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A Hollywood producer could not have staged a more striking scene than the one Company A, 3rd Battalion of the 75th Rangers, presented as they sallied forth from the shade provided by the hangars they had been waiting in. In single file, the Rangers trotted out into the bright sunlight that beat down upon the tarmac. Doubled over by the weight of their gear, they made for a row of waiting UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, straining to be unleashed like a herd of Thoroughbred racehorses being held in check at the starting gate by their attentive jockeys. Not a hint of cloud corrupted the stunning azure sky above them. Only in the distance, just visible above the vibrant green jungle that surrounded the airfield did a darkening sky on the horizon serve notice to all that a line of violent storms was coming on fast.
The stage manager of this little drama was Captain Nathan Dixon, a twenty-eight-year-old graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, who looked more like someone you’d bump into on the corner of Broadway and Wall Street than the stylized image that comes to mind when one thought of the commanding officer of a Ranger company. Nicknamed Nate by his friends and referred to as “CD” by the enlisted personnel in his company, Dixon relied upon his easygoing, confident manner to motivate his subordinates. That did not mean that he was a weak leader. When the situation required it he could conduct himself in a manner that would intimidate a great white. It was a skill he had learned from his father, a man who could bring an errant son to bay with a single, scathing glance. Fortunately, for all parties concerned, Nathan’s adroitness as a leader, coupled with an innate knack for small unit tactics, tended to make the occasions when he needed to rely upon such techniques to motivate those entrusted to his command quite rare. Without exception everyone in his company was more than willing to follow him wherever he led.
Despite being of average height Nathan Dixon stood out even in the middle of soldiers similarly decked out in their full panoply of equipment and weaponry. This was an attribute that subordinates like his first sergeant found very useful at times like this. Having finished issuing instructions to the company clerk, First Sergeant William Carney headed out onto the airfield behind the last stick of Rangers who had been awaiting the word to board their assigned helicopters. When he reached the spot where Dixon was observing the embarkation of his First Platoon, Carney sidled up on his commanding officer’s left. Yelling in order to be heard over the whine of the Blackhawks’ turbine engines, he made his presence known.
“Captain, what makes you think the Sulu Sea is going to keep our new battalion commander from finding you?”
A playful grin lit Dixon’s face as he turned toward his first sergeant. “I know not what you speak of, First Sergeant. I’m just going with the boys out into the jungle for some unscheduled play time.”
Word that the lieutenant colonel who had just assumed command of the 3rd of the 75th was scheduled to arrive that afternoon to conduct an unannounced inspection of Dixon’s forward deployed company had been leaked to Carney by the battalion’s operations sergeant back at Fort Lewis, Washington. When Carney informed Dixon of this he changed his mind about accompanying his First Platoon on a five-day operation on the island of Jolo. It was a routine mission, one that was undertaken by one of Dixon’s platoons every week or so. These forays had the dual purpose of patrolling areas where terrorists were known to be operating as well as providing the Rangers who belonged to the forward deployed company valuable training. Every now and then Dixon went along more to break the monotony, hone his own skills, and become more familiar with the areas where his company was operating than out of a need to supervise the platoon leader to whom the mission had been assigned. Up until that morning Dixon had been satisfied to sit out this particular patrol back at the company’s base camp located north of Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao. Word of the surprise visit quickly convinced him to change his plans.
“You can run but you can’t hide, Captain,” Carney chuckled. “It won’t take the colonel long to track you down and catch the next resupply hop to Jolo.”
Dixon winked. “By then we’ll be in the midst of the operation, circumstances that will limit the amount of time I’ll have to spend with El Jefe.” Pronounced hef-a, which was Spanish for “chief,” the reason why the officers in the battalion had taken up calling their new battalion commander “El Jefe” even before he had arrived was a mystery. It was just one of those things that someone started and stuck. After taking a moment to inspect Carney from head to toe, noting that he was also arrayed in full battle kit and was toting his M-4 rifle as well, the smirk on Dixon’s face grew. “I see you have no intention of staying behind to cover my rear.”
“As they say back home,” Carney quibbled, “it’s not my job.”
“So you’re leaving the XO here to take the fire.”
“It’ll be good for Lieutenant Quinn, especially since he’s always moaning about how company executive officers never get the face time they deserve. The way I see it, by the time he’s able to arrange transportation for the colonel he’ll have had his fill of one-on-one time with El Jefe.”
