this. He wasn’t the type of person who enjoyed arguments. He knew Moran wanted him to return to the base camp and make up with the colonel. But he felt uncomfortable about “just shoving the corpse aside” to continue bargaining. Ruppenthal felt the same way. The textbook answer indeed was to report atrocities to higher headquarters, but Ruppenthal knew it would never be that neat and clean a situation when he actually got to the field.
Swanson thought that maybe he should leave for a while until things cooled off. His intelligence briefing before the exercise claimed that this colonel would be glad to have him. Some intelligence. The guerrillas were within minutes of executing him. Swanson shook his head. He had spent hours in classes on guerrilla warfare doctrine. But nothing had prepared him for this mess.
Brad Archer was another quiet type on the team. A college graduate with a degree in political science and business administration, the sergeant had spent eight years in the Army, much of it in a Ranger battalion. Archer didn’t ruffle easily. He had a way of smiling and remaining detached from the swirl around him. Now he spoke up. “Why don’t we offer one last compromise,” he suggested. “Propose joint control of the M-60 ammo.” It was as if fifteen lights had been turned on.
At 1:15 P.M., with a minute left to the colonel’s deadline, Swanson and Ruppenthal approached the base camp for another round.
“Look, we’re both reasonable men,” the captain began as Goode stared at him impassively. “We have a common cause here. There’s got to be a way to work it out. What about this: you detach a couple of your guys to come down to our camp to serve as assistant gunners on the M-60s. They can watch out for the ammunition along with our guys.”
“And at the same time,” Ruppenthal interjected, “your guys can be trained by our team as machine gunners.”
“What do you say?” Swanson said soothingly. “We have nothing to hide.”
Goode sat silent for what seemed like forever to Swanson. “Okay, I’m amenable to this solution,” he said finally.
Swanson’s shoulders sagged with relief.
“I’m very upset we had to start out this way,” Goode said.
“I am too,” said the chastened captain.
The two men shook hands. Swanson left to prepare a training schedule for Goode’s men. His engineers began building a lean-to for classes. Maybe now he could get back on track.
Moran was pleased. Swanson was young and terribly inexperienced at this type of warfare. But he was a quick study. And unlike many officers, he wasn’t afraid to take advice from his NCOs.
Goode gathered his twelve guerrillas around him. Remember to act like insurgents, he reminded them. “If they ask you questions, challenge them,” he instructed. “Ask them if they’re spies. If you see any of their gear unattended, try to steal it and bring it to me. Remember, we still don’t exactly trust these guys. We’ll let them build rapport with us eventually—but not yet.”
7:30 A.M., SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22
Sanjos Rana carefully laid out the pay vouchers and personnel forms on the field table. The night before, Swanson and the twenty-five-year-old lieutenant from Nepal had devised a compromise, which would enable them to pay the guerrillas and still have them listed on a formal roster without violating the colonel’s obsession with security. Swanson had taken Rana under his wing to help him adjust to American culture. They had become good friends and Swanson planned one day to visit Rana in Nepal.
Rana had spent hours drawing neat columns for makeshift ledgers. He was nervous about his first assignment in the exercise and wanted his papers organized so the pay call would proceed smoothly.
The Green Berets and SEALs allowed foreign students to take their training, often as not as a goodwill gesture toward the country rather than out of any expectation that these students would graduate with the same skills as the Americans. Because of language barriers and poor military training in their homeland, foreign students often had difficulty keeping up. When the Green Berets discovered that some Third World officers who had failed the Q course were being executed when they returned home for disgracing their country, the training command began
shaving points off the grade requirements for foreign officers so they would all pass.
Rana needed no help with his grade, though. He was a member of Nepal’s honored warrior caste, under which one son joins the army by tradition. Since he was a boy, Rana knew he would become an officer.
Rana talked little during the training. He worried that he might misspeak, although he spoke perfect Sandhurst English. Yet Swanson thought he learned fast. He adapted well, except to the snakes and the cold, damp North Carolina forests. He despised them both. Nepal was dry.
The pay plan Rana and Swanson devised seemed sound. Each guerrilla would sign a cryptonym on the pay voucher. Then he would fill out a “personal data sheet” that matched his cryptonym with his real name and information on his background. The roster of cryptonyms would be retained at the base camp for the payroll, while the personal data sheets would be airlifted back to the United States.
The colonel, however, had no intention of letting pay call proceed smoothly. Before Rana and Swanson had walked up with their records and cash, Goode had gathered together his guerrillas for their own class. Goode gave several enlisted men instant promotions so the Americans would have to pay them more. No more than three guerrillas would be lined up at Rana’s table at any time.
“When you get paid, go back to your tent, change uniforms with someone else and go through the line again,” Goode had said. “When you get your dons go to the sergeant major’s tent and give him the money.”
Pay line scams were a fact of life in guerrilla warfare. A young Green Beret captain could find himself dumped into a Latin American jungle with thousands of dollars in his pocket to pay foreign soldiers. Payroll accounting became more an art than a science. Third World soldiers were routinely shortchanged on pay so their superiors could live in high style. In El Salvador, the officers had become a wealthy class off such practices. Green Berets found it impossible to break the corruption. If they could keep a Salvadoran officer away from the more objectionable crimes—such as murder, kidnapping, or running a protection racket—the Green Berets considered themselves successful. They ignored the petty crime.
Goode formed his guerrillas into two rows. Swanson led them through a rambling recitation of the Pineland oath of allegiance. Three men then lined up before Rana, who was immersed in his records.
Smokey was first in line and began filling out the personal data sheet.
He stopped at one entry, which asked him to list any disciplinary actions filed against him while in service.
“Disciplinary actions?” Smokey laughed. “What do I write here? If there’s disciplinary action you’re shot. I wouldn’t be here filling this out.”
“Just write ‘nonapplicable,’ ” Rana said quietly and began to count out Smokey’s dons.
But Smokey balked. “I thought we’d get American dollars,” he griped. “These fucking dons are worthless.”
Rana motioned Swanson for help. “We’ve got a problem here,” he told the captain. “They don’t want dons. They want American dollars.”
Swanson found Goode. “We only came with dons,” he explained.
“My people prefer dollars,” Goode said. “They can get more goods on the black market with American dollars.”
Swanson said he would try to have American dollars dropped in for the next pay call. That satisfied Goode, who ordered his men to accept the dons.
Swanson relaxed. Rana continued processing the guerrillas in line, counting out the dons and making sure each filled out the forms completely. Neither was aware of the fact that some of the guerrillas were being paid twice and all were handing their money over to Phillips.
A half hour later, Swanson glanced over Rana’s shoulder at his paperwork. Eleven men had been paid so far. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Something’s wrong here.” Swanson had counted eleven guerrillas in the formation taking the oath. And there were four guerrillas in line waiting to be paid. The two officers riffled through the paper to try to find the discrepancy.
Swanson called for the guerrilla sergeant major. Phillips now claimed that the four guerrillas had just come in from guard duty and wanted to be paid.
