Twenty years is a long time. It spans the entire life of many a young Sailor and Marine. Twenty years is four Presidents ago. Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall had just come down, and the impact of that event was yet to be known to East or West Germany, to the United States, or to the Soviet Union. Heady times, and a hopeful if uncertain future.
Twenty years ago today, just five weeks after the momentous events in Europe, US forces were in action in Panama. Operation JUST CAUSE led to the capture of Manuel Noriega, in a short, sometimes sharp fight that was far less costly than predicted estimates. Twenty three American servicemen were killed, as were about two hundred Panamanian soldiers.
I wasn’t there. A First Lieutenant assigned to MCRD Parris Island, I was overseeing recruits being made into Marines. But I remember JUST CAUSE very vividly. That day, I was the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion Officer of the Day (OOD), and upon completing my squad bay checks at 0200 I flipped on the TV in the duty room. The 24-hour news cycle was in its infancy, but there was coverage on every channel of US forces engaged in a number of firefights, with a byline of “Fort Sherman, Panama”. It took a while to sort out the details, well into the next day. The news dominated discussion in the Bn CP the next morning, with some fairly amusing comments from the old man about this being what happens when you choose the wrong dictator. Casualties were reported as very light, thankfully.
That evening, as I ironed my uniform for the next day, the phone rang. The voice of my friend on the other end of the line said, “Don’t know if you heard, but Connors was killed. He was killed in action some time yesterday, in Panama”. Wow. Jee-zus. John was not the first friend of mine who had been killed in service to his country. Nor was he even the first to be killed in action. A high school friend had died in the Marine barracks in Beirut.
But John was the first of my friends to die who’d seemed, I don’t know, bulletproof, invincible. John was a piece of work. He was sharp, motivated, and dedicated. Funny as hell, too. And he was very, very smart. He had graduated from WPI, for chrissakes. He was one of the toughest guys I have ever known. In the time since I’d last spoken to him, he had completed SEAL training, and had been assigned to his team. In order to make the mission in Panama, he dragged himself out of a hospital bed, where he had been battling an intestinal parasite. How the hell does a guy like THAT get killed?
He shouldn’t have been on that mission, could have stayed in his hospital bed and continued his recovery. But anyone who knew John was not surprised that he would find a way to be with his men when they needed him most. They would also not be surprised to know that John was a top-shelf leader in a community of top-shelf leaders.
But LTJG John Patrick Connors was not bullet-proof. He and three members of his team died coming to the aid of comrades who were pinned down. (Chief McFaul, TM2 Rodriguez, and BM1 Tilghman were the other SEALs who had been killed.) They had followed their leader into harm’s way.
John Connors was not the first friend to die for his country. He certainly wouldn’t be the last. Indeed, the list is far longer than I care to remember these days. But when I hear the notes of Taps playing, and I think of all of those brave souls who gave their tomorrows so that we could have our todays, it is John’s face I see first. LTJG John Connors was 25.
Maybe twenty years isn’t such a long time after all. You are missed, my friend.