I don’t remember exactly when Eve came on the job, but after she completed the two required Police Academies and other training I met her. Eve was a veteran of the Marine Corps, so, she’d been around and certainly wasn’t a shrinking violet. I immediately liked her. Being one of only a few female cops at MPD she worked hard to fit in and be accepted as one of the guys, in what was then, with few exceptions, a predominately male police department. It didn’t take long for her to achieve that acceptance.
Although she was a rookie, it was impossible not to be drawn to her friendly, sometimes mischievous smile or smirk that she often displayed. She was outgoing and gregarious, and when she was pissed about something, she didn’t hold back and could cuss with the best of them. The other cops, when she was around, never had to worry about their language or the topic being discussed. If anything bothered her about some of these things, she never showed it and often joined in the raunchiest of discussions. She proved early on she could hold her own on the street and handle herself as well, and was never shy about jumping into a fracas and she could be depended upon to cover your back out on the block.
Eve went on to become one of my better friends on the job. She’d been to my house, met my family and everyone liked her. At one point, during my second stint back in Patrol, she and I worked together off and on.
One night, I ran into her at the station house after I booked a prisoner I had arrested. She asked me what I had. I told her, in a solemn tone that I had arrested a guy for forcibly raping his wife. I expected some half hearted off the cuff compliment about my felony pinch, but instead, Eve looked at me and said in a most sarcastic and dismissive manner:
“You locked him up for raping his wife? Oh, puleeeze. She should have just sent him to my house” and then she walked away. Not the most enlightened comment, but that was Eve. Of course, I knew she was joking. Typical station house banter between a couple of street cops.
One midnight, we were both partnered up in an unmarked car, and we were sent to the Northwest corner of the city, which bordered on the town of Hooksett. There were numerous large apartment complexes up there around Hackett Hill, and many of them were very nice buildings with a clubhouse, in-ground swimming pool and a large gym. The problem was, on midnights we, and the residents of these apartments were getting murdered with car break-ins, and multiple residents would awaken to find their car windows broken out, the interiors ransacked and often extensive damage to the interior of their cars.
It got to the point where the dayshift guys who worked in that sector were getting pissed at the midnight shift because many days they’d get out of roll call, and before they even got a chance to pick up the morning cup of coffee, they were sent up to take multiple theft and vandalism reports within those complexes. One day, I actually found a car up on milk crates, the tires removed by thieves presumably to steal the expensive rims that previously adorned the car.
So this night, Eve and I headed up to Hackett Hill and some of the other nearby apartments. We set up surveillances at hot spots throughout the night, moved around and tried to be unpredictable. Needless to say, nothing notable happened that night, but I was thankful I was wasn’t by myself and had someone personable to talk to that night.
One of the stories that she told me that night was that a few days before, she went to the cleaners to pick up some cleaned and pressed uniforms. She brought them to the station that night, and when she tried to get into the pants, she found she couldn’t fit into them. Turns out, the uniforms she was given belong to another cop, who was a rather thin guy. Now Eve wasn’t overweight, but I’d describe her as rather full figured, and there was no way she was getting into that pair of pants. We had a good laugh about that, and that’s how the night went.
About 4 or 4:30 AM, nothing was happening. We were bored and getting a little sleepy, so we pulled over to take a short nap. Yeah that happened sometimes on Midnights. No matter how much or how little sleep you got, sometimes those slow midnights were hard to stay awake for. We didn’t miss or dodge any calls, we just needed to close our eyes for 20 minutes or so. The rest of the shift was rather uneventful, and finally, the sun came up and thankfully, it was time to head in.
One day, about a week or so after that, I got off duty and headed to District Court. The prosecutors provided a room for us cops so we could sit around and wait for our cases to be called. It was a place where we could wait and not have to rub elbows within the lobby filled with defendants and felons waiting for their turn as the wheels of justice slowly rotated.
Despite having to go to court following a midnight tour, and even worse on a scheduled day off, hanging out with a bunch other cops who were also waiting for their cases to be called or resolved was sometimes even enjoyable. I guess there is some truth to the old saying that misery loves company. We usually talked cop stuff, union stuff, joked around and so forth. It was one time that you knew you belonged to a special fraternity and outsiders (except for prosecutors who sometimes hung out there) weren’t allowed this glimpse into the private world of police officers.
Although Manchester District Court covered only the City Manchester, unlike most other municipal courts, from time to time an out of town cop would have to appear in court, and they were always directed to the waiting room with all the Manchester cops. They always got an earful while we all carried on, telling stories, joking with our somewhat twisted sense of humor, and especially shitting on each other. Other times NH State Troopers would be there, but we worked with and knew most of the Troopers from nearby Troop B, so they usually (but not always) fit in well.
However, if a Supervisor was present, whether from MPD or the State Police, we usually toned it down a bit around them. Also, I learned that when I was at a gathering such as the district court waiting room, it was wise for one not to talk about another cop or a boss and say anything bad unless it was something that I would be willing say to that person’s face. Sadly, there were always those cops who would run back with our gossip, primarily to ingratiate themselves with whatever boss they thought they needed in order to get along easier or pave their way to coveted assignments. We had a term for those types of cops, and we called them “Ball Sucks”. Not nice, but an accurate descriptions of certain cops. The “Brotherhood” existed, but sadly, it wasn’t as tight or as strong as most civilians believed.
At times these daily get togethers got so boisterous that it caused court officers to come is and sheepishly ask us to try to quiet down a bit. They were sheepish about it because they often depended on the off duty cops who were present to assist them in quelling disturbances and deal with violent defendants and sometimes family members. Looking back on it, those mornings in court could be enjoyable. You could always count on plenty of gossip, a few laughs, and seeing cops that you wouldn’t otherwise cross paths with.
On this one particular morning, Eve was in court and she was going on and on about something keeping everyone entertained. She saw me arrive, as well as the cop whose pants she accidentally picked up at the cleaners. I’ll call him Ben, not his real name. Eve starts talking about her week. She then announces to everyone in the room that none of then have anything to bitch about because she got into Ben’s pants and later that week she slept with Swirko. That caught everyone’s attention.
She had that impish twinkle in her eye as she made those statements, and cops, being prone to gossip and spreading rumors, listened up intently. After she got the reaction she had hoped for, she then explained the joke. Everyone thought it was funny. She then went on to regale the crowd of cops with more “working with Marty Swirko” stories.
Up to that morning, I had kind of a weird run where I ended up fighting with quite a few females. One older women I was trying to take into custody kicked me in the groin. I had to fight with a couple of juvenile females who were either runaways or just acting up at home. And there were a couple of drunk women that decided they would rather take me on than follow advice from me to leave the bar they were in and go home. A few of the women I arrested continued to fight and act up, even after they were brought to the station and booked. One woman, who had earlier cut her wrists, attacked me in booking, and after being placed in a cell, stripped all her clothes off and defecated, smearing her feces all over the inside of the cell. My fault, of course.
This run of bad luck hadn’t gone unnoticed by the cops I worked with, and I ended up enduring many insults from my brother and sister officers both during Roll Call and in Booking. The big joke was telling me that I really knew how to treat a lady and asking if I was getting tired of getting beat up by young girls. Cops could be gracious and compassionate on the street, but with other cops they were merciless.
So, after getting everyone’s attention about getting into Ben’s pants and sleeping with me, she goes on to talk about my “Woman’ Problems”. She goes on and on about how she’s heard about me be being beat up regularly by women, then she went on to tell a story about a night we were working together.
She goes on to say that she was working with me and we went to a bar fight. Eve continued with her story while I sat there.
“So, when things quiet down, Marty and I see this woman who was shitfaced. She was really bad. She was kind of behaving herself up to that point, and Marty went up to her and started to talk to her and was really polite and everything an all of a sudden, before he could finish his sentence, WHACK. For no reason this broad punched Marty in the face. You should have seen the look on his face! (much laughter)
“So guys, I’ve seen it first hand. Women hate Marty and I know it’s not his fault because I’ve seen women attack him for no reason!” She went on for months telling that story and the fact that I have to be careful because women love to beat me up on the street.
My mother died in early 2001, and the night after she passed away, who shows up at my house, with Irish whisky and about 15 other cops. It was Eve, first one through the door. We drank all night. Sometime later, I walked in to the station and overheard a bunch of cops talking about me. I was foolishly hoping they were talking about how great a cop I was or telling a Swirko story. They were telling a Swirko story alright. This one cop, who was at the house the night after my Mom died was telling the other guys that he had never seen anyone drink as much as I did that night and at the end, I was still standing upright. I still don’t know if he was paying me a compliment or not. Regardless, the Swirko reputation, such as it was, was added to.
Eve went on to become a department armorer and eventually was transferred to work on the range.
In 2005, as many of you know, my brother and I (he was also a Manchester Cop) went to Iraq. Eve decided to take it upon herself to do these drives throughout the PD in order to collect food and other comfort items and put together these large care packages for my brother and I in Iraq. About six months before we got to Iraq, another Manchester cop went to Iraq. He was a great guy, and a Command Sergeant Major in the NH National Guard. He was in another part of Iraq, but our time in Iraq overlapped and we stayed in communication with each other during the time the three of us were there. Eve also sent care packages to him.
One day Frank and I picked up our care packages at a base in Iraq. The box was great, but curiously, each one contained a giant box of Cheerios cereal. I never saw such big boxes, and neither of us had ever stated a desire of need for cereal, never mind Cheerios. Frank and I both exchanged glances and wondered out loud why the hell she would be sending us Cheerios. We put the boxes aside and didn’t think much more about them.
Eve had emailed us later and asked how we enjoyed our Cheerios. She then told us to make sure we ate our Cheerios, (wink-wink, which you really couldn’t do by email). So, we opened the cereal box and found several assorted nips of various liquors inside the box mixed in with the Cheerios!
Now, General Order Number one in our Theater of Operations was that possessing and drinking alcohol was forbidden. This was probably a good thing for me, and other troops, because if I were able to drink, I’m sure I would have got loaded each time I survived a mission.
Frank and I never disciplined a soldier for possession of alcohol in Iraq, and there were times when I looked the other way. Therefore, none of us we felt like hypocrites when we eventually consumed and shared our good fortune with other team members. Yup, Eve was a good buddy and tried to take care of us even when we were so far away.
Shortly after we returned from Iraq, I found my self working with the Sergeant Major. We talked about Eve, and the packages she sent us. He told me it was weird, but Eve had sent his a giant box of Cheerios. He told me he didn’t like cheerios, so he gave to box away to another soldier without opening it. When I told him what was in the box he gave away, he realized what a blunder he had made. We both laughed.
Eventually, Eve left the department. She married another Manchester Cop and when he retired they moved to FLA. After a few years, her husband returned to Manchester to stay, but Eve wasn’t with him. I never heard from her or of her again. But I really enjoyed working with and knowing her.
Earlier during my career at MPD, we had a pretty simple system for call signs for various units on the radio. I personally thought the system was a bit too simple. However, it was certainly simple for a new cop to learn, especially an out of towner like me.
The walking route call signs were numbered one through nine, with the designator “ROUTE”. Each walking route, like patrol car routes had geographic boundaries within the city. So, if someone got stuck walking Route 4, west side of downtown on the midnight shift, their call sign would be “Route 4”.
As far as the patrol cars went, their call sign consisted of the designator “Car” followed by the number of the route that car was assigned to. So, if you found yourself pushing a patrol car that consisted mostly of Downtown Manchester, your call sign back then would simply be “Car 13’. For paperwork purposes, the Suffix A, B or C would be added to differentiate which shift Car 13 was actually working. So, Car 13A would be midnights, Car 13 B dayshift and so on.
There was one overlapping patrol shift that ran from 6PM ending (usually) at 230 AM. This was, at the time, the busiest 8 hours in terms of calls for service, so it made sense to increase patrol strength for those hours. These cars had smaller routes they were responsible for. These “X” routes overlapped the regular route cars. The designator (in this case a suffix) for these cars was X (as in X-ray) preceded by the number of their assigned, designated route, starting with 20X going up as high, as I can remember, 28X.
Sergeants (regardless of their assignments whether they worked in patrol, or detectives were Zebra units, Lieutenants were Lincoln, Captain Charlie and so on. The call signs for other divisions were simply by name-for example Delta 17 (once my call sign) was a detective. JD 10 was a Juvenile Detective. Traffic 7 was a Traffic Unit. Finally, the wagon was referred to on the air simply as Wagon.
This system became problematic for us at certain times. There were times when some pretty sophisticated criminal or criminals would use scanners while committing crimes, and even though they may have come from out of town, they only had to listen carefully for a short time to the scanner to determine the function for various units, where they were in the city at any given time, and what they were doing.
An example would be the wagon. The wagon was a free roving patrol unit whose first responsibility was to transport prisoners after they were arrested. We’ve had several groups of criminals operate here over the years, and I recall one crew burglarizing pharmacies that were not open 24 hours throughout the city, and another crew that was robbing the jewelry departments of Service Merchandise Stores throughout New England. They hit both Service Merchandise stores in Manchester, and each haul was high dollar. Not like sticking up a Cumberland Farms Store.
So, once the crew knew for example, that the wagon was tied up with a prisoner at one of the hospitals or had several pick ups to make, they could assume that it wouldn’t be rolling up on a silent alarm because they were in the area and decided to back up the assigned units.
One often used tactic was selecting a target on a busy night, calling in a “shots fired call” on the telephone on the opposite side of the city, knowing that several patrol units would respond to that call. Keeping in mind that Manchester, geographically speaking, was a relatively small city (approximately 35 square miles or so) it was easy for route cars to head to the “hot call’ in a nearby part of the city, especially if the route cars in that section were tied up with calls and arrests.
When this would happen, the criminals would strike and they felt that had a larger window to work within and didn’t have to fear a nearby vigilant patrol officer coming across them while committing their burglaries or robberies. Also, one member of the stick up team would listen to the scanner while the crime was actually being committed, and it was possible they could overhear some patrol unit being in the area.
As time went on, around the late 90’s, maybe 2000, the department decided to embrace the Community Oriented Policing Model, which I believed was developed during the Clinton administration. This required MPD to partially change it’s patrolling techniques. This included going to a “Sector” patrolling system, with each sector supervised by a single sergeant, and each car being free to roam anywhere within that sector to address problem spots. This then required MPD to change many of their call signs, which in turn made it a bit tougher for criminals to figure this stuff out as they listened. The sector system also gave individual patrol units the ability to study the problems within that geographic sector, and address these problems as a team being able to leave their route to team up with other patrol units and their sergeants within their sector to address problems.
Problems that could be addressed ranged from noise complaints in areas after nightclubs let out, traffic problems including speeders, armed robberies and burglaries, right up through prostitution and drug problems in residential neighborhoods.
Eventually, rather recently, MPD went to a system where no outsiders could listen in. This angered many civilians and local politicians, those arguing that open police radio frequencies led to transparency, However after learning from various gang members during debriefings that they regularly listened in and followed and tracked the police around as they did their job in this city while the gangs themselves operated around town, the Chief went out, purchased and implemented a radio system where all transmissions were coded, and civilians could not listen in even if they had the frequencies.
All of this leads in a very round about manner to the topic of today’s story which happened to me in the early days one night when I was assigned Car 12.
The old car 12 covered the area of the city that most residents referred to as the North End. A large swath of the North End consists of pretty wealthy residential neighborhoods. Beautiful homes, manicured lawns, inground swimming pools, wonderful tree lined streets. We didn’t get many calls from those neighborhoods. People there generally worked during the day, slept at night and paid their taxes. The biggest crime problem they had there were residential burglaries, and in as much as those neighborhoods were not too far from some of the problem areas of the city, burglaries were a real problem there. There were several years when the per capita residential burglary rate in Manchester was higher than that of the City of Boston, even though we were about 1/5 of its size in terms of population. Manchester was no sleepy bedroom community by any stretch. However, most of those burglaries occurred during day shift, when the occupants were away at work or wherever, and the homes unoccupied. We didn’t have very many home invasions or other types of violent crimes up there on Car 12’s route. Made most midnights rather uneventful.
Now all that being said, there were a few trouble spots on that route. And when I say trouble, I’m really referring to some locations that were a real pain in the ass for working cops who wanted to spend their time chasing bad guys.
One was a group home for teenage girls. During 4-12 shifts in particular, the calls from this facility which housed troubled young ladies seemingly never stopped. The calls were for runaways, fights, girls cutting their wrists or locking themselves into a bathroom or somewhere else and refusing to come out. Upon arrival after being sent to one of these crisis I would always be greeted by out of breath and upset staff members and young ladies screaming, running around refusing to go to their rooms because they were so upset and triggered by the behavior of the one subject that was causing whatever the problem was.
The beleaguered and underpaid staff members would careen around the facility trying to round up groups of girls and getting them into their rooms where they would be confined until the underlying crisis had been resolved. I would stand by, try to insure none of the staff members, or residents would be harmed, and only then, could we then try to solve whatever the underlying calamity might be. Arrest was sometimes required, but in as much as most of the girls were so seriously emotionally disturbed, arrest was only a last option and then only to insure the safety of the staff and other residents.
