I remember the first time I saw Airman Hall. What a poor excuse of a trainee to show up at Combat Control School, where I was an instructor. I decided to give Airman Hall a little extra attention and help him understand he'd made a mistake coming here. As hard as I tried, Airman Hall tried harder! He would never give up and allow me the satisfaction I was looking for. Airman Hall persevered and graduated Combat Control School with honors. However, he was wrong about one thing, I got my satisfaction. I'm very proud to have helped Pat achieve his goals. Pat is an outstanding Combat Controller and a personal friend of mine. Pat, as with myself, has become accustomed to the slower pace of civilian life and has found some time to put some of his memories in writing. I had the pleasure to read the following and am again impressed with Pat's abilities. I think you'll find this enjoyable reading and maybe something you can relate to.
Pat tells me he enjoys writing and may write a book about CCT someday. Well, I must say I'm impressed with Pat's writings so far and hope to see more. Pat, you continue to amaze me and I look forward to the next chapter. Your Friend, Mac
Airman Hall, You Ready To Quit Yet?
No, Sgt McReynolds, I'll Never Quit!
Today I went to the local movie theatre to see the movie 'Black Hawk Down'. It proved a big mistake. I walked out. From the time my wife and I left the house to go to the theatre I knew this was a bad idea. I picked an early showing, knowing that not many people would be there. Not knowing where my emotions would take me, I sat in the back row. The other people came to see a show, and I didn't want that show to be me. From the time I told my wife that I wanted to see the movie, until the time that I ran from the theatre my adrenalin was pumping. Yes, I ran. I think Tammy's clue was when I said, "Get me the hell out of here." The scene that caused my escape and evasion was when the ranger fell from the helicopter. I knew how it felt to fall untethered from a helicopter. To know, ok I am dead.
In the beginning of the movie an Army Ranger has a Grand Mal seizure. The Ranger was a chalk leader. When the Army inserted into Mogadishu they were broke up into groups of twelve men, called chalks. One chalk was assigned to a helicopter. A chalk leader was usually a lieutenant or a senior non-commissioned officer. The chalk leader was in charge of the loading and unloading of the aircraft. He was also responsible for the chalk once they inserted, amongst many other duties. In the next scene the arrogant Ranger Captain informs another young ranger that ranger so and so has had an epileptic seizure, and is out of the game. So now he is in charge of the chalk.
In Air Force Combat Control School at Pope Air Force Base they spoke of the game. Often times I would hear members of the cadre say, "Play the game!" I was nineteen; I had no idea what the game was. At this point in school I had yet to finish a run with the formation. My athletic ability was far below the school standard. I was most likely on the soon to wash out list. Wash out referred to failing. One day after finishing the run SSgt. Chris Caffall pulled me out of formation and whisked me away on a run of our own. This was not a good sign. It was obvious that I was higher on the wash out list than I thought. Fayetteville North Carolina, known as the Piedmont area, always provided one of three types of weather; hot, humid, or both. Neither of these three made running a fun sport. One run a day was hell, two runs was just plain torture.
Our private run was to a destination known only to SSgt. Caffall. We left the Combat Control School and headed down the Flight Line road towards building 900 (Base Ops) and Green Ramp. We made the turn near the guard shack across from what we termed the Gentleman's Jump School. We had run only a few hundred yards when SSgt. Caffall ordered me to halt. He marched me into the middle of the ditch that ran the length of the road. The ditch was swollen with the waters of recent rain. I knew this wasn't going to be good. I was then dropped for push-ups. I immediately went from the fragrance of the pine trees to the stench of the stagnant water. The heat of my body engulfed by the cool murky contents of the ditch refused to complain. I felt like a humpback whale. Only drawing air when I came up, and only if I arched my head back as far as possible. And every time I would arch to draw air he would yell, "Are you ready to quit?" I would only gurgle back, "No Sergeant". All the while trying desperately not to throw up. After some time he called me to attention, and we finished our run back to the school.
As we approached the school I saw SSgt. McReynolds waiting in the parking lot. SSgt. Caffall gave the order to halt, and left face. It was SSgt. McReynolds turn to speak. He said, "Hall, you ain't going to make it. You don't have what it takes. You're not playing the game. I challenge you to challenge yourself. Either shape up or ship out!" To this day I can't explain what happened at that moment. I have no idea. But I started to laugh uncontrollably. SSgt. Caffall and SSgt. McReynolds were not amused! They demanded to know why I was laughing. I just looked at them and said, "I get it now. It's just a game, you played it, and now I am." They just smiled and sent me back to the barracks to prepare for class.