“Something’s kind of screwy here,” Swanson said, eyeing the signature roster Rana had compiled. “We’ve got matching handwriting here.”
“Matching handwriting?” Phillips asked, feigning ignorance. “Are you some kind of handwriting expert?”
“As a matter of fact I am,” Swanson retorted.
“Well, that doesn’t mean anything in Pineland,” Phillips huffed.
“It looks like your men have been double dipping,” Swanson said, irritated. Rana stood mystified. Were they pulling this stunt because I’m a foreign student? he thought for a brief moment.
Another argument broke out. Each side accused the other of lying and bad faith. Goode again ordered his men to train their weapons on the detachment, as Rana and Swanson packed up their vouchers. The morning was barely over and the team was in another tense standoff with the guerrillas.
Bugsy Moran, who was beginning to feel like a labor mediator, buttonholed Swanson. “You should have anticipated this and set up some type of control system for the pay,” Moran lectured. “When the guerrillas were lined up in formation for the oath, you should have had Rana right there going down the line with his paperwork and paying each man on the spot. That way the guerrillas couldn’t double dip on you.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Swanson said, a bit grudgingly. “But if I go back and keep paying them they’ll think I’m a chump.”
But if he didn’t find a compromise, Swanson would end up in the same standoff he faced the day before. Again Goode’s guerrillas had begun creeping around the forest to encircle his team.
“Don’t get frazzled now,” Moran warned.
“I’m not,” Swanson said calmly. He decided to let things cool down for a while before he returned to the base camp and tried to talk his way out of yet another fix.
The captain finally walked back to Goode’s headquarters. “Look, we need to put this behind us,” Swanson said.
Goode, who was sitting on a log near the fire pit, stood up slowly.
“Okay, let’s walk down the trail,” he finally said.
The two men strolled off with Hank, the dog, trailing them wagging his tail. Swanson proposed another compromise. The team would tighten its pay procedures the next time. Meanwhile, Swanson would pay the four privates who were left in the line during the first pay call.
“I can live with that,” Goode said. Swanson was starting to pick up the play of the game, he thought. The captain would just have to write off the extra money and juggle his accounts the next month. Green Berets had been doing it for decades.
7 P.M., SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22
The sun had already set. The night was pitch black. Kelly Albright turned his white pickup truck off Route 2 near Ramseur and into the dirt driveway of a ranch-style brick house. After a day and a half of haggling, the student team on Saturday had finally started training the guerrillas. Classes had begun in the M-60 machine gun, demolitions, setting up
perimeter security. Now Swanson was lying facedown and blindfolded in the back of Albright’s truck. Beside him in the same position was Klapperich, who had been designated the team sergeant, replacing Ruppenthal. As he was trained to do, Swanson had tried to calculate the miles the truck had driven the past half hour and track its turns in order to have some idea of where he was being taken.
But it was no use. Albright constantly doubled back on the country roads. Near the village of Ramseur, he had stopped at the intersection facing Kildee Church. He made a U-turn, backed up the truck, made a second U-turn, backed up the truck, made a third U-turn, then turned left past the church. Swanson was thoroughly disoriented.
Albright was one of the veterans of the Pineland auxiliary. For nearly thirty years, he had been hauling Green Beret students and picking up rations dumped at resupply drops. A fifty-six-year-old fuel truck driver during the day, Albright had never served in the military. But he knew practically as much about guerrilla warfare as the instructors at Robin Sage. When he died, Kelly Albright wanted the Green Berets to bury him.
He had driven the circuitous route for a reason. Swanson and Klapperich were being taken to the secret hideout of the guerrilla leader most paranoid about his own personal security—Moses, the area commander.
Green Berets, some in uniform, others in blue jeans and parkas wearing baseball caps, guided Albright’s truck to a tool shed in back of the house. The tailgate was unhitched and one of the Green Berets, in a surly voice, ordered Swanson and Klapperich to crawl out.
“Lay on the ground,” shouted the Green Beret, who was playing the part of a guerrilla.
Swanson and Klapperich, still blindfolded, sprawled facedown on the ground, which by now had become cold and damp. When the two students had left for the area command meeting the sun had not set and the day was still a warm 65 degrees. They had worn only their fatigue blouses and undershirts. But with nightfall, the temperature had quickly plunged to almost freezing. Swanson cursed himself for not wearing a jacket and liner.
Maybe he’d be lucky and finish this meeting with Moses quickly. According to Swanson’s intelligence folder, Moses commanded several guerrilla bands that operated in a wide swath of Pineland. If Goode was a colonel, Moses was the equivalent of a general. He was the senior guerrilla officer, whose confidence Swanson must win if his detachment
was to remain in this foreign country. The intelligence folder said Moses would be suspicious. But still, it shouldn’t be too difficult an assignment, Swanson thought. Moses couldn’t possibly be as ornery as the colonel.
“Don’t move one fucking inch, or we’ll abandon you in these woods,” the guerrilla snarled in Swanson’s ear.
So much for a pleasant meeting, Swanson thought.
The shades to the house’s windows remained drawn during the day. This was one of four safe houses the Green Berets rented to manage the Robin Sage exercise. Inside, they had crammed rucksacks, boxes of MRE rations, field tables piled high with manuals and maps, and canvas cots for instructors who drifted in during the day and night for showers and catnaps. In the entranceway were stacked tactical radios with cryptographic attachments that would scramble the conversation the Green Berets had with guerrilla base camps or the student detachments, so outsiders couldn’t listen in.
As Swanson and Klapperich lay shivering on the ground by a tool shack, Moran, Goode, and the instructors from other student detachments huddled with Moses around a Formica-topped table in the kitchen, which served as the conference room.
The area commander was a prized role among the men and women of eastern North Carolina who worked for the Green Berets. The Special Forces trainers carefully screened and trained the civilians who played the part. Area commanders had to act and think like guerrilla chieftains. They had to be quick on their feet, beguiling, mysterious, boisterous one minute, cunning the next, always looking for ways to catch the students off guard yet not become too caught up in the part so that they would lose control and embarrass the trainers.
But if there was a master impresario among the area commanders, it was Moses. Dressed in blue jeans and plaid shirt, with a thick brown beard, hair almost to his shoulders, and dark brown eyes, Moses looked like a cross between Che Guevara and one of the Oak Ridge Boys. His only formal brush with the military was a stint in the Navy. But for twenty-five years, Moses had been making students tremble at area command meetings with his deep voice and piercing stare.
Moses carefully modulated his behavior. He was not there just to rant and rave. Moses considered himself a teacher. (He asked that only his guerrilla name be used in this book. A local businessman, Moses traveled extensively in the Middle East and other parts of the Third World, where his clients wouldn’t look too kindly on him if they knew he worked with special operations forces.)
Tonight, Moses was the center of attraction, attended to by a dozen Green Berets who prepped and primped him like a stage crew fluttering about a Hollywood star. He had his work cut out for him.