I never got much professional satisfaction out of responding to these situations. I never felt good kicking in the bathroom door where a 14 year old girl had barricaded herself . Nor having to manhandle a teenager who had just sliced her wrists and was waving a razor and threatening staff members. Or just forcibly handcuffing a combatant 16 year old because of her assaultive behavior. And you can take my word on one thing. An emotional out of control 15 year old can do some harm, and they often tried as I attempted to quell whatever the disturbance was. These calls never stopped coming, and they all required a ton of paperwork.
Making regular assignment to Car 12 even less appealing, was that the State of New Hampshire had its main juvenile confinement facility located within the boundary of Car 12. That place contained, among many troubled juveniles from all over New England, murderers, rapists, robbers drug dealers and violent gang members. Not everyone confined there was a hard core criminal, but they were all under 18.
One hot summer evening while assigned to Car 12, I was sent to the facility for a suicide. I arrived just in time as the staff cut down a 15 old girl who had hung herself. She was DOA, and all I could do was stand by, take notes and secure the scene for a death investigation that was to follow while paramedics and firefighters worked in vain to revive this poor kid.
As I looked at her face, I tried to imagine how much mental anguish this 15 year old had suffered to cause herself to actually take a belt and hang herself. I thought of my own daughter who was almost the same age. I thought about her family, who within a very short period of time would be receiving the devastating and life changing news about their daughter’s sudden and unnatural death. I had gone to enough suicide calls and know how loved ones would always blame themselves in the end, and carry that burden with them for the remainder of their lives. I was never able to console the loved one of a person who killed themselves. Responding to those calls required the officer to be sympathetic with the relatives, while at the same time conducting a serious “No Shit” death investigation. It was a tightrope that was very difficult to negotiate, unless you became completely numb and indifferent to this kind of human suffering. But, we are not unemotional robots.
It was about 90 degrees outside that day. Her “room” was sparsely furnished and contained a bed and small desk. She and the others confined to this building were locked into their bedrooms sometime in the evening and were not allowed out until morning. If they had to go to the bathroom during the night, they had to get the attention of a staff member who would then let them out of their room for that brief period of time. When they were done, they were again locked within this tiny space.
I remember how hot it was inside this small cell (that’s really what it was) and it was probably 10 degrees or more higher inside. I don’t know what this young lady did which caused a judge to confine her to this facility, but I couldn’t imagine being locked in that small room all night in the summer heat. I had to do my job, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there and back into the summer heat to cool off and catch my breath.
For the cop assigned to Car 12, it was an endless set of calls for ‘walk aways’, yes most escapees from that facility escaped by literally walking away. I would be sent, I’d have to do a missing juvenile report as well as an escape from custody. Inevitably, I would have to assist and support the staff in their dragnet of the surrounding residential areas looking for these kids, usually in vain. To be blunt, just about every one of those escapee calls was a major pain in the ass.
Finally, the VA Hospital was located on Car 12’s route. This resulted in an ongoing stream of calls backing up the VA police trying to quell violent veterans and patients. Psych patients, drug seekers, drunks and some veterans just tired of getting the classic VA run around. One evening I got a pretty good beating from a veteran while he was sitting in a wheel chair!
So, finally one day in late April, I received mixed news. The good news was that I was getting regular or steady car for four months. A steady car, to me, was one of the best assignments that could be had in patrol. The bad news, yeah, you guessed it, the steady car was Car 12 on the 3:30-midnight shift. When I was done, with that 4 months, I had hoped I would never be assigned to that car again. And it wasn’t because I was lazy. It was because of all what I thought was labor intensive BS. Mountains of arduous paperwork day in and day out which seemed to me did nothing that really contributed to the quality of life in the city for which I worked. It also, unfortunately wasn’t the last time I pushed that car.
One midnight shift in particular, I reported to roll call, and as usual I was hopeful I would be assigned to a busy car. I especially liked busy cars on midnights because being occupied made those early morning hours go by much faster than quiet midnights shifts which sometimes seemed to never end. And on midnights, although often not as busy as 4-12, the crimes and incidents that occurred overnight were often pretty serious in nature.
My hopes for the night were dashed as the sergeant read the assignments. His voice droned on, sounding as though he had no energy and no desire to be anywhere near the station house. As he went down the list, I barely heard him say “Swirko, Car 12” I didn’t pay any further attention. I remember thinking to myself ‘well, this is going to be a long, sucky night’. I grabbed the daily bulletin listing notable crimes by route for the last 24 hrs. and a final copy of the roster so I could see who was working the cars near by. I trudged down to the ramp, only looking forward to a hot cup of Joe to start what I was sure would be a long uneventful shift. It was now midnight, and I knew it would be dark at least until 7AM.
I remember it was rather cold this particular night, and after checking and signing out my cruiser I headed to the North End of Manchester. I Stopped on the way and grabbed my coffee, and after drinking most of it, then started the seemingly never ending drive in circles and squares, up and down, over and across, doubling back around closed businesses hoping to catch someone up to some chicanery in the shadows. Never happen. Certainly not that night.
The night dragged on. 1AM slowly dragged into 2AM. No one was on the street. Too cold, I disgustedly thought to myself. The silence of my radio was broken slowly but steadily with calls in other parts of the city. I listened to all of them, waiting to see how they played out, but none of them were anywhere near the boundaries of my route. I wasn’t even close enough to go to a neighboring route to back up another unit on a call or even traffic stop. I just continued to drive and burn gasoline. No one was out, and almost every home was in darkness.
I silently rolled through the quiet residential neighborhoods on my route. Mostly, almost exclusively well maintained single family dwellings. Nearly all the homes were in darkness. Some may have had a hall light or nightlight on, and once in a while I’d see the soft flicker of grayish light from a television which was turned on.
I was more than a bit jealous. As I slowly cruised through these peaceful enclaves, it was cold as hell outside and I wished I was like those people, at home, curled up, warm and safe inside while the wind blew on this cold winter overnight.
There is a winter parking ban on the streets in Manchester between November and April. During those months, you can only park on one side of the street or the other, on alternate nights. Now back then the City relied on the revenue it received from these overnight parking tickets that the cops would write on the midnight shift. Cops, generally speaking, absolutely hate to write parking tickets. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to write a ticket for a blatant parking violation, no problem. Same when a parking complaint by a citizen was made. But generally, most of the cops I worked with did not like writing these “overnight parkers” which is what tickets for parking in violation of the winter ban were known as.
The way most of us looked at it was this as just another way to screw the working / tax paying public. Most of us wouldn’t write overnight parkers until 2 AM but before 4 AM, the thought being, it would give people a chance to get their cars parked legally, and we wouldn’t be bothering people who had their cars out front because they were going to work early. The last thing anyone wanted to find on their car at 5 or 6 in the morning as they drag themselves outside to face another day at work was a $25 parking ticket on their car.
City Hall kept on the Chief, and the Chief kept on the Captains who kept on the Sergeants who made the patrol cops miserable each night to write overnight parkers. The issue at times got so contentious that even the patrolman’s union got involved. The way I dealt with this steady pressure from above was that each night I selected a single street within my route, I’d go to it when the calls slowed down and I’d write which ever cars were parked illegally. That might have meant between 3 and 10 tickets a night. Assuming I wasn’t tied up all night on calls or arrests. After tagging cars on that street, I tried not to go back to the same street more than once to write tickets during the winter, unless I had a complaint. Then everyone parked illegally on the street would get tagged. Can’t just tag one car. Had to tag them all. This approach would usually keep my supervisors happy, which was one of my main goals. Happy Sergeant, Happy Work.
Just to demonstrate how anal this overnight parking issue could become, one midnight shift I was assigned a car on the west side. The sergeant told me that under no circumstances would I be sent to a call, nor would I back up any cops on their calls. (yeah, that might happen I thought to myself. I’ll take the suspension first!) My only purpose was to write parking tickets. Communications was ordered not to call me. I could have been murdered an hour into my shift and no one would know it unless they decided to look for the car I was driving!
It got so bad, the sergeant was out looking for tickets, and instead of writing them when he found one, he’d call me on the air and make me come over and write the ticket under his watchful eye. At one point I reminded the sergeant that although he was my boss that night, he was still a cop and suggested he write a few of these tickets himself. That certainly didn’t endear me to him, and I paid for it the rest of the shift.
On this particular night on Car 12, I was bored out of my mind. At about 230AM, after all the bars around town were empty and closed, and only the night crawlers and unfortunates who worked this shift were even awake, I decided it was time to write some overnight parkers and make my sergeant happy. I found myself on some randomly selected residential street, and I noted that there was a few cars parked on the right side of the street, which was the wrong side that night.
So, I glided to a stop next to a car parked illegally on my right. I then placed my cruiser in reverse and backed up enough so that I could clearly read the rear plate of the car. I ran the plate to make sure it wasn’t stolen (this often drove the dispatchers crazy, but I always did that when I wrote a parking ticket because nothing was more embarrassing then recovering a stolen car that had a weeks worth of parking tickets on the windshield, especially if any of those tickets were written by me). I stretched, scratched, burped and slowly wrote out my first ticket of the night.
I completed the ticket, tore it out of my ticket book, paused a moment, stretched again, yawned then reluctantly climbed out of my car into the cold biting wind. I slowly ambled to the front of the car, placed the ticket under a windshield wiper to insure it didn’t blow away and that the owner would see it. After doing my duty and affixing the ticket to the windshield, I stretched again, this time reaching my arms up to the sky as far as I could and yawned again. I turned and headed back to the warmth and safety of my cruiser.
Imagine my surprise when I turned and found my cruiser was gone! I’m not a skilled enough writer to be able to describe the combination of shock, alarm and panic that overtook me when I turned. What I saw next was even worse. Apparently after I stopped the car I kept my foot on the brake, but never put the car into park! I’ve come to believe that, as foolish as that mistake was, nothing was impossible when you live the nocturnal existence that was working midnights.
The cruiser was slowly rolling down the street backwards. The driver’s door was open, (I had left its open when I exited the car) and it was slowly listing to its left, heading steadily towards the curb and beyond. The possibilities were endless. Even if it rolled between two of the many telephone poles on the tree lined street, it would surly knock down one of the fences and roll onto someones nicely manicured front lawn, and maybe even beyond. My heart was in my throat!
I decided to give chase. I caught up with, and then found myself jogging along side my cruiser, next to and behind the open door. I had to think quick. It would only be a matter of seconds before the car would go crashing through someones fence and possibly into or against a house, or who knows, it could have ended up in someones unground pool!. I sped up enough so that I ran around the open door and found myself running immediately next to the drivers seat. The open door was now behind me, and if I slowed down, I’m sure the car would have continued on and I would have been knocked on my face by the door as it passed over me.
The car continued backwards, and was closing in on the sidewalk rapidly. (I learned later from a mechanic that the reason the car kept rolling without anyone stepping on the gas was due to the fact that the cruiser had a fuel injection system).
As the car drifted towards the curb and trees I decided to act, mostly out of desperation. I dove head first into the rolling vehicle, which appeared to me was actually picking up speed. I had to move quick, otherwise I would have been clobbered by the open door which was keeping up behind me and only an inch or two away.
I came to rest on the front seat. I had no time to sit up or reposition myself. Nearly in hysteria, I took my left (thinking back on it, it had to be my left foot) and started to slam my foot down trying to hit the brake pedal. I flailed at it with my foot while laying half on my face, half on my side across the length of the seat. I have no recollection how many times I stomped at that pedal with my foot. Thankfully, I didn’t inadvertently hit the gas! All I know for sure was that I was able to step on the brake hard enough to stop the car! I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking, and the sweat was rolling down my forehead and face. What a sight it must have been for anyone who would have seen it.
I was able to keep the car stopped while I struggle to sit up and place the car in park. The rear of the car just missed a tree and was probably a foot away from crashing through a wooden rail fence. I slowly got out of the car and assessed the situation. “Thank you Lord” was all that could say. I looked around as I tried to compose myself. I was immediately thankful that I was in such a quiet neighborhood. No lights on. Street was deserted. I could only imagine what the sight of me chasing down my cruiser and diving into it must have looked like. I would never have lived it down.
I sat down for a minute and tried to regain my composure. I decided to act as though nothing had happened just incase someone peeped out of a window or walk from around the corner. My hands still shook, and I knew I was one lucky SOB. Had the car hit anything or caused any damage, there was no way I could write a report about what happened and not come out looking like an incompetent, careless birdbrain, in any order, choose one. I know it wouldn’t have done my young career much good. I would have been walking an overnight beat out in East Manchester around East Industrial Park Drive for the rest of the winter (the usual threat for cops who ran afoul of their shift commander) and after my penance had been served, I would have been stuck on the front counter forever.
After a short time, I stopped shaking, took a good look around to see if anyone had seen this ridiculous episode play out. Seeing no one, I took a deep breath and then tried to act like nothing had happened, doing my best Leslie Neilson / Lieutenant Drebben / Police Squad imitation. ’Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.’
I left the neighborhood, went to the nearest open Dunkin Donuts. I got a coffee, then drove to some quiet spot where I was able to back into but still be visible enough to the public (and bosses) so it didn’t appear I was hiding out or napping. There would no napping for me that night. I felt as though I was a halfwit. Only a lamebrain would allow such a thing to happen. But I also felt very lucky. I wasn’t the only one lucky that night. As it turned out, that ticket I wrote was the only ticket I wrote during that shift. Everyone else on that street that was parked illegally lucked out as well. I sat back behind the steering wheel, locked my doors, but before I cracked the lid on the coffee cup to take my first sip, I made damned sure I placed the car into PARK.
At the end of my shift, I found my day shift relief waiting for me on the ramp. As I vacated the cruiser, taking my briefcase, jacket and other belongings out, the day guy started throwing his stuff in, he asked me how my night was. I told him- “You know. Same old shit. Nothing worth talking about”. I was trying to act like a salty old cop. I only lied a little bit.
When I first arrived at Rustamiyah, I was assigned to the 3rd BN Team, but the Team Leader, at the time, a major, made it clear to me upon arrival and during our first several missions that because I was a reservist (Guardsman) he really didn’t have any faith in me. He constantly criticized me, and he did so in front of the other troops on our team, many of whom were junior in rank to me. I think this set a very bad tone for me when later, I became the NCOIC of this team. Additionally, I really was made to feel like an outsider, and if that major had any regard for me what so ever, he certainly didn’t show it. I understood this was my first combat assignment but…That major retired before we lost LTC James, MSG Tuliau and SFC Howe. When he went left, I never heard from him again.
The Executive Officer (XO) on that team was an infantry captain named Osvaldo Baez. I believe he was a reservist that had been called to active duty sometime before this unit deployed to Iraq. Turns out the XO had been living in Derry NH at the time he was called up. We talked a bit as we got to know each other. He said he couldn’t wait for the time when he could go to the Back Room, a great restaurant in Manchester that we both frequented, and enjoy one of their Mudslides. This was a place that we both knew back home and had in common. We agreed to meet there sometime after we returned home, and fortunately, we both survived and kept that commitment.
After the major from the 3rd battalion team left, Major Benjamin Cureton became the new team chief. I would develop the utmost respect for both Major Cureton and Captain Baez, as soldiers, officers and men as the year went on. First and foremost, they both led by example, never asking us to do anything that they didn’t do each and every day. Captain Baez, in particular turned out to be one tough son of a gun.
After we got hit and I was assigned as NCOIC for Major Cureton’s team, dealing with Major Cureton on a day by day basis was a pretty good experience. The combat or operational tempo continued at a high level. Each mission would begin with a meeting between myself, the XO and Major Cureton. The major would pass on to us the new warning order for the next mission. During those meetings we would review the order, and I paid especially close attention to the maneuver and support paragraphs. I would share my thoughts with the TL and XO and I gave Major Cureton my opinions and advice. By this time I had been with the team for a couple of months, so I had compiled some significant combat experience as we all learned many hard lessons. It would not be overly dramatic to say here that many of those lessons were learned through the loss of blood and lives.
To the credit of Major Cureton, he always listened to and considered any concerns or advice I always offered. Sometimes he followed my recommendations, sometimes he didn’t. When he did not agree, he usually explained his reasoning to me. Other times the final operations order didn’t allow us to deviate from the initial warning order. One thing the major often said was that the enemy may get us in the end, but in order to do that he will have to guess correctly about our scheme of maneuver (our route and other precautions) in order to get us. We tried to mix it up and be as unpredictable as possible, ultimately making it tough for the enemy to set up a deadly ambush for us.
As XO and NCOIC, Baez and I shared similar lanes and responsibilities. Often during the planning process (Known as the Troop Leading Procedures which the leaders put in place once a unit receives a Warning order for a specific mission) our lanes and responsibilities often crossed. Eventually, most logistical and personnel issues which included the who, if anyone, was left behind on a given mission and the manning of our three gun trucks, fell to me.
