Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thirty Years

Thirty years is not really all that great a period of time in the grand scheme of things. Oh, it is half my life and I know I will be lucky to see another 30 years on this earth, but in the history of the world it is the snap of a finger.

Aside from 2008 being the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, it also marks a never before reached milestone in the 232 year life of our young republic. The United States of America has elected a non-white president for the very first time. Listening to the election night coverage on NPR and hearing Obama declared president-elect, I was overwhelmed with pride in my country. I never thought this day would occur in my lifetime.

Then I wondered what Rev. Jim Jones would have said. I wondered what his reaction would have been. Would he be amazed that just half a century after Rosa Parks refused to take a seat in the back of the bus our country would elect a black man as its leader?

What happened in Jonestown 30 years ago is a horror we shall never forget. What happened in the USA last Tuesday night was a monumental event we shall always remember.

Monday, September 22, 2008



“It is remarkable how insane and unimaginative Utopias have generally been… The possibility of essential progress is bound up with the tragic possibility that progress and human life may one day end together… Mortality has its compensations: one is that all evils are transitory, another that better times may come.”
Jorge Santayana

It is an understatement to say the Jonestown Massacre had a profound effect in my life. Practically everything that has occurred in it since I spent nine days in Guyana that November of 1978, can be directly attributed to changes in my psyche and philosophy that began evolving in Jonestown.

I was raised in a Christian home by a Baptist mother who, late in my fifth decade of life, still attends the church in which I was raised, when she is physically able. She lives in an adult living community less than 50 yards from that church. My brother is a trustee there.

As a child, I participated in Christmas and Easter pageants in that church. In high school, I gave a sermon on youth Sunday. I attended a Christian College after graduating from high school. I was the epitome of a big time Christian.

But church is a place I am suspicious of now. For me it isn’t a place of solace and peace, but a potential cause of pain and suffering. I have become suspect and cynical, not trusting churchmen and constantly finding my distrust being validated when someone my mother respects, like Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggart fall.

I am still haunted by the ghosts of November. While they don’t cause me to behave strangely or lose sleep during the anniversary dates of their deaths anymore, they affect me nevertheless. I see them in the eyes of children as young as four-years-old, begging on the street corner of Lagos, Nigeria. They were with me during six years of living on the streets as a homeless derelict and even today, after I brought myself back to the respectable world of the employed, I see them in the eyes of the homeless panhandlers in Indianapolis.

I survived 635 days in a combat zone so I know I can persevere through the worst of circumstances. Yet, the experiences of Vietnam, watching my fellow soldiers die in my arms, helping amputate limbs and getting knee-deep in blood and gore was nowhere near as traumatic to me as the nine days I spent in 1978 in that twilight zone called Jonestown.

To those of us who were part of that infamous event known as the Jonestown Massacre, the past 30 years since it occurred have flown by. It’s hard to believe that many of the people who read this book weren’t even born when the events described in it occurred.

I lost contact with almost all the other people who participated in the task force. Eric Vega did get in touch with me by e-mail when he stumbled across my blog quite by accident. In June 2006, I had the opportunity to meet his lovely wife and him when I went to San Diego. He seemed unaffected by the nine days he spent carrying body bags in the hot Guyanese sun 28 years before. But I suppose the same could be said about me. Our wounds are not obvious but they are there.

Eric is still a medical records specialist. He works in a VA hospital. He has a lovely wife and seems to be living a happy life. We went to dinner while I was in San Diego and we discussed good times in the 601st Medical Company and in Panama, but we did not talk about Jonestown.

The Jonestown Massacre was one of the biggest news stories of 1978, possibly of the entire century. It still stands as the largest mass murder/suicide in history. I use the term “murder/suicide” because it is obvious the infants and small children were not given a choice in the matter. In fact, many researchers feel the majority of the victims of Jonestown were murdered.

Conspiracy theories abound regarding the truth about what happened in Jonestown three decades ago. To some, it simply represents nothing more than a social experiment that went terribly awry. Others opine that members off the Army’s elite Special Forces perpetrated the deaths and still others insist that Jonestown, by its very nature, was destined to self-destruct.

Much of the mystery surrounding Jonestown and the deaths that occurred there is due to the government secrecy and reticence of government agencies to declassify documents or respond to Freedom of Information Act requests in a cooperative and timely manner. Fielding McGehee of The Jonestown Institute has been successful in obtaining documents and tapes of radio transmissions, telephone conversations and sermons from the government and he provides transcripts to the public.

Rebecca Moore, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, is the author or co-editor of more than half dozen books on the Peoples Temple. She lost two sisters and a nephew at Jonestown. After the remains of her loved ones and other American Jonestown victims were returned to Dover, Delaware, Ms. Moore and her family had some difficulty and unpleasant experience dealing with the U.S. government. Her essay, Last Rights, outlines these problems and is found in the appendix.

While Jonestown seemed to be an isolated albeit incredibly horrifying event in human history, the mass murder/suicides were the precursor to several other events that occurred on a smaller scale.

· On December 13, 1990, 12 people died in a ritual in Tijuana, Mexico, after drinking fruit punch tainted with industrial alcohol.
· In 1991, Mexican minister, Ramon Morales Almazan, and 29 followers suffocated after he told them to keep praying and ignore toxic fumes that filled his church.
· In October 1993, 53 Vietnamese tribal villagers committed mass suicide with flintlock weapons in the belief they would go directly to heaven.
· On April 19, 1993, 84 Branch Davidians led by David Koresh, died in a fire and shoot-out with out-of-control federal agents near Waco, Texas, ending a 51-day siege of their cult compound.
· In October 1994, the burned bodies of 48 Solar Temple members were discovered in farmhouse and three chalets in Switzerland. At the same time, five other bodies, including an infant’s, were found in a Solar Temple house north of Montreal, Canada.
· In December 1995, 16 Solar Temple members were found dead in a burned house outside Grenoble in the French Alps.
· On March 23, 1997, the charred remains of three women and two men were found inside a house in Saint Casimir, Canada. All were members of the Solar Temple.
· On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 39 men were discovered in a mass suicide near San Diego. These members of the Heaven’s Gate cult also believed their deaths would lead to their rebirth and future life with aliens.
· In March 2000, a bizarre cult led by a defrocked Catholic priest and a prostitute, committed mass suicide/murder when more than 1000 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda, were killed after being doused with a flammable liquid and being locked in the sanctuary of a church that was burned to the ground.

Many cult experts predicted an upsurge in cult-related deaths as the year 2000 approached. Fortunately, the mass murder/suicides in Uganda seem to be the only instance in the new millennium. The absence of any more mass deaths tied to religious cults since 2000 must be counted as a good sign.

Thirty years following the Jonestown Massacre, what happened in that isolated jungle enclave is still a matter of curiosity. There remain more questions unanswered than answered and as long as there are survivors or people who knew survivors, as long as there are people who went there for the clean-up and their children and grandchildren who have heard their awful stories, there will always be questions about Jim Jones, the People’s Temple and the Jonestown Massacre.

The Jonestown Institute, part of San Diego State University, has done much to keep the issue alive. It publishes an annual newsletter, The Jonestown Report, which is available on line. Dr. Rebecca Moore, its director, has been an invaluable contributor and resource for this book. As the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy draws near, a play about Jonestown has been written and performed in various parts of the country.

The People's Temple: Docudrama by Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall opened in May of 2005 in Berkely, California. Fondakowski also directed the two hour 55 minute play.

The play has been described as The Laramie Project of Jonestown and it has played as far east as Minnesota. "Temple" was the brainchild of Z Space Studio Artistic Director David Dower, who commissioned "Laramie" head writer Fondakowski to take a similar approach to the Peoples Temple story (the apostrophe in the title is meant, in part, to distinguish the play from the actual church).

Marshall Kilduff, a San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer who covered City Hall and the crime beat during his long tenure at the newspaper said of the continued thirst for information about the People’s Temple, including the docudrama, “What hangs me up were the people under Jones… as a reporter, I encountered Jones a number of times. I always walked away, shaking my head at the sublime strangeness of him and his entourage.

“None of his inner circle smiled. Banter, sports scores, the weather -- none of my brilliant conversation-starters ever worked with this deadpan crew. Whenever I talked with Jones, temple members would call me later, sometimes late at night. Jim appreciates your interest in his work, the callers said, but he doesn't want it in the paper.

“Who were these guys? It became my biggest wonder. It's also what the Berkeley Repertory Theatre play "The People's Temple'' zeroes in on, too. It's a big, unmade bed of a stage drama filled with dozens of personal accounts stretched over three hours.

But the play avoids giving answers to any of Kilduff’s questions. He said that as a reporter, he pursued Jim Jones and people he knew were killed in the final hours of the temple’s existence. He said, “I wrote a book about it all and then walked away. I thought I had a grasp of what went on.

“But the final summing up never made me feel easy. Take your pick among the common explanations for Jonestown: The followers were all crazy; Jones turned nice folks into demonic zombies; they were idealists driven mad by a merciless world. Add in race, faith-healing and the hey-whatever California culture. You could fashion your own answer and then fold it up and put it away.”

