When you’re the ripe old age of 20, still not in complete control of your underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, and you’ve just completed the US Army’s Military Police School, you come to a couple of simultaneous realizations: 1) you still can’t “legally” drink booze yet, but; 2) you do have the power to bust a drunk Second Lieutenant’s ass for simply mouthing off at you. That’s the kind of power that can easily beg for more (even if undeserved) power. It’s certainly the kind of power that I wanted, and the Army had not only just handed it to me without regard for human life or inevitable consequences, but they were frigging paying me to wield it.
I was a young Military Police Specialist (E4) and brought my freshly minted, extremely novice, grossly overestimated skills to the Central American isthmus. I was a typical, 20-year-old, gung-ho, hot shit super-trooper MP; you could tell just by looking at me. I starch-pressed my uniform, which was against regulation, my boots and brass were perfectly polished, my cap was also non-regulation starched and squared-off, and it covered a neatly trimmed, bad ass flat top haircut. Too cocky for my own good, I completed the look with cliché, yet somehow obligatory aviator glasses. I was a damn tool, and I had no business being given any sort of authority whatsoever.
To me, it only made sense, then, that, just a couple of months after arriving in Panamá, I (of all people) was offered a job as a Protective Service Specialist (PSS) for the Commander-in-Chief (4-star general) of all the American armed forces in Central and South America. A PSS is the Department of Defense term for a bodyguard, so, of course, I took the job with no questions asked. Why wouldn’t I? It was a job as a flipping bodyguard, for Pete’s sake. No one deserved that job more than I did.
Actually, that’s a load of crap. In reality, I was neither ready nor psychologically adapted for, nor did I even deserve, a job as an Army bodyguard. Here are just five reasons why:
- The training and equipment made me even more arrogant.
There were two necessary courses to becoming a bodyguard: Protective Services Training (PST, which, as if you couldn’t guess, is Bodyguard School) and Special Security and Antiterrorist Driving School (an upmarket title for “evasive driving,” which is the exact opposite of what the civilian world calls “defensive driving”). These two courses, both taught “stateside,” had to be completed before we could do the really heavy-lifting related to our protection of the General.
PST was the two-week “equivalent” to the similar kind of stuff they teach Secret Service agents, but those losers have to go to school for, like, months. Suckers. Just (not) like Secret Service training, our condensed course focused on close-contact protection as well as the familiar task of what we aptly nicknamed “Bullet Catching 101.”
Evasive driving included learning some cool stunt spins called Button-Hooks and J-Turns (that I can still do, but I bet you can’t). The course also taught us how to stay on the surface of a road-racing track, driving an ’86 Chevy Malibu 90 miles per hour while getting hit in the ass-end by a far better driver in another Malibu doing 93. Did I mention that I had only had my license for only four years?
Back in Panama, our team had two cars of our own: an intimidating, off-the-rack, banana-yellow 1987 Nissan Patrol 4×4, and a “hardened” ’87 Chevy Caprice. “Hardened” is the more accurate term for what most everyone else calls a “bullet-proof” car. As far as personal safety goes, “hardened,” while still a reassuring term, is less encumbered by responsibility than “bullet-proof.” For instance, our car had extra steel in the body, run-flat tires, thicker glass, flashing lights, outside air cut-off, and speakers in the B-pillars to communicate with the world beyond the heavy windows that wouldn’t roll down. But, after training in the PST course and seeing what so many weapons can do to metal, glass and human flesh, I wouldn’t trust calling a car “anything-proof.”
We each carried a 9mm Beretta pistol on our bodies, and there was a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun in each car. At any time, three or four of us would ride in the Nissan, known as the Chase car, and we would follow “the Principle” (our boss), who was riding in the Caprice (the Lead car) with a driver and another team member. The job of the Chase team (the cool, less direct-line-of-fire, more confrontational, and frankly, more fun job) was to make for unfettered travel for the Lead car, which we would do by physically blocking intersections, aggressively shooing off curious vehicles and (I assume) ramming. Sadly, we never got to ram, though it was not because we never had the opportunity; thanks for that go mainly to a General who preferred a low-key (i.e., boring) presence (more about that later).
Choice duty like this also meant I didn’t have to dress up in my non-regulation, starch pressed Army garb. Instead, I wore starched pressed guayabera shirts, which you have seen if you’ve ever visited an oldey-timey barber or watched Charlie Sheen on any episode of Two and a Half Men.
The guayabera is standard dress for men in Central America, and, when worn in the traditional untucked style, does a great job of concealing a lumpy pistol. Just ask any casually dressed, metrosexual Latin American dictator. Rounding out the wardrobe was a pair of crisply pressed polyester slacks. Looking back, it’s curious that we relied so heavily on submachine guns, steel-reinforced cars, state-of-the-art (for 1987) walkie-talkies, and specialized training; but, the chosen outerwear for our urban semi-combat roles was a barber shirt and a sharp pair of Dockers.
- The General didn’t want our team in the first place, but he took us fishing anyhow.
There were six of us on that team: a Warrant Officer, a Sergeant First Class, a Staff Sergeant and three Specialists. We first met in what would become our office in Montague Hall/Building 88, the building where all the high-level brass met every day to talk war and double-deal against dictatorial leaders who were also CIA moles. This building was situated on the Quarry Heights military installation on Ancon Hill, literally a giant rock in downtown Panamá City.
We learned fast that the General never wanted our team in the first place; he suffered either from an arrogance or a delusion that caused him to think that he had nothing to be protected from, and he wanted to keep his presence on the DL (I think the giant, four-wheel-drive banana chasing a gray, slogging American sedan probably spoiled that). The Department of Defense thought differently, and, as everyone would learn in the months leading up to the December 1989 US invasion of Panamá, he needed some protecting. In other words, even a 4-star general has to do what the hell Uncle Sam tells him to do.