The XO and I often disagreed about personnel decisions I made (I always felt I had sensible reasons for those decisions) but there were just certain things that the XO and I didn’t agree on philosophically. I felt that the Army was paying me to make those decisions so that the Major could do his job.
The differences never came between the XO and I, but there were times when the XO and I just couldn’t agree, so those differences would be brought to Major Cureton for a final decision. It was rare that we brought these problems to the TL. One reason for that was that I always believed that problems and disagreements should be solved at the lowest command level possible. After bringing one of these matters to the TL, he would think about it, and I found that at times the major deferred to me, much to the dismay, I imagine, of the XO. Usually I found that the TL would back me up if the area of disagreement fell within the well defined areas of my responsibilities. Major Cureton did not micromanage. I do not believe the XO ever held those things against me. After receiving final guidance from the TL, we both just continued to march like the good soldiers that we were to plan and execute the mission.
As time went on and the area we operated within became more deadly, and US and Iraqi losses climbed. One of my biggest daily decisions was regarding who went out on each mission and who stayed back. This was a responsibility that weighed heavily with me. On my team we had a rotation whereby we often left one man back on the FOB to take care of whatever paperwork or logistical concerns there were. In reality, that day would be mostly a day off and it would be one day where that person probably wouldn’t get killed.
During the first weeks and months of the teams deployment, we did not have an assigned medic. Eventually, Doc Gordy was sent and assigned to us. When he rotated home, Doc Spradley replaced him and stayed with us for the rest of the way. I wanted to give my medic a regular day off within the established rotation. I received a lot of pushback on that from both the XO and several members of the team. They felt we should have our medic with us at all times when we left the wire. What good is having a medic if on any day we take casualties and he’s back on the FOB?
They were not wrong, of course. And certainly, when we went out of raids and other offensive operations when we were looking to make contact with the enemy, those missions would be all hands on deck operations. Nobody stayed back. However, there were several practical ( I think) reasons why I disagreed. The biggest one was I did not want our medic to get burned out day after day while other members of the team occasionally got to stay back on the FOB. Secondly, as I patiently tried to explain one day to our medic, I felt I owed it to his family to get him a day off once in a while, a day where his chance of getting killed was lessened.
Nevertheless, the people I got the most push back from on this issue were the two medics themselves. I dug in my heels on the issue, but each of them, when it came time to take a day off refused to do so if the team was going out. When I ordered Gordy or Spradley to stay back (they were both E-4s at the time) they angrily told me that they were responsible for my team’s wellbeing, and “their people” were not going outside the wire without them.
So, there were days when, much to the chagrin of some of the team members, I ordered the medic to stay back. An argument bordering on insubordination with the affected medic always followed. Some days I didn’t feel like having the same argument and I gave in. Other days, I made them stay back. But in any case, I admired Doc Gordy and Doc Spradley for their commitment. Both functioned as riflemen during each mission. This wasn’t false bravado. It took courage for everyone to go outside the wire day in and day out, literally not knowing if that day was going to be your last. So, I tried to look out for them, even when they didn’t want me to. I felt it was wrong to penalize them because they were the team’s medic.
Throughout the year, I would try to convince Major Cureton to take a day and stay back on the FOB, but he would have none of it. Another one. I figured I owed it to him, and his family, for that matter that he get an occasional day to stand down. I always told him that the XO and I could handle any mission we got, but the major just flat out refused to take a day off. If his team was going out, he was going with it. That was it. He never did take a day off that I can recall during the time he led our team.
My other problem with the XO early on was that he had a kind of “hands on” type of leadership style which I though led to some micromanagement on his part. Early on, I don’t think he trusted me, and often checked up on me to make sure I had completed my assigned tasks. I tried to explain to the XO that I was taking care of business and he should not worry about me and turn his attention to assisting the team leader (TL) in the day to day operation of the team.
Please don’t misunderstand me, the XO and I got along well enough, but it took a while before he got comfortable enough with me to just let me take care of business. We both knew what needed to get done each and every day. After a time, the XO and I learned to work closely together, trusted each other and started to talk and confide personal concerns and information between us. It didn’t take long, and despite the fact that he was a captain and I was a Master Sergeant, he began to treat me as an equal. I don’t think I am overstating by saying that we developed a great command relationship based entirely on respect and trust for each other.
As time went on, and more American troops were getting killed and maimed by IEDs and EFPs, I drove my vehicle more and more often, eventually almost exclusively because I didn’t trust anyone else to drive. I know this type of attitude contradicts common philosophy regarding military leadership, but that’s the way I felt. I also thought that the soldiers that rode with me were safer when I drove. Maybe I was wrong about that, but that’s how I felt.
The XO, he became the gunner on my truck by choice. He got to choose. However, the truck was mine, I was the TC (Truck Commander) but every so often the XO would tell people he was the TC. I never corrected him, but the reality was, even though he out ranked me, it was my truck and I was the TC. I was also responsible for the other two trucks that belonged to my team.
Normally, the TC sits in the front passenger seat, operates the comms etc. But there was very little that was normal or conventional about the mission we were on. Baez sat up high in that turret often needlessly, I believed, exposing himself to enemy fire. I often tried to coax him to lower himself down into the turret, especially in area where there were snipers, but as time went on, I discovered that this was the way Captain Baez led and fought. Up front and center. I went on to believe that this was not only characteristic of Baez’ idea of leadership, but it was also a way to cope with the fears we all had day to day, sometimes minute to minute. I think it was a way for Baez to overcompensate and to make sure he was able to appear fearless at all times.
There were times when I offered to man the gun and let the XO drive, but he always declined by telling me that he thought as driver, I had the most dangerous position because during ambushes the enemy always tried to kill the driver in order to disable the vehicle. There was a bit of truth to that, however, the XO took up the most dangerous and exposed position during most combat patrols. I think he just said that to make me feel good.
In the end, after we got home, the XO and I did meet for a Mudslide at the Backroom in Manchester, and I invited my two sons along. Captain Baez told my sons, in my presence, that their father was a courageous and outstanding soldier. I was a bit embarrassed, and he certainly overstated my performance and courage for sure, but at the same time I was as proud as could be when the captain sang my praises to both of my sons, who are pretty courageous guys themselves. My son, a parole officer has been stabbed on the job and battles along with the local police to retain control of the streets in this community and maintain control over convicted violent felons. My other son, a firefighter, has earned the Medal of Valor from the State of NH. This is the states highest award for bravery. Not to mention my daughter, who was an international Roller Derby star for many years. No shrinking violets among my kids! It was really nice of the XO to say those nice things about me. Honestly, I thought he was talking about someone else. Deep down inside, I know I had many flaws as a leader, and my team deserved someone better than me. But, due to a series of unfortunate incidents, they ended up with me as their NCOIC.
Some time after we got home, my brother and I made a trip to Ft. Bragg, where we were able to locate Major Cureton. The major was then a Lieutenant Colonel and the XO of a Cavalry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne. He was getting ready to go back to Iraq. The Major told me that he appreciated all I had done for him, and that I did my job in a way that allowed him to do his job as Team Leader. He told me I was dependable and he was lucky to have me as team NCOIC. I considered that high praise indeed. I feel good about that to this day. It helps assuage my anxieties when I think back, which I do all too often, and come to the conclusion I was a very flawed leader.
When I first arrived at Rustamiyah, one of the first missions I was assigned was to locate three Landing Zones within our Brigade’s combat space. We scouted out the area and did as ordered. The purpose for this exercise was that in the case that we suffered casualties, Medivac helicopters could use these LZs to land and evacuate casualties to the closest appropriate life saving facility. We went out, selected what we thought were good defendable LZs where we could land either Blackhawks or Chinooks. I recorded the eight digit grid coordinates, marked them on our maps and forwarded the information to the appropriate commands.
Despite that preparation, there was never a combat mission that we undertook in which we received helicopter medical support. The Major would read the final operations order to the entire team immediately before setting out on a mission. The standard operations order contained a paragraph addressing support for that particular operation. Every OPORDER always said we were not to be supported by air medical resources. Any casualties we suffered were to be evacuated by ground to the closest aid station.
When we lost LTC James, and Sergeants Tuliau and Howe, there was no Air Evacuation available for them. When a unit from the 3/7 Cavalry arrived at the scene, LTC James, after being treated by our medic at the scene, was loaded into the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and brought to our Battalion Aid Station, which did not have either an MD or a surgeon.
The Colonel was given some basic life saving type treatment there, and then eventually a Medivac arrived at Rustamiyah. Colonel James was then flown to the nearest Combat Army Surgical Hospital. We all know that the Colonel made it to the States but died of his wounds shortly after arrival. I was later told that the Colonel had gone into some type of distress during the flight itself.
He was still alive when he arrived at the CASH. However, I cannot discount the possibility that had he been picked up by a Medivac helicopter with flight medics and flown directly to the CASH from the site of the ambush, he may have stood a better chance of survival. I know this is a serious claim for me to make, but I cannot discount that possibility. Certainly the medic who treated him at the scene saved his life and bought him a chance to survive. That medic Doc Martinez, would be awarded a Bronze Star for Valor for his actions that day. But the delay with the ground evac and stop at the Battalion Aid Station may have sealed Colonel James fate. Sadly, LTC James died shortly after arriving at Walter Reed in Washington DC.
Back to the days, weeks and months following the loss of James, Tuliau and Howe. The combat missions continued daily, some as short as four hours some as long as five days. We were TACON or OPCON (Under tactical or operational control) to 3rd of the 7th Cavalry (Garry Owen!) 3rd Infantry Division during that time. They were able to task us with combat missions daily, but refused to support us either logistically, medically or personnel wise. They said because we were TACON or OPCON they were not required to support us. I had taught at various Army leadership schools, but that concept was one that I had never heard of before arriving in Iraq.
Later in the tour, when the 4th (IVY, their official nick name, a play on words since the number four in Roman Numerals was IV) Infantry Division arrived in Iraq replacing the 3rd ID, they were tasked to give us air support. I always thought that was kind of strange because at that time we were TACON to the 506 RCT of the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division.
However, once again, the 4th ID refused to medically support us with Medivacs. This was contrary to everything I had been told and learned during my army career. We were always told that if wounded, Medivac helicopters and their courageous crews would brave any fire or hostility to pick up and save even the lowest ranking soldier. Certainly the Medivac crews in the US Army were brave enough to do so. But, at least for us, it wasn’t to be.
Sometime after returning home, the Master Sergeant who replaced me in Iraq sent me a memo and information he found regarding Medivacs. His team was hit shortly after they replaced us, and once again, no air medical evacuation was available for his casualties.
The information he sent me was regarding an order that came down from the Division HQ of the 4th Infantry Division. The order simply stated that no air medical rescue helicopter would land anywhere other than a fully secure base. The order stated that the Army will not risk losing a Blackhawk and its crew in order to rescue wounded and dead personnel in a hostile location. This was certainly an eye opener for me and had contradicted everything I’d been taught during my time in the Army.
The mission continued. On the day of our first memorial service on the FOB, which was for Tulsa Tuliau and Casey Howe, a high ranking general came to the FOB and decided to have lunch with us. There was a separate room at the dining facility and the general sat with us and ate. I noted that his Personal Security Detail was made up of people who I believe were civilians. What I remember about them was that they refused to acknowledge any of us, and they stood guard over us to protect the general, apparently, not only from the enemy, but from us! I don’t know what their background was, but it appeared to me that not only did they not trust us, but I got the impression they felt as though they were too good to mix or even talk with common soldiers and dog faces like us. That was my impression.
We sat around the table while the general made some small talk. I appreciated the fact that the general took the time to eat with us. We were certainly at a low point morale-wise, maybe the lowest point during the entire deployment. We were still grieving the loss of our own. At one point the general asked us straight out if we felt we were winning or losing the war. He said he wanted to get a feel for it from troops who were actually fighting the war everyday, like us.
The straight forward question surprised me. It probably caught everyone else at the table off guard as well. An uncomfortable silence descended upon us. As I looked around, I could see most people at the table looked down onto their plates and didn’t respond. I can understand this. Being Senior NCOs and Company and Field Grade Officers, the wrong answer to a question such as this to a high ranking officer could become a career retarder or even career ender.
The US Army is many things, but it is not an open democracy in which you could always express your personal and political opinions freely, certainly not when in uniform. The concept of Group Think was very well established in the Army, certainly during my time in Iraq and the years that followed. This dynamic can have a chilling effect on the Army’s own leadership philosophy that leaders think outside of the proverbial box, and provide candid feedback to their superiors.
For whatever it’s worth, I do believe the general was earnest in his question, and he did want to know how we felt about the subject. Finally, one of the Regular Army E-7s that was on my team spoke up. He told the general point blank that we were losing the war out here, and gave a few reasons why he felt that way.
Now I must say that although there was much I disagreed about how we were fighting the war where I was, I never got the feeling we were losing. And, I feel that way to this day. But, apparently not everyone I was with felt the same way. What was notable to me, was not only that the sergeant answered the question in a candid way, but the reaction it caused.
Present at the lunch, I believe, was our new brigade commander, LTC Kucksdorf, who replaced LTC James, and the next higher commander, who was, at the time the commander of our Iraqi POB Division US advisors. In other words, he was Colonel James and now Colonel Kucksdorf’s immediate superior. He went on to become a general officer at one point after his time in Iraq. I won’t name him here because I had a strong dislike for him and his leadership style and I do not want to embarrass him, so I’ll leave it at that.
This colonel (not Kucksdorf) immediately interrupted the sergeant, dismissing the points that the sergeant started to list when answering the general’s question. The Colonel started to list all the reasons why he felt that we, especially he, was winning the war. I could understand his reply if I felt there was a speck of accuracy in what the colonel’s evaluation was, but alas, I felt the statement was totally self-serving on the part of the colonel and meant to curry favor on himself from the general.
After the colonel shut down the sergeant and that conversation, he had the gall to point to my brother and I, and tell the general that Frank and I were brothers and we were serving here together. He presented it in such a way that I thought he was bragging about it as though he was proud of it and he had something to do with it. The thing that bothered me about his bringing it up was that the entire time I was in Iraq, the man never spoke to or acknowledged either one of us. I always thought it was because we were reservists. I thought it was self serving and his motivations for talking about us were opportunistic at best. In any case, at no time did that colonel ever express to me or anyone else any indication that he gave a damn about either of us. We were only a step on his stairway to attain his general’s star. That’s how I felt.
One other notable event occurred during that lunch. Some of us had ice cream for dessert. My brother, who was a E-7 at the time, a senior NCO was one of those soldiers. After leaving the dining facility, we encountered a Master Sergeant (E-8 in the Army) standing in the door way with our Command Sergeant Major (CSM). These NCOs were from our next level higher up chain of command. I believe the Master Sergeant was a medic. The Master Sergeant was smoking. As we walked out, the Master Sergeant says to my brother (who was not overweight, not that it really mattered in an administrative sense in Iraq) that he noticed him eating ice cream for dessert, and chastised him for doing so because it wasn’t a healthy choice and yada, yada.yada. We had people getting vaporized around us on a daily basis and we were going to worry about treating ourselves to a dish of ice cream. He did this while in the presence of the CSM. Frank and I both recognized the intent of this comment, and it was meant to embarrass Frank in front of the CSM and make himself look good.
Now my brother was a guy who was able to think on his feet. This ability allowed him to survive for many years as an undercover operative who infiltrated many organized crime, vice and narcotics operations over the years and survive.
Frank (today a CSM himself) immediately confronted this Master Sergeant who outranked him, and told him that he had a lot of nerve questioning him about his ice cream while he himself was sucking on a cigarette. Talk about healthy choices. He also warned the Master Sergeant to never, ever try to embarrass him in front of another solder again. The Master Sergeant had no response. He knew Frank was correct, and Frank had called him out for it in front of the CSM, who said nothing.
Amid that kind of chickenshit chicanery, after the tragic loss of our soldiers, the mission, for those of us left, and those who would join us as the year went on, continued. We didn’t know it at the time, but in many ways things were going to get worse.
