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     Comic book war heroes. As kids, growing up in the ’70’s, my brother Ray & I loved ’em.  The Haunted Tank, Unknown Soldier, Weird War Tales- & my personal favorite -SGT ROCK. 

    “ROCK” was “Easy Company” Platoon Sergeant, “Top Kick” in a long series of WWII comic book combat adventures.  He was a machine gun totin’, hand grenade throwin’, close combat tough guy.  He mentored his officers & took care of his men.  His internal “Combat Antenna” often helped his patrol out of jams.  His saying:  “Nothin’s Easy in Easy Company”, tagged the end of each mag.

      Comics were still fifteen cents then. Some were a quarter.  My first fiscal crisis hit when their prices shot up.  We bought them at Hoffman’s Pharmacy in Saranac Lake- braving the railroad trestle overlooking the river, trekking downtown, browsing the comic rack, digging deep in our pockets, pooling our cash.

   Once bought, comics quickly got passed around.  Covers were tattered war casualties. Pages got torn.  Some of each often came up missing in action.  We rolled them up, shoved them in back pockets, hid them in notebooks & lockers, shared them at school.  We read, re-read, then swapped and read yet again. Condition wasn’t an issue- Who cared!  We weren’t collecting them. They were our currency.  Better than cash in a trade.

     We imitated their actions, re-enacted their battles, mimicked their words.  They dared us to hope.  They merged our realities, imaginations, and dreams.     

      My brother & I built a tree fort one summer. We scrounged scrap lumber from behind Dad’s garage.  Maybe from behind a few other garages too. We built it in the big bottom limbs of a huge old pine tree beyond our baseball field, across the street from our house, on Mrs. Gilpin’s vacant lot. We snuck Dad’s hammer & a hand saw out of his toolbox, pilfered some nails, gathered our lumber haul, started sawin’ & hammerin’. We went right to work.

     It was a simple fort.  Wooden steps nailed to the trunk- the longest boards laid out and nailed down into a big platform.  Our fort had two levels, shorter boards made a second tier a bit higher up in the tree.  We used two old pieces of carpet for walls.  They were nailed to branches at the top, but hung free at the bottom, where they didn’t quite reach.

       My brother leaned back and fell through a carpet wall once.  That got Mom’s attention!  AND an on the spot tree fort inspection from Dad. I thought for sure he was going to make us tear it down after that.  Much to our relief, for some reason, he didn’t.

     There, all summer, and for several summers thereafter, when we weren’t playing baseball, fishing, or doing other stuff, we would climb up into our tree fort with a container of Kool- Aide, some of Mom’s cookies, and read comic books. That fort was our barracks, our “fox hole”, our unofficial Pine Street HQ.

     But those days, like old war comics, eventually got buried in the back of life’s closet under piles of outdated clothes. Imagination’s boyhood dreams slipped slowly away. Adulthood marched forward. Reality called.

     I attended Cornell University on an Army ROTC full ride.  Graduated with a Bachelors in 1985. Government Major, Soviet Studies concentration, 3 languages: Russian, German, & French. I wasn’t a great student, but once I got my feet under me, I did ok.

     I was a better cadet.  Being a North Country boy-I knew my way around a rifle. I was good in the woods.  I won an Airborne School slot at Ft. Bragg the summer after my junior year.  When all was said and done, my ticket got stamped, “DMG”- “Distinguished Military Graduate”- Regular Army Commission- same as West Point cadets (though they might not think so), minus the ring.

     I branched Military Intelligence, went to Fort Huachuca, Arizona for six months.  I was gonna be a spy warrior, save the world from “Soviet Aggression”.  I just didn’t know where.

     I finished my Officer Basic Course in early ’86.  Won the Buffalo Soldier Award for Leadership there.  But as Graduation neared, I still didn’t know where I wanted to post. Every morning before class, new assignment opportunities were announced.   Korea, Germany, Hawaii, Japan… Nope! I waited.  Then one morning it came:

    “One opening- 10th Mountain Division.”

“Climb To Glory!”

     That was it.  The slot I’d been waiting for.  ” XVIII Airborne Corps-10th Mountain Division.” I was going home to Fort Drum.

