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A Special Operations Soldier's Fight to Survive on the Battlefield and the Homefront
By Tom Satterly
Read by Tom Satterly
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OH GREAT! How’d they find us this time?” At ten years old, the objects of my dismay had just appeared in the woods where my best friend, Robby, and I were playing. The two older boys were now stalking toward us with wicked grins and clenched fists.
I felt helpless. Robby and I weren’t even supposed to be in “the woods”—a circular, overgrown, and fenced-off lot the size of a football field. The property was at the end of my street, near the edge of town. It was overgrown with dense brush, grass, and scrub trees; crisscrossed by dirt trails; and a dumping ground for abandoned appliances and cars. There was also a small pond, which made the enclosure far too much of a temptation for a couple of adventurous boys like us to ignore.
The woods were the perfect place to play Army, reenacting the fighting we’d seen on television documentaries and newscasts about the Vietnam War, hunting through the undergrowth and discarded machinery for “gooks” to ambush and kill. Up until now, the woods also had been a good place to avoid the two bullies but, apparently, that was no longer the case.
“Well, look who we have here!” sneered one, a fat farm kid who was always in the company of his tall, skinny friend.
I groaned. I knew what was coming next, starting with a few choice slurs. You little faggot. You’re a pussy. Your dad’s so dumb he has to work at the grocery store. We steal whatever we want and he’s too stupid to catch us. Then the fat kid would punch me in the face, laughing and continuing with the name-calling while I cried. It would end with the skinny bully kicking me in the balls. After that they’d turn on Robby and rough him up, though never as much as they did me.
It always went the same way. Insults. Face punch. A kick in the balls. Crying—partly from the pain, but mostly from the shame, believing that I couldn’t do anything about it. My adversaries were two years older, and a lot bigger. Worst of all, I was afraid of them.
For some reason, I seemed to attract bullies. I didn’t know if it was because I was small for my age, or because I had allergies that would make my eyes water and appear like I was crying. Even the girls picked on me. But these two older boys were the worst.
At the age of ten, I was just a small, skinny kid who practiced violin, was somewhat fussy about keeping my room neat, and hung out with Robby during the stiflingly humid days of summer in small-town Indiana. The two of us played Little League baseball and fought battles with our green plastic toy soldiers or with imaginary enemies in the woods. Then, often as not, we walked across town to cool off at the public swimming pool. About the only damper on my summer was trying to steer clear of my two antagonists. But they seemed to show up everywhere, stalking us like great white sharks circling baby seals before moving in for the kill. Insults. Stand there and take it. Face punch. Kick in the balls. Cry.
I never told my parents about the bullying. They would have just told me to turn the other cheek. “Don’t stoop to their level. Try to reason with them. Take the high road.” I did confide to my older brother, but he didn’t seem interested in helping me, instead advising me to fight back. But I didn’t really believe I was capable.
I was the last of three children born to Steve and Martha Satterly. My brother, Steve Jr., was two years older. My sister, Shelly, was four when I joined the Satterly household—and none too happy about it. In fact, she asked our parents to return me to wherever they’d found me. When they declined, she went on a hunger strike until the family doctor threw her under the bus by assuring our parents that she’d resume eating again “when she [got] hungry enough.”
However, Shelly’s feelings for me eventually changed. The sweet, good-natured little guy was her baby. Sure, I could be a nuisance. By the time I was five, I followed Shelly and her friends everywhere; they’d ditch me, of course, and she’d complain to our parents about her miniature shadow. But God help anybody else who picked on me.
We were a middle-class family, living middle-class lives in Middle America. The Fourth of July, with its flags and firecrackers, was as big a holiday as Christmas, and we children were brought up knowing that compared to most people around the world, we had it good.
My father worked a variety of jobs—from a tool and die maker in Seymour, Indiana, where I was born, to managing the local IGA grocery in Edinburgh. However, it wasn’t his fault that he kept having to change jobs. My mother was a nurse, and her obsession for more education, ostensibly to get a better job somewhere else, meant that our family had to pick up and move more often than others.
Most of my own nurturing came from my father. He was a musician and played the guitar, harmonica, and the banjo, sometimes on stage. Bluegrass music was his favorite, but country music was a close second: Boxcar Willie, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and anyone who’d ever appeared on the television show Hee Haw.
