Editor’s note: This story is the first of a three-part series remembering the invasion of Panama in December 1989. Part two is scheduled to appear Wednesday, Dec. 18.
Thirty years ago, a small group of Americans began one of this nation’s quickest and most successful military operations of the 20th century and then almost instantly faded into obscurity.
Those 27,000 members of the U.S. armed forces overthrew Panama, captured its dictator, Manuel Noriega, and the Central American nation became a tropical vacation paradise.
In the 1940s, the soldiers returning from Panama would have been welcomed with a ticker tape parade. During the Vietnam-era they would have been just as likely to be spat upon as thanked. But a booming early 1990s America still reveling in the end of the Cold War seemed not to know what to do with those 27,000.
“They forgot about it as soon as we came home,” said Nacogdoches resident James Peacock.
For Peacock, the memories of the 42-day conflict are heavy and steeped in a type of Dickensian contradiction of being both the literal best and worst of times.
The unofficial war with Panama cost the Jacksonville native his kidneys and left him feeling isolated in a world where few other men could understand the whirlwind nature of the military action known as Operation Just Cause. But it was an exciting adventure — the best of his life — and during it he formed lasting bonds of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, even if most of them live in other far-flung areas of the country.
“I got a college degree. I got free education for my son. Was it worth it? I would do it again tomorrow,” Peacock said.
For nearly 30 years, Peacock would call his closest friend from his Army days, Blake Richard Blakely, on the anniversary of the invasion.
Blakely committed suicide in April. About 6,000 veterans commit suicide each year, and their suicide rate has risen by 6.1 percent in the past decade and a half, according to the Veterans Administration.
“He was a good friend. I miss him a lot, obviously. That’s going to be the hardest part this year. It hasn’t really started yet — the anxiety,” Peacock said.
For a while, Peacock had a plastic skeleton — the kind people decorate for Halloween with — sitting on a stool in the corner of his living room wearing memorabilia that reminded him of Blakely. When Nacogdoches County Republican Women held their Veterans Day luncheon, Peacock took the skeleton along with him.
“It wasn’t political. I wasn’t trying to make any kind of point. I just thought Blakely would think it was funny. That’s all,” Peacock said. “I even tried to pay for his seat, and they wouldn’t take my money.”
Afterward, Peacock put the skeleton away.
Last year, Peacock connected with retired Lt. Col. Jeff Smith Sr., who served for three years in Panama as part of his permanent post.
“Us permanent party guys never got recognition coming or going,” Smith said. “For us, we got no campaign ribbon, no arrowhead, no device because we were already there.”
Smith served in the 87th Infantry Regiment as a lieutenant during Operation Just Cause. He joined the army as a commissioned officer after graduating from SFA and completing the ROTC program. Peacock was a member of Company C 2/27 Light Infantry, 7th Division based at Fort Ord, California.
Both have their stories about battle and Army life but rarely mention them to anyone besides fellow veterans.
“I find myself holding my breath a lot when I’m not around somebody I’m comfortable with because I don’t know how far to go,” Smith said.
Most tales contain a type of gallows humor common among combat veterans, police, firefighters and others who find themselves in traumatic situations over and over again.
“I laugh about it just to stay sane,” Smith said.
On the second day of the invasion — Dec. 21, 1989 — Peacock and other men of his company participated in what to date is one of the final amphibious beach assaults by the U.S. Army.
A photographer from the Agence France-Presse captured an image of Peacock and others from the company storming the beach of Coco Solo, Panama.
The black and white image looks almost as if it could have been taken on D-Day 1944. The men are in full camouflage and ragtop helmets and armed to the teeth. Peacock has one foot in the water and the other just leaving the landing craft while clutching his M16A.
“I remember that moment being of one of two steps I took in that water. I remember walking on the water I was moving so fast,” he said.
Soon the shooting started.
As most combat veterans will tell one another and few others, even the best trained soldiers sometimes freeze when the gunfire begins. For Peacock, one voice rose above the echoing of machine guns — that of Sal Lattero, a New Yorker from Poughkeepsie with a voice like TV mob boss Tony Soprano.
“When we got shot at, Sal was the only voice you could hear on the battlefield, loud clear and unpanicked,” Peacock said. “You’re scared. You freeze. As soon as he said ‘Remember your training,’ it all goes middle brain.”
Lattero, Peacock said, was basically serving in the role of platoon sergeant because the man in that position had come from a mechanical company and wasn’t well suited for combat.
“Sal stood up and did it. If I could figure out how to do it, I would write him up for a bronze star,” Peacock said. “A company commander can get it for planning an operation. Why couldn’t Sal get it for batting well above his weight?”
Part two of the series will continue to detail what happened during the fighting in Panama and the lingering effects three decades later. Part three will examine the reasons behind the forgotten conflict.