Monday, September 17, 2007

Memories of Bad Days

A little more than six years ago, the world changed. Terrorists saw to that.

I'm sure everyone knows where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I was asleep at the time. On the west coast, it was a little past 8 am and my phone rang. I woke, but as I was pulling myself out of bed, the ringing stopped, so back to the pillow I went. But a moment later, the phone rang again. Still half asleep, I went into the living room and picked up the phone.


"They took out the twin towers."

"Who? Bin Laden?"

"Turn on your TV."

That was extent of the conversation with a friend of mine. After the 1993 bombings, I had expected that group of scumbags to go after the towers again. Bin Laden was logical mastermind for me...even half asleep. I was called moments before the first tower collapsed...and watched the panic which ensued after it and the second tower went down. I spent the rest of the morning like everyone else...watching the news.

As I watched, I thought back to my days in the US Air the days terrorists went after me. Yes...I was a terrorist target.

The first time it happened was in Italy in 1977. The Brigate Rosse, or Red Brigade was terrorizing the people of northern Italy. I was then stationed at Aviano AB, in the northeast portion of Italy, near the Red Brigade area of operations. They worked out of Milan, Italy. Their tactics were not to kill, but to maim. They would shoot their targets in the knee, known as "knee-capping," which would in effect cripple the person. Their targets initially, were journalists who wrote negative articles about them. Later on, they changed their modus operandi and got into kidnapping and murder. But that isn't what this story is about.

One day, I was called to the office of the Carabinieri, the Italian State Police. When I arrived, our Security Police commander, base commander and few other people who I don't recall were present. I was told the Red Brigade had issued a threat to "knee-cap" an American journalist. Since my job at the time was that of editor of The Vigileer, the base newspaper for Aviano AB, there was the possibility I could be targeted. There were more American military journalists at an Army post near Vicenza, Italy and I am sure they were told the same thing I was.

I was told since Aviano was an open base, it would be a lot easier for the Red Brigade to get to me. The
Carabinieri informed me what to watch for, and what to do if I saw anything suspicious. Then they told me to limit my trips off base. Well, that was almost impossible for me, since my newspaper was put together and printed in Pordenone, Italy, about 10 miles away and I had to be at the printing plant the two days prior to publishing the paper. I told them that, and told them I would keep an close eye on my surroundings and then asked if there was anything else because I had work to do. They mentioned things to watch for again and I went back to my office.

For the next three weeks, whenever I saw a car with plates from Milan, Italy in my rear view mirror, or parked near where I was going, I changed my plans. I would perform a scouting mission before I parked my car looking for Milan plated vehicles. Sometimes I would see a nearby
Carabinieri vehicle parked near where I was, sometimes I wouldn't. I would think that they were watching me and they probably were. I didn't mind...I liked my knees.

Then, on a bright, sunny Saturday morning, a rail car on a supply train heading towards Aviano AB from the station in Pordenone, blew up. A couple of hours after the explosion, the Red Brigade claimed responsibility. In their communique, they said that rather than "knee-capping" someone who would be replaced, they wanted to hurt the Americans where it hurt blowing up some of our needed supplies. So they planted a bomb on a rail car they knew was headed towards Aviano, set the timer and waited. Had the bomb gone off at the supply depot on base, it might have been a different story. But bomb went off before the car arrived on base. The damage it did, didn't hurt the base at all. The car they picked contained nothing but office supplies, something which was held back from news reports.

It hit home to me when I heard about the train incident, that I could easily have been the target instead. I became a lot more aware of my surroundings after that. I also noticed that I didn't see
Carabinieri cars as often after that. I figure the Italian police had a lot to do with the change in tactics. It's possible that every time the Red Brigade looked for me, they also found nearby Carabinieri keeping an eye on me. That forced their hand and they changed tactics.

Flash forward to 1989. I was now on a temporary assignment to an Army unit at Soto Cano AB, Honduras. I was the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of the Public Affairs office. The position had to be an Air Force member, since USAF aircraft flew in and out of the base on a regular basis. If there was an incident, an Air Force person in Public Affairs would be needed to handle the press queries.

