A Dog Called Hope
The air was slick with moisture yet burning hot all at the same time.
As I waited for the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to fire up its giant turbines, I ran my eye along the column of brother warriors lined up on this sunbaked tropical runway—each American, like me, dressed in unmarked combat fatigues. For a mission such as this, you never wear a mark of unit or rank or anything that might betray your identity, just in case things go wrong. If taken prisoner, you don’t want anything on your person that might distinguish you as being particularly special.
Like my fellow warriors, I’d sanitized myself completely, removing all patches from my clothing and not carrying a single piece of ID or family memento, anything that might link me to my nationality or my unit. Carrying even a photo of my wife and three infant boys was a strict no-no.
Such precautions had to be taken utterly seriously when involved in this kind of war against this kind of an adversary. We were in Ecuador, training that country’s special forces to fight FARC—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—a notorious rebel group that finances its operations from kidnap and ransom, illegal mining, and most of all, drugs.
FARC’s narcotics-smuggling network stretches from the South American jungle as far north as the USA and east across the Atlantic into Europe. With an income of some $300 million a year and tens of thousands of armed fighters under its command, FARC is a well-armed battle-hardened force constrained by none of the normal rules
of war. They have gained a reputation for horrific brutality and are the last people you’d ever want to mess with.
I checked my watch. We were twenty minutes to getting airborne.
I glanced at my two jump buddies, Will and Travis—their sleeves rolled up, shirts unbuttoned at the neck—looking easy and relaxed. Hailing from the Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), a renowned U.S. Army special forces unit, they looked like they were stepping out for a practice jump over Florida and not heading into a jungle full of the world’s foremost narco-rebels. It was the late 1990s, and the SOAR—also known as the 160th, the Night Stalkers—had taken casualties on previous missions here. What we were stepping into was a deadly serious business. But for Will and Travis it was just another day of doing what they loved. And, truth be told, it was getting to feel that way for me, too.
Since I was an Air Force Special Operations guy, it had taken a good while for the SOAR to come to accept me. The competition between army and air force is merciless, and we’d never want it any other way, since the intense rivalry serves to sharpen both arms of the military, but I’d been with the SOAR for months now and I was getting to feel like very much one of the boys.
We were here working with the Ecuadorian special forces—the 9th Special Forces Brigade, better known as PATRIA—to combat FARC and put a stop to the illegal drugs trade. But practically speaking, we could never train these guys if our remit only ever kept us in the rear with the gear. The only way to do it properly was to go out into the field alongside them. Though the Ecuadorians were lined up with us, they were a long way from being sanitized. Each wore the distinctive PATRIA badge on his left sleeve, a skull flanked by daggers with a cobra twined through its empty eye sockets. The way they saw it, if they were captured by FARC, they’d face a horrific death anyway, so why bother disguising what unit they were from?
The enmity between the narco-rebels and the armed forces here
ran very deep, and neither side was inclined to show much mercy. We were about to fly north into the remote and lawless Cordillera Central, a spine of jungle-clad mountains snaking into neighboring Colombia. Intelligence reports suggested that FARC was using the rivers there to traffic drugs from the heart of the rain forest to the outside world, with America as their likely end destination. The PATRIA boys planned to stake out one of those rivers, put a stop to any narcotics operations, and take prisoners from whom further intelligence could be garnered to help break the drug-trafficking network.
Our role was to train them to prosecute these kinds of missions more effectively, and this was the type of tasking that we could wholeheartedly believe in. We were fighting the good fight against entirely the right kind of enemy, and despite their lack of experience and expertise (or maybe because of it), we’d grown close to the PATRIA guys. They were ideal trainees, like the proverbial sponges, ready to suck up all that we could throw at them. And boy, did they have a lot to learn.
From behind me, I heard a high-pitched whine as the starter motors on the Hercules fired up the aircraft’s engines. Gradually, the massive hook-bladed propellers spooled up to speed, the avgas—aviation fuel—burning fierce and heady in the hot sludgy air.
As I turned to mount up the aircraft, Jim offered me a high five. “Looks like we’re on! Way to go, Goshman!”
My SOAR teammates called me Goshman because I never cussed much, and especially not around my parents or anyone in authority. That was just the way my folks had raised me. The most I ever managed was a “gosh.” Hence the nickname. But that hadn’t stopped the 16oth from making me one of their own. Recently, I’d been pulled aside by our unit commander. He’d told me that since I was serving with the SOAR, I’d get to wear the Night Stalkers flash as well as my Air Force Special Operations Badge. I had the Night Stalkers badge on my right shoulder and my Air Force Special Operations
badge on my left chest pocket. It was highly unusual to wear both, and I felt hugely honored to do so.
We mounted up the aircraft; I pulled on my helmet and fastened the strap beneath my chin, settling into the fold-down canvas seat. We took to the skies. The aircraft executed a short climb, then thundered low and fast across the treetops, keeping below any radar. Going low also reduced the threat of ground fire because you’d flash past in a matter of seconds and be gone.
