A big part of the “Behind the Gun” storyline is somewhat of an odyssey of military service. As we’ve read about the soldiers who trained and led me and my cohorts, and read about my peers, now we get to look at the soldiers I trained. The first soldier I chose to write about is Jeff Barton. I chose Jeff for many reasons, not the least of which is that I feel he is one of my greatest success stories as a leader. But as you’ll read, it was messy for both of us.
Soon after my tour in Somalia I was promoted to sergeant and found myself welcoming a new COHORT to A CO 1-87IN. After they arrived at the barracks by bus one evening, Barton recalls the realization setting in that the hard part wasn’t actually graduating Infantry School at Ft. Benning. He recalls the reality setting in as I “greeted” them along with the other NCO’s from the company. I’m not really sure that we planned it to be a shock session, but that’s the way it played out. As they unassed the buses and offered handshakes and smiles, the bloodshed quickly began. Barton, Surette, Ramos, McCabe, Ratliffe and Victor were among those assigned to first platoon. And what they had were a bunch of NCO’s and “Spec-4 mafia” that had recently returned from Somalia. To say we were crusty or hard would be a gross understatement.
Barton, a young 18 year old kid from Illinois who had inquired about Bob Hope coming to visit during OSUT, emerged before me with the biggest fucking smile I recall seeing on anyone in uniform, certainly in an Infantry Battalion. He looked as though he had just arrived at Disneyland.
“What the fuck are you smiling about, private?” I barked in his face.
“Uh…….” he replied repeatedly, almost stuttering.
“Beat your fucking face!” I responded.
And so began a beautiful relationship. Jeff will be the first to tell you that out of his cohorts, he had to work twice as hard to be successful at soldiering. In the beginning, he found himself struggling to keep the pace during our morning runs, or our long road marches and everything in between. When Surette became one of the M60 gunners, Barton was made his AG (Assistant gunner). This gave Barton one of the heaviest loads in the platoon, a load he was initially ill equipped to handle.
The smoke sessions continued for Barton just about every time he was in proximity to me; pushups, flutter kicks, iron mikes….jump squats while holding the M60 over his head, Koala-fication, and anything else I could come up with. I required him to carry a 2 quart canteen at all times just so I could smoke him and make sure he stayed hydrated. It was like I would see his big smile and just want to kill him instantly. It isn’t because I didn’t like him. Liking him wasn’t my job. He was a likeably and genuine guy. The problem was that he reminded me of someone, someone who had been ill equipped to deal with the reality of combat, someone who had been my own assistant gunner in Somalia; Spaceboy.
As those initial months went on, Barton started to reach a breaking point. Surette and his other cohorts would often try to run interference for him to divert my attention. They would try and stand up for him from time to time as well, which just gave Barton some company during his random PT sessions. Then the day finally came; he was completely broken. He asked me to send him to the motor pool, claiming he just wasn’t cut out for the infantry. My reply was to offer him a deal he initially regretted: Give me until the end of the summer and if I don’t finish making you an infantryman, I will get you off the line and into the motor pool. He agreed. The smoke sessions continued and the day came when he had to choose between being a grunt or working in the motor pool.
As my cohort and one of my team leaders “The Grinch” (CPL Grish) led Barton to HHC to meet his new first sergeant and become a driver while the rest of A CO 1-87 IN was given orders for proceed with Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti. The problem was that Barton had made the decision and the request was put in before his transformation had been complete. It had been pretty recent that he had changed completely. Barton was hard by now, I couldn’t rattle him, nor did I feel compelled to try. And the cohesion that had been built amongst his cohorts was stronger than any glue you could imagine. It was more like a weld. At first Barton went along with the transfer thinking he had no choice. But then he remembered that he now had balls, and so he used them.
“Is it too late to change my mind, 1st sergeant?” Barton interjected to everyone’s surprise.
“Well, what do you think first sergeant? Can Barton change his mind?” Grish asked with a huge smile on his face.
“Well, Uh….I guess it’s not if you really want to go back to A company?” the first sergeant responded.
As Grish returned to the company with a huge smile and Barton in tow, I could see the pride on Barton’s face as the platoon congratulated him on his decision. Now we had work to do.
After spending a little over a week aboard the U.S.S Eisenhower, we Air Assaulted into Port Au Prince, Haiti on the morning of 19 September, 1994. All of us were carrying at least twice the traditional combat load for ammunition and Barton and Surette being the M60 team, definitely had the heaviest loads in the platoon. As we approached our LZ we could see a large plume of smoke billowing out of the fields we were heading towards. No one knew what to expect and it certainly added to the adrenaline rush. As we un-assed our Blackhawk with what seemed like 1000lbs of gear a piece, we had the added extra pleasure of jumping those few feet out of the aircraft and right into a hole, the reason I limp on my right ankle to this day. Ignoring my ankle, the next immediate situation was twofold; we were taking fire from the rooftops across the field and as we started to maneuver, we quickly lost a couple of guys as heat casualties within 100 meters of the LZ due to the ridiculously heavy loads we had (Time Magazine actually wrote an article about how the brass had accidently given us an unedited packing list with everything that had been suggested during the planning meetings).
SGT Beem was giving an IV to PVT Stroup while our medic, SPC Pedulla, took care of the others as the sound of gunfire and the crack of bullets filled the air. It wasn’t overwhelming fire by any means, but just enough to make me smile as we tried to maneuver and respond to the several gunmen on the rooftops. In the midst of the chaos I turned to see Barton smiling back at me.
“Still want to go to the fucking motor pool, Barton?” I shouted.
“Fuck no, SGT!” he quickly replied.