      Cornell ROTC had trained at Drum several times, before the build-up, when it was still called Camp Drum.  All our training NCO’s were Vietnam Vets.  We studied small unit tactics, how to set up an ambush, proper radio operating procedures, call in mortar fire.

      “SIX to NINE every time!” We learned what it meant to hump the “Pig”(M-60 machine gun), & the “PRIC”(ANPRC-77 squad radio).  We learned how to hump lots of stuff from those Combat Vets.

     We trained to read military grid maps, know our pace count, lead patrols- all things M-16.  We spent hours spit shining combat boots, making bunks, singing “Jodies” on cold pre-dawn formation runs.  We did tons of push-ups, mopped barracks room floors, properly fastened chin straps, marched in formation, learned what it meant to “break starch”.

      Those Vietnam Veterans took their job seriously.  If we were gonna be officers, lead men into combat- we were DAMNED well gonna know how to do it right!  They were real life SGT ROCKS.

      MRE’s were just coming online. Cadets in training still ate “C Rats” from cans.  I carried a “P-38”(Army issue can opener) around my neck on my dog tags for years. I stopped carrying it though, after 9-11, when having such things on one’s person became an airport security screening issue. I still have it though, as well as my “tags”.

     That training time, at Camp/Fort Drum, with those combat hardened men, proved invaluable to me.  I carry it with me in my mental rucksack to this day.  I’d met SGT ROCK, 10 times over, in real life.  His call sign was: “YES, SERGEANT!”  His nametag read “ROCK”.

     So, when that slot got announced, my hand shot into the air.

     10th Mountain Division first gained notoriety fighting in Italy’s rugged mountain terrain during WWII. Numerous north country skiers & mountain climbers filled its ranks.  I believe some were Olympians.  Highly decorated for its combat action, the Division de-activated not long after the war.

         10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) was re-activated in early 1985. Along with 7th Infantry, it joined 82nd Airborne & 101st Airborne (Air Assault), as part of XVIII Airborne Corps’ reconfigured “Quick Reaction Force”. Once again designed for mountain warfare, and situated in my back yard, an assignment to 10th Mountain seemed right up my alley.

     The new Light Infantry Division had a rock star line-up at the top.

Major General William Carpenter was Division Commander- West Point’s “Lonesome End”. 

Brigadier General Sherman Williford, of Delta Force Fame, the ADCO- 2nd in Command. 

Colonel “Hank” Shelton was 10th Mountain’s Chief of Staff.  He later went on to earn 4 Stars and serve as Chairman of The Joint Chiefs of Staff.  When he took over that post, I remember his predecessor announced:

“Beware- The Eater of Snakes has Arrived.”

       82nd Airborne’s Colonel “Bill” Plummer was on board as ADCS, later 2nd Brigade Commander. He’s still an active force to this day in the Fort Drum community. 

Colonel John “Jack” Keane Commanded 1st Brigade. He later went on to 4 Stars as well and served as Army Vice Chair of The Joint Chiefs of Staff.

  To a brand-new 2nd Lieutenant fresh from the mountains of Saranac Lake- They were all legends. They were all “SIR”.

     CSM Southern Hewitt was 10th Mountain’s Command Sergeant Major. I’d have called him “Sir” too.  If he would ever have let me.

    They were all combat veterans.  All battle tested real world heroes. These were the leaders I came in under when I first arrived on post in mid ’86.

     1st Brigade was still just coming on line at that time.  There was one battalion on post:  1-22 Infantry – “Regulars By God!”.

      LTC Hensler was The Battalion Commander.  CSM Dumka was Command Sergeant Major. Both Combat Vets. Both proven soldiers. Both hard men.

       Every senior officer and NCO there wore a combat patch too.  All were Tabbed.  It was a Ranger heavy Light Infantry combat unit. Every leader there was expected to be a Ranger School Graduate.  Those who weren’t when they got there- better plan to go.  It was where every young officer, NCO & soldier on post wanted to be.  After 3 months biding my time as the most junior staff officer at Division HQ, I finally managed to fight my way there.  I was “Down on the block”.  I was a “Regular By-God!”

     “Regulars By God!”

“1st Lieutenant”

Fast Forward: (I’ll save other stories for some other day. I have more than a few.)