To an untrained observer this conversation would have been meaningless. SSgt. Caffall and SSgt. McReynolds knew that if I was to make it, I had to attain the proper mental attitude. High intellect and all the strength in the world, alone, would not get you through the school. To be at this point, one must have already successively graduated from Air Traffic Control School, and Airborne School at Fort Benning Georgia. These schools were a cake walk compared to what lay ahead. In twelve weeks you would digest years of knowledge. You would also build yourself physically to a point you never before thought possible. But the mental conditioning they demand is to get you through the field. The field consists of ten days with minimal sleep, exhaustion and a mission. Being physically drained, and tired to the point of being lethargic, you must still maintain focus on a mission requiring teamwork and a myriad of tasks. This separates the elite from the standard recruit.
Now I look back, and I look at where I am now. What in the hell is the game? I have lost the concept. I know at one time I knew what it was. I was consumed in the game. But now where has the knowledge escaped? Is it some knowledge that only 19-year-old soldiers are privileged to? And do they lose that knowledge when they hang up their uniform for the last time? I don't believe the game is something played by the common soldier. It's not for the base finance office, nor the 82nd Airborne Division. I've seen the game with Marine Recon units, Army Special Forces (SF) units, Army Ranger units, Navy Seal Teams, Air Force Combat Control Teams, and Air Force Para rescue Teams. The game was voiced often by all of us. The game was always there, around us, in us, and watching over us. However in my eight years in the Air Force, not once do I remember it being defined. I wonder now in deep meditation, who designed the game, and what was his or her purpose in creating this mythos which attracted so many young men. Men, who ran to its lure without question, or even knowing why.
So many things happen under the auspices of the game that can't be explained. For instance in Mogadishu, Somalia. I read an after action report from the War College on that event today. To the average person this report looks dry, and uneventful. But to a retired player of the game, the report brings fear, adrenalin, tears, and a rising of ones heartbeat. But the worst thing is reading the report brings an unexplainable deja vu. It's the game itself reaching out at you through the words on the page. You can't explain it, you can't put it to words, and it's meaning is hiding just outside of your reach. It's real, you can almost taste it, almost smell it. But, you can never grasp it. You hung up your uniform remember?
Someone who once played the game would summarize the report this way. The U.S. sent troops to Somalia under the umbrella of the United Nations to feed the country. President Clinton didn't find this endeavor important enough to warrant his full attention. So the matter was given to a lower committee. At which point the true mission of our government became clouded. The clouded mission was now to find and capture Mr. Adid and his lieutenants. The U.S. Commander in Somalia decided to play the game and follow orders. However the Commander needed the proper tools to accomplish the mission. The lower committee decided the Commander did not know what he needed as well as they did. So the Commander made plans with what he had. He was in fact playing the game. I cannot question this; I have seen it first hand! And under the premise of the game the Commander couldn't radio Les Aspin (Secretary of Defense who refused the commanders request for tanks and armored vehicles, and was asked to resign by President Bill Clinton.) and say, "Fuck you! You've made the goals unrealistic and unattainable." And under the premise of the game the commander couldn't go to the jointly assigned Malaysians and Pakistanis and say, "Hey fellas we need you! Could you play with us and bring your armored vehicles with you today? We're playing the game...wink wink". They are not part of our game. Their game is different than ours. And by not being American their game must be substantially inferior to our game. And their inferiority might affect in some way the success of our game.
In the name of the game, many men died, many men were wounded. And many men became heroes. Out of chaos comes perfect chaos. Those that play the game are not paramount in the thoughts of others. Players of the game are not in power of their destiny. The game is run by: politicians, business, money, greed, and power. Which is ironic because with in the game are groups of men who live by high standards. They survive by: teamwork, honor, duty, country, compassion, and trust. And they make little money, yield little power and never get invited to Washington DC. Unless of course it is a photo opportunity for the re-election campaign of some politician who wishes to appear he cares for the defense of our nation.
When I played the game and understood it's meaning, I saw the game played elsewhere. And the game was played equal to that of our playing the game. The British Special Air Service (SAS), the New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS), the Australian Special Air Service (SAS), Thailand Special Forces, Korean Special Forces, all playing the game with the same heart and soul as those around me.
I had played the game with the New Zealand SAS. I spent two weeks with them learning tracking in Hawaii in 1982. They not only played the game, they strived to expand their knowledge of the game every day. A man said to be the greatest tracker in the world. He also had a price on his head in three countries. They all wanted to be like Windy McGhee. A man they so honored they whispered his name.