Peter Quinn, Nathan’s executive officer or XO, was a meticulous, hard charging professional, one who tended to become flustered when forced to deal with matters he considered to be trivial and nonmission essential. The image of his XO playing host to their new battalion commander caused Dixon to roar. As he did so he took note that the last man belonging to first platoon was climbing into his assigned helicopter. After composing himself, Dixon scanned the dark, ominous sky to the north. Tugging on Carney’s sleeve, he pointed to the coming storm. “If we’re going to make good our escape we’d best be going before that line of squalls hits the airfield.” Then, he pointed to a Blackhawk farther down the line. “I think it would be a good idea if we spread the wealth. Lieutenant Grimes is on the first chopper. I’m manifested on the second. You go with Jones’s squad on the number-three slick.”
Carney nodded as he gave his commanding officer a quick salute and the customary “Hooah,” a term that served the Rangers as a greeting, a verbal salute, an exclamation of joy, an acknowledgment at the end of a conversation, and a number of other ill-defined purposes that nevertheless always seemed to be understood and appropriate.
Satisfied that all was in order Dixon gave the line of Blackhawks straining to be cut loose one last look before tucking his head down low and making for the one he would use to whisk him away from the clutches of an ambitious new battalion commander who was headed his way like the late afternoon storm.
JOLO ISLAND, PHILIPPINES
When viewed from the helicopter’s open door the jungle didn’t look very threatening or dangerous. Like all of nature’s wonders it had a unique beauty all its own, one that was best enjoyed from a safe distance. But Lieutenant Colonel Robert Delmont knew that appearances were deceiving, especially when Mother Nature was involved. To him the jungle was like a cat, a very large and ill-tempered one who kept her deadly claws concealed until it was too late. This analogy was all the more appropriate since his dislike for the jungle was only slightly more pronounced than his disdain for cats, creatures that possessed a streak of independence that tended to annoy the career officer.
By nature Delmont was a dog person, the sort of man who expected prompt and complete obedience. His own collection of canines included three purebred beasts. Two were Labs, a chocolate and a gold. The third was a German Shepherd, his personal darling and the offspring of champions. When not busy making the world safe for Democrats Delmont spent as much time as he could training and caring for those animals, a fact that did little to endear him or his pack to the human members of his family but won him the unflinching devotion of his four-legged charges.
Neither his wife nor his children were ever able to come to terms with the idea that the dogs they shared a house with provided the reputed head of their family with an escape from the demands that his professional and personal life placed upon him. They failed to understand that when alone with his Labs and Shepherd Delmont found himself in a perfect world, one in which he was the unquestioned master. It was a place where any and all infractions of his rules, regardless of how slight or unintentional, could be handled with little more than a stern reprimand or, if serious enough, the application of a suitable punishment. Yet no matter how severely he castigated or admonished his animals, they never showed a hint of resentment or lingering anger. Instead, even in the wake of a harsh thrashing his trio of dogs were always quick to beg his forgiveness by demonstrating an appropriate degree of contrite submission. This is not to say that Robert Delmont was a cruel or uncaring man. On the contrary. When the situation called for it he could be quite compassionate, a loving husband, and a doting father. If he had any faults it was his inability to understand that the country he was sworn to defend and the Army to which he belonged was populated with far more cats than dogs.
Without really giving it much thought Robert Delmont modeled his career after the behavior of his beloved dogs, a proclivity that endeared him to all the right people. At times his steadfast loyalty to superiors that didn’t deserve it was difficult, even painful. Like all career officers he occasionally found himself the subject of undeserved verbal abuse and tirades. Yet his willingness to swallow his pride and endure this sort of treatment without a whine or whimper was not without its rewards. Rung by rung Delmont ascended the prescribed career ladder by doing exactly what he was expected to do and angling for those assignments that conventional wisdom dictated. In this he was greatly aided by a knack for aligning himself with superiors who had been pegged as rising stars by those in the Army who mattered. Eventually he became viewed as one himself, an officer worthy of being groomed for bigger and better things. Though no one told him as much, by the time the results of this year’s group battalion command selection board were published, it was clear to all who understood the system that there were stars in his future, provided he continued to perform.
That is how a Special Forces officer, fresh out of an assignment in the Pentagon, managed to secure the command of a Ranger battalion. Originally Delmont had been slated to take over a 380-man-plus Special Forces battalion. From a career standpoint it was both a logical and natural progression for him, not to mention a choice assignment that many a career officer would die for. Still, it was one that would have made him little more than a manager, charged with overseeing the support and administration of his battalion’s far-flung “A” teams, the twelve-man units that did all the muddy boots stuff, and the three eleven-man “Bravo” teams, each capable of supporting six “A” teams in the field. Even during a major regional contingency, more popularly known as a war Delmont would have little to do with the actual conduct of operations and no opportunity to personally participate in combat operations. Due to the nature of their work there would be times when even he would not know where many of his own troops were or what they were doing.