But as Kilduff came to know the survivors, he had to reevaluate his cookie-cutter ideas of the past. They didn’t work. He came to know the survivors personally. They joined the temple for a myriad of reasons. Some liked its leftist socialist slant. Others were there because for the interracial qualities. Some liked the security of living in a disciplined and regulated society. Some joined because other family members did, not out of any doctrinal or dogmatic beliefs.
The play makes it clear, the survivors had reasons to both like and hate Jones. As Kilduff says, “They seem to be marked by guilt and shame that won't wash away. More than a quarter of a century later, they are still trying to figure out how it happened.”

Razor grass, vines and a few wild daisies cover the site of Jonestown today. A fire in the early 1980s literally destroyed the cottages and the weeds and other tropical flora growth eventually obliterated all signs that humans once occupied this space.

Residents of Port Kaituma, where Congressman Ryan and four others were murdered, remain suspicious of strangers visiting the area. People from Nigeria and South America come into the area claiming to be considering one project or another. This newfound multiculturalism, reminiscent of Jones' dream of a Utopian multiracial society, is not welcomed by villagers whose collective psyche was scarred by the mass suicide.

The town as has more than quadrupled in size and population since the Jonestown massacre. Most of the 7,000 residents are native Amerindians and descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured laborers imported centuries ago to Britain's only colony in South America.
An interior covered by impenetrable jungle and dissected by snake-infested rivers prevented the Guyanese government from monitoring Jones' activities, and accounts for a different kind of lawlessness today.

Port residents complain that President Bharrat Jagdeo's government, preoccupied with growing anarchy in the capital, Georgetown, is not doing enough to prevent foreigners stealing Guyana's wealth. Locals say, Brazilians and Venezuelans who have joined a gold rush often mine without permits and smuggle their gains across unpoliced borders.

Others complain the government is too trusting of foreign churches and missionaries. Baptist pastor Dean Runyon, from Cleveland, Ohio, has gathered more than 400 followers in four years for his church, which offers services and helps with small community projects.
"Why I came to Guyana? That's a long story," says Runyon, hurrying to a sermon and referring other questions to his parishioners. "I have nothing to hide, though."

"Pastor Runyon is no Jim Jones," said parishioner Raymond Wong, 32. "He preaches the word of God, but that's it."

Few churchgoers are old enough to remember Jonestown.[1]

Jonestown survivor and former pastor of the temple’s church in Los Angeles, David Wise lived as a fugitive until the year 2000.

“I was thoroughly investigated by the FBI. They informed me that I was no longer “wanted” anywhere. Apparently charges against me were dropped after the Jonestown deaths, and I never knew it. Over the years I had done some research to find out what parts of the Jonestown story were true, and which were not, since I hoped to confirm that no Mafia contract had really been taken out on me. I was especially interested in the involvement of the FBI or the CIA. By providence or by fluke I eventually made personal contact with some of the Green Berets who landed in Jonestown and finally felt I had most of the story.”

During his 24 years on the run, Wise did most forms of blue collar work as well as white. He is a carpenter, plumber, electrician, and mechanic. He worked as a dance teacher and stunt man. He was a singer in Las Vegas, manager of a radio station in Maine news director of one in Kansas.

Jackie Speier is running for the office of Lieutenant Governor in the state of California for the 2006 election. She is currently a Democratic State Senator representing Burlingame south of San Francisco and was a legislative assistant to Rep. Leo Ryan and accompanied the congressman on his trip to Guyana.

Ms. Speier includes that experience in her campaign material. The introduction to her campaign website begins with these words: “In 1978, I dared to survive what should have been a fatal shooting. While on a congressional fact finding mission in Guyana, our party was ambushed by followers of the Reverend Jim Jones. I was left for dead and spent 22 hours on the tarmac waiting for help to arrive. It is this defining moment that helped me fully appreciate the importance of fighting… fighting for what you believe in and the essential importance of never giving up, no matter what the odds against you. It taught me that we all must strive to make a difference.”

In December 2005, Eddie Mills, the son of Al and Jeannie Mills, was detained by California police in connection with the murder of his parents and sister Daphene almost 26 years earlier. A few days later, the prosecutor in the case declined to press charges, and Eddie was released. He has since returned to Japan where he lives with his wife and two children.

Al and Jeannie Mills – who were known as Elmer and Deanna Mertle during their years in Peoples Temple – left the church in 1974 and became two of its most vocal critics. They founded the Human Freedom Center as a refuge for other Temple defectors and were active in the Concerned Relatives organization which was founded to focus media, political, and government pressure on Jim Jones. Because of their defections and their high-profile campaigns against him, Jones often lashed out at the Mills, calling them traitors and threatening retribution against them.

The three members of the Mills family were shot in their Berkeley home in February 1980, more than a year after the deaths in Jonestown. Nevertheless, their murders raised the fear that Temple “hit squads” – ex-members who would supposedly avenge the deaths in the Jonestown community against its perceived enemies – had become active. Those rumors dissipated when the police turned their attention to Eddie as a suspect.

The initial investigation was eventually shelved, but early in 2005, the police re-focused their attention on Eddie, who was 17 at the time and who was in the house when the shootings occurred. He was left unharmed. According to several surviving members of the Mills family, the police asked them to turn over any evidence they may have of Eddie’s involvement. Family members answered police questions, but – since they maintained their belief in Eddie’s innocence – felt there was no evidence to turn over to officials.

The reason for the renewed “cold case” investigation was unknown, since apparently no new evidence was uncovered, nor have advances in forensics technology assisted in reviewing existing evidence. Nevertheless, Eddie was arrested at the San Francisco airport on December 3 upon his return to the U.S. for the first time in several years. He spent several days in the Redwood City jail before being transferred to the East Bay. On December 8, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office declined to file charges, citing a lack of evidence, and Eddie was released.

Records released during the U.S. Senate's examination of newly-confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts revealed that - while working for the Reagan White House in 1983 - the young attorney had harsh criticism of slain Congressman Leo J. Ryan.

Five years after Ryan was assassinated at the Port Kaituma airstrip in Guyana during his fact-finding tour to Peoples Temple facilities in Georgetown and Jonestown, Congress awarded the California Democrat a posthumous gold medal for his service. Ryan remains the only congressman killed in the course of his duties in American history.

Roberts' view of the legislator was not as charitable as those of Ryan's former colleagues. In a November 18, 1983, memo to then-White House counsel Fred Fielding, Roberts wrote: "The distinction of his service in the House is certainly subject to debate, and his actions leading to his murder can be viewed as those of a publicity hound." The attorney added, however, that there were no legal problems with Reagan signing the legislation authorizing the award of the Congressional Gold Medal.

Roberts' comment was in a memo among 420 documents which the National Archives released to Senators looking into the nominee's background during the summer of 2005. Denice Stephenson, archivist of the California Historical Society, published a book of primary source documents about Peoples Temple entitled Dear People.

Former Temple attorney and Jones' confidant Tim Stoen asked former religion reporter - and longtime Temple antagonist - Lester Kinsolving for forgiveness earlier this year, apologizing for his role in the Temple's campaign to discredit the newsman. Stoen, who eventually left the Temple and joined his wife Grace in an unsuccessful effort to retrieve John Victor Stoen from Jonestown, helped the Temple to organize pickets around the San Francisco Examiner, where Kinsolving worked, following a series of negative articles in 1972. He also filed a libel suit against the writer over the same articles.

In his letter of February 11, 2005, Stoen said that he had been wrong - and that Kinsolving had been right - about the Temple. Stoen wrote the letter a few weeks after Kinsolving had a heart attack, an event which Stoen said was the impetus for the letter.

Tim Stoen is currently the financial crime prosecutor for Mendocino County. Kinsolving is a talk show host for a radio station in Baltimore and a member of the White House press corps.

The time is fast approaching when there will be no more need to update this epilogue. With most of the People’s Temple and other principles in this drama either passed or very old, there is not much news to come out of the Jonestown Massacre. Hopefully, we all will remember, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” and never let another Jonestown happen again.

[1] AP, Paisley Dodds, Decades after Jonestown Massacre, villagers distrustful of new foreign influences, 18 November 2002.

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve: The Party’s Over

“Once and for all I push away the clouds from my eyes.
I can see misery and pain all about me.
Suddenly I am where I began,
still too weak to help the underprivileged of our world.
My responsibility and what am I doing?

While Bernal and the rest of the team saw to the offloading of our equipment and supplies, I went to a telephone to call the charge-of-quarters (CQ) so he could dispatch a vehicle to transport us back to the unit. It was a little after 0330 hours. Sanborn was the unit armorer, but didn’t have access to the arms room since he accompanied us to Guyana. I asked the CQ who had the keys to the arms room. He told me the company’s executive officer, First Lieutenant Elias Canasta had them. He was not my favorite officer in the unit.