By 1989, I was a 1LT. I’d been in 1-22 Infantry nearly 4 years.  Did a lot of training during that time -The Light Fighter’s Combat Leader’s Course, Intelligence in Terrorism Counter Action training back at Huachuca. Two 100-mile road marches, countless field training exercises. One year our unit deployed to Honduras.

     I completed a Soviet Small Arms training course at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.  Learned the ins and outs of Soviet SVD Sniper rifles, RPG Grenade launchers, numerous small arms and machine guns- most notably the venerable AK-47.

     I returned to 10th Mountain and, in addition to my battlefield 1-22’s Intel Officer, trained squads & fire teams in Soviet battlefield weapons cannibalization & small unit tactics.  If our men knew how to field strip, lock & load an AK-47, if their own M-16 jammed, or they ran out of ammo- they could quickly scavenge the battlefield and stay in the fight.

      During my demonstrations I always issued a challenge:

     “Who here is the fastest man in disassembling and assembling an M-16 rifle?”

     The Unit’s best man would step forward with his weapon.  I’d pick up an AK-47.

     “OK Soldier- GO!” 

I won every time.  Never even close.  The AK’s durable simplicity is what still makes it most U.S.  enemies’ close combat assault weapon of choice.

     Then in 1989 several things happened that determined my course:  I finally completed Ranger School- earned my Tab.  It took me awhile. As the lone intelligence officer in a light infantry battalion, every young infantry officer came up for available Ranger School slots first.      

     I made the Captain’s list-1LT(P). Airborne/Ranger qualified. After nearly 4 years a coveted platoon leader’s position came my way.  I took over 10th Mountain’s ground surveillance radar platoon.  Handheld radars.  Remote sensors.  We were all training to stem the tide of communism, support our NATO Allies in Europe, and deter World War III.  

      Then, suddenly, everything changed.  The Berlin wall fell.  The Soviet Union collapsed.  U.S.  attention turned to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq and Kuwait.  I didn’t speak Arabic. These were unfamiliar places I’d never even seen on a map.  I hadn’t yet made Captain and already my skill set felt more than a bit obsolete.

     We started training desert ops.  Our bags were packed.  But “Desert Storm”, at least initially, was primarily a mechanized war.  We were light infantry.  They began piecemealing our unit. Medics, combat engineers & mechanics- soldiers started getting pulled for their secondary MOS.  They wanted Arabic speakers & truck drivers, not 1st Lieutenants who spoke Russian & French.

     Where did I fit?  It didn’t take long to find out.

     One morning 1oth Mountain’s Intelligence Battalion Commander, LTC McNeil, another Vietnam Veteran, walked in.

  “LT- Just got orders.  Pack your gear.  Your unit’s been tagged for a mission down south, on the Mexican Border.”

     He handed me my orders.   We’d been assigned to JTF VI –“Joint Task Force Six”.

  Our Mission:  Counter Narcotics Interdiction

We were being deployed to the Mexican border in support of the war against drugs.

       SFC Guerra was my platoon sergeant.  He was hard.  Another ROCK.  Combat Veteran- Grenada, with the 82nd, as I recall.

     SFC Guerra & I agreed. We would both go.  We took 7 men, plus weapons & equipment.  Ours was a classified mission. I held a Top-Secret clearance, though our mission was slotted somewhere below that.  It was 30 years ago, so I’m fairly confident I’m not disclosing any still classified secrets today.  I certainly hope not.  Ours wasn’t a Black Op.  More a light shade of grey.

      We flew in men & equipment.  Set up shop at Huachuca, in an abandoned barracks building at one far end of post.  We bought work “civies” for the men, a couple of grills & a cooler, drove rental cars.  We carried Beretta 9mms instead of our standard M-16’s.   We worked as part of a task force out of the Border Patrol headquarters in Nogales, Arizona- right on the border.

     Our role was strictly surveillance.  Posse Comitatus applied.  Someone before us had forgotten that factor, evident by the horse carcasses and scorched acreage still visible in the Coronado National Forest as SFC Guerra & I reconned the area.  Someone had gotten themselves compromised.  A firefight erupted.  As I recall, it may have even made Time Magazine.  Not what higher ups had in mind.  I heard a few heads rolled just before we arrived.