Bugsy Moran considered himself lucky. Other instructors now grumbled that they had been stuck with students who bungled the infiltration and officers who had the rapport building skills of Attila the Hun. “Detachments from hell,” the instructors called them. Before Swanson and Klapperich would have their turn, the leaders of two other student detachments were marched separately to a nearby tractor shed for their area command meeting with Moses.
The night infiltration by the first student detachment had not gone well. One of the students had dropped a bag of sunflower seeds along the way, which a guerrilla had picked up. Angry, Moses demanded that the detachment’s captain pay 5,000 dons to the auxiliary, which had to clean up the trash. The second student leader fared even worse. When Moses demanded that he turn over his M-16 to the guards before the meeting could begin, the young captain stubbornly refused.
Moses flew into a rage. But the captain was adamant. Infantrymen were taught since basic training never to part with their weapons and he was not about to give up his. Moses had the guerrillas drag him back out to the yard to lie on the cold ground for another hour. Just to show the officer that his chivalry was misguided in Pineland—where Moses ruled with an iron fist—the guerrillas hauled one of their guards before the students, who remained facedown on the ground, and pretended to gun him down firing an M-16 with blanks.
That should give the captain something to think about, the Green Beret/guerrillas thought. Holding on to your weapon was fine in combat, but not in this situation. In a foreign country, playing by a foreign military’s rules, a Green Beret couldn’t be inflexibly wedded to U.S. Army regulations if he was to survive.
But the incident left Bugsy Moran in a quandary. Swanson, though blindfolded, could hear what was going on around him. He had already been upbraided for bargaining away his weapons during his first meeting with Goode. With all the ruckus being raised over the captain’s rifle, Swanson might get it in his head that he should hold on to his, Moran worried. They might be stuck here all night if Swanson became as bull-headed as the other captain.
Moran decided to “Santa Claus it,” the term the instructors used when they gave students a clue or an answer to solving a problem. He walked out to the backyard and whispered into Swanson’s ear to surrender his weapon if asked to do so.
Swanson chuckled to himself. A guerrilla had an M-16 pointed at his back with orders to shoot him if he so much as twitched a muscle. He’d just witnessed his second execution of the exercise. He wasn’t about to quibble over a stupid rifle. In fact, he didn’t feel like arguing over much of anything.
It was nearly 9:30 P.M. They had been lying on the cold, damp ground with their hands folded under their heads for some two and a half hours, while Moses dealt with the leaders of the first two teams. The earth had sucked practically every calorie of warmth out of their bodies. Klapperich’s arms had been asleep for the past hour. Every fifteen minutes Swanson would slowly exercise—so the guard wouldn’t notice—each finger of his numb hands to keep the blood circulating. The only thing he could think of—and he repeated it in his mind over and over again—was: “Fuck, it’s getting cold out here.”
Moran walked back into the safe house to brief Moses on his students. “Slam them on their trick-or-treat infil,” Moran began, recounting the bungled start to the infiltration. Next Swanson shorted the guerrillas on the ammunition he offered. So far the team had just been reacting to events, and not doing a particularly good job at that, Goode interjected. They had yet to take the initiative.
Moses nodded and noted the comments in his black book. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Yeah, I need a good way to close this out, provided my captain doesn’t go tits up on me,” Moran continued. “You should act satisfied in the end, as long as he produces.”
“Okay,” Moses said, making more notes. He ran through the lines he would deliver, then gathered up his papers and walked out of the safe house to the tractor shed. Moran, Goode, and the other instructors followed.
Inside the corrugated tin shed, at the far end of its pine wood floor, stood a trap door that led down to a dank cinderblock basement. In it, the Green Berets had placed a plywood table with two kerosene lanterns on top.
Moses positioned himself behind the table, took a deep breath like an actor preparing to walk on stage, and sat down in a chair. To his right sat Goode. At the other end of the basement, Moran and the other instructors stood silent. The light above was turned off. The only illumination came from the yellow glow of the two kerosene lamps. When Swanson and Klapperich were led in, their backs would be to the instructor. The only persons they would see would be Moses and Goode, who sat to his right. They wouldn’t know that Moran and the other
members of the training cadre were standing behind them grading their responses.
Above, Moses could hear the shuffle of feet as Swanson and Klapperich were led blindfolded into the shed. The two willingly gave up their rifles when the guard demanded them.
“Let’s don’t take forever up there,” Moses bellowed. “I don’t have all night!”
Guided by the Green Berets, the blindfolded students clumped down the steps into the basement. They stood in front of the table, shaking uncontrollably from the cold, their noses running.
“I want security at one hundred percent out there,” Moses called to his guards.
“All secure!” the guards shouted back.
“Take off their blindfolds,” Moses ordered.
Swanson thought his eyes would roll out of his head. After almost three hours of being blindfolded, the two kerosene lamps seemed like headlights that had been shone directly at his pupils. He could barely make out some kind of bearded face behind them that seemed to speak in a roar. Swanson squinted to try to focus and adjust to the glare from the lanterns, all made more difficult by the fact that he couldn’t stop the trembling in his body.
“I am Moses, the commander of this sector,” the guerrilla chief began solemnly.
Swanson managed a wobbly salute and with a voice grown raspy from the cold announced: “Captain Swanson, commander of ODA-941 reporting as ordered.”
Moses ignored the introduction and continued in his deep, ominous voice. “There was a debate in my country over whether to allow you here in the first place. We have been fighting this war for thirteen years and you Americans suddenly walk in and claim you can win it for us.
“We thought we were getting your best soldiers,” Moses said, his eyes boring in on Swanson, who by now had adjusted to the light. “But we were not prepared for the way you entered our country. We didn’t know that you’d make a duck walk from house to house!”
Swanson flushed. The trick-or-treat infiltration. Was he ever going to live that down?
“Now, is this the level of excellence you’re preparing to offer us?” Moses asked threateningly.
“It won’t happen again,” Swanson answered, chastened.
“My men had to abandon the first linkup site because you made so much noise. Do we have a common cause here, you and I?”
“Yes sir. To defeat Opforland.”
“Those are just words!” Moses bellowed. “Are we now singing off the same sheet of music?”
“We are, sir,” Swanson said quietly.
“What about this training they’re supposed to provide us?” Moses asked, turning to Goode.
“I don’t know how good it is,” Goode answered skeptically. “They’ve spent most of their time so far insulting me and my men.”
Moses turned back to Swanson with an irritated look on his face. “What about munitions?” he asked. “What are you prepared to give us?”
“There’s a cache hidden here with supplies from my country,” Swanson said, trying to ignore Goode’s snide comment and recover the initiative. “When I’m told by my higher headquarters where it’s located, I’ll be able to provide you with ammunition.”
“When can you get the location so I can get my supplies?” Moses pressed.
“In a month,” Swanson guessed. That was the wrong answer. It shouldn’t take that long. But in case his higher headquarters did not have an arms cache immediately at hand, Swanson wasn’t about to make another promise he couldn’t keep.