“Well, please call the XO and let him know we are back so he can come in and sign the weapons back into the arms room when we arrive,” I directed the CQ.

Canasta and I had not hit it off from the very beginning, when he became the platoon leader of my ambulance platoon at Fort Gulick on the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone. He was a very strict, inflexible, authoritarian leader with no sense of humor. He was conservative, a staunch and stodgy Roman Catholic, originally from Columbia, with a habit of making rash decision that usually were, in my estimation, wrong.

About half hour after I first talked with the CQ, a follow-up phone call assured me the vehicle would arrive at the terminal momentarily. Before terminating the conversation, I asked if Lieutenant Canasta arrived yet at the company.

The CQ paused a few seconds and said, “He said he’d be in at 0800 hours and y’all are to wait until he gets here.”

“He what?!?” I asked incredulously. The CQ repeated what the lieutenant had told him, adding this time that he didn’t appreciate being awakened at that hour of the morning.

Major Burgos and Captain Skinner had left in the brigade surgeon’s vehicle and I had no one to back me up. I told the CQ to give me the lieutenant’s home phone number. He reluctantly complied.

I immediately called the XO. He answered the phone with, “What do you want now?”

“Good morning lieutenant, I hope I didn’t disturb your beauty sleep,” I said snidely.

“Who is this,” inquired the arrogant XO.

“This is Specialist Six Brailey, just back from Jonestown, Guyana, with five men who need to turn in their weapons and go home and take a bath,” I replied lightly.

“I expect you’ll be at the company before we arrive from Howard. We are leaving in about ten minutes.”

“I told the CQ I’d be there at 0800 hours and that’s when I will be there,” Canasta stated.

“Listen you sorry piece of shit, I’ve always thought you were fucked up asshole, and you just proved it,” I shouted into the telephone. “As far as I am concerned you are an arrogant little snot who wouldn’t make a pimple on a decent NCO’s ass. We are tired, smelly and hung over and we don’t need any shit from an asshole the likes of you!”

“What did you say?” screamed Canasta into the phone.

“You heard me you insipid weasel. You’d better hope we never go to war because you’ll be dodging bullets from both sides you fuck!” I taunted. “You are such a sorry excuse for an officer I didn’t expect you’d drag your sorry ass into the company at this hour of the morning. We’ve all known how much you suck. The troops will be talking about your sorry ass forever!” I concluded forcefully.

“I’ll see your ass in the orderly room, Specialist Brailey!” Canasta spit into the telephone.

I quietly hung up the phone’s receiver and smiled at my men who had been listening intently to my end of the conversation. “The XO says he’ll see me in the orderly room fellas,” I announced as they continued to stare at me with an astonished look on their faces.

Our truck pulled up in front of the company dayroom. I told the driver to secure the vehicle in the motor pool and go to bed. We would unload the equipment tomorrow.

The team picked up their personal gear and stacked it against the building. We already decided since it smelled so bad, no one would dare steal it. We then walked enmass into the dayroom.

As I expected, Lieutenant Canasta was standing there awaiting our arrival. His face was beet red. He was having some difficulty containing his rage. The keys to the arms room were in his left hand. I walked directly up to this young officer who I had successfully goaded in to coming to the company at 0430 hours instead of 0800. I rendered a proper salute with my right hand and at the same time, relieved him of the arms room keys with my left.

Tossing the keys to Sanborn, I kept my eyes on Canasta, “Thank you for coming in to the company at this ungodly hour lieutenant,” I said, “We certainly appreciate it.”

I felt Canasta seething as I said to Sanborn, “Mike, go open the arms room and receive the weapons from the men.” He and the rest of the team started for the stairs.

Finally the outraged Lieutenant spoke, “Would you care to say to my face what you told me on the phone this morning, Specialist Brailey?” asked a barely under control Canasta.

“No sir, I don’t think so. My words served their purpose so I find no need to repeat them,” I stated calmly to the fuming lieutenant.

“What, aren’t you brave enough to say them to me in person? Don’t you have balls enough to say them?” screamed the young officer as he tried to goad me into disrespecting him in front of witnesses.

In a calm manner, I started to respond, “Like I said, sir, there is no need for me to…”

“YOU ARE NOTHING!” yelled Canasta. “YOU ARE NOTHING!” he screamed again, apparently so angry his brain was unable to conjure up more painful epithets.

“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it,” I said in a building voice and paused. The CQ and his runner quickly caught the reason for my hesitation and immediately left the room, closing the big metal fire door behind them.

“If that’s the way you feel about it,” I repeated in a calm voice, “You are a fucking asshole.”

Canasta looked around the room for witnesses and when he didn’t see any, he spun around and strode toward the orderly room in defeat. As soon as he was gone, the CQ and his runner returned.

“I heard that. What’s gotten into you Jeff?” he asked.

“Oh,” I replied, “The only way I could get him to come into the company at 0430 hours was to rile him up on the phone by calling him a bunch of names. I beat him and he’s pissed.”

“Man, you’d better get in there and apologize,” said the timid CQ.

“You are probably right,” I replied walking toward the orderly room.

As I entered the hall where the company offices was located, I saw Lieutenant Canasta sitting behind his desk, feverishly writing on a yellow legal pad. I knew he was writing me up, preparing a report on the names I called him. He appeared to savor each word he put on the paper. It seemed almost a sin to interrupt the obvious fun the XO was having composing a list of all my acts of disrespect and insubordination. But I interrupted his reverie anyway.

I calmly approached the front of Canasta’s government issue metal desk, stood straight and stiff at attention, rendered and held a proper military salute and said, “Sir, Specialist Brailey wishes to apologize for his disrespectful and insubordinate behavior. I said a lot of bad things to you on the phone that I knew would upset you and cause you to come into the arms room. I know I was wrong, but my men were tired and smelly. I was hung over and…”

I would have continued, but as I stood there, pouring my heart out apologizing, holding my unreturned salute while I was talking, the XO continued his scribbling and totally refused to acknowledge my presence or even return my salute. Seeing I was getting nowhere with this prim little sissy of an officer, I dropped my salute and bent down so my head was right next to his and said, “But if you aren’t man enough to accept my apology, the fucking asshole stands.”

I executed an about-face and went to the arms room to turn my side arm in to Sanborn. While I was in the arms room, Mike said not to worry about the XO. No one will admit hearing my half of the conversation and he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

I wasn’t so sure. When Canasta was a second lieutenant and new to the unit, I had really pissed him off and now he was the company XO and I was antagonizing him again. I was a little worried that the ice was getting pretty thin under my feet. After I turned in my .45, I went home to my family, took a long hot bath and called First Sergeant Art Phillips for advice.

The sun was just rising in Panama when I called Top that morning. He was glad we were home and told me to come over to his house for a beer. I related the events that occurred between Canasta and me and he told me to forget what happened and not to worry. I don’t know what Art Phillips had on Canasta, but the incident of disrespect and insubordination were never mentioned again.

First Sergeant Phillips saved my butt on several occasions during my 20 year career. I first served under him as a private-first-class in Vietnam. My indiscretion with Lieutenant Canasta was the last time he had to pull my buns out of the fire.

A few days after returning from Guyana, Phillips called me into his office. It was around 1000 hrs. He looked at me quizzically and asked if I or any of my men had done anything wrong while we were on the Joint Task Force. Having already briefed him on the sexual exploits of the young studs on my team, I asked him if he thought that might be the reason for the inquiry. Top said that was doubtful. Then he told me our team’s presence was required at the local Army CID office at Albrook Air Force Base.

We all loaded into a gamma goat ambulance and drove the two miles to the CID office. When we arrived we met all of the soldiers from the brigade who were on the task force. They were sitting on the lawn all around the building. No one seemed to know why we were there.

My five subordinates and I reported to the receptionist and she checked off our names and told us to wait outside. Finally, after about 90 minutes, my name was called.

I walked into the building and was greeted by a young man who had “U.S.” where everyone
else in the Army wore their rank. It was the CID’s way of intimidating soldiers by not letting us know what rank our inquisitors are. He directed me to a room that was furnished sparsely with a small table and three chairs. Another CID agent was waiting for our arrival.

The two introduced themselves but didn’t reveal the reason for our meeting. Then I was read my rights under Article 32 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The words started with the familiar, “You have the right to remain silent…” My two interrogators seemed to accept my contention that I had no reason to be silent because I didn’t do anything illegal in Guyana. They said they only had a few questions to ask me. I told them to go for it.

“Did you bring anything back from Guyana that you did not take there with you?” questioned the CID agent who had met me out in the reception area.

“Yes, a bottle of Banks Beer, unopened, a bottle of DM Gold Label Rum, a can of mixed nuts, a can of Fritos, some cancelled Guyanese stamps and some photographs.

The ears of the second agent pricked up when he heard the word “photographs.” “Where did you get these photographs from?” The story of how I acquired the 20 Polaroid photos from the young Guyanese man in the Matthews Ridge bar was the truth, so I told it.

