Fifty-seven-year-old Pennsylvania resident Mark Baylis is one of those veterans who deserve unique recognition for fighting in an all-but-forgotten military operation. A retired Sergeant Major who spent 26 years, three months, and eight days in the Army, he deployed once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq during the War on Terror. But on Veterans Day, Baylis remembers the first time he was in combat, in a country that is now a vacation destination: Panama.
Almost three decades ago, for 43 days, Panama was entrenched in a full-scale military conflict known as Operation Just Cause. It involved heavy fighting in Panama City and the countryside. The cities and countryside echoed with machine-gun fire, with armored vehicles rumbling through the neighborhoods, and assaults on Panamanian President Manuel Noriega’s residences and private jets.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard all participated in Operation Just Cause, and Baylis is just one of around 21,000 veterans who served in the long-ago invasion. According to the Department of Defense, 23 U.S. service members were killed, and 325 wounded. Unlike the Hollywood version of military missions—as glamorous “black ops” affairs, with lots of classified intel and daring rescues—the invasion of Panama was chaotic, but swift. The 43-day war will remain with Baylis forever.
In January 1981, motivated by patriotism and political murmurs of a future war with Tehran, Baylis dropped out of college to join the Army. At the time, 52 Americans were being held captive by the Iranian government during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
But Baylis and his fellow soldiers never received the call to go to Iran.
“I thought I was going to go fight the Iranians. That same month I joined the Army, the hostages were released! There I am thinking, I dropped out of college for this,” Baylis laughed.
Instead, Baylis began his military career as an indirect fire infantryman, more commonly known as a mortar man. He was first stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the iconic 82nd Airborne Division. Baylis—who is the humble type and shrugs off any type of praise—excelled in his early years in the Army. He graduated from U.S. Army Ranger School and was selected to serve as a mortar squad leader in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment.
Baylis eventually made the decision to take another leap in his military career. He began the process to enter into the U.S. Army Special Forces in 1983, and earned the Army’s coveted “Green Beret” in August 1984.
Baylis explained that during much of the 1980s, the U.S. military was active in many parts of the world that were not widely publicized. During the Cold-War era, the U.S. and Russia were trying to avoid World War III. However, each country was sending advisory units to foreign countries to garner influence and strengthen diplomatic ties.
While serving in a special forces unit based out of Fort Lewis and Okinawa, Baylis deployed as part of advisory Green Beret teams to several countries in Asia, including India and Cambodia.
Then, in 1986, Baylis received orders for a unique assignment to a location that was very sought-after in the ranks of the military.
“I got a three-year permanent assignment at Fort Davis, on the Atlantic side of Panama. I was on a free-fall [airborne paratrooper team] team conducting military advisory missions in surrounding countries. My wife at the time lived down there with me. It was a nice assignment. Families of service members were allowed to live down there too,” Baylis said.
Once Baylis arrived in Panama, he and his team were kept busy with trips to Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador, advising and training foreign militaries.
Baylis and his team were also part of a larger U.S. government anti-narcotics mission to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.
The country’s leader at the time, Manuel Noriega, was a CIA-recruited military dictator who took power after a coup in 1968. He was, for many years, a friend to the United States. Noriega notably allowed Panama to be used as the U.S. conduit for weapons and aid to the pro-democratic Contras in Nicaragua, who ultimately defeated the communist Sandinistas.
But by the late 1980s, Noriega had found a different side that paid better than Uncle Sam.
“By the time we were down there he was just helping the drug cartels in South America bring coke into the U.S.,” Baylis recalled.
“Noriega was playing both sides.”
Noriega’s government was known to be corrupt. Investigations conducted by U.S. officials found him to be a key figure in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín drug cartel.
While Baylis was deploying to surrounding countries, U.S. authorities grew tired of the dictator. Noriega was indicted by two separate Florida grand juries on drug-trafficking charges. A few months later, he nullified the results of a general election and stayed in power by force, foiling several coup attempts. The United States called on Noriega to respect the election and insisted it would not negotiate with a drug trafficker.
Noriega and his military felt the pressure from the U.S. government. Baylis witnessed the effects of this on the ground in Panama.
“The Panamanian Defense Forces [PDF] and the Guardia Nacional [national police and guard force] manned armed checkpoints as well as gates to enter into Fort Davis as well as Fort Espinar. The Panamanians were becoming increasingly more combative at the gates. It was as though they were trying to instigate confrontations with American military personal,” Baylis recalled.
Once, as Baylis tried to enter Fort Davis with his wife in the truck, trouble exploded at the gates.
