FORT POLK — Dec. 20 marked the 27th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
“Before the smoke clears in Panama, before the politicians and propagandists complete weaving their self-serving spells, it would be well for the rest of us to note and ponder the brave, efficient, professional service our citizen warriors have given our country in the streets and jungles of Panama.”
— Dan Rather in a CBS Radio commentary Dec. 28, 1989
FORT POLK — Dec. 20 marked the 27th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. On that day, then-president George H.W. Bush authorized 9,000 troops to deploy to the region and join with 12,000 military personnel already positioned there for “Operation Just Cause,” a mission to overthrow military dictator Manuel Noriega.
Bush cited four reasons for the invasion:
• Safeguarding the lives of U.S. citizens in Panama. Bush stated that Noriega had declared war between the U.S. and Panama and had threatened the lives of the 35,000 U.S. citizens living there. Forces under Noriega’s command had killed an unarmed serviceman, wounded another and beat a third while brutally interrogating his wife.
• Defending democracy and human rights in Panama. In May of 1989, an alliance of parties opposed to Noriega’s dictatorship won the national election by a 3-to-1 margin, but Noriega declared the election null and maintained his control by force.
• Combating drug trafficking. Panama had become a center for drug money laundering and a transit point for trafficking to the U.S. and Europe.
• Protecting the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. These treaties were signed in 1977 by then-president Jimmy Carter and Gen. Omar Torrijos, commander of the Panamanian National Guard, and guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the canal after 1999.
Congress approved the invasion with bi-partisan support and orders were delivered to the troops to move out as early as Dec. 19, but the big push came Dec. 20, and that’s the day the 82nd Airborne Regiment of Fort Bragg, North Carolina jumped into Panama.
Among their ranks was a young E-4 about to get his first exposure to real-life, no-kidding combat. Mark Leslie, Fort Polk’s chief of plans and operations for Installation Management Command-Central, recalls his experiences in Panama every Dec. 20, and even calls a few of his comrades annually to mark the anniversary of that event.
“That day (of the invasion), the sergeant major was standing on a jump platform giving us some pitch about joining the 82nd Airborne Association or something, and then the battalion commander came out and pulled him aside and told him something,” said Leslie. “And I’ll never forget this — the sergeant major then turned to us and said, ‘The balloon just went up! Return to your units!’”
For the uninitiated, “the balloon goes up” is a term used when enemy activity is expected, a throwback to low-tech tactics employed during World War I. For Leslie and his fellow soldiers, it was literally a call to arms.
“We reported to our units, were issued ammo and given the operational order and boarded the planes,” he said. Eighteen hours later they were jumping into Panama. “It was icy at Fort Bragg when we left and so hot when we reached Panama,” Leslie said. “You could really feel the climate change as you got closer.”
The rucksack Leslie carried into combat was, by his own account, quite weighty.
“We always trained with heavy rucksacks, but I never had a heavier one in my entire life than this one,” he said. “You had your full combat load, then two 60mm mortar rounds, 200 rounds of ammunition, a LAW (light anti-tank weapon) rocket … every man was loaded down, and no matter what was happening on the ground, I couldn’t wait to get out of that aircraft because the ruck was so heavy!”
The jump was the largest combat air assault to take place since World War II.
During the three-week deployment, Leslie, an infantry fire team leader, conducted patrols and investigated tips from locals about enemy combatants with the Panamanian Defense Force.
Fighting alongside the 82nd were elements of Fort Polk’s 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) and the 519th Military Police Battalion, as well as the 7th Infantry (Light) from Fort Ord, California, the 7th Special Forces Group of Fort Bragg, the 75th Ranger Regiment from Fort Benning, Georgia, plus many other units from across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
After a number of raids led to the discovery of several weapons caches, the PDF were finally defeated Dec. 24. Noriega fled to the Vatican embassy Apostolic Nuncio, seeking refuge in the church. American soldiers set up a perimeter outside the building, because direct action would have been an act of war against the Vatican!
A few days later though, Noriega surrendered and was arrested by U.S. drug enforcement agents Jan. 3. After a trial in 1992, Noriega was convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering and sentenced to 40 years in an American federal prison.
The short-lived mission was considered a success but did not come without costs. Nearly two dozen military service members, a handful of Department of Defense civilians and about 500 Panamanian civilians lost their lives during the invasion — a fact Leslie said he doesn’t want people to forget.
“We lost soldiers there. People always talk about the loss of life in Afghanistan and Iraq (because they number so many), but we lost people in other wars too, like Panama, Grenada, Somalia,” said Leslie. “It doesn’t have to be a declared conflict or one that lasts 15 years for people to remember them (the fallen). They should all be remembered.”