“Are you sure you didn’t steal those photos from Jonestown?” I was asked.

“Quite sure was my immediate and terse reply.

“What are these pictures of,” one of the CID men asked. I told him about each photo and the fact that I paid ten American dollars to the young man who shot the photographs. I also told the agents I had a signed receipt that I had the young man sign so I could verify ownership should I decide to sell the photos to the media.

“Where are these photos now?” the older of the two agents asked. Tiring of playing their game, I decided to stretch the truth and said I sent all but one to my stepfather in the USA and asked him to try to sell them to Newsweek magazine.

“Why did you keep that one picture?”

“I thought it had no commercial value.”

“We want to see the picture.”

“It’s in my quarters, I live right next door in the Corozon housing area, I’ll go get it for you,” I volleyed.

“No,” said the older CID agent, “We’ll drive you over there.”
I could see my house from the CID office. It would take longer for us to drive out the Albrook gate and into Corozal, but the CID wanted to keep me in custody for some reason.

So the two soldiers with the U.S. insignia instead of rank insignia on their uniforms drove me to my quarters. I got out of their car and walked to my front door. I unlocked it and started inside, followed by the agents. I turned and told them to stay outside unless they happened to have a search warrant. I locked the door and went into my bedroom. I took the picture that showed a beehive. The photo along with the receipt I had the foresight to have the photographer sign was all I needed to defuse the situation.

Upon returning to the CID office, I insisted they provide me with a receipt for the photo and receipt I gave them. After this was accomplished, I was told I was free to leave.

Outside I learned that several of the task force members had been forced to return brochures and campaign buttons with pictures of Jim Jones face on them that they had picked up in Jonestown. This angered me and I decided to go to the Staff Judge Advocate’s office at Fort Amador to complain about the CID’s witch hunt.

After providing facts about the afternoon’s activities at the CID office, one brave captain attorney called the Provost Marshall and suggested he stop this illegal search and seizure immediately. The CID did stop the inquiry and most of the soldiers who lost their souvenirs got them back. Major Burgos was required to return the training microscope he liberated, however.

Months passed. In 1979, the soldiers and American residents of the Canal Zone were more interested in the treaty negotiations between Panama and the United States than what happened in Jonestown. Those of us who had participated in that bizarre mission tried to dismiss the horrible memories associated with the savage massacre. Try as one might, the indelible recollections of that haunting experience were not easily repressed.

I did pretty well, immersing myself in my work to block Jonestown out of my conscious mind. I thought I was doing great until the second Sunday in November of 1979. I was walking through Balboa, the Canal Zone city outside Panama City. It was early morning. I was passing near the bakery when the overpowering sweet smell of freshly baked pastries enveloped me. I began to perspire and then to shake uncontrollably and before I knew it, I was vomiting on the sidewalk.

The sweet smell of the Balboa Bakery, that I had enjoyed several times a month for three years, on this particular morning, reminded me of the odor from the 913 bodies that littered Jonestown a year before.

I made my way home as quickly as possible after my embarrassing experience in front of the bakery. For he next two weeks or so, my life was in shambles. It was difficult to sleep at night and when it finally came, it was disrupted by vivid and awful nightmares. My screams shattered the sleep of my spouse and children many times the second and third weeks of November 1979.

My relationships with family members and associates alike were very tenuous during this time. I was unusually moody and emotional. Then, as quickly as they visited me, these foreign feelings and strange behaviors abated. The next seven months passed uneventfully. I was transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Life was good. I enjoyed fishing excursions to the nearby wildlife refuge and leisure time with my family. Things were going well, until mid November when I started getting weird again.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a victim of a type of post-traumatic-stress-disorder called anniversary syndrome. Psychologists refer to it as a type of PTSD that affects the lives of sufferers around the time of the year some very traumatic event occurred in the lives. It doesn’t need to be a particularly dangerous or long event, just one that was shocking to the person.

Once I realized what was happening to me each November, and the cause, it was easy to have a therapist help me work through it and control its symptoms. Putting everything into perspective and understanding that the event causing the syndrome was a minute slice of a much bigger life, helps us except the tragic event as just another part of history, not the present and certainly not the future.

The Jonestown experience did have a permanent effect on my life. The sign that hung over Jim Jones’ throne at the pavilion flashes through my memory and affects my feelings about many social and political events from my views and actions regarding the war in Iraq to how I deal with bigotry and race relations.

1 Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison, 30-31

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven: Party Animals

“The world rolls round forever like a mill; It grounds out death and life and Good and ill; it has no purpose, heart, or mind, or will.”
James Thompson

By 1600 hours, November 28, our final day in Guyana, I was gratefully reunited with my team from Matthews Ridge. Sanborn was able to join us and was almost back to full strength after receiving two liters of fluid by IV. Our little group was fairly isolated during the entire mission and even now, we sat in an unfamiliar terminal, separated from the rest of the task force.

The other soldiers from the Canal Zone who had been working in Jonestown, also sat in another area of the huge abandoned terminal. The GREGG soldiers were absent, still working with their comrades who had been working at Timheri Airport for the week, processing the bodies they received from Jonestown. Yoder and Vega, from our unit, were still working with the GREGG soldiers.

For Sanborn, Fielder, and Bernal, this was the first time they had an opportunity to get a whiff of the scent of death and they were a little green around the gills. Our Air Force radiomen and the two Army fuel specialists we worked with all week also had to get used to the smell. They soon said their goodbyes and left us to find the other soldiers from their units that stayed at the airport while they went forward with us.

It was not very long before our little group was joined by Yoder, Vega, Captain Skinner and Major Burgos. The final body bags had been processed and placed in aluminum caskets. All the different units and groups of soldiers seemed to gather in small groups throughout the terminal. They seemed to be doing essentially what the rest of us started doing earlier in the evening, decompressing after the most stressful week of our lives.

It was interesting to participate in a process that was in different stages in groups across the huge abandoned terminal. The scenario seemed to be the same for each individual group of service men and women. At first meeting, they greeted one another and took their places sitting on or lying against their duffle bags. For the first hour or so, most sat there and simply stared silently into space. Smokers smoked, nonsmokers chewed gum.

Very little chatter could be heard from these pods of people scattered throughout the expanse of this huge building. They stared, they smoked, they apparently contemplated the awful events they had witnessed and/or participated in over the past several days. Everybody, for the most part, sat there in silence trying to make some sense of a tragedy of such enormous proportions that they could not have even conceived of it before it actually happened.

Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, conversations erupted. They originated with simple, almost rhetorical statements, said to no one in particular, made one at a time by members of the group. There was no order in which people spoke. There was no formal moderator or facilitator. There didn’t seem to be a specific target for the individual comments.

It was as if people were simply saying whatever was in their tired mind at the moment. They seemed to be testing the waters, to see if other people they knew shared the same bizarre thoughts they were feeling, thoughts they never had before, thoughts that scared them.

There was no cohesion or common thread to the phrases being made. The words were personal testimonies of how each of us was effected by events that could drive anybody mad and they became evidence that while we had been through a lot the past eight days, we still maintained our sanity. It was a positive sign that we still retained our humanity after enduring a most inhuman experience.

To me, it seemed like a bunch of bullfrogs sitting around the pond as the sun goes down. Before the daylight begins to fade, the pond is silent, the creatures of the night just awakening to begin their day. Soon darkness falls and one frog emits a single, familiar “ribit.”

There is a long pause and from another lily pad comes a “ribit” that is seemingly unrelated to the previous burst of sound. Then other frogs in different parts of the pond, add their unrelated “ribits’ to the flow of sounds. Before long the entire pond is alive with a cacophony of unrelated frog talk.

Members of our team made their individual comments to no one in particular. There was a pause between each one, followed by another soldier making his or her apparently unrelated verbal contribution. Before long, even the shyest, most introverted soldier, spoke his or her mind, to no one in particular.

This unscripted improvised oral exercise soon became cathartic. As a group, we all had shared basically the same experiences, yet we had different feelings and reactions and responses we needed to have validated and appreciated. We were a lot like the soldier who watched helplessly as his buddy die horribly and violently in the armored personnel carrier accident in Panama.

At first, we could not talk about it because it was totally foreign to the normal comfortable experiences of our daily lives. It was like a horrible nightmare we had to endure 24 hours a day for more than a week. We slowly and individually contemplated our experiences, then began to verbalize our feelings, if only to ourselves. Soon we all opened up and shared our private feelings and thoughts, embellishing them and adding to the comments of others until we were able to face the awfulness of the previous week in a therapeutic manner.

The beer and rum provided by the State Department, while meant to show appreciation for a mission accomplished, actually acted as medication that facilitated conversation. While not intended for this purpose, the medicinal value of the alcohol cannot be overstated. It helped us all talk about and come to grips with the reality of what we had seen and done.

No one knew what time we would be leaving Timheri Airport. We were told that U.S. Air Force C-130s were on their way from Howard Air Force Base to lift us out of this place of death and take us back to the normalcy of our tropical paradise.