NOTE: EACH BRANCH OF THE US ARMY HAS IT’S OWN DESIGNATED COLOR AND INSIGNIA. THE INFANTRY BRANCH, WHICH IS THE OLDEST BRANCH OF THE ARMY, IS IDENTIFIED BY A LIGHT BLUE ROPE WORN ON THE RIGHT SHOULDER OF THE DRESS UNIFORM OF ANY SOLDER WHO IS A QUALIFIED, SCHOOL TRAINED INFANTRYMAN, WHILE SERVING IN AN INFANTRY UNIT. THE INFANTRYMAN ALSO WEARS AN INFANTRY BLUE DISK BACKING TO HIS COLLAR AND HAT BRASS WHICH IS REFERRED TO AS DISTINCTIVE INFANTRY INSIGNIA .THE ARMY WISHES TO IDENTIFY INFANTRYMEN FROM OTHER SOLDIERS DUE TO ITS MISSION, WHICH IS SIMPLY TO CLOSE WITH AND DESTROY THE ENEMY, AND THE UNIQUE HARDSHIPS AND HAZARDS THAT THE COMBAT INFANTRYMAN MUST ENDURE IN ORDER TO ACCOMPLISH ITS MISSION. THE INFANTRY IS CALLED THE QUEEN OF BATTLE, REFERRING TO THE PIECE OF THE CHESS SET, THE ONE PIECE THAT CAN MOVE OR STRIKE IN ANY DIRECTION, AT ANY DISTANCE, THEREFORE THE MOST LETHAL WEAPON ON THE CHESS BOARD. INFANTRYMEN OFTEN REFER TO THEMSELVES AND EACH OTHER AS BROTHERS OF THE BLUE CORD, OR OFTEN, JUST SIMPLY BLUE, AS IN INFANTRY BLUE. WHAT FOLLOWS IS MY SHORT STORY ABOUT MY TIME ATTENDING BASIC AND INFANTRY TRAINING AT FT. BENNING GA. IT IS TRUE, AND THE NAMES ARE REAL. Ft. Benning, Ga. Early August 1981.
Hot, Hot, Hot. Tough week. Tougher than most weeks, all of which were tough for me. Very little sleep. Drills crawling all over and around us, around the clock. We are exhausted. When the hell do they sleep? Bravo Company is humping down the road from one training site to another. On the left, a river. Perhaps the Chattahoochee? Don’t know if we are in Georgia or Alabama. Doesn’t really matter. Miserable as an infantryman can be. No one could possibly know just how miserable and painful that can be unless you humped a full combat load from point A to point B without rest or sleep, in searing humid temps, always around 100 degrees. It’s always either too hot or too cold, they say. Every part of my body that came in contact with a strap or piece of equipment was on fire, chaffed and / or bleeding. Drill Sergeants are like sharks hovering all around us, pouncing upon the weak, and those who can’t keep up this blistering pace. To be fair, the Drills are also humping, carrying a load, running around us like crazy men but without rifles. Suddenly, the company is slowed on the road. We are ordered to get into step. Drill starts calling cadence. It’s an administrative march now, no longer tactical.
Quick time, MARCH!
Left Flank, MARCH!
We execute. We do so sharply and without thinking about it. Automatically, as if we were robots. But robots don’t feel pain. As miserable as we were, we were coming together. The Drill Sergeants were our common enemies this week in particular. We were focused on showing them up. Or, at least showing them we could hang. We hated it, but we were going to show them we could take whatever they dished out. Fuck ‘em, one and all. We were past the point where the Drill Sergeants and their Campaign hats, which they wore with their brims tilted forward at a menacing angle, covering their foreheads, impressed us.
No Sir. Those days were gone. We long ago reached the point to where our Drills had to earn our respect. However, what we did clearly understand is that the Drill Sergeants still had the ability to make our lives miserable, even painful. However, we were at a point where we almost didn’t care. Almost…
Yo(ur) Left, Yo(ur) Left, Yo(ur) Left Right… the drill sergeant barks out, in a soulful kind of cadence.
“BRAVO! “ we respond in unison. Each time the drill sings “right” we scream BRAVO at the top of our lungs, as tired as we were. For not doing so would demonstrate a lack of motivation and we would be immediately stopped and motivational physical training would be administered to help “motivate” us to a proper level. We learned it was better to feign motivation and expend energy sounding off, than to be punished for not demonstrating it to the Drills’ satisfaction.
Problem is we are only a few yards from the river. We continue to march off the road down into the river. Trying to stay in step while getting deeper into the river. What a foolish and strange sight it must have been. We may not be the toughest soldiers yet, but we are disciplined enough to know that we are to continue to march, and dare not question the fact that our Drill is marching us into the river. It would be no different if we were being marched off of a cliff.
For a fleeting moment, I became somewhat alarmed with the fact that I do not know how to swim. I could not swim if I were naked, nor if my life depended on it, so I sure as hell couldn’t swim carrying a full combat load. My instincts told me that, no, they wouldn’t purposely drown any of us. But still, these guys have made me believe that their idea of sane and crazy, and the very thin line that separates the two, are somewhat different then how you and I may view the issue.
Our Drill Sergeants never did instill in me the idea that, as hard core as they were, they were only interested in our well being and the ability to facilitate our transition from civilian to soldier. Something the Army calls the “soldierization process”.
In all actuality, the message I got from them was that we, the trainees, were some disgusting life form that they were forced to contend with, sometimes toy with, but always make our lives as miserable as possible as we struggled to master the lifestyle and basic skills to transform us from civilians to soldiers.
As we marched forward, well into the river, my past, my recent past, flashed through my mind. Kind of what a dying man is supposed to experience when he is about to die. Or so I’ve always heard. “No, no! I really can’t swim!” I silently protested as we marched forward. Always forward. Never back.
The first days at our Company Area. New grass had been planted and we were instructed by our Drill Sergeants to talk to the grass each time we passed by, in either direction, coming or going. The directive was clear, our first mission as new members of the United States Army was to persuade the grass to grow. That, along with moving piles of rocks from one side of the company street to the other, for no apparent reason. Personally, I thought the rocks looked fine where they were.
As a result, the first week or two one could see as many as 240 new soldiers stopping at the area which was newly seeded, and in sing song voices, imploring and with somewhat incredulous voices trying to convince the grass to grow: “come on grass” or “please grass, grow, please grow,” all under the stern watchful eyes of whichever Drill Sergeants happened to be present. Once satisfied, the Drill Sergeant would then order us to move on, or, if he wasn’t satisfied he would reward us with additional motivational physical training. This motivational “PT” could come in many variations. Pushups, Body Twists, the Lunger, or worse of all, the Low Crawl. Today, there are less than 140 or so of us left in Bravo company. Just like each of us individually, Bravo company has trimmed down quite a bit. Bravo-8-2, like those of us who remained was becoming lean and hard.
So, back in the middle of the river, and after brief consideration, although I knew they were all crazy, I thought, no, even they wouldn’t drown any of us. I don’t think. At least not purposely…
We advance to just about to the middle of the river. Not quite the middle. Thankfully, we are halted before we go any farther. Locked up, in formation, at attention, we wait further instructions. Cannot imagine what’s coming next. We’ve learned to expect anything, with a cynical and healthy fear of what may come next. What could this possibly be about? Certainly can’t be anything good. Surely they are about to mete out some tried and true method of punishing us which we have not experienced previously. As long as they can say whatever form of torture they decide to inflict on us has training value, it will conform to Army standards and regulations. This was especially true here at the Infantry School. For the life of me, I don’t know what we have done to deserve whatever is coming…
We halt. Streams of sweat roll down onto my face, down my neck and back, and into my eyes. Stinging, salty, and running like a faucet, it makes my eyes burn. I dare not blink, much less wipe the sweat away, for I am at the position of attention. The slightest movement will draw unwanted attention to me. So I suffer these little discomforts, which, as they fall upon me and accost me, make me indescribably miserable, which is actually the norm, more often than not.
All is quiet. We are still. The river flows in a direction to our left. The cool, muddy water swirls around my knees and thighs. It is actually the only sound I can hear. On the opposite bank of the river, I see the red clay, which is indigenous to this part of the world. Have to watch out for Jake the Snake. Jake is aways around. Watch out for Jake the Snake we were told when we arrived a few months back.
While standing in the river, sure enough, almost as if on cue, Jake swims by the formation, in front of us. All snakes are named Jake. It’s an Army thing. What if it’s a female snake?… I wonder, deep in intellectual meditation. Maybe the heat is getting to my brain. Is his name still Jake? If he’s a her? Jake moves in kind of a combination of floating and at the same time slithering through the water. If our presence is of any concern to Jake, he doesn’t show it. He just moves on by. Very leisurely. If we moved in such a relaxed fashion, there would be low crawls through the mud or red clay, preceded and followed by pushups on hot asphalt that would literally burn our hands. Could never walk in the company area. Always had to double time. No, we learned that painful lesson early on, even before we were instructed to talk to the grass. “Move like lightning, sound like thunder”. It wasn’t just a motto, it was a way of life, the only way to survive here.
As I continue to watch Jake float by, I can see he’s decided that there is need to involve himself in some outrageous adventure with this collection of idiots. It’s too hot. Even in the river. Jake the Snake glides down river, out of sight, fortunately without showing even a hint of interest in the rest of us.
Still waiting, in the middle of the river, for the other shoe to drop.
As I await the next adventure, my mind slips back and recalls a hot night when we were bivouacked near a river. Possibly the same river. We were allowed to swim. Jake stopped by. Not the same Jake, as you will see, however when he appeared, we scattered. Seeing the privates scatter, one of our Drills investigates. He heads directly towards the snake, who didn’t have enough sense to leave the area. The Drill then grabs Jake, held him up for all to see, and then bites him in half. Our Drill Sergeants would never let an opportunity as fortuitous as this pass by. Another chance for them during which they would be able to demonstrate to us that there was no limits to their insanity. Regardless, adult swim was over that evening. At least it was for most of us northern city boys.
I try to keep my eyes locked and focused on some point in front of me. But I can’t resist watching Jake the Snake pass by. I almost envy him. Thankfully, none of the Drills notice my eyes following him while at the position of attention.
While I was awaiting our fate, I continued to obsess over the fact that nothing good could come of this situation. My mind wanders back to another time, after we first arrived at the Ft. Benning School for boys, in a rare moment of pity, one of my drills informed us that they could not kill us, and they could not eat us, so, we really don’t have anything to worry about.
What we learned since then, was that as encouraging as that assurance was at the time it was given, the boundaries in between killing and eating us were pretty wide. Our cadre were experts in making us miserable. They told us on arrival that we would shortly hate them, and they didn’t care that we did. They had a job to do, and we will be worthless trainees until after we depart Ft. Benning. They weren’t physically abusive, that is to say that they never laid a hand on us. But, at times, I would have preferred an occasional moderate beating to what passed as the norm for existence here. So, what was this? What’s next I wondered. Absolutely nothing could surprise me.
As I stood in the river, I heard a soft splashing noise coming from up river, to our right. It got louder and louder as who ever was stomping though the river became closer. “Here it comes” I thought. Around the bend he came. Shit, it was the Company Commander. Bad news, I am sure. Actually marching though the river. Not walking, but marching.
Marching perfectly, or as perfectly as he could in knee deep water. He wore his usual scowl on his face or at least on the part of his face that showed from beneath his helmet, which was always tilted forward. Definitely moving with a purpose, on he came, approaching our strange, waterborne formation, unlike Jake. Our Guidon Bearer is standing in front of our formation, with the Senior Drill in front.
The company commander and the rest of the cadre wore camouflaged covers over their steel pots. The helmet covers fit tightly, without a crease or wrinkle. Perfect. We were not allowed to wear helmet covers on our steel pots until later during basic training. Our helmets were Olive Drab (OD) green, with our roster numbers (not names) stenciled upon a piece of tape fixed to the back of our helmets. Roster number 143. I remember the day we made the tape and placed it on our helmets and helmet liners. Another simple project, made so bad in a way that only the US Army could turn a seeming simple task into a major exercise with a lot of motivational PT mixed in for good measure. “Attention to detail” we were told, time and time again.
“What’s wrong with y’all” “It’s a simple enough task!” Instructions were simple. So many inches wide, numbers such and such a height. We thought we were done. But then the drills showed up, each with a ruler. They measured each piece of tape. Each numeral. Where it was located on each helmet. Top to bottom, left to right. 240 helmets until roster numbers were identical in appearance and placement. Each measured time and time again until they were satisfied that every piece of tape was placed correctly.
FFSI they barked out time and time again as corrections were made. Failure to Follow Simple Instructions. FFSI.
We were not allowed to place camouflage helmet covers on our helmets until we earned that privilege. Later I found out that the only way to achieve perfection placing the helmet cover on one’s steel pot was first soak the cover, then place it on the helmet, pulling it tight in all directions, as tight as humanly possible, and then placing the helmet with cover within a heated oven, and actually baking it. The only acceptable way to wear the helmet and required cover in a garrison environment. Only in the Army could these seemingly mundane tasks turn into major, labor and time consuming projects.
Here comes Good Old Captain Schroeder. We are never happy to see him. He is an Infantry Officer, Expert Infantry Badge, Airborne Wings, Ranger Patch, who knows what else. If we were a nuisance to our Drill Sergeants, we were a wretched group of subhumans to him, so he made us believe.
I remembered his introduction to us shortly after we arrived. I had already questioned the wisdom, or lack of it that I displayed by joining the Army. But they really hadn’t done too much to us up until that point. Not compared with what was to come. Still though, I knew I was in a bad way.
I thought back to my recruiter’s office, Quincy (Massachusetts) Square, 1980. Sergeant Matthews was my recruiter. He showed me films about different job opportunities (MOS) within the Army.
Me: “I want to go Infantry.”
Him:“No, you don’t.”
Me: “Yes, I do.”
“Listen, Marty, there are some nice slots available. I can get you a slot as a Dental Assistant. Maybe after a few years you can go to school. Maybe even dental school, at the Army’s expense.”
“Hey-ell no. I’m going Infantry!”
“Listen to me.” Almost pleading.
“You are smart. You can do almost anything. You Do not want to go Infantry! I can assure you.”
“I want Infantry.” Well I got it. It didn’t take me long to begin to think SGT. Matthews may have been correct.
My mind continues to wander. We are in a large WWII era classroom for our official Battalion Orientation. If it was 100 degrees outside, it was 120 inside. Bravo Company, 8th Battalion, Second Infantry Training Brigade. Sounds exciting. I am really here. Except I am 26 years old, out of shape, overweight and very homesick. I miss my family. Might as well have been on the moon.
Senior Drill, SFC Bobo gets on stage. Starts to talk to us, then goes on and on about I don’t remember what. What I do remember is that whatever he was saying, it didn’t make me feel any better. As the training cycle went on, Drill Sergeant Bobo, was the most calm, collected and quiet Drill in the company. Didn’t often raise his voice.
While the other drills screamed at us, cursed us and punished us, (low crawling our asses was the preferred motivational tool of the Bravo Company Cadre) Bobo never lost his cool. All of which made him the most dangerous member of the cadre. We made sure not to piss him off, at any cost. We failed often.
Our Company Commander arrives. Bobo leaves. CPT. Schroeder is his name. Marches into the classroom. Jumps up on the stage, introduces himself. Then makes the following pronouncement:
‘Nobody asked you to come here. Nobody wanted you here. You volunteered to come here. You want to go home? The quickest way to go home is to keep your eyes open, your fucking mouth shut, do what your drill instructors tell you to do, when they tell you to do it. Then you can go home if and when you graduate’. I took that advice (or threat) to heart.
Next up, the Battalion Chaplain. He marches in. Down the aisle. As though it was a parade field. Boots like mirrors, Airborne Ranger insignia, etc. Jumps onto the stage. Tells us he doesn’t want any of us sons of bitches crying to him about going home or what the drills are doing to us. He then told the Drill Sergeants present to keep doing whatever it was that they were doing to us. Keep our mouths shut and learn. No sympathy from him. No words of encouragement.
During the months that followed, the Chaplain, who I learned was a Southern Baptist Minister, not that it mattered, did provide some encouragement. However, it was encouragement of an unexpected kind. He would accompany us to the ranges. He would run around, demanding we knock down our targets. “Kill the Sons of Bitches” he would roar. This man of God was demanding we learn to kill, kill, kill. Everything in this world was twisted around. At least it appeared so to me.
I knew then, at that exact moment, when the Chapalin made his appearance, I had made a serious mistake. Even before he opened his mouth. A mistake I could not get out of. As if to emphasize the point, we were then marched out of the classroom. As we exited the classroom, into the sun, we were all hosed down and soaked by Drills with firehoses. Everything inside of our pockets was ruined. Any letters, papers, booklets issued etc. All disintegrated from being soaked.
The Captain gets closer, slogging through the river. My mind continues to wander. Six weeks after orientation. Standing in formation outside of our barracks. Saturday morning at Harmony Church. First inspection wearing our dress greens and with weapon. Very bare dress greens I might add.
Except for our Platoon Guide. Sam Deviore was from San Fransisco. Served in Viet Nam. 1965. 1st Calvary Division. For some reason, he decided to rejoin the Army. This is the first time I have seen him in Greens. He was allowed to wear his awards during this inspection. Highly decorated. Wore the Combat Infantryman’s Badge among others. I was 26 at the time, Mack and Sam were older than me.