A Ranger battalion on the other hand provided an officer of his grade the opportunity to actually command in the field. While still part of the Army’s Special Operations Command Ranger battalions were organized along conventional lines. Squads formed platoons, which belonged to companies that in turn were integral parts of a battalion headed by a lieutenant colonel selected by a Department of the Army board comprised of full colonels who had completed successful battalion commands themselves. Successful command of a battalion would boost Delmont up the next rung in the career ladder when he moved into the zone of consideration for the next higher rank.
The officers selected to sit on that board would be required to review the promotion package of every officer eligible to be considered for the grade of O-6, or full colonel. It is a simple process but a long and tedious one, one that allowed the board members something like two minutes per promotion package. Two minutes. In those two minutes each board member had to determine if the officer under consideration was worthy of promotion, if his performance in past assignments indicated that he was capable of handling greater responsibilities. Unable to read every word on every officer evaluation report, board members tended to look for indicators, little cues that stood out and marked this man as being indispensable to the future of the Army. This meant that the sort of battalion a lieutenant colonel had commanded was critical since not all battalions were viewed as being equal. While important in the overall scheme of the Army as a whole a basic training battalion did not require the same sort of leadership skills or place the same demands on its commander that an airborne infantry battalion assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division did. It goes without saying that the officer who had completed a successful command of the airborne battalion was more likely to be viewed by the colonels on the board as more deserving of promotion than the one who had been more or less a chief administrator responsible for tending to the needs of basic trainees. Even more impressive is a former commander who had led his battalion into battle, something that a basic training battalion never did.
It also didn’t hurt if the officers on the promotion board understood without having to be told what the battalion did. Everyone knew what a Ranger battalion was, a fighting unit whose organization wasn’t much different from an airborne or light infantry battalion. The same could not be said of a Special Forces battalion. Unless the members of the board had themselves been in the Special Forces, few fully appreciated the duties and responsibilities that commanding it carried. Hence, given the choice between selecting an officer who was fully qualified and had commanded a Ranger battalion versus one who was equally qualified and had commanded a Special Forces battalion, odds favored the former.
Robert Delmont understood the career game very well. He followed the trends, listened to the stories that made their way through the rumor mill, and analyzed the statistics that accompanied the publication of each board’s results. He knew who was being promoted, who wasn’t and why. For this reason he was determined to secure the command of a battalion that was not only actively engaged in counterterrorism operations but one that would afford its commanding officer numerous opportunities to play a central and aggressive role in the execution of its assigned missions. For his purposes only a Ranger battalion would do. In achieving this goal he needed a little help.
In the old Army they were known as rabbis, senior officers who took an interest in the careers of junior officers. The reason for taking on the role of champion for a subordinate officer was not always altruistic. After World War II former airborne generals were accused of creating an informal support group that became known as the Airborne Mafia. One only has to look at the pedigree of the Army’s senior leadership in the late fifties and early sixties to appreciate just how effective they were in the stewardship of ambitious young paratroopers they had known during the war. Another institution within the Army is the WPPA, or West Point Protective Association. Though it’s been called many things, some of which could not be uttered in polite company the WPPA’s goal has always been to watch out for the well-being of the officers who graduated from the United States Military Academy, often referred to as ring knockers by those who hadn’t. The standing joke in the Army was that each West Point class ring came complete with a secret transmitter that connected the newly graduated officer directly to the WPPA rep located in the Army’s Personnel Office. To a lesser degree graduates from the Virginia Military Institute, the Citadel, and Texas A&M who managed to attain positions of authority responded in kind by making sure their fellow alumni didn’t lose their way in a system that could be as cruel and unforgiving to its own as it was to the enemy it occasionally was dispatched to crush.
A far less attractive reason that a senior officer takes an interest in a subordinate’s career is to create a pool of officers who owe their loyalty to him. As an officer collects more and more stars, his personal staff expands along with his ability to manipulate the Army’s personnel system. Some senior officers like to have the best and the brightest around them, a sort of brain trust that knows how he thinks and operates and whom he can rely upon. Others prefer sycophants, people known in the corporate world as yes-men. This sort of thing has been going on since before recorded time. It’s not right and it’s not wrong. It’s just the way things work.
The degree to which a rabbi assisted their chosen vassals varied from dispensing sound career advice on occasion to aggressively tinkering with the system on behalf of their protégé. Delmont’s rabbi was the hands-on sort, one who knew how to make the system work for him and those he had taken a liking to. He knew all the right people and made sure they knew him. Through his good offices Delmont was able to secure the one assignment both he and his benefactor believed would, in time, lead him to the stars.
Of course climbing that ladder does require effort, successful completion of each assignment, and a healthy dose of luck. Upon reaching each level the career officer must not only perform if he hopes to continue on up, he must shine. Everything he does, every mission his unit is assigned, must be more than successful, it must be a brilliant success. Should there be a glitch along the way, a less than stellar performance or an outright failure, he will be held responsible even if he had nothing to do with it, since a commanding officer is ultimately held responsible for everything his unit does. Such shortfalls show up on an officer’s evaluation report where a rater can ding a subordinate for a failure that was not his fault through the words he uses when writing it. Instead of using glowing terms to describe a subordinate, such as, “This officer executed all assigned duties in an exemplary manner,” a rater can simply state, “This officer performed all assigned duties to standard.” Members of the promotion board would see the latter comment as a clue, a hint that something had gone wrong. Perhaps the glitch that caused the rater to do this hadn’t been a disaster, but one that was serious enough to put the abilities of the officer under consideration in doubt.
Like climbing a ladder, the higher one ascends the military’s chain of command the more precarious one’s position becomes. A larger command means there are more subordinates, individuals who are scattered throughout a much wider area of operation and responsibility. Even in the digitalized Army of the twenty-first century it is impossible for a battalion commander to have his finger on everything going on within his command twenty-four/seven. He simply cannot do everything, see everything, or make every decision. He therefore must rely on his company commanders and staff officers, each of whom has his own ideas as how best to carry out his assigned missions and run his own little fiefdom. This was especially true of his company commanders. Every one of them also has his own goals, aspirations and ambitions, a fact Delmont was well aware of. One of the greatest challenges that Robert Delmont knew he would be facing in his new assignment was imposing his will and his way of doing things upon cocky young officers who were but a few rungs below him on the same career ladder.
From his seat in the Blackhawk Delmont’s mind slowly mulled over his concerns as he watched the jungle below slip away. Somewhere down there was one of those strong-willed young men. He was anxious to meet him, so anxious that he had browbeaten the senior pilot of this Blackhawk into departing on his routine resupply run a full half hour early. Part of Delmont’s apprehensions regarding this particular meeting was the setting. When he had met his other company commanders back at Fort Lewis for the first time he had done so in a setting of his choice. There he had been free to employ every trick he knew to impress upon them that he was their commanding officer. During his three years at the Pentagon Delmont had become a past master at setting the stage for power meetings. Seated on a chair hiked up a couple of extra notches behind his massive desk with the national colors and the battalion standard serving as a backdrop, Delmont had been able to lord over his subordinate officers one by one as they entered his office, took their place in a straightbacked chair placed squarely before him and listened to him wax philosophically about his philosophy on leadership and what he expected of them.
Out here things would be different. In the jungle he would not have the advantage. He would be an intruder, a most unwelcomed one at that. His interests would have to give way to the tactical concerns of his subordinate, something that Delmont was not at all comfortable with. These troubling thoughts and how he could overcome them so preoccupied him that he became oblivious to what was going on around him. It therefore came as something of a shock when the Blackhawk’s pilot unexpectedly jerked his aircraft to the left.
Thrown against the stack of rations he was seated next to a stunned and wide-eyed Delmont looked around. “What the hell is going—”
Before he could finish the pilot reversed himself by throwing the Blackhawk into a violent right bank, a maneuver that flung Delmont in the opposite direction and sent the top boxes of rations crashing against him. While struggling to keep the whole stack from tumbling down upon him, Delmont caught sight of the crew chief on the right side as he charged the machine gun he was hanging on to. As soon as the jungle below came back into view he began firing away.
Confusion now gave way to alarm. Were they taking fire? He desperately wanted to call out and ask what was going on but thought better of it. Though he was the senior officer on board he was but a passenger, little different at the moment than the boxes of rations and cans of ammunition that were now sliding back and forth across the floor of the cargo bay as the pilot swerved this way then that to evade enemy ground fire. Besides, the sight of tracers out the right door racing up at them from the jungle below provided Delmont with all the answers he needed. All he could do was hang on as the pilot maneuvered his aircraft through the hail of fire directed against it by unseen assailants and watch as the crew chief did his best to return it. Over the headphones he listened as the pilots struggled to keep them out of the enemy’s line of fire while the enlisted crew chief who doubled as door gunner was doing all he could to suppress their tormentors. Everyone’s words were excited but precise, crisp yet clear.