I also spent two weeks with the Australian SAS practicing Son Tay raids. Son Tay raids are a name given to raids that are aimed at hitting prisoner of war camps with the aim of freeing those held prisoner. This name is used in honor of Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simmons who led 56 men against a Viet Nam prisoner of war camp on November 21, 1970. We were a scout team, and I was only 20 years old. My knowledge of the game was but a flickering light compared to these men who basked in the games enlightenment.
I was lying naked on my sleeping bag in the open. I figured most people spend lots of money to come to Hawaii to soak up the rays, and I was being paid to do it. I had no idea why the Aussies were in full camouflage and lying under the brush. They were deep in the bowels of the game. While I was just sea salt against the palette. Their Captain came over to me; well actually he crawled as un-noticeable and snakelike as he could. I watched him slither from bush to bush, keeping as low to the ground as possible. "Ah..er...um Airman Hall may I have a word with you?" He said. This was the first thing he had said to me since the night before. The night before when we almost died.
If memory serves me correct there was 12 of us: Australian SAS (8), 7th SFG (3), and myself. We were to parachute from a C-130 near Hilo Hawaii at night, 1000" Above Ground Level (AGL), using an inverted "L" drop zone. Personnel already on the ground configure the inverted "L" drop zone. They first decide based on the drop zone and wind conditions where they wish to have the parachutists land. First a white light is placed on the ground 100 meters left of where the parachutists are to exit the aircraft. Than another white light is placed on the ground fifty meters back into the direction the aircraft will be coming from. This is the stem of the "L". Now from the first light two more are placed on the ground. The first will be placed fifty meters away from the first light, ninety degrees to the right. And from there the last light will be placed on the ground another 150 meters in the same direction of the last light. Now you have an inverted "L".
The ocean that night was very rough, even for Hawaii. Some of the other training scenarios involving ocean operations had already been cancelled that night. If this had not been an exercise, no missions would have been cancelled. As the exercise Commander said, "Safety is Paramount".
We were all aboard the C-130 on our way to the drop zone. We had already donned our parachute and equipment and received our Jump Master Parachute Inspection (JMPI). All the interior lights were a soft glow of red. It takes thirty minutes for the eyes to adjust to darkness. The red lights help you to see what you are doing, and allow the eyes to adjust to the darkness you'll encounter after you jump from the aircraft. The crew had dropped the rear ramp, from which we would soon exit. I remember sitting there sucking up the JP4 (jet fuel) and watching the lightning and rain out the back of the aircraft. The red lights dancing with the light show outside would have inspired Thomas Kinkade or Claude Monet. The loadmasters moved through the light taking care of last minute preparations as if every movement had been choreographed. A surreal moment among many in my life, that is emancipated to my being, despite my efforts to contain them.
But now it was time to focus. I couldn't believe that Major Buck and Master Sergeant Steinbeck had trusted me to go on a training mission with these elite members of the game and represent our portion of the game. I was by far the youngest and lowest ranking player there. I was very proud sitting there, when I heard the 7th SFG jumpmaster say, "Twenty Minutes". For the exercise 7th SFG was given the assignment of performing all jumpmaster duties. All though they were static, meaning they would perform all jumpmaster duties to include spotting of the drop zone, but not actually jumping. It seemed like only a second later and he was yelling, "Hook up!" And what seemed like only another second later we heard the jumpmaster yell, "Stand in the door!" I looked at the Jumpmasters face as it emitted only fear and confusion. I checked the drop-light on the ramp, and it was red. The drop-light has two colors; red, and green. A red light signifies that the crew has not yet given the ok to jump. A green light would show that it was ok to exit the aircraft. I turned to look at the loadmasters for some sense of the situation and just as the jumpmaster, fear and confusion. They were both shouting endlessly into their headsets. Something had gone wrong, but what? I decided to find out for myself. The combined weight of my rucksack and parachute was equal to my own weight, 150 pounds. Adrenalin has a mystical ability that masks the senses of all discomforts. I ran to the open tail of the aircraft and threw myself on the floor. Holding a tight grip I stretched my head to attain the best possible view. I saw red lights, green lights, white lights, I even saw a spot light on a fishing trawler shining on the nets behind the vessel. What I did not see was an inverted "L" drop zone. By this time the jumpmaster was very upset that I might be questioning his authority within the game, and his experience of the game. Suffice it to say, he was pissed! He started grabbing at me and yelling at me. I grabbed the static line cable at a point outboard of my hook up location. I proceeded to yell everything I could muster to prevent him from yelling, go! "You cock sucker, your father sucks your mothers cock, you asshole, we're over the ocean. There is no fucking inverted "L" out there! Do you even know what an inverted "L" looks like?" It was in the middle of my cursing that the co-pilot came back and demanded to know what in THE hell was going on? The jumpmaster explained he was trying to get us out the door. I was still screaming, "Where in the hell did you get your jumpmaster training? We don't even have LPU's (life preserver units). I am carrying a parachute, 50 pounds of magnesium batteries, and 20 pounds of radios, you stupid fuck!" The loadmasters and the co-pilot separated us. We were left standing hooked up and ready while the co-pilot talked on the radio. After ten minutes the co-pilot announced the drop had to be cancelled due to high winds. The ramp now closed, we all piled our parachutes and equipment onto the center of the floor. I could see the 7th SFG guys were mad at me for questioning the jumpmasters' knowledge of the game. The Aussies were questioning if we Americans had been told about the game. And I was resolute in my wanting to be around to learn more about the game.