Mack was the 1st Squad Leader. Don’t remember his first name. Also a Vietnam Vet. Served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, if I remember correctly. Also wore the Combat Infantry Badge and Jump Wings. He also decided to come back to the Army in 1981. The sad joke was, although Mack and Sam were more decorated than some of the Drills, Uncle Sam made them repeat basic, and infantry school. Both combat veterans, both seasoned infantrymen. Sam, as platoon guide, sure did a lot of pushups for my mistakes. All of our mistakes. For that, I always felt badly.
One thing though. We had all received or would receive bonuses for signing up. Don’t remember how much, I think it was a few thousand dollars disbursed to us in increments over the next six years. When Mack joined, his recruiter never told him he was eligible for this bonus. Mack spent much of our time at Ft. Benning swearing that the first thing he was going to do when he left was track down his recruiter and kill him. After a while, I began to believe him. I especially believed him on days like today.
CPT. Schroeder is conducting the inspection. I was learning to dislike the captain. Misery seemed to follow him around. Misery he liberally issued out to us like so much equipment or chow. He always seemed to have a case of the ass for us, and always brought bad shit down onto us.
Except, there was one thing. Everything we were required to do, he did. He led the way. Out in front of the Drill Sergeants even. And, the ultimate insult. Everything we were required to do, he did it better. Made us hate him even more. But then, as time went on, I grudgingly and slowly started to respect the man. As tough as he was on us, he never asked us to do anything he himself would not do. And, he would do it much better. We learned to dislike him. But, the more we disliked him, the more we tried to perform to earn his respect. Same went for the Drill Sergeants. An early lesson in my career about leadership. Why had earning their respect become more important to us as time went by?
The Senior Drill and Captain finish verbally eviscerating the soldier to my right. A moment before, he was standing tall and proud. After they got through inspecting him, he was turned into something that reminded me of a quivering slice of cranberry sauce at the dinner table, as it waits to be consumed.
They execute a perfect column right, from the halt, as in marching. March to my front, halt, then execute a perfect left face. Lock step. Both of them. A beautiful thing to behold. What ever else they were, these were sharp, motivated and disciplined soldiers. For a moment, I was proud to be in their company. Of, course that moment was fleeting.
I conducted the movement as taught. The Captain (C.O.) grabbed my M-16. His arm came out of nowhere, from somewhere outside of my peripheral vision. He snatched the weapon away from me with surprising speed that caught me off guard. He then scrutinized the weapon. Spun it around. Pulled it close to his face. Examined every inch of it. His movements were precise, exaggerated and sharp. He then thrust the weapon back towards my face. I had to move quick to receive it without being knocked on my back and losing teeth. I had worked on and polished that rifle for hours that day. I swear the black color was coming off of it. Then he started on me.
What was wrong with me?
How could I have been here for six weeks and not learn anything?
I am actually regressing!
How could I hand him this filthy, dirty thing for his inspection?
Why am I still here?
How could I ruin a piece of taxpayers property like this?
He then told me he had something for me, not explaining what it was he had, but I knew it wasn’t good.
He then inspected my person and uniform. Yelled out one deficiency after another in an annoyed manner, as the Senior Drill took copious notes of my shortcomings and failures.
The CO was embarrassed for me. He was embarrassed for the Army.
What was left for me?
What was left for him to do?
He and the Cadre had done their best.
How much more time could he waste on me?
How much perfectly good food would he be forced to allow me to eat?
It was a waste of the taxpayers money.
Who was my recruiter?
What did the CO ever do to my recruiter that he would send someone like me to him?
I wanted to tell him ‘No shit. My recruiter did try to talk me out of it’. I didn’t.
Is it possible that I was an agent of the Ayatollah Khomeini sent to disrupt the United States Army?
Did the Iranians send me?
During this time, while making notes on my many deficiencies, the Senior Drill glared at me from under his campaign hat, his eyes drilling into my face while I tried to swallow and keep my composure.
Then he discovered it. One glaring, outrageous deficiency. He appeared genuinely offended and disgusted.
“Nasal Hair Protruding from the left nostril! “
This brought the inspection to a complete halt. “In-FUCKING-credible”, so said the Commander.
The CO was shocked. Drills seemed to wring their hands together with indecision and disbelief. How could this happen? Who is to blame for this abomination? What is wrong with Swirko? How could he have missed such a thing. The presence of this protruding nasal hair was treated as the ultimate insult towards the cadre, which had nurtured and cared for me as they tried to bring me into the fold these last several weeks, without success they added.
I was ordered to double time to the latrine and remove it. Immediately. No scissors or tweezers. To provide motivation for me, as I broke ranks, the company was placed into the front leaning rest position, otherwise known as the push-up position. There they remained until my return, minus one offending nose hair.
Inside the latrine. Nasal hair? Where? Oh, OK. I think I see something sticking out. Barely. Tried to grab it with thumb and forefinger. Several times. Fingernails cut short, immaculately groomed. Grabbing the tiny hair and pulling it out was almost impossible. Drill Sergeants cursing me outside, telling me to go ahead, take my time. Continue to waste their daylight, they advised me. I never heard my name being used in conjunction with such foul and obscene oaths and descriptions in my entire life. Not even at Quincy Point Junior High.
I also knew that by then, my company was pretty pissed at me as they sweat it out waiting for my return in the hot Georgia sun.
Finally, after much frustration, with sweat pouring down my face, I got hold of it, no easy task with my recently clipped and cleaned fingernails. I yanked it out. It hurt. Back out to formation. My green dress shirt under my jacket was now soaked with sweat.
We were now told how miserable we performed. Why do we not work together? Why are we so slovenly and undisciplined? How did they inherit such a group of scumbags, they lamented, clearly feeling sorry for themselves. OK Bravo Company. One hour. Correct all deficiencies and stand another inspection. Back to square one. Almost.
Later that afternoon, they loaded us onto buses. The buses took us to a minor league baseball game in Downtown Columbus. Watching the game was actually enjoyable. We forgot our miseries for a short time. But, like all good things, the two hours or so it took to enjoy the game had slipped past quickly, almost unnoticed. Game over. “On your feet” one of the drills bellows. We react and execute. “Police Call,” orders the Drill. The entire stadium. Lined us up at the top, side to side, in back of the seats.
“Pick up anything that isn’t growing”
As though something would be growing out of these concrete steps. Once the management of the stadium realized what a good deal this was they made sure we got trash bags to help us with our endeavor. Or was that the plan from the beginning?
Worked our way down through all the rows of seats. Step by step, row by row, seat by seat. No wonder the team allowed us to come watch the game. Picked up all the trash.
After that was complete, we are in formation in the parking lot. Buses waiting. Civilians nearby, watching, taking it all in.
“Open Ranks, MARCH!
Half Right, FACE!
The Eight Count Pushup!”
In fucking credible I think, as the anger wells up, boiling to the surface.They just never quit. Don’t they ever tire of being pricks?
“The eight count push up! “
After a while, we get relief.
“Position of Attention, MOVE!”
“More PT Sergeant, more PT. We like it. We love it. We want more of it. Make it hurt drill sergeant make it hurt” (clap hands twice) was the required response, then snap to attention.
Had to ask them to smoke us! If we did not, they’d punish us even more!
The civilians who stopped to watch love it. They are eating it up.
My mind snaps to. Back in the river. Water from the river continues to rush by. The Captain is getting closer. But, I continue, thinking back to the day we went to the baseball game.
The Drill Sergeants finally seem to have had enough. Mercifully, they allow us to board the bus. On the bus heading back to the base. We all are pretty pissed off at this time and are not happy campers, no pun intended. Threats to harm specific Drill Sergeants abound and are uttered throughout the ride.
We arrive at our barracks. Maybe about 11 PM. We find two shiny, new trash cans in front of the entrance to the barracks. Each packed with ice. One is filled with soda, the other filled with beer. The Senior Drill informs us we can each take and drink two cans, any combination of beer or soda we wish. Told us first call would not be until 0700 next morning. 0600 if we wanted to eat breakfast. But it was up to us. No PT in the morning and first formation, for church, was at 0900. If we wanted to attend. Unbelievable! Sleeping in! Is there a mistake?
Sat on the bleachers and drank our beer / soda and the Drills went away. It was the best beer I ever had. All is forgiven. For the moment, anyway. The Drills really aren’t that bad. That are trying to teach us. Mostly, they are trying to make us hard. Maybe we will make it through after all. Small gesture by the Drills. Huge morale lifter for the troops. The next morning, training did not begin until noon!
The following Monday, CPT. Schroeder conducted and led PT. I thought I was going to die. Training got worse, and more difficult. The drills turned the screws tighter and the temperature up, which we would have though impossible. Back to business. No the Captain says, from here on out we were going to get serious about training. The previous six weeks were a cake walk. So he says.
Back to the river. That weekend seems so long ago. So, here he comes. CPT Schroeder halts in front of the company. Faces it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he has in his possession an Infantry Blue streamer. He unceremoniously affixes it to our guidon. Then he announces, without fanfare or congratulations, that the members of Bravo company were now fully qualified Infantry soldiers. We had officially turned blue. Infantry Blue. The only shade of blue that mattered.
Out of the river, awkwardly we stepped, trying to remain in step, together, with our squishy boots filled with water, we pressed forward, up and out of the river, onto the road.
“Left flank, MARCH!”
On dry land once again. We execute. We get into step. Once again, Captain Schroeder in the lead.
“Double TIME, MARCH!”
Here we go again. Is there no end to this?
Captain turns to face us, running backwards for the moment. He them pumps his fist up and down, into the air several times, the signal to increase speed. He faces front. We are off again. He then leads us on another hell run. But, the CO was in the lead, and, as usual, we had to struggle and work hard to keep up with him as the sun scorched us.
Didn’t matter. The prick. “Go for it Captain” I thought as he increased the pace. I was feeling a mixture of bitterness and stubborn pride at the same time. You can’t shake us off anymore, I silently declared to myself. You can’t scare us anymore and we can hang despite your best efforts. We are not anything like the nervous, sweaty homesick youngsters that were in your classroom that day during the first week we arrived. I grudgingly came to conclude that perhaps this was due in no small part to Captain Schroeder, Sergeants Bobo, Morris, Lawrence and the rest. Like we were taught to say, “fuck it and drive on!” You can’t do anything to us anymore. Bring on your best. We are mentally and physically tough, and we are starting to realize it. We are becoming hardcore. We are soldiers. We are something beyond ordinary soldiers. We are ground pounders. We are blue now. INFANTRY BLUE.
As some of you who know me may know, I worked for a chain of convenience / dairy store called Cumberland Farms for three years after I got out of high school. That would have been from 1973-1976. Cumberland, which still exists today up here in the Northeast, had something like 1800 stores in New England / NY / NJ area and more in Florida at the time.
I worked mostly in their inner city Boston stores during my three years with them, occasionally working at saner stores just outside of Boston. At some point in 1974, I became the manager of one of their stores located in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, a bit poor and blue collar / working class on the Southwest side of the city.
One problem I had to confront was that the convenience stores in the area, which became known as Stop and Robs, were getting held up all the time, and my store was no exception. There were several other Cumberlands in the nearby area, as well as competitors such as White Hen Pantry and Li’L Peach stores. We were all regularly being clobbered with armed robberies. It was so bad that the Manager of a nearby Cumberland, also in Roslindale was shot and killed during a hold up on Christmas Eve Day. Also during that time period a customer in the Cumberland Farms in the nearby town of Dedham was shot dead during a hold up. He walked into the store during a hold up with the intention to buy some model airplane glue to use with his son on a model at home. Wrong place at the wrong time. As for me, I was an unfortunate veteran of a few armed robberies by that time, including the two that I have previously wrote about on this site.
The Boston Police Department was under a lot of pressure to take action to curb these robberies. They came up with a solution. The old Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) was a special city-wide unit within the BPD. They were the department’s ass-kickers, and sent in to tackle problems and stop the bleeding (figuratively and literally) in high crime neighborhoods. Not long after this event, they were disbanded due to their reputation of being a bit heavy handed, if you know what I mean.
The TPF came up with a solution. It was an alarm system. They selected convenience and Mom and Pop type stores in a close, geographical area that had been targets of robberies. They placed them in the stores at no charge, with the consent of the owners. The alarm had a clip which was placed into the $20.00 bill slot in the cash register, and a $20.00 bill placed into it. If the bill was pulled out, the two metal clamps would make contact, which signaled a hold up alarm. It was transmitted out of the store electronically through a flat antenna, which was inconspicuously placed near the register on the wall. It was unremarkable and unnoticeable to even the most experienced stick up man. No buttons to press or step on. When the robber ordered you to give him the twenties, once you complied it set off a silent alarm. Remember, this was back in 1974.
What was unique about this alarm was, that is tied into an alarm console which was placed in the back seat of an unmarked TPF cruiser, which was assigned to patrol the immediate area. The alarm didn’t go to an alarm company, or to a police district. It went right to a couple of well armed plainclothes officers that were usually nearby. So, in addition to the alarm consul in the unmarked cruisers, the cars themselves became virtual war wagons, with well armed policemen to confront and deal with these stick up artists who were often violent.
The system began to pay dividends immediately. Sometimes alarms came in when the TPF car was just too far away, but other times they got alarms while they near by the hold up and they started to make several apprehensions at the scene. I myself was robbed four times in this store, and on two of those occasions the police made arrests on the spot. Those are all separate stories in themselves, possibly for another time.
I grew up with a kid from my Quincy Point neighborhood named Mark. We were very close friends he and his family eventually moved to a quiet town, south of Boston. However, we stayed good friends and he worked a full time job just north of Boston. I don’t remember which of us came up with this bright idea first, but, I had a need to hire a couple of part time people, including one I could trust to work a few evenings a week and close and lock up the store. I had the brilliant thought that Mark might want a decent part time job. My store was sorta / kinda located between his job and his home, and anyway, driving from his job to his house during rush hour everyday was not fun, so the nights he worked at my store, he only had to drive half the distance, and when he was done rush hour was over, and he drove the rest of the way to his home. What a match I thought! A dependable friend I could trust, and I could do something good for him with the job. A classic win-win situation, if there ever was one. As it turned out, maybe not so much for my childhood friend.
Anyway, Mark agrees to go to work for me. He worked a few weeks, maybe even a month or two, I don’t remember how long. It was working out well, for me anyway.
When Mark came to work for me I trained him and we already had the TPF alarm in place, and the possibility of becoming an armed robbery victim never really seemed to bother Mark too much. That stuff always happens to other people, right? Looking back, I realize I should have told him it was likely that he would become a robbery victim at the store, especially working nights in that neighborhood. But, I never lied to him, and told him about some of my exploits. Anyway, it didn’t seem to bother him.
Well, one evening, Mark was working, and sure enough some guy comes in, points a pistol in Mark’s face and told him to give him the money. All the money. Mark complied and also gave him the $20.00 bill, which tripped the silent alarm. The guy took the money, and was gone in a matter of seconds. Typical convenience store robbery, if there is one. In and out, in seconds. That normally would have been the end of it. But not this night. Not for Mark.
The store was located on the corner of Hyde Park Ave. and Mt. Hope Street. Unknown to both the unfortunate robber and Mark, the TPF cruiser happened to be about a block away from the store, actually on Mt. Hope St.when they got the alarm. The robber turned left out of the store and then left on to Mt. Hope Street. The cops, by then on foot, ran Up Mt. Hope St. towards the store. They ran into each other on the corner, outside the store and a pretty hefty shoot out occurred. Blam, Blam, Bang, Bang! Shotguns and pistols were unloaded. They were within feet of each other. They couldn’t miss.
Meanwhile, Mark is inside the store while all this shooting is going on outside the door. Bullets flying and pinging around, around, cops and robber yelling, screaming, cursing, all while Mark dove onto the floor in fear for his life and made himself as small as he possibly could. And, that’s no exaggeration. I’m not sure, but I think while Mark was ducking he was doing a bit of cussing himself, and I’m sure he was cursing me as well.
Suddenly, the shooting ended. Almost as quick as it started it was over. Final score, no hits, no casualties, one robber under arrest, and he was pretty shaken up and amazed he was still alive. Too good for him. The Boston cops had no compunction against blowing this guy away, but it wasn’t in the cards for any of them that night.
The arrest and experimental program was widely publicized in the days that followed. Later that week, the Mayor of Boston Kevin White and the then Police Commissioner Robert diGrazia held a press conference in my store. The Boston TV stations were all present, and I was interviewed along with the Mayor and Police Commissioner. I was on all the Boston stations. I was there, plus the TPF guys who made the arrest. The only one not there was my friend, Mark.
As far as Mark goes, considering the circumstances, he took it all in good stride and good humor. Although he wasn’t laughing at the time it happened. He told me the story that night, as he did several times to the police and company officials. But, in the end, Mark turned over the store keys to me and told me thanks for the job, but, no thanks. He valued his life a lot more that the $2.25 an hour (or whatever it was) I was paying him. As he handed the store keys to me he said, with a strange smirk on his face, “Some friend you turned out to be! Please don’t do me any more favors.”
