Honduras (Ahuas Tara ’88)

Just about the time I was starting to figure out how to be a good Air Defense Artillery Officer, I was involuntarily transferred into the Quartermaster Corps. The Quartermaster Corps in the Army focused on logistics (water, food, fuel, equipment issue and storage, etc.). The first step was the Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course at Fort Lee, Virginia in the spring of 1988. That was a special time and place for us since that was where our daughter, Kathryn was born.

After the Advanced Course, I was looking forward to an assignment in the United States, but don’t recall even getting a choice. We were assigned by our branch. Since I was a newer member of the Quartermaster Corps, I didn’t have much pull. I did, though, score at the top of my Advanced Course class, so I suspect someone decided to sign me up for a challenging assignment. I was assigned to the 937th Engineer Group at Fort Riley, Kansas.

I knew even less about Engineers and Engineering than I did about Quartermaster and Logistics. I arrived to the unit as the logistics “expert” they needed for an upcoming deployment to Honduras. What a fiasco that turned out to be! I was far from an expert in the Quartermaster Corps and my only experience was in the schoolhouse. They expected me to provide all the logistical support for a fairly strange and complicated mission – Ahuas Tara ‘88. This was also my first experience working with engineers in general. I can tell you from that – and other experiences – that engineers think differently. I don’t think that is a bad thing, as lawyers, too, have a different way of thinking and operating. I can say, though, that I don’t think my style worked for them. I was the constant “outsider” in the unit. My best friends were mostly the Warrant Officers, who are also sort of outsiders in most units.

It became clear to the Engineer Group Commander that I was not the right fit for this particular mission. Both my logistics experience and my operating style were a bad fit for what they needed. I operated fine with incomplete information, assumptions, hunches, and promises. They, on the other hand, demanded precision. I understand that when you are building things, but most of the Army operates quite differently. I was closer to the “normal” Army than engineers. The Commander chose to appoint another mid-grade engineer officer to serve as his primary logistical officer for the deployment, so I became the assistant. They had a hard time finding the right job for me, so I helped out as directed the best I could. The worst part of all, though, was that I would spend months away from our 2 year old son James and four month old daughter Kathryn. Poor Amy got the worst assignment, though, since Kathryn had bad colic!

Ahuas Tara was the name of the mission. The primary purpose was to build an airstrip and basic facilities in Southern Honduras, several miles from the Nicaraguan border. During this time the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua was banging its drums and attempting to export communism throughout the region. They send regular incursions across the Honduran border. Our somewhat secret mission was to build the airstrip and basecamp to allow the United States to send troops and heavy equipment into Honduras within hours, if necessary. It was in direct response to the sporadic border clashes involving Honduran and Nicaraguan troops and U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels who had camps along the border.

As part of the deal to allow U.S. troops to operate in Honduras, the U.S. government committed to spending millions of dollars across Honduras building schools, libraries, orphanages, and other things of great value to the Honduran people. We had Soldiers not only near the border of Nicaragua, but were building across the country. That made the logistics challenges even more difficult.

One of my primary jobs was coordinating the various services provided by local Honduran companies. I found it interesting work. I learned first-hand the meaning of mañana. For our airfield mission it was critical to keep a supply of crushed rock. Quite often, I found myself knocking on the door of the owner of the Honduran company we had contracted with to provide crushed rock. If it wasn’t a sudden and unexpected to shut-down for a day or two, it was a situation where they provided the wrong gauge of rock. I didn’t speak Spanish, so always had an interpreter. Even so, it was awfully hard to get our point across that we wanted things NOW and per the SPECIFIC scope. Still, it was quite interesting to be invited into their mostly humble homes and offered a snack or drink.

Ice was other extremely important commodity that I had to deal with on a regular basis. Due to the intense heat, we needed ice – and a lot of it. We needed to contract with local commercial facilities to produce ice. We had our own equipment to produce clean water, but the Army did not have the ability to create ice in the quantities needed. Whether it was the crushed rock or the ice, we had REGULAR problems keeping a consistent supply. To the Engineer Group Commander, this always seemed to be my fault. The only problem with that is I had absolutely NO ability to affect when and how the local companies worked. It was quite a lesson on the stereotypical Latin lifestyle. Yes, siestas and mañana are real in that culture. The engineers liked that even less than they cared for me!

A day in the life of us in Honduras was not especially exciting, but it was somewhat interesting. As any deployment goes, we pretty much worked all the time, seven days per week. We generally got up pretty early. If you wanted to exercise at all, it had to be before the hot sun arrived over the horizon. I distinctly recall running the nearly one-mile perimeter of our barbed-wire base camp. As soon as the first peek of sun appeared over the horizon, it was an almost instant and extremely significant increase in the level of effort it took just to continue running. That heat was intense! We then showered in our shower tents and headed to breakfast. There were no tables to sit at, but there were standing tables. Before we got our food, we had someone physically watch everyone take their malaria pill.

Or offices were housed in large canvas tents. The entire basecamp had electricity from our own generators. We had limited furniture, but most offices, including mine, had desks fashioned from large cardboard boxes and the cheap folding chairs we brought with us. We had large (and noisy) fans running day and night. This was a required nuisance due to the heat. It also required that we utilize rocks to keep our various paperwork from flying away. After a long day at work, we took a break for dinner, but most of the time went right back to the office. There was little else to do, especially since we couldn’t leave our base camp after dark or without a required mission. We did have plenty of water and had sodas for sale. The engineers set up a television that provided some limited entertainment, but was pretty useless for most. I read an entire footlocker full of books.

Besides the shower tents, our only bathrooms were wooden outhouses. The “drop zone” for the outhouses consisted of 55 gallon drums cut in half. We contracted with Honduran locals to empty and burn the refuse every day. Going to the bathroom was slightly easier for men, as the engineers buried a number of large PVC pipes diagonally for “piss tubes.” This area was surrounded by about a four-foot solid plastic fence for a semblance of privacy. We had a few women, but not many. They were stuck with the outhouses and limited hours for the shower tents.

Everyone slept on cots in large tents. Since we were deployed with engineers, within a few weeks, almost all the tents were upgraded with wooden floors. What a treat! We had electric lights and several large fans that kept us relatively cool all night long. We slept about 20 per tent. I was assigned to a tent with the “ash and trash” of the unit that included an assemblage of Warrant Officers, a priest, occasional helicopter pilots, and the assigned lawyer. The lawyers rotated every few weeks since no one could expect them to survive in such awful conditions! One advantage of having the lawyers was that we always got updates on things going on in the unit. We never got personal details, but just ideas of the things going on.

One of the lawyers was a quite a jerk. He was formerly a Special Forces Soldier, who later became a Judge Advocate, so he was pretty full of himself. He did, though, cost the U.S. Government a boatload of money. We had an incident where a Soldier lost his rifle. This was a BIG deal and our basecamp was locked down for a couple of weeks. There were constant searches for the weapon. Someone was convinced that the Soldier had actually sold his weapon or was otherwise in cahoots with the Sandinistas from nearby Nicaragua. The poor guy claimed innocence, but had stupidly misplaced his weapon. Nonetheless, the lawyer personally participated in aggressive cross-examination of this guy in hopes that he would fess up. He eventually turned our Soldier over to the Honduran military so they could question and even torture him further. The lawyer would cheerfully report nightly about the sleep depravation, water torture, and other hazing conducted by the Hondurans. Years later I learned that the Soldier received a nice payout from Uncle Sam due to his treatment in Honduras. I don’t know whatever happened to that lawyer, but he should have been Court Martialed.

It was during this deployment that I decided to leave the Army. This had been on my mind for quite some time, particularly with two young children. I wanted them to grow up in a stable environment around family and to get to know their grandparents. My dad had offered my sister Pam a job if she went to law school. At the time, she was living in Mexico City. Much to Dad’s surprise I was the one who took him up on it. I had applied for Law School prior to that deployment and received an acceptance from William Mitchell School of Law while in Honduras. I wasn’t quite sure yet that I wanted to leave the Army, but based upon my experience in Honduras of 1) extended deployment away from family, 2) a bad taste in my mouth from working with the Army engineers, 3) and the uncertainty I felt about my future in the Quartermaster Corps, I made the decision to leave the Army.

It is funny that I find myself in the reverse of this situation now. Though in a career that I loved, as a civilian with the Army, I left that life so we could be closer to our own grandchildren! Again, I want my grandchildren to grow up around us and really get to know their grandparents! Funny how life really does come in a full circle!

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