131024-ranger-grenada-tease
DOD

Frontline Memories

An Army Ranger Gives an on Ground Account of the War in Grenada

Stephen Trujillo was a combat medic with the 2d Ranger Battalion during the invasion of Grenada. Here is his first hand account of key moments in the war.

Stephen Trujillo was a combat medic with the 2d Ranger Battalion during the invasion of Grenada. He was decorated with the Silver Star for gallantry in action, and was cited by President Reagan during the 1984 State of the Union Address. Trujillo later served in Special Forces, and with DEA Operation Snowcap. The following excerpt is from a forthcoming book about Operation Urgent Fury and life in the Rangers.

I clench my static line, hanging on to it with my back muscles screaming beneath the weight of my parachute, weapons and rucksack, the stench of vomit in my nostrils. I look out a porthole in the side of the aircraft to relieve my nausea, and see endless ocean waves, grey in the twilight of the rising sun. We fly in Air Force C-130 Hercules, four-engined transports configured to carry paratroops, dipping and swaying in low-level flight fifty feet off the whitecaps to evade the radars of Soviet intelligence. The jumpmaster on the right side of the bird opens the doors two minutes out from a hot drop zone on the airfield at Point Salines, Grenada, and hot air blasts inside. The jumpmaster hangs out the hatch in the slipstream, a hand on each side of the open door, checking the outside of the aircraft. I retch, choking down bile. We are late, jumping well after dawn on October 25, 1983, in an invasion that will be known as Urgent Fury. I am a 23 year-old Army Ranger, aging quickly. I volunteered to be here.

1 day later. The day we hit Grand Anse.

American medical students phone True Blue and tell us that they are waiting to be rescued. Our intelligence is so poor that we do not know that there is a second campus. As our helicopter hammers in towards the beach, the door-gunners cower and fire their machine-guns without aiming. I look at them and think that they are cherries. I remember that I am, too. I am sitting beside Andy Paulen who jokes about assaulting with a tripod for Big Ed’s machine-gun. Andy is an assistant gunner, and he has only a pistol for personal defense. We stand as the chopper swings around, the tail ramp dropping, and the Lieutenant yells, “fix bayonets!” like he is the star in a movie of his own making.

We are over water, the door-gunners firing furiously, and the Lieutenant stands peeking around the frame of the helicopter waiting for the bird to hover over sand. We see that we are mere feet away from the beach, and Andy kicks the Lieutenant out of the chopper as we jump into the surf under fire. The Lieutenant moves too slowly and the air is electric with bullets as the helicopter takes hits with that sledgehammer sound.

I am right behind Andy and I step squarely on the Lieutenant’s back, leaving a jungle boot print on his fatigue jacket as he sprawls in six inches of water. Then we run for our lives, run for the sanctuary of the sea wall, sheltering there shaking from the nearness of death. Scott, Andy and the others drop their rucksacks and look for targets. Slater is laughing again. We see no enemy. I notice in a slow-motion dream-state the beauty of the beach, quaint hotels with curtains over their windows, glass shattering with machine-gun bursts fired by the helicopter door-gunners. I am numb, on automatic pilot, and function despite my fear.

131024-ranger-grenada2-embed
First Lady Nancy Reagan with her daughter Maureen and Army Sgt. Stephen Trujillo prepare to watch President Reagan deliver his State of the Union speech to a Joint Session of Congress, Jan. 25, 1984. (Bob Daugherty/AP)

A few minutes later, I notice that puddles of blood settle in the gutters, their congealed crusts swarming with flies, ants and beetles. I drop to the warm earth, eating dirt in my terror. Blood stains the bright beaches and there are drag marks in the blinding sand to the surf, where bodies are carried out by the tide. We take mortar fire from the Soviet Embassy until a pair of Marine Corps Sea Cobras blow the roof off it. We agree that it must have been Cubans. The Soviets would never fire on us from a diplomatic haven in this way.

Earlier, a Soviet diplomat stood trembling in our gunsights while we searched him and his car. He drove alone to Point Salines to deliver an official message from his government to the senior American commander. He looked like he expected to be nailed to a wall and shot. We must have seemed like cutthroats to him, bloodied American Rangers with black faces. He was stunned when we finished our search, handed back his watch and credentials, and led him away to deliver his message. He was treated firmly, but with formality. Courtesy did not come easily. Squatting behind the sea wall, Andy and I wonder if he is in the Soviet Embassy hiding beneath his desk while Cubans lie dead in the debris of the burning roof, their broken mortar beside them.

We are alone and we are in the wrong place. We were supposed to be the second chopper inserted, but somehow we were the first. Scott looks at the Lieutenant with venom in his eyes. The Lieutenant kneels penitent, compass out, confused. His bayonet pokes Big Ed in the leg, and I fear for the Lieutenant’s safety. Someone yells, “drop rucks!” as it seems that we will have to fight or be pushed into the surf behind us. We are the focus of all enemy firing until the other helicopters settle to the beach well to the South, drawing fire in their turn, and we glimpse Rangers charging into buildings clustered along the shore.

Sergeant Duenas realizes that the chopper pilots put us down hundreds of meters away from our blocking position, and we are up, running in the sand, sweating under our gear, hearing the whump of mortar rounds, feeling the air change with their detonation. We turn up a side street, a quaint neighborhood around the corner from the police station, equipment rattling, my heart like stone in my chest. We hit the asphalt when bullets zip past, I am on my belly in the fresh sewage of a drainage ditch, loving it because concrete stops bullets. We call in a gun run by a “fast-mover” aircraft, a fighter-bomber from the USS Independence.