“A month?” Goode snapped. “I can’t wait a month. I need that ammunition in a week.”
“Okay,” Swanson recovered. “At least within a week, I can get a yes or no answer from my higher headquarters on the location of the cache.”
“Then how long will it take to distribute the equipment once you find it?” Moses asked.
“It can be given out right away,” Swanson answered.
“Okay,” Moses said. “You’ve got a week.”
“Anything else?” Moses asked, turning again to Goode.
Goode leaned back in his chair. “Well, they seem to harp on training,” he said. “But I’m not sure what they’re going to give us.”
Moses grilled the two students on what they planned to teach the guerrillas. Klapperich described the training schedule in detail. There would be a field exercise on how to conduct a small raid, a range cleared for firing small arms.
“How combat-motivated are my men?” Moses continued his examination.
“They seem motivated,” Swanson answered, although he really didn’t know.
“Where are my weak points?”
“We’re investigating them.”
“What about security?”
“We’re improving it.”
“What are you prepared to do for me in the long run?”
“We want to recruit more guerrillas, build your force up to battalion strength,” Swanson answered, feeling warmer and a bit more assertive. “Instead of striking as a scalpel, we strike as a hammer.”
Moses wasn’t impressed yet. “Those are cute phrases,” he said. “Give me specifics. All you’re telling me are nice generalities. I want to know exactly how I win this war.”
Swanson took a breath and began again. “We’ll conduct more mine warfare. We’ll improve medical care to save the lives of more wounded soldiers. That will make them more motivated to fight if they know they have a chance of surviving a battle. We’ll provide more pay. We have money to offer for recruiting. We can launch psychological operations.”
Moses paused and looked down at his notebook. “I want to meet with you in the future,” he said. “I want a detailed plan from you on the operations you want to conduct.”
Moses folded the cover of his black book and gave Swanson one last menacing look. “You do understand that I’ll accept nothing less than proficiency from you,” the area commander said. “Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Swanson said.
“Don’t foul up again.”
The basement was silent for a minute. The instructors in the back did not move or say a word.
Moses broke the silence. “Have security prepare to move out these people,” he ordered. “Gentlemen, I apologize but we’re going to have to put your blindfolds back on. No one can know my location. Not even you.”
Green Berets from the back tied the bandanas around the students’ heads and led them up the stairway.
When the trap door was shut after they had left, the lights were turned on. Moses stood up, drained from his performance. Moran, Goode, and the other instructors gathered around the table to evaluate the meeting.
“From my side of the table, the captain was sometimes unsure of himself,” Moses offered. “It may have been the incident outside,” when he heard the execution.
But as the meeting progressed, the captain and the sergeant appeared to regain their confidence, Moses said. Overall, the session had gone well. The captain and sergeant kept their poise and didn’t say anything
that might anger the guerrillas. The schoolhouse solution was to be sincere and conciliatory, which Swanson had certainly been. Moran was pleased. Swanson, he felt, would make a good team captain. He wasn’t too haughty.
“The captain did a good job of dancing around the question of when we get the supplies from the cache,” Moses added.
“He’s learned not to overcommit himself,” Moran said with a smile.
8:45 A.M., SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23
George Seemann walked under the tin roof of the ramshackle hooch that Goode called his base camp headquarters. Behind the medic stood the young private the colonel had designated as the guerrilla camp witch doctor. A cold rain had begun to pelt the tin, soaking the base camp and anyone not under cover. For the next three days the combination of rain and chilly temperatures would make life miserable for the students. Barnes, the other medic, had already been busy that morning dispensing medications to his own team. Swanson had a raging chest cold from his three hours on the ground the night before. Two other students had stomach cramps and were throwing up with intestinal flu.
Opening his green canvas medical bag, Seemann was about to give Goode a demonstration of the training his guerrillas were now receiving. Since last evening, Seemann had been showing the witch doctor how to administer an intravenous solution to a patient. The medics had designated a lean-to as the base camp’s aid station by hanging a cow bone from a pole.
Administering an IV was one of the most basic emergency medical procedures guerrilla warriors learned. On missions, every Green Beret carried on his back a needle, tubing, and plastic bag filled with intravenous solution that he could administer to a buddy or himself. The IV solution, a combination of sodium, sodium chloride, and lactate, quickly replaced fluids in a body so a wounded soldier did not go into shock. Green Berets also have used it as an emergency source of water. Moran would never forget the time he had been stranded without water in the 110-degree heat of a Saudi desert during a survival exercise before the Persian Gulf War began. The IV solution strapped to his back, called Lactated Ringers, tasted like thick, milky salt water. He could barely keep from retching as he drank it. A packet of grape drink powder he had dumped in didn’t make the foul tasting concoction any more palatable. But the solution kept him alive.
Though a routine procedure, administering an IV did have its dangers.
Infection was one. Another was a catheter shear. The needle inserted in the vein was encased in a catheter, through which the IV ran from the tube. An inexperienced handler tended to want to probe for the vein if he didn’t tap it after puncturing the arm. But once the needle was on its way out of the skin, it should never be pushed back in to hunt for the vein. The catheter might be punctured and broken off. If the catheter had in fact been in the vein all along, the sliver broken off might travel up the vein and cause a stroke.
Then there was the problem of air bubbles in the tube from the IV bag. A bubble more than an inch long in the tube that made its way into the vein could cause an air embolism that would also result in a stroke.
The baby-faced, doe-eyed private who played the witch doctor looked too young to be administering anything, much less an IV. But Phillips, the guerrilla camp’s sergeant major, matter-of-factly rolled up his sleeve and offered his arm for the demonstration. Green Berets routinely were guinea pigs. On training assignments in Latin America, Phillips would have to let campesinos practice on his arm before they could be convinced that hooking up an IV to their own men was safe.
The young private nervously unwrapped the needle and tubes and pulled the clear plastic bag of intravenous solution.
“Warm up that bag,” Phillips ordered. He hated it when cold liquid coursed through his arm, giving him a chill.
The private obeyed, rubbing the bag with his grimy hands. Next he strapped a tourniquet to Phillips’s right arm and searched for a vein.
“I’ve never done this before,” the private murmured with a weak smile.
“I know,” Phillips said warily.
“You’re fine. Do just like I told you,” Seemann said with a calm bedside manner. The Army now considered both Seemann and Barnes to be about as skilled as a second-year medical intern, particularly in trauma medicine. They could perform surgery on gunshot wounds. It was not pretty surgery, but enough to keep a patient alive until he could reach a hospital. They were also combination nurses and public health administrators, who could organize preventive medicine and sanitation routines for remote villages. In a guerrilla war, a Green Beret medic would hope to find a real doctor among the insurgents and provide him or her equipment for dealing with more serious cases.
The private swabbed dark orange iodine on a bulging vein.
“There’s not going to be any bubble in my arms,” Phillips asked, half
joking and half making sure the kid had been told about bubbles. “That’s all I need is some air gap going to my heart.”