“The guards were getting very aggressive with me while my wife was in the passenger seat of my truck. Their intent was to start a confrontation to give them a reason to hold me or my wife as well.”
Baylis and his wife were ultimately able to leave. However, Baylis knew that this was a foreshadowing of events to come.
By December 1989, Baylis’s time in Panama was coming to an end. He had orders to leave the country for his next assignment.
“Things were tense and very chaotic. We were conducting training-style drills in preparation for a potential invasion of the country. The Panamanian military changed out all their gear from American weapons to AK-47’s and Soviet-era fatigues. We all really knew at that point that things were getting bad,” Baylis said.
Orders eventually came down from the military that families needed to be evacuated to the U.S. on Dec. 15, 1989. That same day, Noriega declared war on the U.S..
As a military showdown loomed—sparked by the killing of a Marine named Robert Paz in Panama City and the beating of a Navy lieutenant at the hands of PDF troops—Baylis’s main priority was to get his wife to safety.
“I was able to get on a plane and get my wife out to Quakertown, Pennsylvania. But despite my orders to leave, my problem was that I personally had to get back to Panama to rejoin my unit. I wasn’t just going to leave before a major operation. I ended up having to pay out of pocket for a flight from Philadelphia to Fort Bragg and talking my way on to a military flight to Panama,” Baylis said.
Baylis returned to Panama on Dec. 22, two days after the U.S. had invaded the country on the orders of President George H. W. Bush.
“I made it to Albrook Air Force Base on the Pacific side of the country where we [the U.S. military] were reconsolidating. The hanger that we were in at the time was attacked by two platoons of PDF. There I am sitting there as bullets are hitting the building and I don’t even have a gun,” Baylis laughed as he recalled the chaos.
Due to Baylis’s hasty return to the country, he had not been able to get hold of the necessary combat load that is standard for ground troops.
“Luckily the 5th Infantry Division was there to successfully repel the attack. Eventually, I was able to get on a helicopter to get to the Atlantic side of the country to help defend the U.S. families near Fort Davis and Fort Espinar,” said Baylis
During Christmastime of 1989, Panama was engulfed in fighting. Baylis was never able to rejoin his original special forces team. They had been split up and re-tasked to different parts of the country. Baylis found himself with soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group attempting to take control of the Panamanian base, Fort Espinar.
“Fort Espinar was a joint base before the invasion had started but once the war began, the PDF had taken control of it. We had to take it over because U.S. families were residing within five miles of the base. It must have been a scary thing for those families to look out their windows and see machine gun tracers going back and forth,” Baylis said.
The invasion was hectic for Baylis—and the fighting eventually took an outlandish turn.
“At one point in time, I had to help call in mortar fire on a hangar that was occupied by the PDF. It just so happened that this building in particular was a staging point for household goods of American families to be shipped out of the country before the invasion. I didn’t know at that point if my property had gotten out of the country. So, there I am helping the effort to drop mortars on potentially my own stuff. I guess those are some of the funny things about war,” Baylis said.
In January of 1990, the fighting began to subside after the U.S. flushed Noriega out of his hiding place at the Vatican embassy in Panama City. After the dictator surrendered, the U.S. flew him to the States to face trial and eventual imprisonment over drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges.
Baylis spent the rest of the operation in charge of security patrols of sectors near Fort Davis and Fort Espinar. Operation Just Cause officially ended on Jan. 20, 1990.
Multiple figures exist on Panamanian military and civilian casualties. According to the United Nations, estimates range between 200-300 military deaths and up to 500 civilian deaths.
Baylis left the country in February 1990, shortly after the end of the operation.
He honorably served for another 17 years in special forces. He was medically retired in April 2007 due to wounds received in combat.
Presently, the Republic of Panama is considered to be one of the fastest-growing economies, according to The World Bank. English is widely spoken in the native Spanish-speaking country and the country is “dollarized” as well, allowing U.S. currency as legal tender in the country.
Meanwhile, in his retirement, Baylis has dedicated his life to serving other veterans. He is the co-founder of the Valor Clinic Foundation. According to the foundation website, its mission “provides assistance in accessing benefits and shelter to veterans with limited or no access to care. [The foundation] finds shelter for Veterans who, due to health or means, are unable to find or keep shelter of their own, and Post Traumatic Stress resources to veterans.”
“These things happened almost 30 years ago now. It’s easy to forget things that happened that long ago,” Baylis said of Operation Just Cause. “I feel terribly I can’t remember the name of the family that cooked us all a Christmas meal so we could have a brief break from fighting. But even today, it’s important to remember these things and the people.”