By 1800 hours, the entire task force was in the terminal awaiting transportation either to their bases in the USA or Panama. The beer and rum was flowing freely and all but a few of the service men and women in that terminal were partaking of it. The graves registration types joined us in this party. The booze, in a very real way, chased the spirits of the ghosts of Jonestown from our memories, at least for the moment.

Recollections of my final evening in Guyana are less than vivid. When you are extremely physically tired and emotionally drained, very little alcohol is needed to make you forget the bad things you have experienced. My mind is impaired by the mixture of beer and rum and a very concerted effort I made to repress the memories of events that nearly destroyed some of the task force members, Not a few of us came to drink more than we should and had psychological problems they attribute to the Jonestown experience.

I do recall that almost every member of the task force that came from Panama indulged in the booze the State Department provided that night. The more we drank, the more we forgot and the rowdier we became. A week’s worth of stress was relieved by half an evening of drinking. Frankly, I believe this was the best medicine for the bad disease to which we had been exposed.

By 2200 hours, the beverages were, for the most part, consumed, except for the full bottles of Banks Beer and DM Gold Label Rum many of us packed away for souvenirs to enjoy back home. By 2200 hours the majority of our contingent of nearly 200 soldiers were either asleep or close to it because of the sheer physical exhaustion of the work of the past week and the anesthetic effect of the alcohol they consumed.

Major Burgos sat in a seat next to me. He was nodding off, fighting the effects of too much rum and too little sleep. I noticed he had a wooden crate in the seat next to him that I did not see when he arrived in country.

“What’s in the box, Doc?” I asked, making conversation.

“Shhhh,” said Burgos, holding two fingers up to his lips. “It’s a microscope. I liberated it from Jonestown.”

The infirmary in Jonestown had a very sophisticated and expensive training microscope with two eyepieces. The brigade surgeon decided that since everyone in Jonestown was dead, they’d have no use for this piece of medical equipment.

I don’t believe Major Burgos considered the procurement of this instrument worth thousands of dollars theft. After all, the military has a long history of obtaining supplies that were in short supply through what is euphemistically called a “midnight requisition.”

When I was in Vietnam our evacuation hospital “procured” air conditioners for our wards through similar unorthodox and imaginative means. Major Burgos intended to use this training microscope to enhance the capabilities of the laboratory technicians assigned to the 601st Medical Company. Unfortunately, this microscope was the catalyst for a witch hunt that the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) would conduct when the task force returned to the Canal Zone.

While the brigade surgeon and I discussed the acquisition of the new piece of medical equipment, two C-130s from Howard Air Force Base arrived to take us home. The two big birds taxied from the runway to just outside the old terminal building. The crew shut down their engines and within a few minutes, walked into the terminal. Both aircraft commanders, bird colonels, appeared shocked by what they saw.

Here were nearly 200 service men and women who were obviously far from being fit to fight, and by Air Force standards, unfit for flight. Our odor was extremely disgusting to the uninitiated. It didn’t bother us any longer, but these two officers definitely were not members of our exclusive club. The fact that most of us were in various stages of inebriation, did not bring joy to these two stern Air Force officers. One of them asked loudly, “Who’s in charge here?”

A slightly drunk Colonel Gordon, using all the strength he could muster under the circumstances, stood up and slowly, but steadily, walked to his sober Air Force equal, and said in a dignified voice, “I am in charge.”

“We cannot fly this bunch of drunks in U.S. Air Force aircraft,” the commander stated resolutely.

“You not only can, you will,” said Colonel Gordon with as much strength and conviction as his Air Force counterpart.

The two stared at each other for some time. Then Colonel Gordon took the irate Air Force officer aside. Although I couldn’t hear what was being said, the two colonels had a serious and earnest conversation. They stood, shook hands, and the two Air Force officers went back to their aircraft.

Later, I learned that Colonel Gordon related to the Air Force colonel all the terrible and stressful experiences of the past week. He told him that although we were, for the most part, in no condition to “make a movement,” he would brief us all and ensure we all behaved properly during the five hour flight back to Panama. The Air Force colonels talked to their crews and one came back into the terminal to talk with Colonel Gordon one more time. It appeared the decision was made to carry us all back home despite our collective slovenly and drunken conditions.

Colonel Gordon called the noncommissioned officers in charge (NCOIC) of each unit together for a briefing. He explained the Air Force had strict regulations that all passengers on their aircraft be sober. While he had to admit to the aircraft commanders that very few, if any, of his charges would pass a sobriety test, he would ensure everybody would act in a professional manner. The good colonel then directed the NCOs of the brigade to ensure his promise to the reluctant Air Force colonels was kept.

I was fortunate, with only five enlisted and two officers to worry about, my group was smaller than most. Major Burgos and Captain Skinner were officers and gentlemen and I expected they would have no problem displaying the proper demeanor during the trip. In fact, Skinner was actually sober. Burgos was fairly inebriated, but he held his liquor well.

My other enlisted personnel were all extremely well lubricated with Guyanese beer and rum. The most difficult task I would have to face in helping Colonel Gordon keep his promise to the Air Force would be to get these five people onto the aircraft safely. Once they were seated and strapped in to their seats, I was confident they would all sleep like babies until we touched down at Howard Air Force Base.

Sanborn had slept for some time and once I was able to fully awaken him, he became a capable escort for Sam Bernal, who was the most unsteady of our group. Mike was much bigger than Sam and had no trouble securing both him and his gear in the aircraft. In fact, he was soon belted into his seat and he quickly resumed the deep sleep he was enjoying before making his tipsy trek to the aircraft.

Vega would have won the prize for being the most unsteady on his feet had we been able to awaken him. As it was, Yoder and I carried the little medical records specialist to the aircraft. Both he and Bernal snored loudly for the entire five hour flight.

Fielder was able to make his way to his seat on the C-130 and buckle himself in before nodding off to dreamland. Captain Skinner, Specialist Yoder and I accompanied Major Burgos onto the aircraft. The commander and specialist walked on either side of the surgeon. I brought up the rear, carrying the soon-to-be controversial microscope.

To the credit of all the men and women of the 193rd Infantry Brigade who made that trip from Timheri Airport to Howard Air Force Base early in the morning on that November 29, everyone behaved themselves very well. No one vomited and there was not the least bit of rowdiness during the flight.

No one told us that a surprise awaited us at the Air Force base at 0330 hours when we finally arrived back in the Canal Zone. The new 193rd Infantry Brigade commander, General K.C. Luer, had prepared a somewhat elaborate ceremony on the tarmac to mark our return. The Army Band was present and playing as the big rear doors of the C-130s opened. The general stood on a makeshift stand with a podium, waiting to give the returning troops words of congratulations for a job well done.

What no one who had planned the reception anticipated was the condition of the participants of this thoroughly repugnant and disgusting mission. All of us, while not aware of the odor ourselves, smelled extremely bad to noses that had not been exposed to the aroma of death for the past week. This included the band members who quickly caught a good whiff of our “Jonestown Perfume” and lost the ability to perform the march music they had been practicing for the past week without gagging or puking.

While General Luer did not seem to mind making his speech under these adverse conditions, the hung over honorees were less prepared to listen to him. Not only did we smell bad, we hadn’t bathed or shaved in over a week, I had a splitting headache, and the only voice I wanted to hear was my wife’s while she was scrubbing my stinky body in the tub.

Every member of the task force honored by General Luer, his entourage and band that early morning, stumbled unceremoniously out of the aircraft and made their way too the terminal. We quickly became the building’s only occupants, as Air Force personnel who worked in the terminal evacuated to the outside and fresh air. General Luer made a few comments as we passed by his podium, then stood stock still as he watched the entire contingent walk past him and enter the terminal.

The party was over and the hard job of telling our families and friends about our experiences was about to begin. Everyone who participated in this mission had change in some way, and our lives after Jonestown would never be the same.

Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten: “The Final Dance With Death”

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know; the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Albert Schweitzer

After my astonishing run-in with the inebriated Army doctor, I felt the need for a cold Banks Beer. At this point in my military career, I had been a medic for 10 years and never before encountered a physician who was noticeably drunk on duty. To the credit of doctors in the Army, I never saw one in my second decade of service either.

It had been a stressful nine days. Fortunately, the State Department arranged for the entire task force to enjoy some of Guyana’s finest brew on this the final day of the mission. It was preparing to throw the mother of all after-mission parties.

One hundred and forty four cases of Banks Beer were stacked on one wall of the tired old Timheri Airport terminal. Blocks of ice had been chopped and placed on top of and among the cases of brew. In addition to the beer were bottles of Gold Label Rum, the pride of Guyana’s distilling industry. This may be the smoothest rum in the world. True connoisseurs of fine rum would never dream of ruining a drink of DM Gold Label by contaminating in with ice or Coca Cola.