I was seated in the plane’s tail section, next to a massive heap of rucksacks secured to the floor by netting. Through the partially open ramp, I could see the jungle speeding by. It felt close enough almost to reach out and touch the highest treetops. The pilot sure knew his stuff. If he had taken the Hercules any lower, its propellers would have been shaving the topmost branches.
We sped onward across the carpet of green, the wind noise and the throbbing roar of the turbines killing the chance of any chat. Now and again there was a break in the forest canopy, marking a river, a narrow trail, or a jungle village. But 99 percent of what we were flying over was pure wilderness.
As with so many previous flights, I bore a special responsibility for getting this one airborne. I just hoped and prayed that I’d called it right this time. As I gazed out over the jungle, I reflected on what had brought me to this position—an air force guy embedded within an elite army unit. I hailed from a tiny, little-known outfit—the 10th Combat Weather Squadron, part of Air Force Special Operations Command. The 10th was a seventy-two-strong unit when I was a part of it. Only sixty of us were jump-trained and mission-qualified and thus able to undertake the kind of task I was now on.
Combat weathermen do pretty much what you’d guess: We draw up the weather picture for combat operations. As such, we need to be first in on any mission, predicting the weather at the target—and above the target, if it’s an airborne mission—and helping determine if it can go ahead.
Air Force Weather School is one of the hardest military courses there is. It’s not just predicting when it’s going to be partly cloudy so folks can better plan their barbecues. It’s about anticipating what type of cloud formations will be present at what altitudes, what the visibility will be for aircraft heading through those clouds, and when exactly they’ll hit the heart of a thunderstorm. It’s learning how a hailstone forms with concentric rings, like a tree, and what makes it burst out the top of a cloud like popcorn and plummet to earth in a dark curtain of ice. It’s getting to know local weather, and predicting when storms may occur, and what the conditions will be like when they do. It’s working out how to read the weather in order to make snap decisions on the ground.
When I went through weather school, we started as sixteen, and only three from our original class made it all the way. We had to score 80 percent or higher on all tests to move to the next section. Weather school took about a year, with over fifteen hundred hours of classroom instruction.
Combat weathermen have to pass Air Force Special Operations selection and combat weather school. Having done so, I felt as if I’d truly made it. My first assignment with the 10th Combat Weather was on attachment to the army’s 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Life was good . . . apart from one thing. My job—briefing pilots on weather conditions—didn’t really do it for me.
I stuck at it for about two years, until word went around that the SOAR was seeking volunteers. When you have guys going deep behind enemy lines, as the SOAR do, it’s vital that they know what weather’s coming. Only air force guys can become combat weathermen. The SOAR is an iconic regiment, and my commander personally asked me if I’d be willing to join them.
I talked it through with my wife, Carla. She’d always been supportive of everything I’d ever done, but for once she asked me not
to follow my dream. We both knew that operations with the SOAR were dangerous. Carla told me that she had a dark premonition, a really bad feeling, about this one. She had a sense that something terrible was going to happen to me if I transferred to the SOAR.
But my commander stressed how much they needed me, and I sure wanted to go. In due course I transferred from Fort Bragg to Hunter Army Airfield, the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion of the 160th Night Stalkers, and moved my family up there, too. Carla and I had three boys under the age of four, so ours was one busy household. We purchased a modest one-story house with a wraparound porch, room enough for the boys to bounce around in.
At Hunter I was introduced to the “Skiff,” a hyper-secure underground vault protected by a series of massive code-activated doors. The Skiff was the nerve center of SOAR operations, and it was from there that I would study the weather as it affected their missions around the world. I threw myself into my new task, striving to prove that an air force guy could be as good as any army man. I was at the front of all the training runs. I had to be. If I slipped back, I’d get all the usual abuse about being a “pansy-assed air force guy.” And, like many a Morgan before me, I thrilled to the challenge.
I grew to feel at home among these army aviators. Despite Carla’s warnings, I thrived.
I worked my weather data like a magician. I conjured statistics to predict how storms would impact visibility or communications, or how wind speeds at the different altitudes of a parachute jump might enable a squad of paratroopers to hit a landing zone pretty much simultaneously. I sought current and tidal data so we could do airborne insertions into water: I knew that if the current was more than one mile an hour, our guys would not be able to make headway against it while swimming. If we aimed to hit a beach, I needed to know the high- and low-tide times so I could advise on the best time of landing. Because sound travels more clearly through water
than air, in damp, humid conditions I had to warn our guys that the enemy would hear us coming from much farther away.
