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My Rifle For A Rose

1-22 INF/1st BDE/10th MTN DIV (LI), Ft Drum, N.Y.

1988: Fort Drum was still under construction. The 10th Mountain Division(LI) remained a long way from full strength.  My unit, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, was billeted in old wooden WWII barracks on what would become “Old Post.”

      We were 10th MTN’s first Combat Infantry Battalion to come fully online. Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) & MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) certified. Locked & loaded. Combat ready.  The newest addition to XVIII ABN CORPS “Quick Reaction Force” (QRF) team.

    Every man carried an M-16 assault rifle. Officers carried either Beretta 9mm or Colt .45 sidearms as well. Line companies stockpiled Claymore mines, LAWS rockets, beaucoup hand grenades.

Platoons were equipped with the new Squad Automatic Weapons (SAWs), M203 grenade launchers, M60 machine guns.  Soldiers practiced close quarter fighting & bayonet drills.

Fire teams used tracer rounds to pinpoint direct fire targets. We cross trained with Engineer support units on breaching minefields & obstacle with Bangalore torpedoes.  We practiced emplacing minefields of our own.   

We wore Kevlar helmets. Every man was issued the Army’s newest experimental cold weather gear.  Night vision technology was just coming online.  The Army equipped us with a small fleet of its newest tactical off-road vehicle – HUMVEES.

       We had our own 81mm mortar platoon.  Three infantry companies, each with 60mm mortars as well.  Line companies had three platoons each.  Add to that an organic dismounted scout platoon, Combat Medics, a HUMVEE mounted anti-tank platoon. The AT platoon doubled as scouts; night vision equipped.

     Companies still communicated via old school AN PRC 77 squad radios.  Every soldier learned to encode. TACSAT and secured/more powerful comms with higher HQ were signal platoon responsibilities.  Commo wire, plastic spoon insulators; field expedient 29er2s – those were a light infantry combat unit’s long-range antenna.

     I taught Warsaw Pact battlefield small arms cannibalization.  We all learned first aid.

     GPS did not exist at our level. Every man knew his pace count.  We carried military grid maps, protractors, compasses.  Land navigation was a core skill.  So were marksmanship -combat patrolling techniques – tying knots.

      We ate MRE’s straight, drank canteen cup java.  We popped smoke to obscure our movement from enemy forces, illumination flares to expose theirs.

      Soldiers fixed anything broken with 550 parachute cord & duct tape.  Some men carried shotguns. Some packed machetes.  We all carried knives.

       Combat patrols practiced night movement.  We killed time in our Battalion hand to hand combat pit, honed raids and ambush skills, went on 10-mile road marches and runs just for fun.

     Our Fire Support Officer (FSO), a Field Artillery Captain, lived with us in the field. He & I plotted fire missions together by hand.  I fed him target data. Scouts served as Forward Observers.  Steel on target.  “Drop Five Zero- Fire for Effect.”

My most potent weapons were our Battalion scouts and a red target plotting pen.  The FSO rained hell. His last name was “Mountain”, ironically enough. He had a good sense of humor. We got along pretty well. 

Engineers, Close Air Support (CAS), naval gunfire, heavy artillery, armor support- all came from higher up.

      Our Battalion was a beehive hacksaw, ready to drink blood like honey once we spit lead down range.

      We were a light infantry family.  Foot mounted, mission focused, 550 men strong.  We called those old wooden open bay barracks buildings “Home”.

     My unit was fresh from a three-month stint in Honduras. Our Battalion Task Force had been deployed to conduct a joint training exercise with the Honduran Army. A military “Show of Force” operation.

     Daniel Ortega and the leftist Sandinistas had been fighting for control of Nicaragua since the 1960s. They finally succeeded and Ortega seized power in ’79.  His first reign.  Ousted as Nicaragua’s leader once, he’s returned to power since.  There is ongoing regional conflict there to this day.

      Various loosely affiliated right-wing factions had opposed Ortega’s leftist Sandinista Junta power grab. These U.S. backed forces were broadly referred to over time as “The Nicaraguan Resistance” & “Contra Rebels”.  They opposed Ortega’s Sandinistas guerrilla style. Some of them fought out of Honduras. The U.S.  helped build a base there to establish a regional support presence.