Perhaps it was no wonder the clearing platoon doctor was drunk. Guyana was an alcoholic’s paradise. What with a bottle of beer costing 20 American cents after bottle deposit and rum being so mellow its almost a substitute for sex, the liver of any overly imbibing visitor to Guyana must be in constant overload and in danger of shutting down.

And here were 3,456 bottles of the best beer in the country and more than 200 fifths of rum waiting to be shared by a couple of hundred tired and stressed-out soldiers who didn’t need an excuse to party. If everyone were to equally partake in their fair share of the bounty, each member of the task force would have drunk 17 bottles of beer and a bottle of rum over the next eight to ten hours. Thankfully, the embassy remembered to provide mixed nuts and canned Fritos Corn Chips. Heaven forbid we should do all that drinking on an empty stomach.

I was standing in the middle of the fairly empty, abandoned old terminal building, drinking a cold Banks Beer and missing the guys I had left behind in Matthews Ridge a few hours earlier. Major Burgos and Captain Skinner had left to go to a meeting. I was a stranger here, having left Timheri on November 20 before most of the troops working there had arrived in-country.

As I tried hard not to feel lonely, a jeep entered a wide doorway at the far end of the huge open building. It quickly arrived where I was standing and its driver and lone occupant, a black American Quartermaster Corps officer, with the last name of “Major” stenciled on his uniform, asked me to get him a beer.

I ambled over to a wooden case, removed a piece of ice embedded on a bottle of Banks, and used one of the dozens of church keys tied to the cases to pop the metal cap from the cold brown glass bottle. I walked over to the young officer and said, “My name is Brailey, Spec. 6 Brailey.”

“I can see that. Major Major,” he said, taking the beer with his left hand and offering me his right to shake.

“Haven’t seen you around Brailey,” said the friendly and unpretentious officer.

“No sir, just got here. I’ve been forward.” I replied.

“Forward? You been to Jonestown?” questioned Major Major.

“Yes sir, Jonestown a few times. Mostly Matthews Ridge,” I said.

“Well, I guess dead bodies don’t bother you then.” The major said in more of a statement than a question.

“No sir, not really. I’ve seen and smelled enough of them lately,” I said flatly.

“Good,” said Major Major enthusiastically. “Want to get your picture in the papers?”

“I guess so.”

“Hop in,” said the Quartermaster Corps officer, patting the passenger seat.

I climbed into the jeep, and before I had a chance to settle in, Major Major threw the vehicle into reverse, did a quick half turn, jammed the jeep into first gear and tooled out of the terminal toward the tarmac.

We raced toward the flight line where trucks and tired soldiers could be seen waiting for the incoming Jolly Green Giants and the last full body bags from Jonestown. When the two big metal birds landed, the first part of the task force’s mission, recovery and evacuation of the remains from Jonestown, would be completed.

The soldiers waiting on the hot tarmac that afternoon had spent the past eight days offloading bodies from H-53 helicopters. While not as gross as the job of bagging the remains from where they lay rotting in the unforgiving sun, this job still was no picnic. The body bags were not all airtight and the smells and fluids of those who died ten days earlier fouled the air and everything else in the proximity.

International photo journalists with their still and motion picture cameras mingled with the soldiers as they waited. This moment represented the last chance for them to record the climax of the military mission sent to clean up of the biggest mass murder/suicide the world has ever known. During their Jonestown coverage, most of these professional news photographers saw the worst side of humanity and mastered the art of detaching themselves from the catastrophic event they were covering.

Cliff Yoder, a lanky white country boy from rural Pennsylvania and Eric Vega, a teenaged soldier from Puerto Rico, had come to Guyana to record the admissions and treatment of any survivors of the massacre. As medical records specialists, they were simply clerks, more accustomed to manning a typewriter than a machine gun.

Unfortunately, the day we arrived in Guyana, we learned there were no survivors. The task force had no need for clerks, but there was a major need for strong backs and arms to lift body bags from the helicopters to the trucks that delivered them to the area where the GREGG soldiers were placing them in aluminum caskets.

So Yoder and Vega spent their eight days at Timheri Airport shuttling body bags. Day after day, they had nothing more to look forward to when they woke up than the backbreaking, nauseating chore of carrying Jonestown’s dead from one conveyance to another in the sweltering tropical heat.

At the beginning of the operation, the bodies in the bags were of adults, often requiring two men to lift them from the H-53s and carry them to the waiting trucks. When two men work together, it makes the performance of a painful and difficult task easier. They have someone with which to talk, commiserate and generally pass the time with.

But as the days went by, the big bags bore smaller and smaller bodies – the mothers who had killed their offspring, the teens and adolescents whose deaths followed the younger children and finally the younger children themselves. For a day-and –a-half, the body bags contained toddlers, babies and infants, human remains that were so small, that often three or more were placed in one bag to conserve the waning supply. Even those bags filled with more than one child could be carried by a single soldier.

When a dirty job is performed by one person, the time usually used to socialize and communicate with a work partner is still there and must be filled. Most of the men working on the Timheri Airport tarmac that final day of the mission filled their work time with day dreams or memories. There mission for the past week had been to rid incoming helicopters of their rotting human cargo. Many of them had reached their breaking points.

This was not a good time to be going it solo, with only very personal thoughts and recollections of the grossly disturbing scenes and tasks of recent days. Deprived of the opportunity to easily express their thoughts can only add to the depression they create.

Although they couldn’t see the contents of the dark brown-black they carried, the soldiers knew there were children inside and their minds took them back to the children who were an important part of their lives. That was a heavy psychological burden.

Eric Vega was a sensitive 18-year-old soldier from Puerto Rico. He had been in the Army less than a year when he received orders assigning him to the 601st Medical Company in the Canal Zone. He was excited about serving in a Latin American country.

A few months after arriving at the unit, Vega found himself at Timheri Airport, carrying dead bodies from a helicopter to a truck. Less than a year out of high school and this teenaged soldier was receiving a cruel and aberrant initiation into adulthood. And on this final day of the mission, Eric was carrying the final bodies to be evacuated from Jonestown, those of innocent children, brutally murdered by their mothers on the orders of a totally deranged would-be savior – the Reverend Jim Jones.

Most of the soldier carrying the bodies from the helicopters that final day held them away from their bodies, at arm’s length, to keep the smelly contents from soiling their already dirty beyond cleaning uniforms.

Unbelievably, young Vega was hugging the body bags as he removed them from the H-53s that had brought them to him from Jonestown. He looked like a big brother, holding an injured sister close as he carried her to safety.

Tears streamed down the cheeks of this emotional young man who sensed the bodies he was carrying were no older than his little nephews and nieces in Puerto Rico. Vega walked ghostlike, from helicopter to truck, the small occupants of the vinyl bags engulfed in his arms. At the truck, he almost seemed reluctant to relinquish his burden. Once unencumbered, he seemed to quicken his step as he returned to the Jolly Green Giant to grab one more young victim and almost reverently, lovingly carry it back to the waiting truck.

A French photographer noticed Eric’s unique way of carrying these special body bags across the tarmac. Eric seemed to disregard the awful odor wafting from the bags or the vile liquid contents that frequently dripped from them. The photographer could not have known the young soldier’s motivation for acting as he did. Nor could he Vega was experiencing. But he did know a great photo opportunity when he saw one.

So the observant photojournalist, armed with a Nikon camera that possessed all the bells and whistles, stalked young Vega as he turned from the truck and walked back empty handed to the helicopter waiting with its body bags of infants and toddlers. As the young Puerto Rican soldier tenderly lifted the next vinyl bag containing infant corpses into his arms and turned, his lips seemed to be moving slightly. Eric seemed to be saying a prayer, or perhaps talking to the anonymous baby inside the bag.

His eyes were nearly closed. Tears streamed without embarrassment down his ruddy cheeks, leaving clear channels on his grimy face. His step, which had quickened when he placed his last burden on the truck, had become deliberate. It was as if Eric was trying to communicate with the spirit of the child that once inhabited the small body inside the bag he carried.

Without so much as an ounce of shame for the intrusion he represented into Eric’s private moment, the photographer walked backwards in front of the emotion-filled medical records specialist. The lens of his camera was less than four feet from Eric’s face. The incessant sound of the Nikon’s motor drive marked the frames being shot of this poignant moment. He was intent on capturing the stark humanness of Eric’s private grief. The photographer wanted the world to see a day from now, a week from now and for all, in its newspapers, news magazines, history books, what he was viewing at this moment.

And as Vega moved slowly toward the truck, with the precious contents of that body bag held tightly against his chest, he didn’t acknowledge, nor do I believe notice the reporter or his expensive camera assaulting him, invading this most personal pain-filled moment. Neither did I fully comprehend the drama in which Vega had become a star and which was about to come to a surprise ending.

Major Major saw what was happening. He watched it all. He empathized with the grief Vega was displaying and despised the crass and uncaring attempt of the photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize. The unorthodox Quartermaster officer was more than angry. He was enraged. So incensed was he at the photographer’s vulgar intrusion into Vega’s private grief, that he took a very impulsive and startling step.

