It was the early 1980’s and I was serving time at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. No, I wasn’t a prisoner but we called it serving time because it was a hardship tour, a hard tour of loneliness and sacrifice due to the lack of facilities, recreation, entertainment, or anything that would give you a break from your long work hours. Normally a hardship tour at GTMO (they now call it GITMO) was 12 months, a long sentence on a hot island with nothing to do but work and get eaten by the teeth. We called them teeth because these flea size flying bugs had teeth that compromised 60% of their body weight and when they attacked, you felt it.
I’ll never forget the new lady officer who I warned to not wear the white polyester uniform they love so much. She had her first meet and greet with the CO on top of Stephen J. Crane hill where our tiny command had a highly classified communication station operating what we called at the time a “CRITICOM” which basically meant ultra classified critical communications were its business. I warned her and she just smiled and thought I was joking and I warned her again and was instructed to STFU and drive. Sighing I put the open top Jeep in gear and drove along the 2-3 miles of lonely beachside roads to the base of the hill and then we started up the very steep road to the top. Before we got to the top and parked the teeth had zeroed in on our new white polyester clad junior (very) officer and swarmed her making the white turn grey and then almost black from head to toe. She screamed and ran for the quarterdeck but without a pass the guard couldn’t let her in, it would be at least a few minutes while he phoned and requested her pass be brought up, checked her ID, etc.. Screaming she started tearing off her clothes revealing a very fit trim figure, and feeling sorry for her I sighed and grabbing the C02 extinguisher hosed her down quickly and the teeth dropped off her frozen solid. The cold spray made her ‘cold’ too, but that’s my mind wandering. She was literally freaked, standing there in bra, panties, and pantyhose in low white heels I felt sorry for her so I shook off her blouse and draped it around her shoulders and helped her get herself together before the lunch rush started and 30-40 people streamed out and saw her. The gate guard just shook his head and mouthed “didn’t you tell her?” I shook my head yes and shrugged and he understood, usually it was guys ripping their clothes off but this time it was a bit more entertaining. Welcome to GTMO! Annie M, if you’re somehow reading this I’ve got to say I have better memories with you, but this is the only one I can talk about here.
Married folks had the option of signing on to hell for two years and being able to bring their families to stay in the base housing area, a collection of cinderblock homes in various states of disrepair, but to those who didn’t want to lose their families for a year they seemed like palaces. I lived in the “Q”, where I maintained my own room and had shipped down a very large 1970’s era Ford station wagon, the big boat like type white wagons with fake plastic wood sides. The windows didn’t all roll up and down, the brakes wouldn’t allow a full stop at the bottom of the steep hills, but it held a lot of party people and supplies and we nicknamed it the “Lubumba” and made good use of it. If I didn’t catch the bus to the top of the hill during shift change I’d drive Lubumba and just make sure that before I headed down the hill that the person in front of me had at least a five minute lead because I couldn’t stop, we’d screech through the curves trying to save what brakes there were in case we meant another vehicle coming up the hill, and blow through the stop sign in a very hard right at about 30mph. For $200 what did you expect? I needed another source of personal transportation.
A few months later our command changed and we became the Joint Air Reconnaissance Control Center (JARCC) and we took on the responsibility for new missions that involved running reconnaissance missions. What? You mean the US has never claimed to run recon missions over Cuba? Of course not, didn’t I say this command was ultra classified? I learned a lot about SR71’s, U2’s, and other aerial recon platforms during this time and even more about Cuba. If you’re guessing that the big radar dome sitting next to our comm center could track airplanes you’d probably be right, but I can’t confirm exactly what it did. One thing for sure, it was interesting work and when they asked me to extend for a second year to help establish our new command I didn’t refuse, though I had to be bribed heavily to sign for the third year.