It was than while I was relishing my state of resolute that the ramp opened back up and the red lights turned green. The jumpmaster who was on headset yelled in one breath, " Hook up!! Stand in the door!!" I thought to myself, this fucker is nuts! But in the blink of an eye I saw 11 swinging dicks grab their previously discarded parachutes, weapons and equipment bags. They tossed the chutes on their backs, snapped their leg straps, than their chest straps, and secured their weapons through the reserve straps. Some of them hooked the reserve to the D-rings, others to only one D-ring and let the reserve hang. Each parachute harness is equipped with two D-rings, the beveled edge is away from the parachutist. It is here that the reserve parachute is and must be secured. In the event a reserve parachute is activated the parachutist will be suspended in a proper upright manner. They hooked up and were shuffling out the door. But than came a big mistake, I questioned my knowledge of the game. When doing this, you'll find you're always wrong. I thought to myself, what would Major Buck and MSgt. Steinbeck think of me when I land back at base alone? So bringing up the end of the stick, out I went! Parachuting from an aircraft in the middle of the night is best explained as placing a child back in the womb. The mighty engines of a C-130 create a roar equaled to that of a delivery room. Once you step off the edge of the ramp, you are only tethered to the aircraft by a fifteen-foot long static line. At one end the line is attached to a steel cable that runs the length of the cargo department. A small string, at the back of the parachute, attaches the other end of the line. Which breaks away as the weight of your body descends. First you pass through the turbulent wake of wind, as if going through a wake from a passing ship. Than as in the womb of your mother, darkness, and silence, perfect solitude.
But you have no time to enjoy this solitude, as you must ensure that your canopy is open and functioning, as it should. Once this is completed you look to the ground to observe the inverted "L", and aim for the desired point of impact as designated by the lights. You reach up and release the toggles while at the same time sensing the wind on your face you turn to face it's origin. This maneuver will retard your rate of descent, and reduce chance of injury on landing. This night angels of mercy landed me softly on a patch of sand one yard long by two feet wide. But all I could hear was screaming. Someone was in one hell of a lot of pain. Our 7th SFG medic had lost his kneecap on volcanic rock. The same rock that surrounded my patch of sand. Even when the dustoff (helicopter used for medical evacuation), landed to recover the injured medic, I could hear his screams. The WOMP WOMP of the mighty UH-1's engine filling the night sky couldn't drown out the medics' screams. The Aussie Captain came up to me as he gathered his men and said, "Airman Hall, the medic lost his kneecap, he is out of the game, move out!" I thought to myself, out of the game for the duration, or forever?
"Yes Captain what is on your mind?" I asked. In a nervous way he tried to explain himself. "Well lad we are on a training mission, but playing the game for real, do you notice the other blokes?" "Notice how they are all in full camouflage, and hiding?" I turned and I looked, damn, he was right! I turned to him not sure of the situation and said, "Captain I'll be squared away in two minutes." He seemed to be put at ease by my response. Looking back he probably thought I was just brain dead. So I got dressed, and painted my face with the military makeup provided from the government and hid under the brush. I was playing the game. I actually had no real purpose for this mission. I was just there. We were to scout a prisoner of war camp, which was to be holding our troops. We were to gather movements, defenses, and weaknesses for another team that was to jump in by HALO (High Altitude Low Opening). They were the ones who were going to take the camp, free the prisoners. That team would also have a CCT with them that would set up a nearby runway, which would be utilized to take both teams and prisoners out of the area.