     Despite much controversy, alleged human rights violations, and Ortega’s UN protests, the United States continued backing rebel efforts throughout the 1980s.  Ronald Reagan was President. The situation was fluid – volatile – frequently violent.  Regional tensions were high.

     Pre-deployment prep for our unit’s mission was classified then.  That was over thirty years ago.  I can’t imagine it’s still classified now.

     I was part of a small “Advanced Party” team going in.  I was still a 2LT, Tactical Intelligence Officer, at the time.  I ran our unit’s Battalion Information Coordination Center.   I was “The BICC.”   

     Once in Honduras, our team reconnoitered, established logistics, staging areas, intel links.  It was my first taste of “Live.”

     I drove a Land Rover, dined in mountainside Bodegas, viewed abject poverty for the first time.

      Dusty smoke spiced the air. Peasant farmers served passing soldiers and tourists mesquite roasted chickens, fresh watermelon slices, papayas, bananas, ice cold Coca Cola in glass bottles.  All from open faced roadside shacks with smoky pit BBQs and a few rickety tables out front.  

      Occasionally a meal was delayed while they rounded up and butchered less than cooperative chickens.  When mesquite ran short, our Honduran hosts used dried cow dung to cook.

     The Honduran people were friendly.  They embraced us.  I remember one day we were planning a mission just off the Honduran military base.  The presence of a Honduran village complicated our Operations Officer’s training plan.  He was a young Major.  An old Vietnam Veteran Master Sergeant spoke up.

     “That’s no problem, Sir.  They’ll move the whole village.  Just ask.”

     We altered our training plans instead. 

      I learned a great deal on that mission.  Including three important cautionary notes:

#1: “No tomes el agua.” (Don’t drink the water)

#2:  When driving steep, winding, Honduran mountain dirt roads in a rented British Land Rover, be on the lookout for random donkeys, mules, unmarked cattle crossings, horse drawn carts. Potholes too.

“Especialmente Por La Noche”

(Especially After Dark)

#3:  Most important of all – If the sign on the door at the Casino reads:

“Check Guns And Machetes Here.”

           Watch your back!

  Not every Hombre with coins on the table can read. 

       We trained hard in Honduras. Lost a good man.  He drowned during wet river crossing exercises in a tragic accident.  We nearly lost our Battalion Executive Officer one night too. His chopper went down in the mountains. We scrambled a rescue team. Luckily, a savvy pilot and crew chief somehow managed to patch the bird back together and fly them all safely back.

     Several U.S. personnel were wounded in a terrorist pipe bomb blast during weekend furlough while we were in country.  Chinese restaurant; downtown Tegucigalpa; the Honduran Capitol. U.S. personnel were prime targets. A political statement, no doubt.

     My role in Honduras lasted nearly three months.  Ours was deemed a “Joint Training Exercise.” We’d deployed combat loaded. Central America was hot.

          I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant shortly following our return.  Several training exercises and one 100 mile forced march later, our S-2 Captain, my boss, took assignment in Italy. 

I didn’t hold enough rank, but I had earned something more important inside a combat infantry unit.  Respect. I was awarded his post.  1/22 Infantry Battalion Intelligence Officer, S-2.  My new call sign: “Deuce”.  

     SFC Thomas had come on board as Intel NCOIC shortly before I assumed my new post.  

       He was an Infantryman- old school NCO southern black.  I was an Ivy League ROTC 1st Lieutenant, white as a fresh coat of north country snow.  We could not have been more different.

“Regulars By God!”

“Climb  To Glory!”

     Ours was one uniform, one unit, one flag.  He gave me an infantryman’s perspective & experience.  Mission focused. Combat ready.  We made a good team. We shared one purpose.  We could not have been more the same.

     I lived alone.  I rented an upstairs apartment on Watertown’s Tilden Street.  My landlords, Frank & Jenny, lived below. Frank was retired.  Jenny was a County Legislator.  She knew everyone.  Her nephew had been a Saranac Lake High School football teammate of mine.  Word somehow got to her that I was stationed at Drum.   

     Once a month I went downstairs to pay rent.  Frank would meet me in his kitchen, retrieve a bottle of whiskey from under the sink, pour out two shots.  I would sit at the table quietly while he told war stories. 