Tensions were high in Panamá at the time. This was just before the Invasion, and Our Boss was tasked with (what we assumed was) in-the-field negotiating with Maximum Leader of National Liberation (for real) (also US DEA/CIA scapegoat and most accurate representation of a Latin American dictator), Manuel Antonio Noriega. Many of our trips took us to a random Embassy, or the home of the US Ambassador, or any number of other unknown-to-us locations. Our duties, outside of protecting the Principle, ranged from picking up then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to taking Our Boss out on Lake Gatun for some choice Peacock Bass fishing (which has become very popular, based on all the guided tour websites from the area).
Our team often used a borrowed Army pickup truck to haul a rented motor boat. At one point a Motor Pool sergeant wanted to bust our whole team for misappropriating government resources. It was one time the General stood up for us and had his executive aide tell the guy to piss up a rope. I assume he figured he was stuck with us, and the man did love him some fishing.
- During down time, we would get stuck running errands or get caught playing with our pieces
Bodyguarding includes a lot of waiting around doing a shit ton of nothing. Often, we would sit in our office telling off-color and inappropriate jokes. Sometimes the guys would hit on the civilian Panamanian females who worked in our building. Once, while the General was stateside for a couple of days, one of the team members and I took care of some errands. We stopped by his downtown apartment while his Air Force wife was supposed to be working. Instead, we found her at home taking “Spanish lessons” from a not-so-bad-looking gringo Air Force guy. For all we know, the guy might have been proficient in Hispanic language and culture. But I’m pretty sure Spanish lessons don’t require stripping down to boxer shorts or a teddy. I heard later that the guy just happened to be well versed in tongues.
Other times we would have to wait outside a mansion, or an embassy, or some other political hotspot, while the General ate dinner with a diplomat or played poker with the leader of a small third-world nation . Time and again, we would see the same black Toyota Land Cruiser with no registration plates, and we learned that it carried the also-guayabera-wearing protective service goons of none other than President-General-CIA patsy Noriega. Once we understood one another’s roles, each team began a ritual game called “Display Your Superiority Over the Other Guy by Whipping Out What You’re Packing.” It sounds a lot more perverted than it was, though. All we would do was pull out our biggest guns and swing them around in a non-threatening manner in order to intimidate the other team. See? Nothing sexual about that.
There was also the time a friend of ours visited my then-wife while she was in the hospital during the birth of our first son. When “Todd” arrived, he pulled me off to the side, out of earshot of my wife. He explained that he parked next to my truck in the parking garage and noticed guys in a black Land Cruiser with no license plates taking photos of my vehicle. I asked him what the occupants were wearing and if they showed him their equipment; he looked at me like a dog looks at the sound of a fart. Whoever it was (as if I didn’t know), they could have at least sent a card and flowers. My guess? Noriega didn’t value etiquette classes for his team.
- My kid puked on my boss…the General.
Other than the fact that I could tell the world I was a goddamn bodyguard, there were other benefits to the job, as well. For instance, I was able to move from a scary off-post Panamá City condo onto one of the military reservations. This was during a time of Panamanian protests and street riots, and my then-wife, my son and I could see the Via España from our back window. The Via España is like Panamá City’s version of New York’s Broadway, only with more people shot with rubber bullets, crowds disbursed with water cannon trucks and drivers pulled from moving vehicles, only for them to be burned in the street (“The cars or the drivers?” you ask. I’ll simply answer, “Yes”).
We moved onto Quarry Heights, and we got to rub elbows with all manner of important, and as enlisted people (low-ranking military members), my wife and I got to eat at the Officer’s Club a lot, which was a big deal. The PSS team and our families also were invited to the Quarry Heights home of the General and his wife for Christmas one year. It was at that party where my son chose to puke in the face of the highest-ranking US military official in all of Central and South America. Merry Christmas, Sir.
And you might think that is about the worst thing anyone could ever do to a General.
- I almost killed the General with a car.
My tenure came to an abrupt and certain end in January of 1988, less than a year after I had started the whole bodyguard thing. Our General was a paratrooper, and one evening during a night drop, our team leader lost contact with the Principle shortly after he jumped. I was tasked to take the 4×4 over a muddy tractor path that cut through the Panamanian long grass of the drop zone. It’s certainly possible that I may have been traveling on that road just a little too fast. For the record, “may have been,” means “was,” and “traveling on that road just a little too fast,” means “booking.” I came up over a rise, and down the other side, and I barely swerved in time to miss a camouflaged soldier slinking out of the tall reeds. You’ll never guess who it was (unless you read the #5 section title). Stupid Army clothing patterns. Happy New Year, Sir!
The very next day, I was in The Boss’ office, atoning for my sins. By that, I mean he fired my sorry ass. But I was lucky: all he did was send me back to the rank and file MP unit from where I had been plucked like a dingleberry. He could have taken rank away, or even busted me out of the Army altogether. Letting me stay in the military at all was the least he could do for me nearly subjecting him to vehicular manslaughter in a dark Panamá field.
Ironically, my MP unit immediately put in charge of the security detail that patrolled Quarry Heights and protected what was called “The Tunnel“, which was a hole in Ancon Hill that resembled a baby NORAD. It meant I still ran into the General every day, just not with a car this time. I stayed in my office a lot.
There you have it. While I looked great, was well armed and protected, and punked a military leader with a loaded kid, I had no business protecting anybody. When my time was up in 1991, I did the Army a favor and didn’t reenlist. You know what, though? No matter what, I’m one of a small class of people who can claim that, for seven months, at least, I was a frigging bodyguard.