I was working one night with my partner, Danny Guerin. Danny and I worked together for about 2 1/2 years while assigned to the MPD Domestic Violence Unit. He was senior to me, and wasn’t shy about pointing that fact out to me on a regular basis. So, unofficially at least, he was my boss. Dan and I had one or two pretty significant blowouts between us while working together, but generally speaking, I liked to work with him and even though I had more than 6 years on the job when I was partnered up with him, I still learned a lot while riding with him.
On this night, we reported for duty at 6PM, which was normal. When we arrived, we found a case left for us for follow up by the supervisor of our unit who normally worked days. Anything important from dayshift was often left for us to follow up on. To make a long story short, or as short as I can make it, it seems that a guy had visited a pawn shop in Manchester earlier and attempted to purchase a pistol. Normally not a problem, but in this case the guy had a Domestic Violence Protective Order in effect against him. The protected party in this order was his wife, and she lived, I believe, with their children (it may have been three or four, don’t remember which) in a small town north of Concord NH called Boscawen.
Because there was a protective order in place, it was a crime for him to purchase or possess a firearm. It was a violation of that order. Furthermore, at the time it was also a federal felony to possess a firearm if you were the subject of a restraining order (RO), and the issuing state or jurisdiction process complied with the Federal law.
So, this individual, I’ll refer to from here on out as our suspect, went into this shop and handled several pistols to examine them, which itself was a violation of Federal Law in his case. He also selected a pistol and tried to purchase it. In doing so, he filled out the normal ATF form that anyone who purchases a firearm from a dealer completes. In this form, he lied about the RO. There is a question on this form that specifically asks if the purchaser has an active RO against him. He checked the box NO, then signed under penalty of perjury that he was telling the truth, which he wasn’t.
The shop owner then called in the purchase, which is required when someone tries to purchase a firearm in NH. When he did, he was told by the NH State Police Gun Line that the suspect was not eligible to make that purchase because he had a Final RO in effect against him. This now was an additional Federal felony. The first being his handling of any firearm at the time, the second was trying to purchase it, and the third was that he lied about the RO when he filled out the ATF form. The violation of the RO was also a state crime, but only misdemeanor. However his attempt to purchase the gun in Manchester at least gave us local jurisdiction to follow up on the case. But, what case or crime exactly? He hadn’t left the shop with the gun in his possession, and we technically didn’t have the authority to investigate federal crimes and arrest for federal warrants. At least not unless we were working with a federal prosecutor on a specific case.
However, due to the fact that the suspect tried to purchase a pistol after being ordered not to possess a firearm by a judge in a domestic violence case raised all kinds of red flags for us. We were worried about his intent, as well as the safety of his wife as we were for any DV victim. In any case, the NH State Police notified MPD that day of the attempted purchase and that was standard anytime a gun purchase was denied by the gun line.
Danny and I decided we’d start the night off with this case. So, we answered our phone messages left the office and then and were off to the pawn shop while it was still open. We were in luck. The clerk who waited on the suspect earlier in the day was still working. We had done several of these types of cases by then at various gun dealers in the area so the proprietor at this shop knew us from those cases. I’m sure he thought we were pains in the ass every time we came through his door, but, that went along with the type of business he was in. He was able to outline the encounter he had, that the suspect had handled several pistols and selected one for purchase, filled out the paperwork and was then denied. We then confiscated the original paperwork that had been filled out by the suspect, with his signature and took it all into evidence.
Danny and I then got our first cup of coffee in what turned out to be the beginning of a long night. We kicked the case around and over and over in our car as the radio crackled with various calls. The DART Unit (Domestic Violence Response Team) as we were called, were pretty autonomous, and only required to answer calls where we were requested or we felt required our response. We had to go back to MPD to handle the evidence we had just seized. We also read up on the related Federal and State Criminal codes as well as the NH AG’s Manual, to see what our options were, if any, at the time.
We both felt it would be worth while to track this guy down and try to determine what his real motives were for attempting this purchase. It was not lost on us that the RO was made final by the court either that day or the day before, I forget which. Since we both worked DV cases, we were seriously concerned that he tried to buy the gun to kill himself, or worse yet, murder or threaten his wife. We took this seriously and felt compelled to drop everything in order to investigate further. So, we called out of service and rolled up our sleeves.
During that time frame. Danny and I were given a lot of latitude by the Chief of Detectives to determine what we worked on, what we didn’t, and we were allowed to stay late on overtime without permission if we felt it was prudent. It often drove the shift commander crazy, but, the Chief of Detectives told us he trusted our judgement, so in that respect it was a great assignment. This night, before we were finished, we would have to use all that latitude.
Dan and I talked and debated. The obvious solution would to arrest him, then at least we’d have him off the street and his family would be safe for a short time anyway. The problem is that the felonies were federal crimes. We could arrest on a federal warrant (always a highly debatable subject during my time at MPD) but we had no ability to obtain a federal arrest warrant for a federal crime, and thats what we would need to arrest him for the felonies that night. One dynamic with federal law enforcement is that generally speaking feds and the federal courts generally did not work nights, weekends or holidays. There was no one from either the ATF or FBI or the US District Court that we could contact for assistance.
We continued war gaming the case and decided the next step would be to visit the wife. We could interview and to try to get a sense of how dangerous this guy was. We also felt obligated to inform her that he had tried to purchase a pistol, but we had to find her first. Also, not all victims of domestic violence would cooperate with police for various reasons we know all to well. We started by contacting the Boscawen Police. There was one officer on duty that night, and we had to contact him through the Merrimack County Sheriff’s office. We did and we met him at his station a short time later.
One thing I love about small town cops is that they knew everybody in their town. This officer was no exception. “Yes”, he told us. He knew the victim and her family. Knew all her relatives and grew up with the suspect. Yes, the suspect was a pain in the ass. Yes, he had responded to domestic disturbances at the house over the years. And, finally, yes, we should take this attempt to purchase the firearm seriously, although none of us had any idea how we could act on it immediately. As far as Boscawen PD went, he hadn’t committed a crime in their town.
Dan and I met with the victim. Her kids were home and we spent quite a bit of time with her. She filled in many blanks for us on both the suspect and their abusive relationship. She was immediately terrified when we informed her he tried to buy a gun, and she talked about going into hiding, but with the kids and no family nearby, she didn’t know what to do. We tried our best to make her feel a bit safer. We talked again with the Boscawen Police they promised to keep a close eye on her house as well as a lookout in case our suspect meandered into town.
Finally, after along discussion, we left and headed back to Manchester. In the end, we felt it was weak, but we decided to attempt to get an arrest warrant for Attempting to Violate a Protective order. I had never tried this before or since. It was the best immediate solution we could come up with. Normally, someone would either violate an RO or doesn’t. The one thing we had going for us legally in this case was that the suspect took an affirmative step to attempt carry out this violation by trying to buy the gun. This was the main element in charging someone with an Inchoate (attempted or incomplete) crime in New Hampshire. I was however, concerned that if we bothered a judge at their home in the middle of the night for a seemingly minor matter (the rule was never call the duty judge overnight unless it’s an urgent matter that can’t wait until the court opens in the morning) and Danny and I were forever looking for arrest and search warrants at night. We did not want to fall out of the good graces of the duty judges at the District Court. We figured this case was exigent enough to wake a judge.
Being the junior guy, I authored the affidavit for the arrest warrant. Danny helped with the verbiage for the affidavit and the complaint itself. When we were satisfied, we called the judge that was on duty. In the affidavit, as well as when we saw the judge at his home we emphasized our specific and substantial training in DV matters, as well as our concern for the safety of the suspect’s family. My hope was that if the judge saw the charge and at first glance thought we were attempting to lock someone up for the Mickey Mouse charge of Attempting to violate an RO, he would see from the facts we presented this was potentially a serious incident.
I needn’t have worried. This judge was in tune with Domestic Violence issues and the dynamics that go on below the surface. He had prosecuted several DV related homicides before he was appointed to the bench, so we were in luck. He signed it and wished us luck in finding this guy. We left his house with an active arrest warrant. We went back to MPD and placed the warrant in the statewide system. We also sent it to Boscawen PD. Because it was for a misdemeanor, we could not send the warrant nationally in case, for example, he was located nearby in Massachusetts or Maine. However, If we accomplished nothing else that night, he was now wanted throughout the state of NH. If he did show his face in Boscawen or anywhere else in NH he would now be arrested and returned to MPD. But there was more work to be done before this night would be over. We actually had to find this guy and arrest him or I wouldn’t have slept well later. Then, if possible interview him to try to determine his intensions.
I won’t go into the details, but sometime later that night we caught a break. We learned that he was staying with a new girlfriend and her infant son on the West Side of Manchester. I don’t remember where we got that info. But, we did. We went to the apartment, and low and behold, we found him there, within our jurisdiction. His new girlfriend was there, along with the baby. The suspect was not the baby’s father. We placed him under arrest, and had a chat with his new girlfriend. She was not happy we locked him up, but we did tell her about his attempted purchase of the gun and the RO in effect. I hope that gave her something to think about, meaning her safety.
Back at MPD, we booked the suspect. Even the booking officer, when he saw the charge started giving us crap. Talk about chickenshit he went on. All this in front of my prisoner, a real No No in this line of work. You don’t shit on other cops in front of civilians, and especially not in front of their prisoner. The sympathy showed by the other cops present seemed to embolden him, and like all batterers, he played up the role that he was the victim in this case. He was a good guy, he assured us all. He worked hard. His wife was a bitch and now he can’t see his kids and be a good father to them. On and on he pled his case to anyone who would listen.
Actually, this ended up working in our favor. “Absolutely” he said when I asked him if he wanted to tell us his side of the story. He wanted to tell us how foolish and minor this misunderstanding is. In fact, he demanded to do so. It was his right! OK then, come with me…
He came upstairs with us where we presented him with a Uniform Miranda Rights Form. He went over each item. We explained each. He signed off saying that he understood his rights, he wanted to talk with us and waive his right to an attorney. I had no idea at the time, where this interview would lead us. I was hopeful we could get a glimpse of his state of mind as it related to his wife and his behavior. Perhaps, I hoped, he’d tell us something that would make the judge he went in front of later in the morning take the charge seriously.
The interview started. He painted himself as a victim. A victim in life, the victim in his relationship and so on. This went on for a while. I nodded sympathetically as though I understood. Danny and I talked to him, but we couldn’t get much more out of him. It was a low key interview in that we figured that being confrontational with him would only cause him to shut up. We wanted him to talk to us. We told him he was in a lot of trouble. We talked and talked. He talked about his life, wife, anything to deflect any blame from himself as to how he ended up in handcuffs in that room that night.
At one point I was ready to end the interview. I just spoke up. It was a long shot, but it had worked for me before. I told him that I could see he loved his wife and loved his family and I knew deep down inside he would never want hurt them. I went on to tell him that I thought he was in extraordinary anguish, and the only way he could ever receive help for himself was to tell the truth. About his relationship, his marriage, his behavior and his intent when he tried to buy the gun. All of which was true.
Well, sometimes, you never know what works. I was grasping at straws at that point. I wanted to find out, with some certainly whether or not he intended to hurt himself or his wife. Suddenly, out of the blue, he started to sob. He cried. He cried about his wife leaving him, his having to leave his house, not being to be able to see his kids. He just broke down and cried. Danny and I told him we understood and encouraged him to go on.
And then he shocked us. There haven’t been too many times during my career that someone said something that left me speechless. But this was one of those times. We told him we could see he was in agony, and one of us asked him if he was thinking of killing himself. “Yes!” he suddenly blurted out. He hadn’t completely made up his mind when he went into the shop, but that’s why he tried to buy the gun and lied on the ATF form. To kill himself. We talked a bit about that, in a sympathetic way, and that he needed to get help. Then the real admission came.
He told us while continuing to sob that he had planned to first kill his wife, their three kids, then go to the apartment in Manchester, kill his girlfriend and her baby. He then wanted to turn the gun on himself. It just poured out of him, as though a dam had burst. On and on he went. No additional prodding was needed from us. I was astounded at this revelation. It hit me like the proverbial bolt of lightening. And, although it took a while, the entire interview didn’t last more than 90 minutes. This man had just admitted to us that he was seriously considering murdering as many as seven innocent persons and then killing himself. Would he have really done it? Who knows? But to have him admit it, this would have to be taken seriously, although thinking about killing someone isn’t a crime in itself. I do believe that he was seriously contemplating this course of action. Apparently, the issuance of the Final Protective Order had brought him to this precipice. To me, his saying he was thinking about it was more than enough to get him held on a high bail, at least until a bail hearing.
However, the interview was not recorded in any fashion, other than our own handwritten notes. At that time, we routinely did not record interviews because we were always fearful that the presence of a recorder or camera would inhibit any suspect we interviewed. This was pretty much standard practice back then. We weren’t worried about that at the time. I don’t believe it would have mattered anyway.
We talked about these issues for a while, told him it was important to be honest about this to himself and others so he could get the appropriate help he needed and maybe one day in the future he could begin to rebuild his life. He actually thanked us for arresting him, preventing him from hurting those people in his life that he loved and thanked us for being so decent to him. Although I was appalled at what he had just told us, I never was one to kick someone when they were down in life, and that included most people I arrested. We handled him with kid gloves that night.
We returned the suspect to the cellblock. We made sure that he was held on a reasonable bail, at least until he saw a judge later in the morning. We then went back to Boscawen and later the girlfriend’s house to let her know what we did and what he told us. Of course, we wanted to make sure the prosecutor had the whole story the next morning, so as the sun started to come up, we were still typing our reports and the details from the interview. The fact was that, we had only charged him with an attempted misdemeanor, and regardless of the seriousness of the matter, there was only so much that we could do to him for an attempted misdemeanor.
The suspect was arraigned and held pending a bail hearing on a relatively high bail. The judge apparently got the message that this guy was a serious threat to the community. After he was arraigned and held, we were able to shop the case to a federal prosecutor in Concord. The Feds took the case, and he was eventually indicted by a federal grand jury for lying on the ATF form as well as being a prohibited person from possessing a firearm (while he was shopping for the gun) while subject to a final protective order.
A few weeks went by. I never heard much from the girlfriend. I don’t know if she felt she dodged a bullet that night, or took what we told her seriously. But we did stay in close contact with his wife. She breathed a little easier knowing he was locked up at the Valley St. jail on the state charge, and he wasn’t going to make bail on the new federal charges any time soon. The wheels of federal court system started to turn. He was now detained on the federal felony charges as well.
The suspect had a federal public defender assigned to him, and they developed a defense for these very serious allegations. His defense was that we badgered him so badly, so throughly that he would have told us anything to get us to leave him alone. He admitted during pretrial motions that he told us he was going to kill all seven persons and himself, but, he said, he only told us what he thought we wanted him to say. We wouldn’t leave him alone until we got him to say he wanted to kill them.
The fact of the matter was that aside of suggesting he really loved his wife, and his kids, we never mentioned that we thought he was going to kill them. Nor did we ever bring up the woman he was living with and her child. The fact that he voluntarily told us, when he tried to buy the gun he was thinking of using it to kill them all and then himself, as I said earlier came as a complete shock to both of us. Also, the interview was very low key. No accusations, no yelling, threats, nothing like that. We wanted to get this guy to talk to us so we could make an honest evaluation of the threat level that existed, if it did, for his wife. The idea that he may kill the other children and his girlfriend never entered our minds.
Eventually, there was a hearing for a Motion to Suppress his statement to us in Federal Court. Danny and I both testified to the presiding justice of the United States District Court of New Hampshire. I answered all the defense attorney’s questions in as reasonable fashion as possible. I told the judge of our concern about the safety of the suspect’s wife after he tried to purchase the gun. I was allowed to testify about my training (much of it federal by the Justice Department) regarding the dynamics of domestic violence and quote various statistics.
The judge then caught me by surprise by asking me a strange question. He asked me if I ever watched the TV show NYPD Blue. I told him occasionally, but I normally worked nights. He then asked me whether or not the interrogations depicted on the show were accurate depictions of police interrogations in general, and could they describe the “interrogation” that my partner and I subjected the defendant to, when we extracted this confession.
Once again, I was shocked. This time by the question itself, and the apparent naivete of the this federal presiding justice. Now anyone who has ever watched NYPD Blue was often treated to the sight of Andy Sippowitz threatening and manhandling child molesters and rapists around the interrogation room at the precinct, which always resulted in detailed confessions. I knew as an experienced investigator that this type of treatment only worked on TV. Furthermore, I learned that if an investigator hoped to get a rapist or some other deviant to talk to him about these deeply personal issues, the interviewer must establish a rapport with the suspect, and give that suspect some kind of motivation or rationale to do so. We could rarely coerce an admission to this type of behavior from an offender. To me “leaning” on a suspect (figuratively, not literally) was a last ditch attempt to get a suspect to talk to you. So, to me, the suspect’s defense that we sweated or coerced these admissions from the suspect was laughable. I explained all this in a patient and respectful way to the judge. Later, when the hearing was over, I compared notes with my partner who also had testified, and the judge asked him exactly the same question.