     As I recall, Frank was a combat medic, European Theater, World War II.  He got captured at some point, then later released.

     I’m not sure whether it was Frank’s whiskey, Frank’s war stories, or both- but I paid my rent in full, on time, every month.  That may have partially been his intent.    

     I had no social life outside of my unit.  I ran a tab at the Officer’s Club, still located on “Old Post”.   I ate nearly every meal there.  I drank only with other officers.  We were in the field constantly.  I rarely slept in a bed.  I didn’t care.

    I was a single, 25-year-old, Army 1st Lieutenant. I drove a black 4×4 Ford Ranger STX extended cab with a custom stereo, red pin striping, & a moon roof.  I was having the time of my life.  I worked 24/7.  I was “All In”.

     SFC Thomas was all in too, except he had a wife and a family.  Much to his chagrin, his gung-ho 1st Lieutenant did not.

     His wife, Donita, was an RN at the hospital in Watertown. She was a spitfire, didn’t stand five feet tall.

     They would invite me over for dinner occasionally.  I liked to eat, never turned down a meal.  SFC Thomas & I would sit alone on his porch.  He called me “Suh” in that deep southern drawl.  He’d sometimes say “LT”, but that was as far as he’d go.

      One evening, sitting there as his dinner guest, on his porch, I said;

     “SGT Thomas, I’m a guest in your home.  We’re on the porch, just the two of us, please call me “Dick”.

     SFC Thomas shook his head “No”.

    “Kain’t do dat Suh.  Too much respect.”

      That was that.  I never raised the subject again.

       Several months passed. Our battalion continued training hard.  SFC Thomas received orders, two sets.  He was being promoted to Master Sergeant, then transferred overseas, to Germany.  He would PCS in late spring.

     I made the Captain’s List.  I’d finally earned a Ranger School slot.  I completed Fort Drum’s Combat Leader’s Course. My final prep.  It was early January 1989.  My Ranger School Class would begin in mid-March.

SFC Thomas came into my office one cold morning, after PT.

     He said: “Suh, Before I go, I got somethin’ on my mind.  No disrespect.  But you been runnin’ me ragged. I’m gonna do whoever takes my place a favor. I am gonna make sure you don’t No How do to no one else what you been doin’ to me!  Before I up & leave outta here-I’m gonna find you a Woman!

     Apparently, Donita wholeheartedly agreed.  They had formed an alliance; mission planned their attack. 

     SFC Thomas began showing up for work with little slips of paper in his pocket.  He would place them quietly, one each morning, on my desk.  Handwritten on them was a woman’s name and a phone number.  A different one each day. Donita was slipping her husband the names of all the single nurses at the hospital.  One at a time.  I threw all the slips of paper in the trash.  I was busy soldiering.  I had no time for dates. 

     This continued for a while.  I went back over to the Thomas’s house one evening for dinner.  I ran smack dab into Donita’s four-foot ten wrath.

      “Lieutenant Monroe – What are you so afraid of?  How come you haven’t been out yet on a date?  My husband tells me you’ve been throwing all my nurses’ names in the trash.”

     SFC Thomas just sat back and chuckled.

    “I ain’t  helpin’ you none Suh.  You on your own now.”

     I sighed.  I was surrounded, and very clearly outnumbered.

     “Donita, I’m just busy.  I’m getting ready for Ranger School. I’m fine, thanks.”

     I could tell by the look on her face.  Donita Thomas, RN, did not like that answer.  

     SFC Thomas found the whole thing hilarious.

     “Suh. You in BIG trouble. You might jes’ as well surrender right now!”

     I beat a hasty retreat back to the refuge of my upstairs apartment in town.

     At about that time, a new Prisoner of War medal was authorized by the United States President, honoring the price U.S. POWs had paid.  I remembered my landlord Frank’s stories.  I filled out the paperwork, submitted his name.  He was awarded the medal.  I felt proud.  U.S. POWs deserved recognition.

     A few days after my hasty retreat from Donita, I again entered my office, sweat drenched from a good pre-dawn run.  No slip of paper on my desk.  The phone rang.  I answered.

  “Lieutenant Monroe, do you know who this is?” 