     We were tasked to support the Border Patrol with early warning of drug smugglers crossing the remote mountain terrain along that stretch of border.  This was before GPS.  Before cellular technology was widely available.

     My men emplaced over 3 million dollars’ worth of sensor arrays using maps, protractors, compasses, hand drawn sketch maps & Polaroid snap shots. The Border Patrol provided off road vehicular support and overwatched our patrols with long rifles from the ridgelines above the steep washes and ravines where we worked.  We had no doubt that drug runners had scouts of their own – our patrols were always alert for signs of surveillance.

     We kept a low profile.  Still, it’s hard to completely hide a military unit in the desert.  There was a great deal at stake, on both sides of the border.

There was no wall. There were few border signs. In some spots a single strand of barbed wire, at best. Most places on the border weren’t clearly marked. Or marked at all.

     Our orders were to operate strictly on U.S. territory.  But results were demanded. The mission came first.  We made some choices.  We did our best.

     Sometimes we knew a “Mule Train” was nearby.  We’d cut fresh horse tracks & piles of steaming manure.  The pungent stench of hot baled marijuana tar was often thick in the air.  It was the wild west.  I knew we were badly outgunned.  I was determined not to get my men caught in an ambush, crossfire, fire fight – or end up splashed on the Cover of Time Magazine.

     Our team was there several months.  Our mission reaped some success.  We coordinated numerous interdictions, both directly and indirectly. We helped flush them out- using remote sensor arrays to force human “coyotes” & drug mules to alter their methods & routes.

    The hot desert sun was hell on our electronic equipment.  We frequently had to go in on patrols to maintain them.  Or retrieve them and redeploy an array.  That got dicey.  Covering the same ground twice. SFC Guerra or I always led those patrols.

     We’d go in with 3 or 4 men, a sketch map, a compass, and a snapshot photo, looking for a dozen or two Kleenex box sized devices, camouflaged in cactus or buried in sand.

     One day I was leading a patrol.  We were out on just such mission.  When the sun came out and it got really hot, we had more than coyotes & drug mules with AK’s & wheel guns to be on the lookout for. Other threats lurked.

     There were scorpions to deal with.  Razor sharp cactus. Various poison spiders too.  But outside of an ambush, our biggest threat was rattlers, Diamond Backs – SNAKES!

     We ran into one that day.  Curled up, rattling hard, right in front of my men, where our sketch map clearly showed our next sensor lay.

     We spotted it in time.  I pulled my men back, out of strike range.  I scanned the horizon, assessed our options.  We were about halfway up a long, steep draw, surrounded by ridges.  Even one shot from my Beretta would echo for miles.  We did not need that kind of attention- but without every sensor in an array operational, our effort was worthless.

     “What’s the plan, LT?”

I thought for a moment, then reached down and picked out a good-sized rock.

Sensing danger, the snake coiled up tight, reared its head- rattle sizzling. It was ready to strike.

I took aim….rocked back……FIRE!

     “Nice Shot LT!”

(That Rattler’s rattle. A “Souvenir of War”. I still to this day have it.)

One silent shot, one silent kill.  I cut off the rattle as a souvenir and buried the snake.  We completed the mission without further incident.

     Finally, word came down, our mission in Nogales was coming to an end.  My men all got medals.  So did SFC Guerra & I.  But what I was most proud of was this:

Every man got in; every man got out.  We accomplished our mission, without firing a round.  Every single piece of equipment that we came with went home.

     When I got back to Fort Drum, Captain’s bars were waiting. As a result, I left my platoon.  But not The Drug War, as it turned out.  I went on to Yuma, Brownsville, San Antonio, other places, to oversee and set up similar ops.

     So while the Soviet Union collapsed, and The Middle East gained focus- I spent the remainder of my military career at points south.

     I never spoke one word of Russian.  Never had my AK-47 skills combat tested. But when it mattered most, while I may not have been a SGT, as it turned out, I was pretty good firin’ rocks.

    Maybe, looking back, those old war comics were the best training manual of all.  I sure studied them hard!

  In the end, I hope I did all my “SGT ROCK”s proud.


    Until Our Trails Cross Again:

    “Proud to have served”