On the night we hit the camp some of the players got over zealous and had to be overpowered by the referees. They were deep in the game, and in that state of mind it is hard to differentiate the game from the pretend game. We hit the camp after meeting up with the second team; we came in with blank adapters blazing. The officer in charge of the game tonight was a man we all called Captain America. I will leave him nameless in his defense. Back at base we were all required to wear OD T-shirts and UDT shorts. And this was by his order. However he must not have received his order as he always showed up in nothing except his red, white, and blue Speedos. Personally I didn't think he was that endowed to wear Speedos. He was arrogant to the bone and it showed. It was an embarrassment to us all, as he would parade in front of the allies. Later in a class while showing the class participants that a .45 could not go off in the safety position he shot a hole in his hand and left the game early. So you can understand what I had to do next.
When Captain America felt we had shot the camp up enough to warrant our escape back to the runway. Which by the way why wouldn't we do so! It was in the Operational Order, (OPORD). It was planned this way: who wins, who looses, who cooks, and who cleans the dishes. The OPORD makes sure that nobody within the boundaries of the game will exhibit the audacity to think for himself. It was the game! Captain America began to shout, "Cease fire, cease fire." I waited until all you could hear was the breathing of forty men and the chirping of the crickets. I lifted my GAU-5, parachutist version of the M-16, which until this point had not been fired and I released an entire clip of blanks within 6 inches of his right ear. Of course my weapon was pointed at the sky! He hit the dirt. I than calmly walked out to the center of the group an shouted, "OK men ceasefire, you heard the Captain!" I than turned and looked at him as to say, ok what next? He was just staring at me; I think he was waiting for the crew of Candid Camera to show up. But they didn't. So we headed towards the runway. I was looking forward to seeing SSgt. Coffey and MSgt. Steinbeck. We got to the runway and I saw Bill Coffey. I couldn't tell in the dark if it was sweat or tears running down his face. He was just staring at the ground. I walked up to him and asked, "Hey Bill you ok?" He looked up to me, and said, "I think Mike (Steinbeck) broke his back." I was void of thought and feeling. I couldn't believe the words I just heard. Mike Steinbeck had been my first introduction to Combat Control. To us young guys he was the Grand Daddy of em all! He was: our friend, our mentor, our hero, he was our NCOIC. He would give you a swift kick in the ass when you needed it, and a pat on the back when you deserved it. For us, he defined the game.
We landed back at Hickham, Air Force Base, and were herded like cattle in cattle cars back to Scholfield Barracks. Yes you heard me, cattle cars. Haven't you ever seen cattle in those metal buckets going down the highway? That was our Army transportation. I arrived at base to find SSgt. Bob Overland waiting for me. He was hard as nails on me. Always driving me harder than I thought I could go. I would never have survived my second enlistment if it weren't for the knowledge he pounded into me. He was a perfectionist and demanded the same from everyone. Bob demanded a verbal after action report from me. So I gave it to him. His face turned beet red. I could tell he was angry but I didn't know why. He dragged me to Major Buck and repeated the story. Major Buck had me at attention so fast I didn't know what hit me. He let me know right off, that he trusted my judgment, and yet I second-guessed my own. He also told me my first instinct was the correct instinct. I should never have jumped from that aircraft with an inadequate jumpmaster. When Major Buck chewed you out, that was it. He chewed, you listened, you learned, end of story. Major Buck didn't let me get the rest I was looking for. He dragged me to the exercise commander's tent and had me write a report. He also talked the Aussie Captain into writing one as well. The Aussie Captain didn't want to make waves. But this was Major John Buck. Major John Buck had earned the respect of players of the game everywhere. He was big enough to have been a line backer for the San Francisco 49ers. He never asked us to do anything he wouldn't do himself. And the way the old man watched out for us you would think he was our foster parent.
The next day I awoke and Major Buck sat me down to explain how my report would play out. There was to be an inquiry with the General and also the jumpmaster and his commanding officer. I was an E-3, I was very nervous. What in the world could this General want with me? Take the Aussie Captain I kept saying. But Major Buck would not let this drop and I knew it. You don't mess with one of his troops and get away with it. As he would say, "Ain't happening!" I looked into his eyes and said, "You know Major Buck, Hawaii is a lot closer to Cleveland than Angeles City Philippines, and I have 30 days leave saved up." He just looked at me and laughed, "Ok Patsy, you can go, I'll take care of everything here and your leave papers. Just have your ass back at Clark in 30 days or I'll lock your ass up! Understand?" "Yes Sir!!!" I said as I zipped up my B-3 bag, and I was off. For the time being I was out of the game.