Honduras at that time, was having a problem with the
Morazanist Front for the Liberation of Honduras or FMLH. They had already made several attacks on the American military stationed in the country, and wanted nothing more than to cause more damage.

One morning, there was a bad auto accident right outside the gates to the base. American medical personnel responded and saved a number of lives. This was a good thing and we wanted to spread the word that we did good things for the country. So after a news release on the incident was translated into Spanish, my boss and I went into Comeyagua, the nearby town, to deliver the release to a number of the news outlets. The third drop point was a radio station near the center of town. When we arrived, my boss, an Army major, said he would be right out. So, I put the vehicle in neutral and waited. Standard operating procedure was to leave someone in the vehicle with the engine running and I was following that directive.

Five minutes passed and the major was still inside. At about ten minutes, I began to wonder what was going on. While I was trying to figure out the scenario, an Honduran walked up to the driver's side of the truck I was in and asked in a very unfriendly tone, if I needed help. I replied I didn't and that I was waiting for someone. The person then walked away from the truck towards the rear and I watched him go into a building about 100 feet away. Moments later, a different person came out of the doorway, paused a moment while he looked at me and took off down the street away from me. I made note of him and continued my vigil around the truck, making plans on what I would do should trouble break out before the major returned.

Less than five minutes later, I observed a pea-soup green Chevy Impala, probably early '70s, I don't remember now, pull up in front of the door and stop. Both front doors opened and the man who a short time earlier ran off in the direction the car came from, stepped out and went inside the building. The driver turned, faced my direction and stretched, then opened the back driver's side door and leaned in to do something. As he did that, the man who left the car moments earlier, along with the man who came to my truck earlier and third man came out of the building. One opened the rear passenger side door, while the other two climbed in the front and leaned over the seat to do something in the back seat area.

I now had a plan for a possible contingency and watched the quartet closely in my rear view mirror. As I watched, my stomach suddenly tightened. I saw the business end of an AK-47 pop up over the top of the front seat. Then it hit me what was going on. They were preparing their weapons they were going to use to attack me. A chill ran up and down my spine, my hands rubbed the cool, blue steel of the only protection I had, and I step on the clutch and slowly put the transmission into first gear. I had decided the moment I saw the first weapon come out, I would give the horn two quick blasts as I sped around a corner 20 feet in front of me. I would make the first left I saw then turn right at each of the first four right turns I came upon. I would then stop and wait. After a short time, if I didn't see the bad guys, I would return to the area of the square, hopefully pick up my boss and get the hell out of there.

Well, I didn't have to use my plan. Right around the time the group had finished what they were doing, and during what I assumed was the leader giving them the game plan for the attack, something happened that I will never forget. A bell rang and from a building on the other side of the street, behind the Chevy, a bunch of young, school aged Honduran children came running out, into the square.

The four guys behind me all jumped out to the street, straightened up and began looking around. Then they started arguing with each other until the original driver said something and the three others got in the car. The driver remained outside the car, staring at me and our eyes locked in the mirror. He stared for a few moments, then with his hand formed in the fashion of a pistol, he pointed it at me and pretended to shoot me. He pretended to blow the smoke out of the barrel, then got in the car and backed down the street a way, turned around and headed out of sight.

I was happy to see those kids. As a few of them walked past my truck on their way home, I reached into my pocket, grabbed all the money I had (Honduran limpiras, both paper and coin) and tossed it into the street and said, Gracias los niƱos! The children of course, picked it up, a couple tried to return it to me, but I waved it off and the kids for the most part hung nearby until my boss came out. He got in the truck, apologized for being so long and asked what was going on. I told him on the way to our last stop, which he wanted to skip. We then headed back to the safety of the base, where I was debriefed by intelligence.