Every three months we were allowed R&R which usually meant taking a C-131 milk and mail run to Jamaica, Haiti, or Jacksonville Florida. This time I wanted to go to Jacksonville because I was on a mission. Active duty only on these flights, no family members. Climbing aboard I entered the barren fuselage and strapped myself into the pull down canvas seats along with about sixty others and soon we lifted off in that steep turning climb that all planes had to use to avoid Cuban airspace. Hours later we touched down at NAS Jacksonville and I was told the return flight would be in five hours, don’t miss it! The 59 others headed to the base’s NEX (what the Navy calls a PX) for luxury shopping and then probably to one of the many base restaurants for some well deserved luxury eating. Not me! Running as fast as I could to the front gate I hailed a taxi and taking a yellow page I’d ripped out of an eight year old phone book I asked if he knew the place. He did, and 40 minutes later we’re at the Honda Motorcycle dealer. I knew what I wanted and had the cash and two hours later they had my brand new Honda 650 Nighthawk loaded on a trailer and had assigned someone to drive me back to the base. Innocently I asked “would you mind stopping through the McDonalds drive thru?” He smiled and said sure, no problem.
“Can I have your order please” blared the box. Leaning over the driver I loudly said “I’ll take 200 Big Macs, 200 ¼ Pounders w/cheese, 400 french fries and 400 hot apple pies please!” The driver looked at me in shock and I just shrugged and told him we didn’t have fast food in hell. Finally I got the speaker jockey to believe me and we pulled forward to pay before they’d cook up my order. An hour later 3-4 employees started loading big bags of burgers and fries into the back of the truck and thanking them I grabbed a few to scarf down on the way back to the base. Pulling into our supply hanger I passed out food to everyone there and asked them nicely if they wouldn’t mind putting my bike in the “Space A bin”, which means when the plane had extra room they’d put personal items on the plane to help out us convicts. The head loadmaster estimated it would be 3-4 weeks, but he promised it would get there. Inspecting it to make sure it held no gas or oil he then wheeled it off the trailer and into the bin, and grabbing the rest of the food I carried it into the cargo bay and strapped myself in with minutes to spare.
The flight back was bumpy. It was hurricane season and we were flying around some storms so it took an hour or so longer to make it home, but soon we were doing the steep bank and spiral landing and touching down on the leeward side. I was elated and all I could think about was my new motorcycle and how much I’d enjoy it here on this island. Carrying my new helmet and enlisting some help to carry the food we took the ferry over to the windward side of the base (the working and living side, the leeward side was mainly air ops), and a shipmate was waiting with the jeep to carry me and the food up to the command where every hand was sure to have gathered with as many microwaves as they could muster. Everyone was waiting as usual, drool dripping from their mouths in anticipation of something different to eat. 30 minutes later everyone was standing around with paper plates holding their burgers and fries and we had the radio station (only one) tuned in waiting with excitement for the alert tones that you hear before the announcements. We’d just finished the food and cleaned up the area when the expected tones came, “DING DING DING MAIL CALL IS BEING HELD FROM 1800-2000 DING DING DING” and we all cheered as the duty driver headed down to the base post office to collect our bags of mail and boxes sent from home. While waiting we’d play ball, chat, and visit with each other. Anyone not working at the time was there, even family members. In truth when you work, sleep, and shit next to strangers for long periods of time you get to learn everything about them, their families, hopes, dreams, and so much more. Effectively they become your family and the last thing you’d want is to have them feel pain of any kind. These were my brothers and sisters and even a few “Sea Daddies” mixed in for good measure and I loved them all. Soon the duty driver was back with the mail and we’d cheer and share letters and packages from home. Family stuff with family. love, sharing, support, hopes and dreams, family. Our small command with its ultra classified mission and close working and living quarters were one of the closest families I’d ever experienced to that point of my life.
The next few weeks were hard, every C-131 blip held the possibility of my new Nighthawk motorcycle arriving. I’d never owned a new motorcycle and perhaps because of the environment and restrictive manner in which we lived, I’d never wanted anything so bad. It was all I could think about, all I could talk about until everyone would laugh and scream in chorus “STFU about your new motorcycle.” It was all good natured, my shipmates were happy for me as we tended to support each other as family does. On the third week I was sitting on the scope watching a C-131 milk run blip making its way along the Florida coast line and into the open water between the keys and GTMO. Slowly, slowly the blip made its way home and I sleepily but excitedly tracked its movements dreaming about my new motorcycle. I blinked and the blip was gone! WTF! I ordered a console reboot and still it wasn’t there but the other blips were all where they should be. I felt sick, light-headed, and everything started to happen in a rush. Picking up the phone I called the control tower on the leeward side to see if they’d seen the same and they had. They’d called out our SAR planes and notified the ships in the area, but being a classified command all I could do was pick up the phone and call the CO and then mark the last posits, heading and speed on the board and wait for the news.