Seemann watched over the private’s shoulder, talking him through every move. “Don’t let his arm get contaminated now,” he said quietly.
Fumbling with the tube and bag, the jittery private accidentally dripped IV fluid on his hands.
“Come on now, slow down,” Seemann said to reassure him. “Don’t get nervous now.”
The private, beads of sweat forming on his forehead, gripped the syringe like a screwdriver and removed the protective cap. He lowered it down to Phillips’s arm as if he were touching a rattlesnake.
“Draw the skin taught,” Seemann reminded him. The private used his free hand to grip the arm.
“Now lower the needle and keep it in line with the vein,” Seemann said.
Breathing heavily, the private winced as he punctured the skin with the needle and gingerly pushed it into the vein. Phillips watched every move as Seemann talked the young man through attaching the catheter to the tubing, then checking for bubbles in the tube or swelling above the puncture point.
With the catheter taped to Phillips’s arm, the private slumped back exhausted to wait for the IV fluid to drip into the vein. But nothing happened.
“That ain’t no good,” Seemann finally concluded. The private had hit the vein but had pushed the needle too far, so it poked out the other side. “You’ll have to try it again.”
The private looked like he had just finished open heart surgery and been told he’d operated on the wrong patient.
“You just missed it, man,” Seemann said, calming him down. “It happens.”
Phillips rolled up the sleeve on his left arm and the private repeated the procedure. Only this time, after applying the tourniquet, the youngster couldn’t find the vein.
“Don’t touch the vein with your hand,” Seemann cautioned as the private tried to make one bulge with his dirty finger. “Now relax. Remember what I told you.”
The private fumbled even more, using the needle to poke at what he thought was a vein.
“That needle’s not a pencil,” Seemann warned, worried that Phillips’s arm might become infected. In this dirty environment, once the needle
touched the skin the private had to push it in. He couldn’t poke around on the top of the skin with the instrument, or it would pick up germs and be infected before it was inserted.
It was no use. The private could not find a vein, and even Phillips was becoming nervous, with both arms covered in iodine and grime and blood.
“He nailed me the first time,” Seemann told Phillips, explaining apologetically that the private had already stuck Seemann earlier in the morning and found a vein.
The private was crestfallen, as if he had lost a patient. But another Green Beret offered his arm. A half hour later, with the second Green Beret’s arm covered in iodine and blood, the private finally managed to get the IV fluid flowing into a vein.
1 P.M., SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23
The Army Meals Ready-to-Eat tasted only marginally better than previous rations. Tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce had been added, which could be poured into the traditionally wretched ham-and-eggs mix to make it a palatable omelet. But cans had been replaced with plastic containers, making the meals more difficult to heat over fires. Real peaches had been replaced with brick-hard dehydrated ones that tasted like sugared Styrofoam even when water was added. And after three days of an MRE diet, which was loaded with concentrated carbohydrates and proteins, a soldier’s intestines were so packed a bowel movement felt like going into labor. The student detachment would be consuming the rations for two weeks. But if they were lucky, tonight their dinner would be different.
Swanson led a supply party up to Sherman Hussey’s red hay barn. Hussey’s farm was situated on the pastureland about a quarter mile away from the guerrillas’ hilltop base camp. Hussey allowed the students to draw jugs of water for their canvas water bags at the camp. This afternoon they could have three of his chickens. Hussey had also given them bags of rice, potatoes, and carrots, plus a black iron pot for a gooey chicken stew they would stir over a fire later. But first they had to catch the chickens.
Seemann, Barnes, and Loiselle tiptoed into the barn and began quietly climbing up a wooden ladder to the hay loft, where the chickens still clucked contentedly. As Barnes peeked his head over the loft, one foot still on the ladder, the nervous chickens began clucking louder. They were obviously veterans of other Green Beret ambushes.
The three students raced up the ladders and lunged at the flock nesting in the corner. But the students violated a cardinal rule of covert warfare. Never give your enemy an easy exit—in this case an open barn door. As Swanson, Ruppenthal, Rana, and Robert Bishop (a National Guardsman trying to become a Green Beret) milled about at the entrance, a dozen chickens and roosters came flying or running out, almost knocking them down.
“Aw shit!” Barnes groaned. The fleet-footed fowls were now scattered around the farmyard—their territory. As the three students clambered down from the loft, Klapperich and Rana ran stooped over trying to nab any of the chickens. A rooster sprinted out to the pasture, with Bishop on his tail. But the rooster scooted under a herd of grazing cows. Bishop came to a screeching halt as a bull reared up its head at the intrusion. The smug rooster obviously had pulled this maneuver before.
“Here, I’ll show you how to catch a chicken,” Swanson said haughtily and laid down the water jug he had been carrying. But these birds were no more intimidated by officers than by enlisted men. Swanson chased one into a pen, but the enclosure was a goat pen, which a billy goat with two-inch-long horns jealously guarded.
A chicken dinner looked more like a distant prospect. The team was winded and the chickens hadn’t broken a sweat. Ruppenthal cornered a rooster in an adjoining pen, but couldn’t catch the fast bird. Finally Rana jumped into the pen. The Nepalese may not have been the best payroll accountant, but he knew how to corral chickens. The team at least had bagged its first fowl. Twenty minutes later, they had finally grabbed two more and, worn out, walked back to the base camp clutching the flapping hens by their feet.
At the base camp the chickens were dumped in a makeshift pen to await their execution. Seemann pulled out the first victim. As he thought he was supposed to do, Seemann rung the chicken’s neck and laid it on the ground. But to his astonishment, the bird stood up, a bit wobbly but still alive, and dashed for the woods. Dumbfounded, Seemann and the rest of the team watched as one third of their chicken stew vanished into the forest, with only a sore neck.
Goode had been watching from his hooch and now walked up chuckling.
“Here, let me show you how to kill a chicken in the field,” he said authoritatively.
The guerrilla colonel reached into the pen and grabbed a hen. Gently, he tucked its head under a wing and stroked it for a couple of minutes. That calmed the bird to the point that it no longer jerked in Goode’s
arms. After finding a twig, Goode laid the hen on the ground and drew a line back and forth from the bird’s beak to a point six inches away. After a half dozen of Goode’s strokes along the ground, the hen lay motionless, hypnotized by the movement.
Goode placed his boot on the bird’s head, gripped its legs and yanked, ripping the head from the neck. The students cringed as Goode held up the jerking body of the hen with a bloody stump for a neck. The execution actually was more humane than a wringing, since the hen had been practically asleep. Besides, it made the meat more tender when cooked because the chicken wasn’t excited, with its muscles tight, when it died.
10:10 A.M., MONDAY, FEBRUARY 24
Swanson, his face covered with green and brown camouflage paint, gathered the colonel and his guerrillas around a makeshift relief map, which he had carved into a patch of dirt cleared of leaves and roped off with branches. The map, called a “sand table,” had white string curving around mounds of dirt to depict a trail running to the side of a small ridge. Where the trail bent to the right would be the spot for that afternoon’s ambush.