The plane streaks above and dives into reverberating gunfire coming from shanties to our front. I hear the brittle trees cracking overhead as the pilot stitches the far side of the road with 20mm cannon shells. I watch from my ditch, head craned upward, and I see a line of rounds walking straight through our positions.

I yell at Dale Killinger to get down, he is squatting behind shrubbery, punching rounds through the thin walls of the shacks across from us with his sniper rifle. Killer looks like an accountant, but he was up and out of cover, exposing himself to the enemy so that he could maneuver for a shot. I see a cannon shell hit the pavement behind him in slow-motion, inches from his left buttock. He looks surprised, and hops down into the sewage ditch on the other side of the road.

Killer yells that he only caught small fragments, and I breathe in relief. I dreaded crossing the road under fire. Lucky Luciano caught a piece of metal in his bicep, no problem, and I wrap it while the platoon deploys claymore mines to our front. Scott yells, “spread out!” when everyone converges on Lucky, and the roar of the fast-mover fades into the beyond. Lucky is a little shocky, but he snaps out of it. He surrenders his machine-gun to Andy, who grins. Now he is a gunner.

Scott is lecturing an anti-tank gunner, “do not fire unless I tell you.” The gunner wants to kill something, he wants to fire his cannon, but Scott will not permit it unless he has a worthy target. I am proud of Scott, he is a fine Ranger sergeant in combat, and amongst ourselves, there is no higher accolade. Behind us, pandemonium rules on the beach as the students that we came to rescue are herded in groups onto the helicopters.

Our turn to go. We blow the claymores as we pull out, and we cover each other as we return to the shoreline. Andy tells me, “someday we should come back here on vacation.” I look at him in outrage, but he is right. It is a beautiful place, or it was, until we blew the shit out of it. The students are gone and we are nearly left behind, but we wade into the surf and we pull each other into an overloaded helicopter hovering over the water, the door gunners heedlessly firing into beachfront homes. The copilot turns and yells at us to hurry. The chopper shudders beneath our weight and vibrates with the intermittent dings of bullets. In the confusion, another bird is hit and abandoned, and the crew runs to ours. Their helicopter squats in the surf with its rotors drooping. Scott, Big Ed, Andy and I make it out on the last bird to leave Grand Anse Beach. It was not planned that way.

We fly back to Point Salines, a matter of minutes, and settle to the tarmac. We were gone 28 minutes. I see to my wounded, Lucky and a couple of others, then I wander aimlessly, avoiding delirious students hugging everybody. A Spectre gunship taxis onto the runway, lizard-green and fatal, and a gunner pops the top hatch and holds aloft an American flag. It unfurls and everyone cheers, even Scott, but not me. I sit and I wonder what happened during the last half-hour of my life. The 2nd Ranger Battalion still has not lost anybody to enemy action, but a handful, Kevin Lannon among them, are listed as missing. I am wary of my adrenalin rush. I do not know that I will one day grow to love it. I am alive.

Feminine laughter breaks my solitude. A girl with brown hair and arresting green eyes celebrates her rescue, surrounded by Rangers with camouflaged faces, draped in weaponry and a mantle of dust. We rescued hundreds of American students from the True Blue and Grand Anse Campuses of the St. Georges School of Medicine in these first two days of the operation. The media claimed that they were not in danger, but the students wept with relief when we brought them to the airfield.

The girl laughs again, giddy. Photographs of students kissing American soil hit the front-pages of newspapers across the United States, silencing critics of the Reagan administration’s decision to invade the island. The public clearly approves, and the ghosts of Vietnam are exorcised. The students had been holed up in their apartments under around-the-clock curfew for days, listening to random gunfire in the streets, martial music and calls to revolutionary arms on the radio.

The students circulate among us, shaking hands, hugging our necks, thanking us. “I can’t believe what you guys do for a living,” says a blonde girl with great legs. I get her phone number in Georgia, my mind’s eye fixed on the bleached, sunkissed down of her tanned thighs. It takes us a moment to realize that we are just young, we are alive, and we have learned too much about death in recent days. I never call her.

We talk a bit anyway before she leaves on the next plane out. Her name is Kara. She describes an ordeal of frightful days. The governing New Jewel Movement turned rabid on itself the week before the invasion, and a lunacy settled on the island. As we jumped in and the battle for Point Salines raged, Kara swears that she heard Bob Marley’s “War” jamming the airwaves, which suddenly went silent.

I tell her that a Navy SEAL team seized the radio station. One of the SEALs who hit it, hanging around Point Salines with a bullet in his forearm that morning, told me that it was a pity. “I fucking love Bob Marley,” he said. Andy Paulen gravely advised him that Marley was one of the Gods of Cool. The SEAL thought about this for a moment, and then said, “fucking A.” Kara likes this story, and we all nod seriously. On a pestilential island where Cubans get ripped on rum and marijuana before dying for a failed revolution, it makes sense.

Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada, was a small incident on a geopolitical scale, a small affair for politicians and historians, but for myself and for my Ranger brothers, it was the beginning of something much greater. For those of us who fought at Point Salines, Grand Anse and Calivigny, the firefights and the raids became central to our lives, and this story offers a taste of what the soldier endures in service to our country. We paid grievous prices for our pride, some of us died, and the rest of us will pay in installments, every day, every night, for the rest of our lives, until we join them. My comrades from those days are my brothers, and we hold the memory of our dead brethren sacred.

Comments