Major Major visibly out of control, raised up the body bag he was carrying and swung it at the unsuspecting French photographer. The bag must have contained a child of about 13-years-old or perhaps two or three younger children whose combined weight would have been about equal to a young teen. He lifted the bag high, took a half turn to the right and swung it with great force, striking the totally surprised and shocked photographer square on the side of his face.

Upon impact, disgusting body fluids were expelled from the bag. The expensive Nikon was ripped from his hands and went crashing to the hot tarmac. The photographer fell, landing on his buttocks, joining his damaged camera. Looking up at the obviously angry American officer staring intently down upon him, the photographer did not speak, but the terror in his eyes said he was confused as to why Major Major knocked him down.

The angry officer stared at the fearful photojournalist for what seemed like five minutes and then bent down next to him, put his mouth next to his ear and asked quietly, “Man, ain’t you got no fuckin’ sensitivity?”

The incident seemed to momentarily take all the confidence and jocularity out of Major Major. He picked up the body bag he had just used as a weapon, carried it to the waiting truck and leaned back to watch me place the bag I was carrying on the truck.

I turned to look at the seemingly angry officer. He regained his composure as quickly as it had originally escaped him.

“Who are you anyway?” I asked.

“I’m in charge of the graves registration team,” he responded, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. “Want to see where we live?”

Hopping back in the major’s jeep, we drove to a small building on the far edge of the tarmac. Hundreds of aluminum caskets were stacked nearby, shining brilliantly in the sun. I had not seen so many plain metal coffins in one place since I was at the airbase in Da Nang in 1970.

As we exited the jeep, I quickly became aware of all the flies. While Jonestown had more than its share of the pesky common insect, the number at Timheri Airport on this day must have exceeded the fly population in Jonestown a million fold.

Suddenly, the entire time I spent in Guyana seemed like a sick surreal dream. The stress and unrealness of the past week was compressed within my brain and I lost all concept of time or the division of days. The memory of my experience and what I witnessed in Jonestown continues to be painful even 30 years after the event.

Knowing the flies had used the corpses of Jonestown for sustenance and too lay their eggs, made me even more queasy as I swiped at these incessant insects. Four young company grade officers from the GREGG team obviously felt as I did. They were seated in a jeep with several pieces of mosquito netting thrown over it to provide them with a temporary respite from the flies as they ate their c-ration lunches.

Not 30 feet away, seated on an open fly-infested bench, sat a bedraggled and totally unkempt specialist fourth class. He also was eating his lunch, but without benefit of mosquito netting. The young soldier’s entire body was covered in flies, which he didn’t make the slightest effort to shoo away. Hundreds buzzed around his head, landing at will on his uncovered face, hands and arms as well as parts of his body protected by clothing.

Not only that, flies covered the tin can from which he was eating, walking on the entrée with impunity, without any sign of objection from the human diner. Rather than shooing the flies away, the young soldier seemed oblivious to their presence.

Suddenly, Major Major noticed something that was further amiss with the hungry young troop. I had not picked up on it,, but as soon as the quartermaster officer asked the soldier about it, I was surprised.

“James, what’s that body doing under your bench,” the officer in charge of the GREGG team asked incredulously as he noticed a full body bag under the hapless soldier.

Without skipping a beat, James looked up at the major, took a bite of his c-rations meal and matter-of-factly stated, “Taking it home for a souvenir, sir.”

“James, pick up that bag and put it where it belongs,” barked Major Major.

The GREGG soldier with the desire to take a piece of Jonestown home with him shrugged his shoulders in resignation. He put his spoon into his nearly empty can of c’s, placed the can on the bench, stood and grasped the body bag with both hands and dragged it to where several other bags were waiting to be placed in caskets.

When he returned to his bench, James sat down, picked up his food, watched as a half dozen flies flew out of the can and then resumed his meal.

“My troops,” said Major Major, “they do a good job, but sometimes they act a little weird.”
The smell at Timheri Airport seemed much worse than the odor at Jonestown. At least in the jungle commune, it rained daily and the tropical fauna no doubt provided pleasant natural aromas to neutralize the smell of death. There were no trees or lush vegetation at the airport or soil for the body fluids to seep into, only black tarmac that cooked and dried the body fluids under the hot sun.

Yet the GREGG soldiers went about their tasks oblivious to the olfactory challenge the rest of us faced. This was just another day at the office for them. For the infantry, medical and other support troops who came from the Canal Zone, it was the most unpleasant duty one could serve.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine: “He has a heat Rash”

“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.”
Thomas Paine

I served in the U.S. Army for 20 years. I spent time in several poor countries but Guyana was perhaps the most impoverished nation I ever visited. There is one sure sign of a country’s wealth or lack of it – the amount of litter you find along its roadways.

The more prosperous a people, the more litter that is accumulated along its highways. Nigeria has tons of trash everywhere. The country is basically one big trash dump. Now there are a lot of poor people in that West African nation, but there are a lot of wealthy ones too.

Matthews Ridge, Guyana has got to be one of the poorest places on earth. Every bit of waste in the small town was recycled, not out of any great concern for the environment, but out of necessity. Empty tin cans became patches for leaky roofs or walls. Waste paper was collected and used to start cook fires.

Matthews Ridge is a formerly bustling town built near what had become depleted bauxite minds in northwest Guyana, near the frontier border with Venezuela. During its heyday, some five years before the arrival of the Jonestown Agricultural Commune in 1976, Matthews Ridge boasted a population of more than a 1000 miners and their families.[1] By the time Jonestown’s residents perished in the mass murder/suicide, the town had shrunk to about 250, mostly Amerindian residents.

The main industry of the former mining town became subsistence farming and by 1978, the farmers and their families were barely surviving. Sadly, there were more bars in Matthews Ridge than all other businesses combined.

Our aid station was set up at an airfield three miles south of Matthews Ridge. The only people living at that location was a garrison of 20 or so Guyana Defense Force soldiers who lived and worked in three small buildings situated on a small mesa overlooking the black tarmac runway. We shared a small corner of the flat hill with the GDF troopers.

There was one small building on the edge of the tarmac. It was little more than a shack with a large overhanging roof, used to shelter travelers from the weather, be it the incessant heat of the tropical sun or the persistent showers of the two four-month rainy seasons of the region. Our Army fuel specialists took over this building as their fuel station.

Two signs adorned the shack. One announced the name of the town to any transients passing through who weren’t sure where they were. The other told travelers to the region they had entered a malaria area and were required to check in with the local Malaria Control Office.

We interacted daily with the GDF soldiers whose mesa we shared and the civilians of the small town down the road. Since our daily fare of c-rations quickly became boring and the locals had never seen such foods, we managed to trade some of our military-issued meals for locally produced bread and cheese. Freshly baked Matthews Ridge bread and native cheese was still a cold meal, but at least it was a different and tasty change to our diet.

But something happened on Thanksgiving Day that made our already cordial relationship with the soldiers and civilians even friendlier. By 1800 hours, we realized our promised Thanksgiving hot dinner was not going to materialize. The thought of eating beans and franks for Thanksgiving instead of the promised turkey with all the fixings was depressing to say the least.

Our Air Force communications sergeant radioed the task force headquarters at Timheri Airport to inquire about the promised and eagerly anticipated first hot meal in Guyana that failed to appear on our table. The duty officer at headquarters promised to look into the matter. Some 30 minutes later, he informed us that apparently there had been a snafu in the delivery of our Thanksgiving dinner and the duty officer promised he would rectify the situation. He said for us to look for arrival of a holiday dinner with all the fixings the next morning. He then asked how many people were at our location and we answered honestly, eight.

The next morning, Sanborn and Bernal, two famous gourmets, were waiting impatiently at the airfield shack. Finally, at 0900 hours, a UH-1 helicopter dropped out of the sky. The bird’s crew chief motioned for Sanborn and Bernal to approach the aircraft and the two soldiers, walking briskly, bodies crouching to avoid the rotor blades, did just that. They picked up two big boxes and had to make two more trips to the chopper to pick up four more containers of food.

Six large boxes of Thanksgiving dinner for eight servicemen? We were hungry and looking forward to the promised feast, but this was a little much!

The rest of the team bound down the hill to the shack. We all brought the boxes back to the aid station. Sanborn opened the first box. It was like kids opening presents on Christmas morning. “Half pints of milk! There must be a hundred of them,” said Sanborn.

“These two boxes got TV dinners, Jeff,” said Bernal. “How many?” I asked.

“Eighty eight, I count 88,” said Fielder.

“Bunch of fruit and nuts in this box,” said Sanborn.

Snafus are not isolated incidents in the Army, but rarely is a foul up followed by a snafu as positive as this one was. We were blessed with 80 extra meals.

Sanborn and Bernal wanted to dig in and pig out. They wanted to see how big of a dent eight hungry soldiers could put in this huge cache of food. Saner heads prevailed however, after Fielder suggested we invite the local GDF garrison and some of the locals, mostly female of course, to partake in our Thanksgiving Day feast. Some of the kids were already hanging around and Fielder told them to go round up their friends for a celebration. I walked over to the GDF outpost and invited Sergeant Harper and his comrades to our holiday dinner.

So on November 24, 1978, a day after the football games were played and most Americans were finished digesting their Thanksgiving feast of the day before, eight American servicemen, far from home, taught two dozen Guyanese Defense Force soldier and twice that many local teenaged girls about one of their country’s most popular holidays. I guess the meal was not unlike the first Thanksgiving celebration more than 300 years earlier, when the colonists invited the Native Americans to share their bounty.

This gesture, which in reality was actually a way to keep good food from being wasted, solidified the friendships we already formed with the soldiers and young people of Matthews Ridge. What had begun purely by serendipity with John Wayne bars on Monday, was cemented on Friday by Specialist Fourth Class Randy Fielder, who, I’ve got to believe, did so with some degree of calculation. The young man had become very friendly with not just a few of the black beauties of Matthews Ridge during the short time he was there.

Although they had little of value to share with us, the people of Matthews Ridge gave us more than they realized. They were among the kindest and most generous folks I ever met. From the man who walked three miles from his home to the airstrip with me on that dark night, to the friends Sanborn and Fielder made, to Pauline’s grandfather and mother, everyone we came in contact with represented the finest in humankind.

One night, while I was sitting in Mrs. Pool’s bar drinking a cold Banks Beer, a young man approached me. As he took the seat next to mine, he pulled a handful of Polaroid pictures from his pocket and spread them on the bar in front of me. He told me he had shot the photos around two weeks earlier, while visiting Jonestown.

The young man was fairly clean cut. He could easily have passed for an African-American on any college campus in the States, save for his obvious Guyanese accent.

I looked began looking at the pictures before me and asked questions as I viewed each one. The minister of transportation and other politicos appeared in a few shots. The local GDF commander was in some others. A smiling Jim Jones was usually in each shot that had dignitaries in it. There were some photos that showed Jones alone with a tree or a prop. There was even a picture of a bee hive. The Jonestown band was in one of the pictures and happy dancing teenagers were in another. These images made me wonder out loud what could have caused these seemingly free-spirited American expatriates to participate in the mass murder/suicide that took their lives.

After studying and discussing each of the instant photos with the friendly owner of them, I restacked the lot of them and handed them back to the young man.

“No,no,” he said, sliding the stack back in front of me. “They are for you, a gift.”

“Oh no,” I replied, realizing the potential value of the photos. “I could not take them.”

“Please, I wish you to have them,” he said.

Not wishing to offend this earnest young man, I told him I would take the photos only if he allowed me to pay for the film. In the United States, Polaroid film was quite expensive. I could only imagine how much of a financial investment these 20 pictures might represent in Guyana.

Finally, after several minutes of protest, the young man accepted my offer of 10 American dollars for the 20 photos. After arriving back at the aid station that night, I reviewed the set of pictures and decided to try to sell them to the news media when I returned to Panama. I didn’t realize at the time the grief these Polaroids would cause me.

The duty at Matthews Ridge became so routine that boredom was the biggest challenge we had to overcome. The anticipated poisoning victims were long dead before we even arrived in Guyana. The few medical problems experienced by the GREGG team and their support personnel in Jonestown were easily managed by the Special Forces medic on the ground there.

Our days were filled with administrative duties and “make work” tasks. We inventoried supplies and equipment more in those nine days than we did in the previous nine months in Panama. I made a few day trips into Jonestown, more as a diversion than to accomplish any mission-essential task. We all became competent radio operators by assisting the two Air Force communication specialists.

Our own Mike Sanborn became the only actual medical emergency our aid station cared for during the entire nine days we stayed at Matthews Ridge and this happened on our last day at the airstrip.

It was the morning of November 28, the final day the GREGG team would be in Jonestown. The remains of all the adult victims and two-thirds of the children had already been removed from the commune. We had been alerted early that morning that an aircraft would arrive in the early afternoon to transport us and our equipment to Timheri Airport in Georgetown.

As soon as Bernal, who was on radio watch, informed us of our move out order, we broke down our supplies and equipment. Specialist Fourth Class Michael Sanborn, 20-years-old and endowed with more muscle than common sense, removed his field jacket and olive drab t-shirt and took down our two tents. So intent was he on going home, he didn’t heed my warning to put his shirts back on and to slow down.

Within an hour, Sanborn was noticeably ill. He perspired so profusely that his trousers were thoroughly soaked in sweat. He appeared very weak and pale. I ordered the young medic to sit in the shade of our sleep tent that was still standing. His skin was cool and clammy and his blood pressure was extremely low.

I also noted that Sanborn’s entire torso and arms were covered with small, red, raised lesions. He obviously was suffering from heat exhaustion complicated by miliaria rubra, or what is commonly called “prickly heat” or “heat rash.”

Either problem alone can be easily managed. While heat exhaustion is a debilitating medical problem, when properly treated with rest and oral fluids, it is quickly reversed. However, when complicated by maliaria, which inhibits the sweat glands from functioning to cool the body properly, the combination of conditions constitute a possible life-threatening medical emergency.

I instructed Randy Fielder to cool Sanborn with tepid sponge baths and to offer him as much cool water as he coud drink. I told Sam Bernal to prepare an intravenous infusion of normal saline for Sanborn while I went to the radio to consult with our brigade surgeon, Major Burgos, at Timheri Airport.

Once we contacted the task force headquarters, the communications specialist there told us to wait while he sent for a doctor from the medical clearing station that was set up there. After about ten minutes that seemed like an eternity, the distant voice of a physician I didn’t know came through the speaker of our radio. While the quality of the voice was understandable, the doctor’s speech had an unmistakable slur to it that told me the good doctor had been imbibing at this early hour of the day.

“Thish ish Doctor Winston, how can I hep you?” said the tinny voice.

“Say ‘over,’ sir” prompted the communications specialist at the airport 150 miles away. “Over,” added the physician, obviously unfamiliar with radio protocol.

“Doctor,” I said, “I have an otherwise healthy, conscious 20-year-old Caucasian male with symptoms of severe heat exhaustion complicated by miliaria rubra of the trunk and arms.”

Worried that the quality of the radio speaker might cause the already mentally impaired physician to misunderstand what I was saying, I spelled the condition phonetically, “That’s miliaria, MIKE-INDIA-LIMA-INDIA-ALPHA-ROMEO-INDIA-ALPHA, over.”

There was a long pause from the Timheri Airport end of the radio call. I continued with my message: “His temperature is normal, pulse is 122, respirations 32, blood pressure 92 over 40. I have begun cooling the patient. We are giving him oral fluids and having him lay in the shade with his legs elevated. We have just started an IV of normal saline. Do you have any other instructions? Over.” The words were presented over the radio in slow distinct segments so the radio man could copy them down.

“What did you say he hash?” queried Doctor Winston.

“Say ‘over,’ sir,” coached the exasperated radioman.


“He has heat exhaustion and miliaria, I spell phonetically, MIKE-INDIA-LIMA-INDIA-ALPHA-ROMEO-INDIA-ALPHA, over,” I replied clearly and slowly. There was another long pause.
After what seemed like five minutes, but what was probably more like two, Doctor Winston’s beery voice boomed over the speaker of our radio. “Have him rest. Give him water to drink and start an IV. I want you to bring the patient here. Over,” he said in a slurred but authoritative voice.

While the Air Force communications sergeant arranged an air evacuation for Mike, I met quickly with Sam and Randy. Most of our equipment and supplies had already been packed and palletized. There was nothing left to do but take down one tent and wait for transportation to arrive. I told my two comrades I would accompany Sanborn to the clearing station at Timheri Airport.

Within 30 minutes, an Army U-21 arrived to transport Sanborn and me out of Matthews Ridge. While winging our way toward the airport, 150 miles away, I noticed the speed of the aircraft was well into the red warning area on the control panel speed gauge. I told the pilot that our emergency was not so severe that he had to risk flying faster than was safe, and he told me to take care of my patient and he would take care of flying the plane.

We did arrive safely at Timheri Airport. Medics from the clearing station sent down from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, met us and took Sanborn to a waiting field ambulance for transport to the medical units Admission & Disposition Section. I saw Captain Skinner and Major Burgos standing in an open doorway at the old terminal building, so I walked over to them to give them a report.

As I related the details of Sanborn’s heat injury and the difficult time I had communicating with the clearing station physician, an obviously soused Army lieutenant colonel physician approached and asked if I was the medic who brought the patient with the heat injury. I acknowledged I was and the arrogant doctor with the drinking problem looked at me and said derisively, “He doesn’t have malaria, he has a heat rash!”

All I could manage to respond was, “Yes sir, thank you sir, I’ve learned a lot from you today.” The tipsy doctor turned around and stumbled back to his clearing station.“He’s been like this every day,” said Major Burgos, by way of explaining Doctor Winston’s behavior.

[1] Tim Merrill, Ibid.