   “Uh-Oh!”  I thought to myself.  “LT, you are in for it now!”

   “Good morning, Donita.  How are you?”

   I looked up, SFC Thomas was leaning against my office door, shaking his head again, chuckling.

    Donita continued, “I’m fine, thank you.  But I’m tired of you tossing my nurses names in the trash.  I’ve got a really nice young nurse standing right next to me. Her name is Robin.  Here she is.”

     BAMM!  What had just happened! I sat stunned. Speechless. Holding the phone.  The look on my face must have shown it.

     SFC Thomas laughed out loud.

     “Suh, I suggest you say something.  You done just been ambushed.  By a nurse!”

    The other end of the phone line was silent.  I hesitantly spoke up.

     “Ummm….Hello.  So, Robin, is it?  Guess I’m supposed to ask you out.”

     Author’s Note:Hey everyone! Cut me some slack!  It was the best I could come up with on short notice! I was in a tight spot!”

     Robin agreed to have dinner with me. She lived in Colonial Manor Apartments.  I picked her up in my truck.  We ate at Benny’s Steakhouse in Watertown.  I splattered her blouse with juice cracking steamed lobster claws.  Our first date.

     We went out dancing with her friends, shared Sunday brunch at The Partridge Berry Inn.  She had a nice smile.  I liked the way her eyes twinkled.  She was fun to be with. She was smart.  Her friends were nice too.  I’m not sure what she thought of me.  Or what her friends thought either. Something was happening. I wasn’t sure what.

     March 1989: I left for Ranger School.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I thought I had made my escape.  Oh Boy!  Was I ever mistaken. 

      Robin sent me a letter in Ranger School.  I had a lot of time there to think.  I remember sitting under a big pine tree one day, on a small hill somewhere, Florida Phase, overlooking Spanish moss-covered cypress tree everglade swamps.

  I held a big Florida pinecone in my hand, fascinated. I sat studying that cone, staring skyward through pine branches, licking the last crumbs from empty MRE wrappers, trying not to get caught nodding off by ever vigilant Ranger Instructors prowling our platoon patrol base.

     Ranger School took me inside myself. Showed me an empty space I’d never realized was there.  I truly enjoyed soldiering.  I loved being a lieutenant, deployments, missions, living life on the go. I thought I was a “lifer”. That pinecone spoke to me. I read Robin’s letter again. Just maybe I was not.  

      I somehow realized there was something missing from life.  Something beyond tracking enemy movements, plotting patrol routes through swamps, profiling enemy forces, feeding guns target data, being part of a beehive hacksaw, dining in Honduran roadside bodegas. I wrote Robin back.

     I graduated Ranger School and returned to Fort Drum in mid-May.  SFC Thomas was promoted to Master Sergeant.  He did me the honor.  I pinned his new rank.  Robin and I resumed dating.  MSG Thomas and Donita prepared to depart. So did I.

      I wasn’t leaving Fort Drum.  Just my Battalion.  I was a senior 1st Lieutenant, Ranger qualified. I was no longer a “Regular, By God!”.   I moved to 10th Mountain’s Intelligence Battalion.  “Sentinels Of The Summit”.  I took command of a platoon.

     September came, fall leaves turned.  Their auburn colors matched Robin’s hair.  Things began getting serious. I met Robin’s parents. We drove up to Saranac Lake, my hometown.  Robin met mine.  As Christmas neared, I secretly began making plans for a ring.

     The Berlin wall fell. Saddam Hussein got aggressive.  War planning accelerated. The U.S. combat loaded. The Middle East had gone “hot”.

      I set my sights on St. Patrick’s Day.  Robin’s blue eyed Irish freckles made that day seem right. I found a ring in a little jewelry store just off Watertown’s downtown square. I drained my bank account.  I was still a bit short.  I called my dad.  He lent me some cash. 

     Then my St. Patrick’s Day plans got thrown a grenade. Orders came down.  I was headed to war.  Not the rest of the world’s burgeoning war in Iraq.  I was headed south once again.  This time to the Mexican Border, Joint Task Force Six.  My platoon was being deployed to support the U.S. War on Drugs.  It was early February 1990.  We were set to leave at the end of the month.  My targeted engagement date had just moved up.