The ambush would be easy. It was intended that way. Training Goode’s guerrillas was all well and good. But Swanson had to prove to the colonel that he could produce better fighters. For that, Swanson had selected what Green Berets called a “confidence target,” a relatively easy operation the guerrillas could conduct, which would demonstrate that the Special Forces training was worth the trouble and that the Special Forces soldiers themselves could be counted on in battle. In this case, the target, according to intelligence radioed to Swanson the night before from his headquarters, was several Opfor sentries who regularly walked down that path.
The ambush was a bread-and-butter mission for Swanson. He had spent two years as a Ranger instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia, teaching classes in raids and ambushes. He could plan this one in his sleep.
Swanson broke this operation down into a five-paragraph order: situation, mission, execution, service and support, command and communications. The five-paragraph op order was the standard guide used by soldiers in the Army—from the squad leader to the division commander—in order to organize their thoughts on combat.
Reading from a green notebook he clutched along with a tactical
map, Swanson quickly detailed the terrain for the ambush, using a stick to point out features on the ground. The ambushers would dig in by 12:30 P.M. “We use extreme violence in one blast,” he said, using Army jargon for wiping out the sentries. The ambush should last no more than seven minutes, including the time it would take to strip everything of value from the bodies.
As Goode and Moran listened in, Swanson covered dozens of details: the infiltration route they would take, the number of open trails that would be crossed exposing the team, the perimeter security during rest stops, the objective rallying point (or ORP) from where the guerrillas would move to the final site for the ambush, the guerrilla sentries to be posted west and east of the road to alert the ambushers of the approaching enemy.
The guerrillas would travel through the forest in a wedge formation. At the ambush site, Swanson would personally position each shooter. Once in position, no talking or eating “and the only thing moving should be your two eyes,” he said. Aiming stakes would be pounded in on both sides of the M-60 machine gun, so its field of fire would not rake over friendly forces. “A golden rule,” Swanson said. “You start the ambush with your most potent weapon”—in this case the M-60. The cease-fire signal would be a hand grenade Swanson would toss into the kill zone, after which an assault element would rush in looking for stragglers. Lieutenant Rana would remain at the fallback position to account for all the guerrillas during the exfiltration.
No detail was left to chance. When Goode gave the captain a satisfied look, Swanson decided it was time to again reinforce the point that Americans cared for their wounded. “We grab our wounded and our dead,” Swanson began, looking at Goode for any reaction. There was none. “You can’t leave anyone out there who they can identify later. Leaving behind wounded demoralizes your force. Leaving no wounded or dead lying around demoralizes the enemy. He doesn’t know what hit him. We become a phantom force to him.”
The colonel pretended to grudgingly accept the logic.
At 11 A.M., after a dress rehearsal on how the ambushers would be positioned, Swanson ordered his force of guerrillas and several of his own team members to move out. The last man in the formation swept the trail so no one would spot their movement. An hour later they had made it to the ambush site west of the base camp.
Shortly before 1 P.M. a team of 82nd Airborne paratroopers playing the Opfor soldiers sauntered down the trail. Machine gun fire exploded
from the M-60, followed by short bursts for no more than a minute by the guerrillas’ M-16s. Swanson threw in the grenade simulator to signal the assault party, which raced out of the woods toward the bodies of the enemy soldiers. With Swanson hurrying them along the guerrillas stripped the bodies of their rifles and web gear and searched through their pockets for documents.
Moran checked his watch. Three minutes. With the whole world alerted by the gunfire, Moran knew that Swanson’s raiders should be on the target no more than five minutes before enemy soldiers might close in to investigate the commotion.
“Assault, clear out!” Swanson shouted. There was no need to whisper after all the noise they had made with the ambush.
Four minutes, Moran whispered to himself.
“Come on, come on!” Swanson shouted, hurrying the guerrillas in their search.
As the guerrillas scurried back to the rear staging area, Swanson counted them off to make sure no one was missing or wounded. He rattled off their order of march for the exfiltration and the men faded back into the woods.
“Five minutes,” Moran said, pleased. The ambush went quickly without a hitch. The guerrillas, none of whom had had much infantry training in their support jobs back at Fort Bragg, showed enthusiasm and basic combat sense in the operation. Swanson’s team had actually managed to teach them something. Even Swanson himself felt that he was now thinking more like an unconventional warrior than a traditional infantryman.
8 P.M., THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 27
Moses sat behind a metal table with the props he had used the last time: the two kerosene lanterns. This time, though, the area command meeting was being held in a wooden tool shed across the street from Kelly Albright’s house. True to character—Moses was constantly on the run from Opforland security agents—the area commander always varied the locations for his meetings with the student detachment leaders. A bare light bulb with a tin shade hung from the ceiling. Two large swinging wooden doors were latched together at the other end of the shed. On every wall hung an assortment of farm implements and truck parts.
Moran pulled up a chair to the table as Moses again opened his black notebook to jot down his script for the night. This was the last area
command meeting for the students. A week had passed since the first one. One week in the exercise equaled a half year in real life. Now Moses wanted a final progress report on the forces that these students had trained, as the Pineland guerrillas prepared for their final offensive in the war. Depending on a student leader’s performance the previous week, this meeting would be used to build him up or tear him down.
The training cadre sergeants and officers hotly debated what approach Moses should take for some of the students. Robin Sage was nearing its end. Several of the team leaders were still bungling operations, violating basic rules of guerrilla warfare tactics and showing no diplomacy with their guerrilla chiefs. The trainers wanted Moses to be brutal with them in the meeting. On the other hand, if the students were salvageable the trainers didn’t want Moses going too far and completely humiliating them.
Thank God he didn’t have that dilemma, Moran thought to himself as he outlined the script for Moses. Swanson had had a shaky start the first couple of days. It had then rained practically the entire week. The base camp had turned into a swamp with rivulets of muddy water. Clothes were soaked and sleeping bags were cold and damp. The Fort Bragg soldiers playing the guerrillas had become surly. Swanson had contracted tonsillitis and was pumped full of antibiotics. But he and the other students had still managed to train the insurgents into a decent force. Moran wanted the meeting with Moses to be a pleasant one for his charges.
“Sergeant Goode will report that his guerrillas are trained and expanding their operations and that so far the targets they’ve hit have been successful,” Moran said as Moses nodded and wrote in his notebook. Goode would sit to his right. Another staff officer would sit to his left.
Moran spread out a tactical map on the table to show Moses the final target the students would hit with the guerrilla forces: a bridge four miles northwest of their base camp near the village of Yow Mill.
“Emphasize to them that Swanson’s force has to attack the target on time,” Moran told Moses. “It has to be done at the hour you’ve set, because I want to put some time pressure on them.”
This attack would support a final conventional force offensive to entrap the Opforland army and defeat it.
Moses leaned over the map to recheck the coordinates he would give Swanson for the bridge assault. “What’s the destruction on the target that we want?” he asked.
“Fifty percent,” Moran answered. The bridge would be damaged
only enough to make it temporarily impassable. The guerrillas would want to rebuild it for their own use later.
Moses sat quietly for several minutes, hunched over his notes, mouthing to himself the lines he would speak.
“Okay, I’m ready,” he finally said.
Moses settled back in his metal chair. The room went silent as the cadre again stood in the back out of view of the students. A trainer flipped the switch to kill the overhead light and the room darkened with only a yellow glow from the two lanterns.
Swanson and Klapperich were led in blindfolded. This time the two wore several layers of polypropylene and insulated liners under their jackets so they wouldn’t freeze during that godawful wait outside on the ground.
“Remove their blindfolds,” Moses ordered.
Swanson and Klapperich blinked their eyes to adjust them to the light from the lanterns and sat down on two metal chairs on the other side of the table.
Moses didn’t say a word to either student. He turned to Goode.
“How are the Americans doing?” he asked quietly.
Here it comes, Swanson thought to himself as he held his breath. What am I going to be slammed on this time? Not killing a chicken properly?
“I’m very surprised at how well the Americans have done,” Goode said grudgingly. Swanson let out a sigh and relaxed. “With the Americans’ help we’ve made great strides as a combat force.”
Moses turned to Swanson with a satisfied look. “Give me your assessment of the guerrilla force’s combat capability,” he asked the captain.
“We’re ready to shut down the flow of materials into your Pineland sector,” Swanson said confidently. But he cautioned that like all guerrilla forces Moses’s should not be used in any head-to-head confrontation with a conventional army.
Moran, who was standing in the back, smiled. Good answer, he thought to himself.
Moses also liked what he heard. The captain had done his homework.
“We’re very pleased that this relationship has been beneficial to both sides,” Moses said, the old menacing look in his face now showing a slight hint of appreciation. “Convey that to your men, Captain.”
Swanson said he would.
Moses then spread out the tactical map and leaned forward. “Within
the next thirty days we think we can drive Opfor to the north of Pineland,” he began, pointing to the map as Swanson and Klapperich edged their chairs closer to the table. “But to do that we have to destroy this bridge across Richardson Creek, which Opfor traverses for its supply link to the south.
“You have a tight window to accomplish this mission,” Moses continued, his eyes boring holes into Swanson. The bridge had to be knocked out at 8 P.M. on Friday. The attack time could vary no more than two minutes before or after eight.
Moses paused to let the schedule sink in. “So there’s no question that you can take out that bridge?” he asked.
“No question,” Swanson assured him.
“Can my men do it?” Moses pressed.
“I feel confident that once we leave, even your men can succeed on these kinds of targets without our help,” Klapperich interjected.
Moran broke into a wide grin and gave a thumbs-up to the other cadre sergeants standing silently in the back. Klapperich and Swanson were playing this out exactly as they should—confident, in control, winning the area commander’s trust.
“Okay,” Moses said, turning to the Army staff officer sitting to his left. “Now your SOCCE has instructions for you.” SOCCE, pronounced “sock-see,” stood for Special Operations Command and Control Element, which in any operation was the Green Berets’ rear-echelon detachment that coordinated broad strategy with the guerrilla high command.
The SOCCE officer, played by a staffer from the Special Warfare Center, announced that he had secretly parachuted into Pineland to deliver these instructions. He unfolded his map to brief Swanson on the demobilization plan for the guerrillas.
The demobilization would begin Sunday morning at six. In the Pineland exercise, this was when the guerrillas would be disarmed and sent home, or integrated into the security forces the new government of Pineland would establish after the war. The students would help collect weapons from the colonel’s insurgents, then shower them with awards and dons.
The medals and money would be the easy part. Convincing the guerrillas to relinquish their weapons or join the Pineland conventional army would be more difficult. The students would have to be as diplomatic as they were at the beginning of the exercise. But they would succeed. In real life, they probably wouldn’t. Demobilizing an insurgent force
could be an almost impossible exercise. Guerrilla wars were much easier to start than stop.
“Take your team to grid square 2332 and position them at the Y in the road south of Fork Creek and east of Reedy Creek for the linkup,” the staff officer instructed. “The linkup team will then take you by truck to the demobilization site, which is Coleridge School.” Swanson looked at the spot on the map. That was simple enough. The linkup would only be a mile west of his base camp. The school was located about twelve miles north in the town of Coleridge.
“To confirm the bona fides of the driver at the linkup site, walk up to him and ask, ‘Are you having truck problems?’ ” the staff officer continued. “His response should be, ‘No, I’m just taking a break.’ Now, brief it all back to me.”
Swanson repeated the instructions.
“Anything else you men want to bring up?” Moses then asked. The other student leaders who had appeared before him had sat silent, forgetting what they were supposed to say or mumbling something incoherent, because they were still terrified that Moses would blow up at them. Not Swanson.
“Has the post-hostility role of the guerrillas been established?” he asked calmly. It was a tricky question. Moran was pleased that his captain had even raised it. Swanson was thinking two steps ahead. The assault on the bridge was a fairly straightforward commando operation. For the demobilization, Swanson had to feel out Moses on how far he was prepared to go in disarming his men.
“We’ve been discussing that contingency,” Moses said. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“Civil defense, sir,” Swanson answered. “Stand the force down and use some of them only to preserve law and order. Or use them as a standing army to protect Pineland.” Swanson then went into the mechanics of converting the force.
“Good idea,” Moses said.
“We’ve anticipated the day you’d work your way out of this job and that day has finally arrived,” Moses said to wrap up the meeting. “Good work.”
Swanson had a smile for the first time.
Klapperich then broke the silence. “You have a large mosquito on your arm,” he said with a sheepish grin, pointing to the bug.
That cocky sonofabitch, Moran thought to himself.
“He’s my pet,” Moses said with a thin smile.
The blindfolds were reattached and the students were led out of the shed.
Moran smacked his fist into his hand. “Excellent, excellent,” he said, hiking up his belt and strutting about in the shed like a proud peacock. “That was great, just great.” Klapperich got involved when he didn’t have to. Swanson appeared confident, self-assured. Goode had instructed the guerrilla informant, whom he had planted in Swanson’s base camp, to tell the captain that the area command meeting would be Friday. At the last minute on Thursday evening, Swanson had been handed a blindfold and told the meeting would be that night to see how he would perform with a change in schedule. But Swanson was already prepped. The captain walked into the meeting with points that he wanted to make, instead of just reacting to what Moses said.
Moran lit up a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “Oh man, I can’t believe my guys did that well,” he bragged to the other team sergeants, some of whom were stuck with problem cases in their student detachments.
“Hey Bugsy, did you feed him that information?” another trainer asked, needling him.
“No, no, he did it all by himself,” Moran said laughing, then walked out into the cool night air.
7:55 P.M., FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 28
Moran parked his pickup truck west of the bridge crossing Richardson Creek and checked his watch. Paul Unti, a demolitions specialist whom Moran had picked to lead the students’ assault on the bridge, was supposed to begin his attack in five minutes if everything was on schedule. In fact, Unti’s team was already hidden and poised around the bridge, ready to make its strike. Moran could see 82nd Airborne soldiers, who were playing the aggressors, crouched along the side of the bridge to defend it.
Moran checked his watch again: 7:57 P.M. There might be trouble with the locals after this assault, he worried. A woman in a trailer nearby with a snarling German shepherd had complained before about the noise. She probably would not like what she heard in the next three minutes.
Headlights appeared behind Moran and he spun around quickly. One of the locals out for a Friday night drive. Several other civilian cars had crossed the bridge earlier. That’s all I need, he thought. One of those
cars crosses the bridge when all hell breaks loose and has a wreck. I’ll be making little rocks out of big rocks at Leavenworth.
At 8 P.M. on the dot, two M-60 machine guns—one positioned on the side of the road east of the bridge, the other on the west side of Richardson Creek—opened up with a withering crossfire. “Good, they’re on time,” he said quietly.
Within seconds, the M-60 on the west side of Richardson Creek jammed. That happened all the time when the machine gun was shooting blanks, whose powder would clog the firing mechanism. Moran looked up to see if the assistant gunner who fed the ammo belt into the M-60 immediately picked up his M-16 rifle and continued firing while the gunner tried to unjam the M-60. The assistant gunner, a guerrilla trainee, did just that. Good, Moran noted. They’re following standard tactics.
The M-60 team along the road next shifted its fire to the left so an assault force on its right could quickly crawl forward toward the bridge without being hit by friendly bullets from behind. In less than five minutes since the assault began, Unti’s team had overwhelmed the defenders.
As the rest of the team formed a defensive perimeter around the bridge, Unti’s demolition crew raced underneath the structure and began tying simulated charges of C-4 explosives to five of the support beams. They linked the charges together with detonating wires. Unti pulled out of his breast pocket a grenade simulator he had rigged with a timing device. As the last of the detonating cord tips was plugged into the simulated C-4, Unti gave the handle of the grenade simulator timer a quarter turn counterclockwise and pulled the detonator pin.
“Fire in the hole!” Unti screamed as the crew scrambled up the embankment away from the bridge. With the extended timer Unti had attached to the grenade, they had less than two minutes before it would detonate to signal that the bridge had been blown.
A flash. Boom! Smoke billowed up from the side of the bridge. Dogs from nearby began barking and howling. Moran couldn’t tell if one of them was a German shepherd. He checked his watch and was pleased with the time. The assault and destruction of the bridge had taken ten minutes, well under the standard time window for this type of operation.
As the student team and their guerrillas ran north to their rallying point, Moran strolled under the bridge to check the charges and their wiring. All were tied and connected properly and positioned on the right supports. If the demolition had been real, the middle columns would
have split and the bridge would have collapsed in the center from its own weight.
“Excellent,” Moran murmured to himself. “Excellent, excellent.”
8 A.M., SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 29
Moran and Goode walked down to the students’ base camp as Swanson finished his “area assessment” for Pineland. The area assessment was an end-of-tour report Green Berets routinely filed that detailed the condition of a guerrilla force, the status of the enemy in a sector, terrain features that might be different from what the maps showed, any bit of intelligence an A-team had picked up. It would be added to file cabinets full of intelligence folders the Green Berets accumulated on countries.
The two trainers asked the students to gather around them. Moran had only minor quibbles about the exercises the night before. Kelly Albright’s truck, which had carried part of the team back to the base camp, had not been “sanitized” properly. Albright had found a U.S. government fountain pen in the back. Even that tiny an item might have compromised him at an enemy road checkpoint.
“There isn’t a no-go sitting in this bunch,” Moran said proudly, as the students around him really relaxed for the first time. “A few of you guys I had some doubts about. But when you hit the ground in the exercise, those doubts went away. And you guys ended on a great note. The area command meeting went great, the combat target went great. My only regret now is I won’t have another team as good as you.” Later in the day Kelly Albright would drop by with his grandson’s Cub Scout den. “They want to look at some big bad Green Berets. So be respectful and watch your language.”
Goode next ran through a day-by-day critique of the exercise.
Day one was a disaster, he began, looking at Swanson. “You came up with no specific plan on how you were going to deal with me,” Goode said. “Right from the start, you have to have a plan for building rapport. You were good on tactics. But if I had just wanted tactics I could have had a bunch of Rangers in here. It’s the rapport-building skills that you have that are valuable.”
The guerrilla maneuvers and raids succeeded because the team members led them. “None of my people were in charge,” Goode pointed out. “You never let my guerrillas lead anything.” This is a natural tendency among American soldiers—even Green Berets—when they’re
working with foreign armies. Fight the battle for the foreigners because Americans know they can do it better—like in Vietnam.
Not in today’s wars, Moran added. On insurgent or counterinsurgent operations, “you’ll be the dick walking in the back,” he said. On counterdrug training missions in Latin America the Green Beret adviser isn’t even allowed to walk with the raiding teams—a regulation the action-oriented Green Berets resent.
“All in all, you did well,” Goode concluded. “For a bunch of guys just out here, I’d be happy to have any one of you on my team.”
Now that the trainers had their students’ heads swollen to twice their size, Moran thought it time to bring them back to earth. “You guys have got to remember, this is just the beginning,” he warned. Graduates left Robin Sage and the long Q course on top of the world, thinking they knew everything. They didn’t.
“If you know what’s good for you,” Moran lectured, “you’ll go to your A-teams with your mouths shut and spend your first months listening. It will take several deployments overseas before you feel really comfortable with your job.” It’s on a foreign deployment—be it a training mission, a clandestine operation, or even guerrilla combat—where a Green Beret really learns to think on his feet, on his own.
“You guys—particularly all you hardheads—are going to find a world out there where nothing is cut-and-dried,” Moran continued. Rules and regulations become murky in unconventional warfare. The spit and polish the U.S. Army prides itself on are irrelevant in the jungle. A Green Beret must live off his wits and his inner sense of what is right or wrong.
“You are the ambassadors,” Moran said finally. “You are the first Americans these guerrillas often will see. And they’ll think you’re something out of the movies.” 1
. Sometimes the help is unsolicited. Occasionally a biker or Klansman or weekend wannabe in fatigues walks into a base camp wanting to join the exercise. The Green Berets politely shoo them off. 2
. Seemann was worried about my being on the march. Though my rucksack did not weigh the eighty to 100 pounds each of the other men carried, it did tip the scales at about sixty. To cover the Robin Sage exercise, I had to carry in most of what I would live off of the next two weeks. Seemann did not know what kind of shape I was in, so he quietly passed the word to the other students to keep a close eye on me. I jog regularly and consider myself in reasonably good condition. But I discovered that night that forty-two-year-old reporters should think twice before they pretend to be young Green Berets. I made it through the infiltration, but could barely move the next day.