I stayed at my position well past my shift but I’m told the television and radio stations (one each) sounded the tones and said “DING DING DING THE C-131 MILK RUN HAS GONE DOWN IN ROUTE HOME, PLEASE STAND BY FOR UPDATES.” Four people from my command were on that flight, but I couldn’t imagine what the families felt like at that moment, but maybe it wasn’t much different than I felt worrying about my own family members. To this day I’m ashamed of this, but I actually had the thoughts “was my new motorcycle on that flight. Did I lose it?” How could anyone think such things at a time like this? For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me for allowing that thought to enter my head but I was later told I was just processing information as a way of avoiding panic and pain. Personally I think I was just a creep.
The entire command / family was up on the hill, sitting outside, holding hands, some people crying, all waiting for news of a rescue, some small sign of hope that they’d been able to ditch at sea and had made it into the life rafts. They didn’t. All hands were lost on that flight and it took Navy Divers almost a week to recover them all. The flight had an unusually large percentage of married members. They’d wanted to shop for new school clothes and supplies because their children were starting school that week. It was hard, like a huge hand slapped us down hard. The joking and light hearted banter stopped and no one talked, no one wanted to say the wrong thing. Small things like erasing the names of our shipmates from the watch schedule, boxing up their personal items, taking calls from their families back home, lots of small things happening with no one talking about it. Two of our lost four had family. We took turns staying with them as the base chaplains and personnel department did their jobs.
The powers to be decided that the best thing to do was to put this behind us immediately. This involved sending down a special passenger C-141 jet to take all the affected family members back to the states and away from hell, and by the next week assigning and shipping their replacements back to hell. It was months before things got back to normal, and by normal I mean people talking, laughing, and for the “family” to start coming together again. Survivors guilt was rampant and many had a hard time dealing with it. One person committed suicide over their grief, but the powers to be swept it under the rug telling us it was over something else, but we knew. We all felt it. Grief counseling wasn’t common then and we didn’t get it. We just had to suck it up and move on. Most of us moved on, some couldn’t.
It was about six weeks later when the phone rang while I was on shift and someone on the other end of the line said “When the hell are you going to come pick up this motorcycle, it’s been here for over a month!” Despite my initial selfish thoughts I’d somehow forgotten about that which had me so exited months before. I suppose it was no longer a priority, and it was a long time if ever before any material thing became a priority in my life again. The “replacements” had it tough, no one liked them, no one wanted them to fit in, they were resented, and everyone compared them to those we lost. It wasn’t fair but it was life. Eventually we regained our family cohesion and for that I’m grateful.
Yesterday afternoon another small island lost family. Totally different circumstances, but I’m sure to some it feels the same. More families, workmates, loved ones. We’ve all heard the news and know that the 1-2-go flight into Phuket crashed on landing yesterday afternoon killing 90+ people, a bit more than half tourists and the rest locals. Phuket is a lot bigger than GTMO and has a lot more people, but I can’t help but feel that today size doesn’t matter. The families who lost loved ones are grieving and over the next few months will start the adjustment process, and the injured will adjust to their scars and memories and life will go on. Services will be held, people will cry, and soon most of the world will have forgotten. However, some who were personally affected by this tragedy will never forget, it will live with them their entire lives.
Some think the best way to honor the fallen is to never forget, to always remember. I’ll always remember her ripping her clothes off, our subsequent time spent alone on long runs, diving in the bay, lonely nights in the Q sharing our hopes and dreams, her blond hair and big green eyes and the soft touch so different from our first meeting. I’ll never forget Annie M…
Until next time..
Any flight going down is very sad news indeed but it brings it home to you when it is in your own back yard so to speak.