The decision came down. The judge wrote that he believed the suspect had knowingly and freely waived his Miranda Rights when we explained them. The judge further found that he believed that both my partner and I were truthful when we testified about the suspect’s admissions thinking about killing his family when he tried to buy the gun. The judge went onto say, however, that he believed the defendant was in a state of mind where he would have told us anything to get away from us. Otherwise, why would he say so? The judge ruled that he would admit the statements during trial, but he warned the prosecutor he would give them no weight whatsoever. He would advise a jury of the same. Apparently, this judge had the ability to look into the suspect’s heart, if he had one, and was able to determine the suspect really didn’t mean what he told us. At least, I thought, the judge didn’t outright call me a lair. But, it got worse.
Based on this ruling, and the judges comments, the entire federal case was dropped. I never understood that in as much as he wasn’t charged with trying to murder anyone, he was charged with lying on the ATF Form, a felony. And, we had plenty of evidence to convict him of that. I believe that to this day. And, I think it was worth presenting our testimony to a jury and let them decide. However, in retrospect, if I was the defense attorney, based on this ruling, I would have opted for a bench trial rather than disclosing our testimony to a jury. The judges message was clear. We weren’t going to get a conviction in federal court.
The case now went back to the Manchester District Court for the original charge of attempting to violate the RO. A deal was struck. The suspect pled guilty to that charge. In light of his statements to us, which were still admissible in state court, he was given a brief jail sentence and given pretrial credit for the time he had already been locked up. The maximum amount of jail time he could have been given was a year, with a third deducted for good behaviour. I think maybe he did five or six months at most.
For a while, his wife, or ex-wife which I believe she became, was able to sleep at night. That was a good thing, even if temporary, but I felt good about that. Although Danny and I occasionally spoke with the wife from time to time, we never heard anything about the suspect after he was released from jail. We may have even driven out to Boscowen once or twice on slow nights to check on her, and I hope that made her feel a bit better. At least, I thought, she knew we cared.
As for the suspect, I think if nothing else, at least I hope, he realized he dodged several bullets. The outcome for him was as good as it could have been. I also hope that the court forced him to get the help he needed. But then again, the Criminal Justice System is designed to protect the rights of the offender, not the victim. I was astonished that the Presiding Justice of the United States District Court could be taken in and manipulated by this see through defense. Also, I was even more dumfounded that this judge’s knowledge of real world police procedure came from watching a fictional TV show.
As for me, I never doubted, not for a minute that this guy seriously thought about killing all those people he named when he decided to purchase that pistol. He had much to lose and nothing to gain by making these disclosures to us.
The good news was that in someways the system worked that night. The wife obtained the RO, the suspect tried to purchase the pistol, the salesman followed the law, and he was flagged by the State Police due to the fact that the RO had been issued and it was properly filed within the system. Furthermore, the State Police reached out to us and notified MPD of the attempt.
Finally, the case was given to my partner and I to follow up on and figure out a way to protect his wife, if only temporarily. We did. Mostly because we were hard working detectives who believed in what we were doing. It didn’t hurt that our bosses gave us free reign to figure these things out at night and then do them. The case also provided proof positive that for a victim of Domestic Violence, the most dangerous time for her is when she decides to leave that relationship. In this case, her having obtained the final restraining order against her husband, truly turned out to be that moment of peril. Not only for her, but for her children. And others.
This case began what eventually became for me, a serous distaste for fictional TV series about cops and movies as well. Both often portrayed cops as corrupt and brutal, and I saw how these things colored the perceptions held by honest citizens about cops. Not only did these shows influence a sitting federal judge in this case, but as the years went on, and defendants lied about how they were teated by me, or tried to impinge my integrity during court proceedings, I saw that many, many people who sat on juries were too often persuaded by these false defenses and outright lies. Yeah, they believed the defendant’s outrageous claims because they often saw cops behave like that regularly when they watched these fictional dramas play out on TV regularly.
The years flew by. Danny is gone now, and I miss him. We were partners for about 2 1/2 years. We rode together eight hours a day and often much longer. I had two more great partners while I worked in the DV Unit. I lasted there for almost six years. Looking back at this arrest, despite the fact that at first glance the case charging the suspect with an attempted misdemeanor may have appeared trivial, and although it resulted with a short jail term, this may have been one of the most important cases which I participated in during my police carer. Although I was and still am unhappy about the outcome, I feel good about it.
By the time I was in Kindergarten, I was living on Pierce Ave in the Dorchester section of Boston. I had been exposed to cops where I lived previously, also in Dorchester, primarily due to my alcoholic neighbor and the battles and dramas that played out regularly which often included the police. The police had never come to my house at that point in my life that I can remember. The cops had never dragged my old man out of the house nor did they ever have to whack the crap out of him in order to do so.
This was, I later discovered as a cop myself, not always the case in every household. Early in my career I remember going to my first few domestics or family problem calls and finding the young kids hiding under their beds or in their closets. And, to my horror, I discovered that they weren’t hiding from the jackass that was acting up in their household that resulted in the visit from the local constabulary. They were hiding from the police. They were hiding from ME! I was the bad guy, who apparently was the one to be feared. As a new policeman I had a problem with that dynamic and had to get used to it.
However, in my case, I never had reason to fear cops. I saw them take my friend’s dad away several times after he had administered beatings to his wife and others, so my first exposure to the police was more or less that I was in awe of these guardians who magically appeared like white knights to quell these nasty disturbances. I was always impressed when Boston’s Finest rolled up in their old Gray and Blue cars with the forward blinking blue lights on the roof.
However, that didn’t mean I wasn’t somewhat intimidated as a child when I looked up at a guy who looked to me like a tall oak tree and was carrying a gun, handcuffs, a large baton and who know what else was on his on his big, thick black belt. I knew enough that I would never want to be spanked with that belt! And then there was always the hat, the brim usually pulled low covering his forehead.
So, by the time I was in kindergarten, I had no real fear of cops. I’d seen them around quite often. They always seemed to me to be the good guys.
This week, I was going to the Thomas J. Kenny School, which was and still is on Oakton Ave, pretty close to my house. I was going to the morning session every day. Usually, I walked there each morning with several friends my age. Oakton Ave ran parallel to and in the back of Pierce Ave, so my Mom would stand on our back porch and wave to me as we walked by heading up to the school.
This particular weekend, a rumor reached my friends and I and it spread like wildfire through the neighborhood, as rumors often do. This particular rumor was very serious and it disturbed every 6 and 7 year old kid for blocks around. It seems that it had been confirmed by unnamed sources that an elderly woman who lived in a house on the corner, a house we passed twice everyday to and from school, was a witch! Can you imagine, a witch in our neighborhood! Furthermore, the buzz around the 1st grade community was that she was making kids somehow, nefariously disappear as they passed by. There was even some talk about a broomstick and big black pot having been seen. Well, this was terrifying news to those of us in my crew of kindergarteners and first graders.
And, so, after discussing this scuttlebutt all weekend, Monday morning arrived. I would have to head out to school. We had all pretty much decided we would take a different route to school to avoid the newly confirmed witch’s house.
For some reason, I was running late. Usually my Mom would see that I got off to school on time, but I was late on this morning. I wonder if I lingered just a bit watching an episode of the Three Stooges or the Little Rascals. Perhaps I was moving slow on purpose. Either way, by the time I left the house, all my friends had already gone ahead and I was alone. I protested to my mother about the witch at the end of the street, however she just told me this was all nonsense, but I thought, ‘what do grown ups know about these things?’ They don’t even believe there are such things as witches, ghosts and goblins. We kids knew better.
Well, I probably don’t have to tell you this was a problem. Especially with all this unsettling witch business and the sightings. So, I headed up the hill to school, instead of my usual route which would have taken me by the witch’s house. Sound reasoning, or so I thought at the time.
So up the hill, around the corner and suddenly I was on Adams St. pretty much the main drag in my hood. I finally made it to school having gone the long way around. The only problem was that when I finally arrived, all the doors were locked! I couldn’t get in. I knocked and knocked, no one came to the door. Perhaps due to the fact that I hadn’t yet attended Infantry School at Ft. Benning, where were required to pound the hell out of the door of any office we were summoned to enter, my timid knocks on the huge doors went unheard and unanswered. Since I was so late, maybe it was just as well, or so I reasoned. I turned around, and slowly headed home. There would be hell to pay from my Mom, and even more so later when my Dad got home from work. Missing School? Unforgivable in my family. At that time anyway. Low and behold, almost as soon as I turned the corner back onto Adams Street, what did I see but a policeman meandering steadily towards me at a leisurely pace.
Now, normally, the sight of an approaching policemen to me, unlike many people I’ve encountered later in life during my police career, would not be a concern. But at some point in my early childhood it was explained to me that all children had to go to school because it was the law. I was also told what a truant officer was, and they and the police would arrest kids that skipped school. Now at this point in my life, at age six, I had managed to make it thus far without accruing that criminal or school “record” that I was told would follow me through life. Not a good thing to have I had been assured of many times by my parents.
So, as I saw this policeman come closer and closer, I knew I was in trouble. I also I knew I was officially “Truant” for school. I was scared! For the first time in life, I experienced the Fight or Flight syndrome. For some reason, I figured the only rational course was to continue walking like nothing was going on. Maybe if I just kept quiet and just walked passed him he’d never even know I was there, or at least figured if I wasn’t at school where I belonged, there was an acceptable reason. And, what the heck, I thought, there really was a good reason for my being late. After all, I couldn’t be expected to walk past the witch’s house by my self!
So, I put my head down and walked forward, trying to be cool about it. As I write this today, it reminds me of all the times that, when I was in a cruiser and pulled up next to someone at a red light, and that guy in the next car gripped his steering wheel tightly with both hands, and the entire time he was next to me stared straight forward, never moving his eyes, as if he was searching for a ship to appear in the far off fog. I always knew that guy was either wanted or had a suspended license. And, the times I got to check on that hunch, I was usually right. So, the 6 year old scofflaw that I now was, walked on, trying to be cool but heart beat racing.
Yeah, in case you didn’t guess, the cop stopped me. Naturally, he asked me where I was going and why I wasn’t in school. I guess cops in Boston back in the day actually inquire about such things. Anyway, it was then that I knew I’d never make a living as a criminal. I immediately broke. I explained everything as quickly as I could. About the witch, about my friends, about being late and finding the doors locked at the school. About everything. After all, I didn’t want to find myself being pitched head first into a wagon like happened to my drunken neighbor so many times!
Surprisingly, the cop didn’t seem too upset about any of this. He actually listened patiently and if I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought he was somewhat sympathetic to my circumstances. In fact, after I finished spilling my guts, he then did something that shocked me and to this day I never forgot it. He said “let’s go”. He then picked me up, and put me on his shoulders! He turned around and headed back to the school with me on his shoulders while he held onto my feet as they dangled down onto his chest. I didn’t know what to think. It didn’t appear that I was headed for the back of a police wagon after all. Dare I relax a bit? He walked right up to the front door with me on his shoulders! And for him, someone actually opened the door. He talked to someone, and after I told him I was in Mss McGinntey’s class, he set me down and I led him to my classroom.
Miss McGinntey opened the door. In way of an explanation, he told my teacher that I was a good kid and it wasn’t my fault I was late. I remember him telling her not to yell at me. I was relieved beyond belief. I guess this explanation from a cop was good enough for my teacher. My appearance at my class that morning in the company of a police officer did cause a bit of a stir among my classmates, the other kindergartners. The kids in my class looked at me just a bit differently, in a good way, after that. My teacher sent me to my seat in the play circle and not another word was ever spoken about my tardiness. Of course, I had to tell and retell my story to my friends and the other kids in my school.
Mostly though, that encounter formed my foundation regarding how I looked at cops growing up. I’ve thought a lot about that beat cop over the years. I never knew his name, nor did I know anything about him. He wore a badge, and he took care of me in my moment of need. No small thing to a six year old. He was understanding, and once I realized he was on my side, I instinctively knew he was going to make everything alright. Sadly, I’m sure we never crossed paths again.
Today, as I look back and reflect on my own police career, I can’t help thinking that if I have ever done anything as meaningful as that, if I ever helped anyone in need, if I ever did any good at all throughout those years, those folks I may have helped may well owe that to the cop I ran into so many years ago. It’s too bad that police officer never knew that the way he treated me that day would effect so many people, so far away, through my behavior. Am I overthinking this thing, like I am oft to do? I don’t think so. I’m sure he’s long gone by now. But, I wish I could have told him. Who knows? Maybe if he was as good a man as I thought he was he does know…
I know this sounds like the lead in from Jack Webb and an episode of the old Dragnet TV show, but I am going to use it anyway.
It was a warm summer night in Manchester. I was working the 6PM to 230 AM shift in patrol. It was after dark when I got this call. It may be a cliche, but it is true that in police work, you never know what you’re going to come across or what your next call is going to be.
I always felt lucky to have been assigned to that shift when I was fresh out of the academy. I learned a lot that first summer. It was a busy summer, and that was normally a very lively shift. It wasn’t unusual to handle 20-25 calls during that shift and making multiple arrests. Sometimes up to four arrests during an eight hour shift. You could never do that today because most calls now require a report to be written and filed and the process for booking a simple misdemeanor arrest has become very arduous and never simple. Forget about a felony or DWI.
Back then, you could go to a call, give a stern warning, clear the call as Solved At Scene (you hoped) then go on to the next call without writing a report. And, if you did make a report, the report itself, unless a serious felony could be cursory and you could be back on the street 45 minutes after an arrest. Some simple reports could actually be-and get this-hand written! No more.
Furthermore, back in the 90s we had a dictation system where when we complied notes for several reports, we could go to one of the local hospitals or whatever business that was on your route and call in and dictate those reports over the phone! The reports would be typed by stenographers and the next shift at roll call you would receive the reports, be able to proof them, then sign them and pass them in. The only time that you actually had to come into the station house to type a report right away was in the case of an arrest, or something that required to be entered into NCIC (nationwide) such as a missing juvenile, stolen firearm or car.
It was a great system. And it ended the day the PD installed mobile computer units in all the cruisers. To this day, I never understood that.
Also back then, the unwritten rule was that if you had to go back to any call a second time, then there had better not be a third time. So as polite and reasonable as we tried to be, if we had to go back because the behavior continued, arrests were often made.
On this night I was assigned to an “X” car, which most of the 6-230 AM units were. An X car covered overlapping routes of the regular route cars and provided back up for the route cars at calls and were also sent to calls when the route cars were tied up. It was a great assignment if you were a cop that liked to work.
Years later, the department went to a sector car system, with several route cars within a sector. Those cars were allowed to roam their sector freely and spend time in whatever locations that were a problem, even if it was off your route. However, calls on your route had to be answered by that route car. It gave the patrol cops a lot more freedom than previously allowed. It was a good system and adopted when MPD adopted the Federal Community Oriented Policing model. This incident occurred before the Sector Patrol System had been adopted and implemented.
The call was for a man with a gun. The information given to me during the call was there were four male subjects, and one was brandishing a handgun and pointing it at people and cars as they walked along. The suspect with the gun was described as a white male, wearing a purple football shirt and the caller even got the number on the back of the shirt. Number 82.
The caller stated that the group was walking north on Wilson St. which is located in the inner city in one of the higher crime neighborhoods. As it happened I was only a block or so away. I immediately responded. I arrived at the location, probably not more than a minute later. I turned out my headlights and glided to a stop. There they were, walking away from me. I called off on the radio and got out on foot. They are walking away from me in the rear of a strip mall. For those of you who may know the city, they were walking behind the old nightclub City Limits and where the Stop and Shop would later be. The suspect in the purple shirt was holding a pistol in his right hand and was pointing it towards the rear of a building to his right.
I drew my pistol, and sighted in on the suspect. I looked over my sites and lined them up with the center of his back, right on the number 82. He couldn’t have provided a better target for me. He continued to walk leisurely away from me while pointing his pistol.
I yelled “POLICE! FREEZE!” It wasn’t a request. My finger was on the trigger. Back then, we were trained OFF TARGET, (FINGER) OFF TRIGGER. ON TARGET, (FINGER) ON TRIGGER. In retrospect, maybe I should have ordered him to drop the gun. Maybe he would have. But, I didn’t. The suspect, apparently startled, turned to look at me over his right shoulder. As he did, he swung the pistol around and momentarily pointed it at me. That millisecond seemed like it played out in slow motion. As I think about that night I’m pretty certain his turning and pointing the gun at me was an instinctive reaction, not necessarily a conscious prelude to killing me. But, as we all know, in real time we often have to make instant, instinctive decisions without any time to consider options.
The Deadly Force Law in NH for law enforcement at the time basically said that when a cop reasonably believes a person is about to use deadly force on him or a third person, then deadly force is lawful. In certain, well defined circumstances, deadly force can be used to apprehend a fleeing felon if the escape of that felon constitutes a threat to the community.