That genuine smile this “kid” from Illinois had was now different; just as genuine, but a little twisted now. Like mine. Only grunt would smile under such circumstances, and all while carrying 200 lbs of gear and ammo. Not only had Barton made it, he wasn’t among the privates doing the “kickin’ chicken” from heat stroke. While I am sure nerves played into the situation for those who were, the SNAFU on the packing list was a major factor.
As we maneuvered towards a walled section of the city, two sergeants from 3rd Platoon took grenade shrapnel to the face and were being treated. I asked SSG Morris if he was ok as he looked dazed and bloodied while the medics treated him and the other sergeant, but appeared to be ok and just sort of shrugged his shoulders. We quickly commandeered a truck from a Haitian using the international sign for “let me borrow your truck”. In other words, we pointed an AT4 rocket at it as we “gestured” for him to stop. After loading our excess gear and casualties on the truck, we made a casualty collection point and cached our gear so we could continue the mission. Mission after mission in Haiti, Barton proved his worth.
After riding in Chinooks with TF 160 into the high country in Haiti, we performed weeks of patrols in the mountains with the 3rd Special Forces group near the border of the Dominican Republic. We had done similar missions in Somalia with Special Forces on occasion.
The terrain could be pretty unforgiving, especially factoring in the heat and humidity. As I led one patrol that was about 10k out, we found ourselves on a nearly vertical incline as we traversed the hillsides and suddenly emerged into a small farming village. Barton was right on my heels the whole way packing the infamous M60 gear, his gunner Surette smiling next to him. A few months prior and this sight might have surprised me. But now it was just normal.
Barton had the luxury of being one of three soldiers chosen to stay behind as Hurricane Gordon hit Haiti and TF 190 abandoned the main base near the port. We were given no standing orders and fully expected to be relieved shortly since the water was already waist high as everyone evacuated. The rushing water turned the minutes to hours as darkness set. We had no food, no communications, little water as the lightning tore the sky from end to end amidst the current and deafening wind. We were left on the lower end of the base which formed a sort of fish bowl effect as the water got higher and higher. We spent hours swimming around in the dark looking for refuge and even tried climbing the connex, but were far too tired by then to get up it.
As all manner of debris floated by in the darkness, we were occasionally shocked by something we didn’t expect; corpses of some of the more than 1,100 Haitians that drowned in the Hurricane. Another thing we didn’t realize in this tropical country is that we were becoming hypothermic with the 20-30 degree drop in temperature and being submerged in water. First it was Barton who began stuttering and asking for help, telling us that he thought he might have hypothermia. When I looked at Ratliffe and Barton with my flashlight, they were both pale and shivering. SPC Gross and I again started swimming around the base looking for shelter when we found the phone tents up near the front of the compound. Not only were they on higher ground, but the tables in those tents went up to just under my armpits.
I don’t know how much time elapsed between realizing Barton and Ratliffe were hypothermic and our finding the tents, but SPC Gross and I drug the two through water that had been at my shoulders and up to Barton’s neck, until we got to the tent and erected it’s center pole. We then positioned the tables around the edges of the tent, threw the two of them on top, and had them strip down out of their wet clothes and get into their sleeping bags that were dry inside the waterproof bags in their rucksacks. I spent the night reflecting on what we had gone through for the previous 10 hours or so, watching the water occasionally barely come over the lip of the table I was on, thanking God for our turn of fortune. By now, we were all hypothermic. It would be two days before we saw anyone.
I was proud of the men with me that night. Not one time did one complain or question me. They acted as though it was just another day at the office. I guess in the Infantry, it was. Barton’s transformation was confirmed in my mind. And countless other times as well.
After linking up with the 10th Special Forces near Belladère, Haiti, a white Toyota pickup sped past several attempts to halt it. The two men and woman inside were killed in a hail of gunfire, likely because they had not understood the directions to stop. Barton went along with the day as though nothing had happened, yet another mark of a grunt. “Fuck it, it doesn’t mean anything.” Only a grunt knows it probably means everything. But it’s best not to care. He proved he was no Spaceboy as I had originally feared.
The initial forces in Haiti wore the coveted “combat patch” for all of about a month or so, before the Army told them to remove it. There would be no Arrowhead device on our Expeditionary Medal, no CIB’s or CMB’s. Our two wounded sergeants on the LZ did not even receive the Purple Heart, which is a medal of right. It was all a purely political move. Though the Expeditionary Medal grants them entrance to the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, the operation was largely swept aside. And while I wouldn’t say it was anywhere near as tough as our time in Somalia overall, the operation’s participants deserved far more recognition than they received.
While I went on to serve with the 7th ID and then the 25th ID (Light), Barton finished out his time with A CO and the 10th MTN (Light) doing several rotations in Panama and the jungle training center before it closed. He went on to become the platoon’s RTO, a position not given to a slouch, and eventually returned to Illinois where he married his wife Sarah and fathered two children, Keaton and Conner.
It was another one of my soldiers, Andrew Majuri, who first coined the phrase “Barton the Spartan” as a nickname for Jeff. Majuri was a sharp contrast to Jeff because things came naturally to Majuri. As we departed for Haiti I convinced the commander to send Majuri to Ranger School as a private, something that required waivers because of division policy, and he passed with flying colors. He was just a natural soldier and easy to train, something I can’t take any credit for.
It’s Barton that I am most proud of. He was my greatest initial challenge as a leader. And I saw in him something that he didn’t recognize at the time. I saw that he was a grunt, all he had to do is let me break him…..and then trust me to build him back up. I am pretty sure this tactic would cost me my stripes in today’s Army and I’ve only given you a hint at the pain he went through to get there. But you get the point.
Talking with Barton twenty years later, he would accuse me of being the reason he survived that hurricane. I would counter that in some way, maybe many ways, he saved me as well.
See you at coffee next week, Jeff.
Copyright© 1991-2017 by Bravo Charles/Steve Slane