From the copilot: “More fire coming our way at my one o’clock,” a declaration that was immediately followed by a quick turn to the left.
The crew chief on the right yelled out to the door gunner on the left; “I got him. Ned, did ya see the one at your seven o’clock?”
To this the left door gunner replied with a simple “Roger” as he brought his weapon to bear and cut loose with a long burst.
From the cockpit, the copilot’s voice rang out again over a mechanical squawk. “Master alarm! We’re losing power, fast.”
Glancing up over their shoulders from his seat, Delmont watched as the pair of warrant officers flying the Blackhawk struggled with their stricken aircraft. Frustrated at his inability to maintain control the pilot shouted out over the intercom, “I’m losing it! Hang on!” As the aircraft began to buck and the engine sputtered Delmont realized that this was more of a warning to everyone on board than an expression of anger. They were going down.
That was all the pilot had time to say before he was forced to tip the nose of his aircraft down and began a frantic search for someplace to set down.
The jungle Delmont had been watching so absentmindedly now filled the entire windshield of the Blackhawk. Realizing that they had lost their uneven contest with their unseen tormentors the crew chief and door gunner abandoned their weapons and settled down into a position each felt offered them the best chance of surviving the coming crash. Up front the copilot’s hand shot up and pointed at something Delmont could not see. “Over there!”
Without bothering to answer, the pilot struggled to bring the nose of his aircraft around and aimed for the opening in the jungle’s dense canopy his copilot had spotted. By now everyone’s full attention was riveted to that clearing, the one place that offered them their only hope of landing their bird in one piece.
From his seat in the cargo bay Delmont watched in silence as the dying aircraft lurched its way toward the clearing. The sudden frenzy and wild evasive maneuvers of the engagement were replaced by a desperate lunge toward the chosen landing site. Seconds that had whizzed by like a hail of tracers slowed to a painful, nerve-racking crawl. Delmont’s concerns over his future and how best to secure it were forgotten. His entire attention, the focus of his whole life, was now reduced to an open patch of ground that was a chance of nature and the next few seconds. In the twinkling of an eye an officer who was being groomed for bigger and better things had become little more than the soft squishy filling of an out-of-control projectile spinning its way back to earth.
When he judged that impact was imminent, the pilot used what little power he had left to flair his Blackhawk in an effort to soften their impact. All he managed to say, all he needed to say as he did so, was “Hang on!”
Despite having done everything he could think of to prepare himself for the coming Blackhawk’s crash the impact drove Delmont down into his seat with a with a force that rattled him and sent a wave of pain that was all but blinding. Then, just as suddenly as the jarring blow had come, it was replaced with a sensation that caused the shaken lieutenant colonel to imagine that somehow the helicopter had lifted back up off the ground and into the air. Prying open his eyes, he saw that this was in fact the case. Had the pilot managed to regain control? Had the thumping they had just endured somehow miraculously solved their mechanical problem? He knew that the chances of either of those being true were slim. But what the hell, when death is the only other choice a mind has to ponder it will grasp on to even the most improbable alternative.
Ignoring the bittersweet taste of blood that filled his mouth Delmont stared past the back of the pilots’ heads and at the open sky he could see filling the windshield between them. Then, to his horror, the nose of the aircraft leveled off before angling sharply down once more. Blue sky was replaced by the reappearance of the jungle clearing they had been aiming for. This time, however, they were right there, down among the trees. The pilot had not managed to salvage a hopeless situation. The force of their impact had simply caused the aircraft to bounce up into the air for a brief, tantalizing moment. That moment was over. Now they were going down again, this time for good. With absolutely no control over the speed or angle of their precipitous descent the pilot, like Delmont and his copilot, was now reduced to being nothing more than a spectator to a horror show they had become part of.
Due to the severe angle the Blackhawk assumed during this second plunge, though the distance back to the ground was far less than it had been before, this second impact was far more jarring than the first had been. This time there was no illusory reprieve. Instead, the aircraft slid across the broken ground, careening toward the tree line that now filled the windshield before him. Realizing that their trials were not yet at an end, Delmont prepared himself yet again for the pending collision with the wall of trees that appeared to be rushing toward them at an alarming speed. Spitting the blood that filled his mouth onto the floor, the hapless battalion commander gripped the hand straps that hung from the Blackhawk’s ceiling and braced himself as discrete details of the towering trees before them became clearer, and clearer, and . . .
Copyright © 2007 by Harold Coyle. All rights reserved.