     St. Valentine’s Day, 1990:   I took Robin to dinner at the Partridge Berry Inn, five karat marquise cut diamond engagement ring in my pocket.  I filled her champagne glass.

       I got down on one knee. 

      “Will you be my wife?”

I proposed.

     Her Irish eyes twinkled.  I slipped the ring on her finger. 

She said “Yes”.

      My team deployed to the border soon after that. Using high tech electronics gear, my men & I tracked drug smuggling “mule trains” across Arizona’s high mountain desert terrain. We worked in tandem with U.S. Customs & Border patrol agents along the southern U.S. border. Once my men detected a target, law enforcement teams, sometimes on horseback, would interdict them. Our deployment lasted well into June.

We worked out of Nogales, in plain clothes. I carried a loaded Beretta. My men & I vigilantly employed counter surveillance techniques.

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Robin flew in for a visit while my unit was there. I put her up in a hotel room over the Ft. Huachuca Officer’s Club. Robin & I played tourist, exchanged U.S. dollars for Pesos, crossed the border into Nogales, Mexico.

We ate guacamole & tortilla chips, drank trays of tequila shots, “no tomes el agua”. We bartered for Mexican tourist trinkets, sometimes over yet another proffered shot. At one point I may have gotten us a bit lost.

After several days, Robin flew back home. My team drove on. Our joint effort measured counter narcotics mission success in bales, kilos, & tons. My men & I received medals. By early July we had re-deployed to Fort Drum.

I received new “Drug War” mission orders almost immediately. I was headed to Texas – Laredo. This time as a Captain.

Robin was in Watertown, planning our wedding. Middle East war seemed imminent. I was getting more deeply involved in an undeclared border war I couldn’t discuss. Needless to say, as our wedding day neared, my fiancée was becoming a bit of a wreck.

We married that fall, in September. We held our reception at the Officer’s Club on “old post.”  Robin’s parents picked up the tab. We had nearly 300 guests.

I took leave. Robin & I honeymooned in Antigua, at what had been billed as an upscale seaside honeymooners’ resort. Our remote countryside cab ride in from the airport proved rather stark. The scenery reminded me of Honduras. I had viewed abject poverty before. Robin had not.

Our hotel room had no air conditioning, one electrical outlet, no television, no clock, and no phone. A sign on the door said, “Please Conserve Water.” At least it didn’t say “Please Check Your Guns & Machetes Here.”

Robin set down her suitcase and slumped on the bed. She started sobbing. “I want to go home Right Now. I was in a panic. My honeymoon bride was in tears.

I ran to the front desk. There were no immediate flights out. Hotel staff took pity on my plight. They upgraded our accommodations to “Deluxe.” We had two outlets now, air conditioning, still no television. Our shower now had hot running water. We still had no phone.

Once Robin discovered the beach, complete with concierge beverage service, she settled in. We spent the next two weeks enjoying rum punch & shrimp cocktails, cracked crab meals, long white sand walks, each other’s company, and dipping our toes in the surf.

When we returned home, more orders awaited. I was headed to Texas once again, Brownsville – Yuma, tabbed to military liaison more counter drug operations.

The Army offered me a Field Grade Officer’s post. Military Counter Narcotics Liaison for the state of Florida. I was a brand-new Captain. My young military career was clearly on a fast track.

Robin & I were newlyweds. I faced decision time. Did I really want to uproot my new bride? Move to Florida? Start a new life together with a loaded gun by the bed & a drug cartel target squarely on both our backs?

I wrestled briefly with myself. Thought about pinecones, our north country families, my new wife’s career. Did I really want to spend the next 20 years travelling the world, tracking bad guys, chasing happiness, trying to find our way home? I realized the answer to all of those questions was “No”.

I did not need to travel the world seeking happiness. I had found my rose.

My decision was made, my paperwork submitted. I resigned my commission. I kissed my new bride. Robin & I didn’t need to travel the world seeking “home”. We were just a pair of north country kids. We were already there.

Thirty-four St. Valentine’s Day engagement anniversaries later, three grown kids, I still look back, no regrets.

To the day I hung up my uniform, started a life & family with Robin.

The day I turned in my rifle for a rose.

“To Robin, My Rose”


Until Our Trails Cross Again: