Operation Screw Up

"Was there any action after the ambush and before the army company arrived?"
"Yes, but the amount of action is uncertain. A story in Navy Times claimed the SEALs died only after they had secured the airfield, that they died during a valiant defense of the airfield against a determined Panamanian counterattack.

"Some claim, however, that fighting after the ambush involved only random sniping and a brief exchange of gunfire when a Panamanian armored personnel carrier attempted to enter the field and discharge seven soldiers. The SEALs turned back the APC and may have killed the soldiers."

"Did you say may have killed the soldiers, Slator?" I asked. "Didn't they get a body count?"

"No body count. Claimed but not counted."
"What was the total enemy body count?"
"Zero. Unless you want to count that poor old fireman I told you about earlier."

"What was the medal count?" the Deuce King asked.
"An interesting question. At first, while the patriotic flame burned brightest, there were to be medals for all. But as more was learned about Paitilla, enthusiasm to award medals waned, except for those medals that would go to the SEALs who fought so hard and well during the ambush, the SEALs who did their best to save their mates."

"I heard our mates in the teams are hot enough to fuck over the whole mess," said Donkey Dick.

"I heard they sent a letter via the chain of command," the Deuce King said, "urging that no awards be given those responsible for planning the Paitilla op, those responsible for sending SEALs up that runway. The letter criticizes senior SEAL officers rather than the army."

We were silent for a while as we attended to what remained in the Cuervo bottle. The wind had picked up as the afternoon declined; I saw sunlight glitter within the tiny dust storms that whirled past the open door of the bar. The cool ocean air reached through the door to touch us. You could smell a storm blowing in.

Donkey Dick spoke first. "Them SEALs didn't have to die, didn't have to get all shot up. It didn't have to go down like that. That op was planned and run like it was a trainee exercise. We're SEAL teams, not Divine fuckin' Wind teams."

Black Mac said in his laconic fashion, "The ambushor become the ambushee." Then he added, "There's old pilots an' there's bold pilots, but there ain't no old, bold pilots." I suspect Mac learned that from a mate of ours who was a SEAL before he started flying A-7s off carriers. Eighty traps without a bolter.

The Deuce King naturally spoke the names of the dead SEALs: "Connors, McFaul, Rodriguez, Tilghman." He also said, "Those SEALs were crucified upon a cross of gold," which I'm not sure I understood. But at least he didn't weep as he usually did when Jose had him and talk turned to dead SEALs.

As for me, the whole thing made me feel pretty bad.
"Donkey Dick is right," Skipper Stein said."The op didn't have to go down the way it did. When I was in Panama about a month ago, I spent a lot of time walking around that airfield."

"What did you see?" Slator asked.
"What any experienced SEAL would have seen if he didn't have his head up and locked, his mind on something other than sound tactics. I saw a runway sloping uphill and away from the sea. I saw the best naval gunfire target you'll ever find. Put one five-inch round in the middle of that runway, and there's not a Panamanian pilot alive who would roll onto the active.

"I saw a ten-story apartment building, El Torreon, standing 100 meters southwest of the runway. I paid a rent-a-cop five bucks to let me into a vacant apartment on the tenth floor, an apartment that had been vacant for nearly a year, with a For Rent sign hung out. I looked off the balcony and out a bedroom window to see the ramp in front of Noriega's hangar less than 600 meters away. Put a recoilless rifle round or even a rufus round on that ramp, and there's not a Panamanian pilot alive who would roll that Lear onto the ramp, let alone the active.

"I also saw the control tower, the helo pads, and the ramps of every other hangar from my tenth-floor observation post. When I'd seen more than I could stand, I went onto the runway, onto the ramp where the SEALs died, and looked into the bullet-riddled hangar. Then I did an about-face and looked across the runway at a three-story slaughterhouse. I also saw the high, steel holding tanks, and the high, steel tower and conveyor belt of a cement factory. The slaughterhouse and the factory were about 400 meters from the mouth of the hangar, less than 400 meters from the helo pads, and about 100 meters beyond the airfield security fence. The ocean was behind the slaughterhouse and the cement factory. I couldn't stand to look at anything else. I left because I felt sick at what I'd seen."

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