Monday, June 7, 2010

Ελληνικά (Elefsina)

Every time I hear or see the recent troubles in Greece on the news it reminds me of the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) my team ODA 014 conducted in 1998. I had just arrived in Germany for a three year tour about 3 months prior when my team was tasked to conduct the Military Freefall training with the Greek ETA commandos. The ETA are something akin to our Navy Seals and the training would be conducted at the Greek Airborne School in Elefsina just outside of Athens.

I know you’re not supposed to have favorites much like parents and children, but ODA 014, out of all the ODA’s I was on is my clear favorite. I was the Senior Weapons Sergeant then the Intelligence Sergeant on this ODA for 2 years. We once added up the combined operational team time of all the members and it came up to over 100 years. The average amongst the enlisted guys was 10 years on an operational detachment. The width and depth of special operations knowledge on this team was second to none. Ranger Tabs, Military Freefall Jumpmaster Badges, and a variety of special operations skills abounded on this team. This was the best group of guys I ever served with, we were just really tight.

So in September we deployed down to Elefsina from Stuttgart on a C130 aircraft landing at the Athens International Airport. The Greek cadre met us and we off loaded our equipment onto a flat bed truck and an old school bus. After cramming into the bus they drove us through downtown Athens on our way to the school. Never having been to Greece before or since, I was really drinking in the scenery. I could see the Acropolis from the bus window and I hoped I might get to go see it ( I did). The traffic pattern in downtown Athens was pretty typical for a Mediterranean country. The general rule was he with the biggest vehicle and the loudest horn had the right of way. Most of the traffic lights were treated as mere suggestions as cars would line up 4 abreast in two lanes at intersections and little motorbikes would weave in and out of the larger vehicles with complete disregard for any rules of the road. I saw the same scenario played out in Italy and Turkey amongst other places.

When we arrived at the Airborne School we were billeted in an open bay barracks right behind the school Charge of Quarters office. Every morning as we left for training we would have to walk by the paratroop students standing at stiff attention in morning formation. Often they were being chewed out by the Greek Airborne Instructors in their blue t-shirts and black ball caps. I was glad I was through with that nonsense since I had graduated Airborne School in 1983. As we got off the bus our translator and liaison Alex Smiaris greeted us. Alex held dual citizenship, both Greek and Canadian. He had been born in Greece but his family immigrated to Toronto, Canada when he was young. When he got old enough Alex decided to join the Greek army to see the country of his birth and he just stayed. When I met him Alex was a warrant officer with over 15 years service. Alex became a good friend to all of us. I last saw him in Kosovo 2003. His ETA detachment was close to our sector and we did some combined training while there in Kosovo. Alex said he was going to retire upon his return to Greece after his Kosovo rotation. He told me he was going to be a deep sea boat captain and take tourists on fishing trips. I lost touch with him after Kosovo but I hope everything turned out as he planned and I know if I ever make it back to Greece I have a place to stay.

Like most “combined” training we did with our allies this trip turned into the Americans instructing and our allies learning. The combined parts came after training when we all took trips into Athens for a little stress relief. Everyday we would send a drop zone party to set the drop zone up for operations while the rest of us piled into the old school bus for a ride to the airstrip where we rigged up and got into the C130 for what was usually a hot, sweaty day filled with jumping, bus rides, and practical jokes. Once we got to know them the ETA soldiers proved to be hilarious. One day, after training, a couple of the ETA guys went and bought a few of us some T-shirts at a souvenir stand. They were olive drab with a caricature of an ETA commando slitting an enemy’s throat. On the top it had a Greek phrase and on the bottom it said “ATOM SQUAD.” They were so corny; we started to wear them under our fatigue jackets as a joke. That is until Alex told us the Greek phrase was “The only good Turk is a dead Turk” and that the soldier being killed had a Turkish star on his helmet. In the interest of NATO cooperation our Team Leader told us we had to quit wearing the shirts. I still have mine though.

The training was pretty standard and I completed the course of instruction many time during my years on a Military Free Fall team. Each MFF team in Special Forces is required to certify as “level one” every quarter. Being certified as level one meant you could deploy and infiltrate by HALO anywhere in the world in peacetime or combat. To be level one a team had to complete, at a minimum, 3 jumps during the hours of darkness wearing combat equipment (rucksack and weapon) and oxygen. Generally teams conducted the training in a stair step fashion starting out with day time “Hollywood” jumps without equipment and progressing until the training would culminate with the three required jumps. This is the pattern we followed on this deployment with the exception we also instructed our counter parts in the finer points of Military Freefall operations.

Since I had just recently come from being an instructor at the Military Freefall School our Team Sergeant assigned me all the problem children among the Greeks. I had to do corrective training on all the “non flyers” those with a bad or non existent body positions in freefall. Helping these guys out was fun and it also gained me some friends as they were very appreciative whenever I could help one of the soldiers correct a problem he experienced. We jumped on two primary dropzones, one was about an hour drive from the school. It was in the middle of nowhere and was literally a farm field. I almost hyper-extended my knee on one night jump as I landed and one of my feet slid out from under me as I made contact with a freakin watermelon. This drop zone was also plowed in an attempt to make it softer but all that really happened was the hard clay soil was pushed into big clumps that stuck out at all sort of crazy ankle turning angles. The Greeks also used burning tires as wind indicators and the smoke would waft none to sweetly downwind of the DZ party. The end result was there was quite a traffic jam on final approach as all the experienced jumpers tried to maneuver their canopies to land upwind of the vehicle on the dirt road that went through the middle of the DZ.