I tried to use the weather to best advantage, while warning how it might hinder operations. After prolonged rain, a river might be rendered too hazardous to cross, making our planned exit from a target unworkable. If it was a sniper mission, I needed to predict how crosswinds might hamper the shot. If it was a night operation, I needed to know what lunar illumination we should expect. There might well be a full moon, but if there was heavy cloud cover, little light would filter through. Conversely, there might be too much light, causing human forms to cast shadows—making us visible and vulnerable to ambush.
If I ever felt the weather picture made a mission look undoable, I’d make that known to my commanders. My final call—the weather call—would be made four to six hours ahead of the mission start time, which was just what I’d done today, here in Ecuador. For weeks prior to the mission, I’d studied the local weather patterns. Our area of operations sat right on the equatorial trough, a tropical storm corridor running along the equator. Weatherwise, it was a hugely volatile region. I’d already inserted two combat weather guys around a hundred kilometers east of our target. As the weather blew in from that direction, they would be our eyes and ears, warning us of whatever was coming. Trained climatic observers, they’d transmit key data: wind direction and speed, air temperature, cloud types and height, and dew point. The dew point is the temperature at which the air becomes saturated with moisture, so fog or rain will form, impacting on visibility. They’d warn us if cumulus cloud was incoming, since it tends to build rapidly into violent tropical storms.
It was largely by using their data that I’d been able to green-light today’s mission. But once we were on the ground, I’d carry on monitoring the weather every step of the way. Stuffed into my rucksack were the specialist tools of my trade, chiefly a portable combat
weather laptop via which I could acquire my own data on the weather above us or download stats from the Skiff.
The area we were flying into was heavily mountainous. We had hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment in the air with us, plus several dozen men-at-arms. There were thunderstorms every day over the Cordillera Central, and a bad downdraft could cause an aircraft to fall out of the sky or scatter injured parachutists across a wide swath of terrain.
That was why I bore such a heavy responsibility for the present mission.
By now, the SOAR guys had pretty much come to trust my decisions. A while back we’d been on a training exercise in Kentucky. I’d been on the ground with an advance force of SOAR operators, preparing to call in the main drop. But the area had been hit by a series of tornadoes, and for a while it had looked like the exercise was a no-go. Then a narrow weather window had opened and I’d called the aircraft in. We’d driven out to mark the landing zone so the parachutists would know exactly where to put down. We were halfway to the LZ when the heavens opened—massive hailstones. The inbound aircraft were close now, and unless I called it off, we risked having parachutists jumping out of the skies into a hellish hailstorm.
As the hailstones had pounded onto the roof of our vehicle, I’d felt the SOAR guys staring at me and known what they were thinking: How the hell did he get it so wrong? No doubt about it, I was sweating it big-time. But I stuck with my gut instinct. The weather window was coming.
The jump remained on.
Sure enough, the hail had stopped, we’d gotten the parachutists in, and the last set of boots had barely hit the ground when the weather window closed again. It had all been down to some good judgment, coupled with a great deal of luck and split-second timing. On the drive out, the SOAR guys told me they were amazed at what I’d just done.
“Shoot, we’ll believe anything you say now.”
“Goshman, you tell us you’re God, you got it.”
But I knew for sure that I wasn’t God. And on this mission into the Cordillera Central—as with every one before it—I was praying that I’d called the weather right.
I’d brought with me a small disposable camera, and I asked my buddy Travis to take a photo of me perched at the aircraft’s open ramp, my hand on my M4 assault rifle and my eyes gazing out over the rolling green canopy of jungle. It was the summer of 1999, and I looked young, full of spunk, and unstoppable, like I was ready to take on the world.
Shortly after that photo was taken, we piled off the C-130’s open ramp, a string of sticklike figures tumbling into the void. We made a low-level jump, an elite-forces parachuting technique that enables you to get fast and unseen onto the target.
We landed in a wide forest clearing thick with dense waist-high jungle grass. It was midmorning by now, and out in the open it was furnace-hot. Within seconds my combats were plastered to my body and drenched with sweat. But the big upside was this: Not a shot had been fired at us, and there was zero sign that FARC had detected our presence. We’d just inserted a covert force of elite operators into their very backyard. And, a massive bonus for me personally, the weather had held real good.
I gathered in my camouflaged silk chute, feeling unbeatable. Invincible, even. I loved what I did. I thrilled to the intellectual rigor of the combat weatherman’s craft, plus I welcomed the physical challenge and the buzz of jumping into missions with the SOAR. I was in the prime of my life and the fittest and the most highly trained and capable I’d ever been.
We cached our chutes, putting them in a specific place so we could return and retrieve them later. Then we began the long trek toward our end destination: a fast and angry river that snaked and boiled through the jungle. If our intelligence was accurate, the narco-
traffickers would be heading downstream using open boats stuffed with bales of drugs and gunmen. All we had to do was to lie undiscovered in the thick bush and wait.
But for months after this mission, that would be my last conscious memory—trekking through the thick, suffocating jungle. The next thing I knew, I was in a military hospital fighting for my life with zero idea how I’d even gotten there.