My third confrontation with terrorists occurred in The Philippines a year and a half later. It was December 1990, and I had just picked up my Filipina girlfriend. We decided to get something to eat at a hotdog near her apartment before we headed out to do whatever it was we had planned to do. There wasn't a lot we could do, and few places we could go. Several months earlier, the New Peoples Army, or NPA, a group of murdering thugs, had walked up to two airmen just outside a hotel near the base and put a .45 round into the back of their heads. The assassinations forced the officials to declare almost all the local area, off-limits to Americans. A few weeks later, a small area known as "The Fish" was opened and declared secure by both the Air Force Security Police and the Philippine Army Police.

In December, the "fish" was still the only part of Angeles City most Americans could go...and outside of visiting strip bars filled with Filipina bar gals, there wasn't much to do in the "Fish."

The hotdog stand I was in, was right near the main gate to the base, on the other side of Field Avenue from the gate. It was recessed into the front of a building with the front wall completely open to the street. After we got our food, we went to back of the building and I sat with my back to the back wall where I could keep a close eye on the happenings in the street in front of me. I watched as American GIs walked by with their girlfriends, and Philippine military troops walked by. Then I watched three Philippino men walk by in leather coats.

I thought this was strange since even though it was 6:30 pm, the temperature was still about 80. But the three glanced inside the building and continued walking. A few minutes later, they came back. The first person walked across the street and stopped under a tree and leaned up against it. The other two stopped on either side of the building and leaned up against the wall. As I continued to talk to my girlfriend, I was watching the three out of the corner of my eye. I could tell the person across the street had a weapon under his jacket...the bulge wasn't obvious, but it was detectable. And I thought I could see bulges under the coats of the other two, but wasn't sure. So then my mind started going down the options list.

After watching dozens of GIs walk by the threesome and the three not even batting an eye their way, including very drunk airmen who would have been easy pickings for thieves, I decide they weren't criminals waiting for score. They had to have an agenda and most likely, I was that agenda. By an odd coincidence, I resembled my boss who was constantly on television announcing closures, openings and things of interest to all Americans at Clark AB. We knew from intelligence briefings, that my boss was on the hit list for the NPA. I could only assume the three surly looking Philippino guys waiting outside the hotdog stand, were in fact, NPA Sparrows (the name the group gave to their assassins) and they were waiting for me, thinking I was my boss, or they knew I worked in the same office and decided I was a target of opportunity. Either way, I knew I was in trouble if I left the building. And, as long as I was inside, they were content to wait. Again, I began forming a plan. When I finalized the idea, I told my girlfriend, as she was very important to it.

The plan was simple. I would go to the counter and get two more cokes. After sitting down, I would reach for my cigarettes (I was a smoker then) and crumple up the pack (there were several left in it) and ask her to go get me a pack of Camel Lights. I knew the cigarette stand next to where one of the thugs was waiting didn't have that brand and told my girlfriend to ask for them and when told they didn't have that brand, to ask where she could get them. She would then ask if Checkpoint would have them because everyone knew Checkpoint was the largest of all the street vendors. I explained to her when she got to Checkpoint, she was to go to the Philippine police and tell them about the three guys waiting outside the hotdog stand.

Then it was time to implement the plan. I got our drinks, tossed my not-really-empty-pack of cigarettes into a nearby trash can and asked my gal to go get me a pack. She did, and followed the plan. I drank my drink and waited and watched. The three looked at each other and a few moments later, I watched as the one near the tree snapped his head to his right, then say something and all three began running off down the street. A moment later, six Philippine Army troopers ran by in the same direction and behind them, my girlfriend with a big smile on her face. When she came over to me, I hugged her and said, "Let's get out of here." We walked over to the bus stop on base and waited for the bus. While we waited, I heard a series of gun shot off in the distance.

The next morning, I heard several possible NPA members had been shot and one or two wounded were captured. I smiled knowing I probably assisted in their demise.

Memories of those incidents came back to me as I sat and watched the events of 9/11. And as I watched, an intense hatred of terrorist grew in me.

That hatred is still there. To this day, I wish I was helping fight this global terror war the United States is involved in. But I can't. So my hatred grows. It will remain with me to the day I die. And so will the depression I feel everyday knowing I can't help my fellow fighting Americans fight that war.

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