The other DZ was better. We didn’t get to use it much because it was the primary school DZ and they used it daily. However we did get to jump on it about ½ a dozen times. It was flat and well cleared of obstacles it was also about 1500 meters from the ocean. The Army Military Freefall Operations manual says you must wear floatation devices if jumping within 1000 meters of water, however since we had none and the actual DZ was over 1000 meters from the sea we kind of fudged that little requirement. Being HALO though sometime our release point was pushing the envelope a little; typically we would came in over the ocean on our jump run not hitting the beach until about 30 seconds out. It was a pretty cool sight looking out the tailgate and seeing the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean from 12500 feet.

One of the highlights of the trip was one of our final jumps. It was to be one of the level one certification jumps and it also was to be one the first jumps on to this particular location if not the first jump since World War II. In 1941 during Operation Mercury German Fallschirmjager (Parachutists) had jumped onto Crete in the largest German Airborne operation of the war. Crete became known as the Fallschirmjager graveyard due to the intense partisan activity that resulted in the death of over 400 German Soldiers. My team along with the ETA was going to jump onto the airfield at the Souda Bay, Crete NATO Naval base. We took off under the cover of darkness and as an added bonus we conducted in flight rigging.

In flight rigging is used for longer flights, this is where paratroopers actually rig up their parachutes and combat gear during the flight and don them when they get closer to their objective. Although oxygen was not required due to the altitude we would be jumping we were also training on oxygen console operations during this flight and would be conducting pre breathing activities. About 2 hours out myself and the other jumpmasters starting helping all the jumpers rig up and hook up to the oxygen console. After conducting Jumpmaster Personnel Inspections on all the others we did the same to each other and hooked up to the console. At about 20 minutes out the red jump lights came on and our primary jumpmaster started looking out the windows trying to orient himself. At 10 minutes out the lights turned green and would remain green until we exited or a problem developed. At 6 minutes out he had the first stick of jumpers stand up. Due to the number of jumpers we would be exiting in three passes with my team being last. At three minutes out the squeal of the hydraulics was heard as the tailgate game down and our jumpmaster walked out to the edge of the ramp to identify his release point. While he did this all the jumpers checked equipment and pins on their reserves. One minute out the jumpmaster gave the signal to move to the hinge of the ramp, this is also when all jumpers disconnected from the oxygen console relying purely on the Twin 53 oxygen canisters they had attached to their harnesses. At 30 seconds the thumbs up was given and all the jumpers moved forward and the guys in front hung ten on the edge of the ramp. As the plane intersected with the release point the Jumpmaster pointed out into the blackness and just like that the jumpers disappeared into the night. Once the last jumper had cleared the tailgate, the plane made a hard left turn to line itself up for the next pass.

The tailgate remained down as we made another ten minute racetrack and released another group of Greek commandos. Then it was our turn, as we went through the same commands I had seen thousands of times, I could feel myself reaching that high state of alertness I always attained prior to a jump. The moon was full out the back of the ramp and it looked like I could reach out and touch it, it was so huge. On the standby command we crowded the ramp, I was trying to take special care of my rucksack attaching points as I was wearing a front mounted ruck and didn’t want anyone to inadvertently release one of the straps prior to exit. On the go command, we bum rushed into the darkness and I could feel the old familiar sensation of “riding the hill” as my body actually slowed from the forward throw of the aircraft to terminal velocity. Once I was flat and stable I checked altimeter and saw I had plenty of time before pull altitude, I identified the glow of some green chemlights we used to mark each other in free fall and under canopy. We attached green to the back of our helmets and red ones to our chest straps. The idea being, see red “your dead”, meaning you better turn right or expect to be entangled with another jumper. I put my body in to a track position and increased speed as I flew over to my fellow teammate. When I got close to him I flared and saw it was Frank one of our Engineer Sergeants. Frank was one of our least experienced jumpers so I decided to mess with him a little. I had stashed an activated chemlight in my mouth prior to exiting the aircraft; I flew around in front of Frank and grabbed his forearms to form a “two way.” Once he was looking at me I smiled and I could see his eyes get wide as the green chemlight glow came pouring out of my mouth. I must have looked like a camouflaged Jack O’ Lantern. I checked altimeter again and saw we were about 7000 feet. I tracked away from Frank a safe distance, cleared my airspace then pulled my ripcord at the pull altitude of 3500 feet. The canopy ride was uneventful as we all lined up in our downwind, crosswind, and final legs for landing. Our team was so experienced and well trained we had landed in a tactical perimeter about 30 meters in diameter. We put our weapons into operation and maintained 50% security as we gathered up our parachutes and equipment. Once we were all ready to move out our Team Sergeant called an end to the tactical scenario and we all gathered on the edge of the airfield as the C130 landed to take us back to the barracks.

The day before we were supposed to depart the Greeks threw us a big old soirée, complete with goat meat and ouzo. Needless to say being Greek there was lots of ouzo drinking and man dancing. The best part of the evening is when we convinced our hosts to play a trick on our Team Leader. Every Special Forces officer is ingrained with the notion that they must get along with their “counterparts” and not offend them. This goes all the way back to Vietnam and the work SF did with the Montangards. So we had the Greeks bring the roasted head of the goat complete with eyeballs on a decorated platter and present it to our Team Leader as a delicacy. The funny thing was they were just going to throw the damn thing out. We had him convinced if he didn’t eat the eyeballs he would offend our hosts and the rapport we had built with the Greeks would go up in smoke. After we finally convinced him of our sincerity with a little help from Alex, he finally bit into an eyeball. No one could hold back their laughter anymore and we all roared and toasted his manliness with another shot of ouzo. The next morning with big heads and furry tongues we said good bye to our hosts and boarded the plane back to Germany. Another successful deployment complete.

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