Thirty-four years ago, in the early morning hours of December 20, 1989, the United States initiated Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama. This mission was a response to repeated hostile acts against U.S. service members and citizens ordered by General Manuel Noriega – including the killing of a U.S. Army Officer, the wounding of another Officer, and the kidnapping of a Navy SEAL Officer and his wife who were being tortured.
At the time, Operation JUST CAUSE was the largest and most complex combat operation since the Vietnam War. The primary purpose of the Operation was to remove the de facto ruler of Panama, General Manuel Noriega, who had seized power illegally: He was also wanted by U.S. authorities for racketeering and drug trafficking (among other crimes). The Operation intended to reinstate the rightfully-elected President and to restore law and order. The Operation started with simultaneous assaults on numerous strategic targets throughout Panama, led by US Special Operations Forces.
I was a Navy Lieutenant/SEAL – and an Army Ranger – serving as a planner and leader during the Operation. This coincided with my assignment to my second SEAL Team (a Special Misson Unit – think SEAL All-Stars); one of my seven total SEAL Unit assignments during my active-duty career that spanned thirty years.
Note: The invasion was the first combat deployment for the Attack Helicopter-64, the HMMWV, and the F-117A “Nighthawk” aircraft.
The Battle of Rio Hato Airfield took place as an opening action of the Operation. This battle was fought between a U.S. Special Operations Task Force and the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) on December 20and 21, 1989. The action saw a Special Operations Task Force, primarily over 1,000 soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment as well as Joint Special Operations forces attached (including me as the only SEAL), launch a surprise attack via a mass tactical parachute drop executed under the cover of darkness against the PDF forces at Rio Hato. Rio Hato was the PDF’s largest military base in the country, approximately seventy miles south of Panama City. The objectives were to:
- Capture the PDF garrison (the largest and most formidable PDF unit, fully equipped with Soviet military equipment and weapons, and loyal to General Noriega) at the base to prevent them from reinforcing other PDF Units in Panama City. Successful reinforcement of their units could have been catastrophic for U.S. Forces,
- Secure the airfield runway for possible follow-on operations elsewhere in Panama, and
- Seize dictator Manuel Noriega’s beach house hide-out and collect evidence for his trial.
We loaded on 13 aircraft at Lawson Army Airfield (Ft. Benning, GA) at night in a cold December rain and sleet storm for the nearly six-hour flight to the drop zone. I was on the lead and 1st of 13 U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft that participated in the Operation (of which 11 took direct hits from PDF anti-aircraft fire). I exited the aircraft as the thirteenth man through the left door for a combat static line parachute jump with full combat equipment while being only 450 feet above ground level (for reference, typical jumps are at 1000 feet AGL). The aircraft had descended to 450 feet AGL to avoid the massive amounts of enemy anti-aircraft fire.
My mission was to lead the Rangers to conduct the seizure and search of General Noriega’s beach house – to capture him if he was present – and seize evidence for his trial in the United States. I had been a lead planner for this highly sensitive and classified target for over a year; I knew it better than anyone. I led the Rangers to seize, clear and search the massive beach house, one of Noriega’s hide-outs. After my mission was complete, I returned to Panama City to rejoin my Navy Special Mission Unit for follow-on operations that continued through January of 1990. Our Unit was to track down and neutralize Noriega’s network of thugs (and I missed another Christmas Holiday of many deployed away from my family).
I was awarded the Combat Parachutist Badge with Bronze Star – in fact I was the only Navy SEAL to ever earn the award according to military historians.
Note: Against a Navy Doctor’s orders, I took off my walking cast and jumped into the Battle of Rio Hato with a broken right foot. I had sustained that injury from my last parachute jump in Ranger School just days earlier. In fairness, the Navy Doctor was earnestly concerned about my long-term welfare. The doctor knew that a permanent injury to my foot would have been a disqualifying factor for a SEAL and would have forced me out of the SEAL Teams and possibly the Navy, but I was determined to go regardless.
This was the first of my many involvements in operations that were at the intersection of US National Security and Foreign Policy. During three decades as a Navy SEAL Officer, I had the honor and privilege to lead hundreds of SEALs and Joint Special Operations troops in highly sensitive and classified activities and operations all over the world.
U.S. casualties at the Battle of Rio Hato included 4 killed and 44 wounded. Total U.S. casualties for the Operation were 23 killed and 325 wounded.
Note: 4 SEALs were killed and 9 were wounded at Paitilla Airport – teammates of mine – one being Chief Petty Officer McFaul who has a Navy warship ship (USS Arleigh Burke Destroyer/DDG-74) named after him for his heroism.
Some 34 years ago after US forces completed Operation JUST CAUSE and were redeploying home, let us not forget the sacrifices made by those who served there, including some that gave their all and did not return. We must recognize the debt we owe them and their families that can never be repaid, only honored by sincere gestures of remembrance and the way we live our lives in service to others who serve.
As a result of this Operation, and upon my retirement, I felt a duty and obligation to continue to support our fallen and wounded warriors and their families. I assumed the roles and duties as the President of the Mid-South Chapter (which includes Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas) of the Underwater Demolition Team-SEAL Association, the SEAL Team Alumni organization.
I also started an annual fellowship and fundraising event right here in Shelby County (the 9th annual event is this year) for the SEAL Veterans Foundation. The event supports SEAL widows, wounded, and surviving children with resources and programs – thanks to the generosity and patriotism of our local sponsors as well as volunteers.
I gained the values of leadership by example, personal courage, thorough thoughtful analysis, strategic planning, and teamwork from this Operation. I practiced these attributes during the countless other operations and missions that followed during my three-decade career as an active-duty Navy SEAL Officer and leader. I intend to take these values to the State Senate and represent the people of this District.