You don’t have much time to evaluate the situation you may find yourself in VS the use of force laws for cops. Like I say, that decision often must be made instantly and instinctively.
On this night, after momentarily pointing his gun in my direction, he and his friends decided to run. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t pull the trigger when he turned on me. I actually had pressure on the trigger when he turned and ran. He did not drop the weapon, so I gave chase on foot, knowing I was chasing an armed subject.
The four ran westerly across Lincoln St. and into a complex of little league baseballs fields and split up. I screamed my location into my radio. I said the suspect was armed. Nothing gets other cops attention like when the radio is broken by the sound of another cop, huffing and puffing while yelling directions into the radio that he is chasing someone. Most times, you never know why the copper was chasing the suspect in the first place. Was it a robbery? Was the suspect wanted somewhere for murder? Or is he fleeing for some foolish reason, like an unpaid speeding ticket that he never took care of. In this case, I confirmed this suspect was armed with a gun. Almost instantly I heard multiple sirens wailing and headed towards me from all directions. I soon lost sight of all four suspects. I was out of breath, the adrenalin was flowing and I tried to shout instructions over the radio until a supervisor took control. The perimeter was sealed off, and a dog was brought in to conduct a search for all four subjects then an object search for the gun itself.
Within a half hour or so, all four subjects were in custody. I think they all “went to ground” in different locations and were located by vigilant cops and or the K-9. Eventually, the gun was found. It had been stashed somewhere in the park.
After I calmed down, I headed to station to process my prisoners. But I wasn’t calm for long. Walter came to me with the gun. I was shocked. It was a paint ball gun. The person who had the gun owned up to it being the gun he had when I confronted him. All four did. I had no reason not to believe them. Especially since a K-9 tracked the gun back to where the suspect had been found hiding and then from there back to where I first confronted him. This guy had no idea how close he came to being killed that night. And worse, yet, it was me who almost killed him. Over what?
I was livid. When I entered into booking I found the four subjects, now under arrest handcuffed to the bench. They were all young men but adults who should have known better. Each of them were over 18. I screamed at them. I howled at them about how close this behavior came to causing me to kill him. I bellowed about squeezing the trigger, how I would never have missed at that distance and I went on and on until I was physically spent and couldn’t yell anymore. I kinda lost it. There were several cops present, and they kinda stood off to the side and let me cook off. I think they understood. Any of them, believing they were chasing an armed suspect could have, under certain circumstances, shot him themselves.
Finally, when I ran out of steam, the other guys decided it was best if they searched and booked the four suspects while I left the booking area, took a deep breath and start on my paperwork. I was grateful for that.
I have no idea whether or not that guy appreciated how close he came to being killed by me that night. His behavior was more than foolish. I went on about having been justified if I did kill him. He put his own life in jeopardy…And no police board or jury would have punished or convicted me for it.
Mostly though, I was angry about this man putting me in a position where I could have killed him. The fact that I knew that I would have been justified for shooting him did not make me feel any better. The fact was that although no one could have determined that this paint gun was not a real firearm in the dark under the street light, coupled with the information I had received when I was sent to the call didn’t make me feel any better. I believe that had I taken this man’s life, although legally justified, doing so would haunt me for the rest of my life. It certainly would have been a life changing incident for me.
I don’t remember what I charged this guy with. I’m sure he was charged with Disorderly Conduct and Resisting Arrest. Maybe Criminal Mischief for shooting buildings with paint balls. I don’t remember if I charged him with Criminal Threatening or not. I probably did since I did in fact feel threatened when he turned towards me. The case never went to trial. I assume they pled out.
That was not the first time I drew my service weapon or confronted a suspect at gunpoint. It certainly was not the first or last time I came close to shooting someone on the job. There were several deadly force situations in the years ahead during which I would have been justified in using deadly force. Fortunately, on each occasion circumstances dictated that either the moment passed or I didn’t have to resort to shooting a suspect to save my life or take him into custody.
Furthermore, late in my career, I was assigned to investigate a shooting by an on-duty NH State Trooper. He had shot and killed a suspect in Manchester after a car chase into our city. I did what I had to do, but in the back of my mind I never lost sight of the fact that I wasn’t there when he pulled the trigger. It wasn’t my role to determine whether or not the shooting was justified, which it turned out, it was. That decision would be made by the Attorney General’s Office based on the results of our criminal investigation.
But that summer night, as I think back on it, I still don’t know why I didn’t pull the trigger. I know that as he ran, I knew the moment had passed. I holstered my pistol as I chased him, but when I stopped to search, I drew it again. Oh woe is the person who stepped out of the shadows that night while I had my pistol drawn. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Over the next few days, cops throughout the department, especially those on duty that night scrutinized my behavior when I confronted this jerk. And they weren’t shy about offering their opinions, either behind my back or to my face. I was still a rookie. Worse, I was still a probationary patrolman. Cops are great Monday morning quarterbacks and gossips if nothing else. It’s something they excel at. I received some support and a lot of criticism. Several cops told me my decision not to pull the trigger the moment that guy turned towards me with the gun was wrong. They told me that guy could have killed me at that moment if he chose to. I’ve thought about that night often. They are all correct, of course. Maybe, just maybe, that guy had his guardian angel with him that night.
My attitude towards those who were critical of my decision not to shoot is to shrug my shoulders and say, “Hey, you weren’t there”. And, that attitude often causes me to hold back on judgment of other cops often in controversial situations. That is especially true when bosses who haven’t worked the streets for years or civilians rush to judgement regarding split second decisions cops make on the street.
I really don’t know why I didn’t kill that man that night. I guess maybe I hesitated just an instant. Thats not a comforting thought. And for sure, that hesitation could have cost me my life. If he had a real gun. If he wanted to kill me. How would I have known?
In the end, in that situation, in that circumstance, I thank God I did not pull the trigger. Even though I know I would have been justified. But, believe it or not, that decision not to shoot has haunted me in my dreams for many years. I’d like to think this is because I have an inherent desire to never hurt or kill anyone. But I know, the real reason, is that I was always afraid that the next time I found myself in a similar situation, hesitating could cost me my life. Despite my ability to overthink things, I know I made the right decision that night.
We lost Colonel James and Sergeants Tuliau and Howe. The loss of those great men was a huge hit for us, as you may well imagine. It also left a large void in both our chain of command as well as our day to day leadership. Our four teams were allowed to stand down for about a week, while the teams themselves were reorganized. We also established a new training regimen for any days we didn’t have a mission outside the wire. I was thankful for that period of time to reorganize and deal with these losses. It wasn’t easy. However, life and the mission continued.
I was sent back to the 3rd Battalion Team after filling in for Master Sergeant Tuliau as 3rd Brigade NCOIC, but when I went back to that team, I went back in a leadership position as the Senior Non Commissioned Officer in Charge. This team was mostly comprised from a Regular Army Unit out of Ft. Drum, NY. I was from the Massachusetts National Guard and that had created a problem for me from the first day I arrived in Iraq. Now, I was supervising a team consisting of Regulars. They were not happy. They did not like working for a reservist.
I went to my Team Leader Major Cureton. Cureton was also a regular army officer, but unlike the rest of the team, he was a Cavalry Officer from the 82nd Airborne Division that somehow ended up with the rest of us. My team had several E-7s (one grade lower than I) and I told the major that if he wanted to assign one of the Regular Army guys as NCOIC, I would understand. Major Cureton told me that as far as he was concerned the Army had promoted me to Master Sergeant (E-8) and until I proved I was otherwise incompetent, I would be his NCOIC. I don’t have to say that this vote of confidence at this crucial moment was very important to me.
Later in the week during which we lost our people, we had to mount a mission to Adnon Palace which was located near downtown Baghdad. It was a patrol consisting of three vehicles, and the personnel had been selected from our among our four teams. Needless to say I was involved with some folks from my team in my vehicle. My brother was also part of this mission. I think we were all kinda messed up at that point. I know that I had it in my mind that we were going to get hit this day and I may not survive.
We were a pretty salty group of rebels up to this time, although the shock of losing James, Tuliau and Howe set us back on our heels quite a bit. Apparently we looked like a collection of outlaws or soldiers of fortune. At that point, I didn’t really care to enforce some of the fine points of Army Regulation 670-1. We were in contact with the enemy every day, unlike most US Soldiers, and we were pretty much on our own when we were going outside the wire daily. So, I ignored certain, what I thought were trivial violations of that regulation by my NCOs and Officers. This drove some of the Sergeants Major on our FOB out of their minds, but that’s a story for another day.
The purpose of this mission was to pick up two soldiers that were newly assigned to us. One was a staff sergeant from Georgia, I believe from the USAR, and the other was a captain from Guam. Both were inbound to Iraq, but after we were hit, they got plucked out of wherever they were in Kuwait, put on a plane, and sent to us. Luck of the draw, but bad luck for them. They were not supposed to be going to Iraq as advisors, they were not originally headed to a combat assignment. It was so sudden that neither of them had been issued a weapon. I learned during the operations order prior to leaving the wire, I would pick up the new Captain and he would ride in my HUMMVEE.
So, dutifully, this mishmash of a combat patrol sucked it up and left the FOB going into harm’s way without complaint as we did everyday. I think most of us truly believed we would die this day. Of course, we didn’t actually say that to each other…
We eventually arrived at the Palace. When we pulled up, we all got out of our vehicles and congratulated each other for making this perilous trip in one piece. I personally felt like a huge weight had been temporarily lifted from my back. It was my first mission where I was the new NCOIC for my team. First combat mission in a leadership position, and we made it safely. At least the first leg.
So, most of us were out, backslapping each other and cameras came out and people started to snap pictures. I can’t really explain the euphoria that apparently hit us, other than to say that, at least in my case, we were alive and it felt really good at that moment in time. And, that’s where trouble started for us.
My gunner that day, an E-7, was sitting in the turret of my HUMVEE. He had removed his helmet, revealing a sweaty, dirty bandana on his head, looking like some kind of deranged gang member. He was also smoking a cigarette. Now you have to understand that it is a serious violation of Army regulations to smoke in or close to any army vehicle. He didn’t care that day, and neither did I. His appearance was pretty shitty, but we all looked pretty bad. Tired, dirty, mentally beat, and we certainly didn’t look as though we had come from a Regimental Ball. We were front line combat troops that were worn out and we looked it.
I was standing on one side of my truck, and none of us noted the One Star General on the steps surveying the scene. We learned that he was also the Deputy Commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, to whom we were assigned. We’d already had some not so good history with the 3rd ID. At one point, the commander of the FOB where we worked from and lived actually threw us off the FOB. I’m not really sure why, but maybe in another story I’ll give my guess. He was told that he could not “EVICT” an American Army Unit off of an American Base within a theater of war. We never got thrown out, but the Command Sergeant Major of that unit gave me no end of grief regarding my teams appearance. He constantly singled me out because I was now the Senior NCO standing in any of our four teams.
This CSM was a guy who often met my team and others as we re-entered the FOB after a grueling combat mission. Instead of greeting his retuning troops with ice cold koolaid and a warm welcome, he gave us a bad time if, God forbid, one of us unsnapped our chin strap or removed our helmet in the 130 degree heat. But, that was his leadership style. Back during WWII they used to call this stuff chickenshit. And, chickenshit it was, as far as I was concerned. The man never once asked me what my troops needed or how I or they were doing. It was always “why are your people (insert trivial issue) and why don’t you do anything about it? “
So, back to Adnon Palace. Suddenly the General yelled out “Why are you smoking in that vehicle?” It was an exclamation more than a question. The gunner yelled back (to the General) “Because I’m too Fuckin tired to climb down!” The General, who by now was pretty irate followed up with a comment about the dirty rag on his head. I walked away. I know, it was a cowardly act on my part. I admit it. I thought at the time it was best not to get into a pissing match with a general.
The general’s aid, a captain came down the steps. He told the gunner he wanted his name and unit info. What I didn’t realize was during that time, my brother, also an E-7 was snapping a photo of the gunner. The captain then approached Frank and asked for his information. The captain apologized and seemed like a reasonable sort, but Frank asked him why the general wanted his name. The captain replied that Frank was taking pictures of the gunner wearing his doo rag and smoking, instead of correcting this. Frank didn’t bother to tell the general’s aid that he did not out rank the gunner, nor was he his supervisor. Truth is, we all kind of lost our military bearing at that moment, and this episode would not endear us any further to the 3rd ID Command staff.
This encounter returned us to reality and the mission at hand. I met the Captain that was going to be riding with me. After introducing myself to him, I explained where we were going. I sat him in the back of my truck, behind the driver, but we did not have a headset to give him to communicate with the rest of us. This was due to the fact that we had decided to never fill the HUMVEE to capacity unless it was a mission requirement. Our rationale was that if we took a hit, we’d lose one or two less soldiers. We normally ran with a driver, Truck Commander and Gunner. Often an interpreter was along, or our medic, but that still freed up one seat, one less soldier to die if we were hit with an EFP.
I explained to the captain that we were going through or near Sadr City, and his only job was to watch the roof lines along the route for snipers. I told him if he saw anyone who could have been a sniper to kick the drivers seat as hard as he could. I told him if we did get hit and have to react, he was to stick with me and do what I told him to do.
I wasn’t used to giving curt orders to an officer, but this was serious business and my thought process was until he got some combat seasoning (which he soon did) at least on this mission, he was taking orders from me. I still called him Sir, and was respectful to him, but my instructions were not suggestions and I expected him, for our safety, to follow them to the T. To his credit, the captain didn’t argue or take exception with my instructions.
In fact, the captain’s only response to me, as he gazed at me with the widest eyes I had ever seen, was “SNIPERS?” More of an expression of horror than a question. That’s when it hit me. At that moment I immediately realized two things:
I was a combat veteran now. I had not looked at myself in that light until that very second. And,
Because of that fact the new guys, including the Captain were looking to me for guidance and assurance.
I then put my arm on the captains shoulder, patted him a few times (something I would never have done to a commissioned officer before that time) I told him “Don’t worry Sir. We’ll be alright. If something happens, just stick with me”. I could see it helped him. Months later this captain told me that he appreciated the way I treated him that day. He was candid and told us that he was scared shitless that day. He also told us then when he saw us pull up, we looked so bad that he thought we were some kind of secret black ops unit. He muttered to himself “who the fuck are these guys?“ He was mortified when he found out we were there for him, and worse, he was going with us!
The captain became a fine combat officer and leader and it didn’t take long for him to earn the respect of the veterans in the unit. When he talked about meeting us, me in particular, we laughed about that, but the truth was I learned that there was no time to feel sorry for myself. Others now considered me a combat veteran and looking to me for leadership.
We finally made it back to Rustamiyah safely with our two new troops. The euphoria we felt earlier was gone as we immediately received a warning order for the next days missions. Yes, we had survived, but the reality was we had survived that day only, and tomorrow we would do it again. And the day after that and the day after that…
That night I met with Major Cureton and gave him a heads up about the confrontation we had with the Deputy Division Commander. The Major seemed to take it in stride and told me not to worry about it. I was told at a later date the general did try to make trouble for us, wanted to punish our gunner, my brother and the leadership, which would have included me. I was told that he was advised by someone senior to him, (I’m assuming the Division Commander) to let it go because we’d just lost a bunch of people and were going through a tough time with a tough mission. I never heard another thing about that breach of discipline.
A short time later, our teams received some more fillers. Troops new in country assigned to our teams. One morning I was with a team getting ready to head out. The patrol leader this day was Major Cruz, team chief of our 1st Battalion team. We were combining teams because we were still short of personnel and at that point had lost two of our twelve trucks during combat operations.
Another patrol from our FOB had left a short time earlier on a different mission. As my patrol was getting ready, there was a huge BOOM outside the FOB. I immediately knew it was bad . It was. My stomach tightened up and I got that sick feeling inside that had become so common for me by this time. Some small arms fire also erupted outside the FOB. Major Cruz got on one of the radios and relayed reports to us. “Several US wounded…one vehicle lost…one US KIA…more US KIA…and his report went on.
We had a new medic, and one or two others that were going on their first combat patrol. As they listened to this and prepared to head out into the fray, I literally saw the blood drain from their faces. Being the Senior NCO present, I instinctively felt their eyes on me. It may have been Major Cruz’s patrol, but they were looking to me, the senior sergeant. For what? Something.
I went to each, despite my own misgivings and fears, told them they were going to be alright and said just do what I do or what I tell you. I really think it helped each one of them. I was no longer in the leadership lab of OCS or an NCO school. No time to discuss theory here. I was expected to provide real and crucial leadership in this deadly environment. I was quickly learning how to survive, I was learning what it meant to be a leader in combat. The lessons were stark, often paid for with blood, and they came quickly, one after another. I had no time to feel sorry for myself. I was now responsible for the lives and well being of several soldiers, both enlisted and officers. I could only hope that I would be up to the challenge.