But there was nothing my dad enjoyed more than spending time with his children. He taught us how to pick and cook dandelions and to find persimmons, showing us how to tell which were good and which were too bitter to eat. He took us on excursions to gather blackberries and laughed at our efforts to ward off chiggers.
Best of all was fishing with my dad on the dock or floating down the Blue River from Edinburgh to Columbus in our flat-bottomed boat, camping out at night, telling stories around the campfire. I always felt safe with my dad and, while I didn’t know it as a child, these were the memories that would sustain me when all else was dark, violent, and full of fear.
I was born on January 28, 1967, a portentous year considering the path my life would take. That was the year of the “long hot summer of ’67,” marred by more than a 150 race riots in cities throughout the East and Midwest that claimed nearly a hundred lives and reduced many millions of dollars of property to rubble.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the war in Vietnam was raging. As US casualties mounted—more than 9,000 dead that year alone—the American public began questioning what the United States was doing by propping up a corrupt South Vietnamese government. Antiwar demonstrations rocked college campuses. Six years later, the longest war in America’s history was over—a war the United States had suffered at the cost of 58,200 dead and more than 300,000 wounded, some whose scars were not visible on the outside, as the nation came to understand.
I knew that my mother’s brother, Terry, had served with the Marines in Vietnam. He had been awarded the Silver Star for his heroism when his unit was ambushed. However, Terry, who had become a minister after returning from Vietnam, never talked about his experiences. It was only after I’d been through my own hell that I learned he, too, was haunted by what he’d been through. He had wrestled his own demons as best he could and fought the tough battle with alcoholism.
But when I was a child, Uncle Terry always took time to talk to me and encourage whatever my interests. He even took to calling me “Snake Eyes” for the way my blue eyes glittered and narrowed to slits when I was angry. I liked that. It made me feel tougher to have such a dangerous-sounding nickname.
Make-believe war was a game I played with my friends. We were always the “good guys,” who acted heroically while vanquishing the “bad guys.” And even if my friends and I “died” on our imaginary battlefields, we could always get back up and live to fight—a privilege denied in the real life that would come later.
“Well, if it isn’t the little faggot,” the fat bully said while his buddy laughed. “You’re a pussy.”
I briefly considered trying to run away. I was fast and probably could have escaped. But the bigger boys would have caught Robby, who wasn’t as swift, and I couldn’t leave my friend behind, especially knowing that he would have to take the brutality intended for me.
So, already aware of the tears welling in my eyes, I readied myself for the blow. Only this time, it never came. Just before my adversary began his assault, my brother, Steve, and one of his friends emerged from the woods and walked over to the four of us.
“What’s going on?” Steve asked calmly.
Still smirking, the fat bully acted as if nothing was happening. He leaned over and picked a leaf from a plant. “Think this is pot?” he quipped sarcastically.
“It’s ragweed,” my brother replied evenly. He was taller than the fat kid, but skinny and unimposing. I had never known him to get into fights—or raise his voice, for that matter—except as older brothers will with their younger siblings.
Apparently, the bully wasn’t impressed either. He made a halfhearted feint at Steve, as if to try to intimidate him, too.
Quick as a snake, Steve’s right hand lashed out and caught the bully square on the jaw. The bully went down hard, but Steve wasn’t finished with him. He jumped on the boy and pummeled him in the face until he started crying.
“Get the fuck out of here,” Steve snarled as he stood up, “and don’t touch my brother again.”
Both bullies scurried off, but Steve and his friend waited to make sure they didn’t return. They then walked Robby and me back to the street.
My opinion of my brother shifted that day. What used to be sibling rivalry, and at times dislike, turned into love and respect for the way he had defended my friend and me. But something else changed in me that afternoon—something that may have been a critical turning point in my life.
It became evident three weeks later when Robby and I were on our way across town to the pool, and we were again accosted by our two tormentors. “What are you gonna do without your brother to protect you, pussy?” the fat bully hissed as he and his friend walked up to me.
Prior to my brother’s intercession, I would not have answered, and would have just stood there and taken the insults, the inevitable punch, and the kick in the balls. But not this time. I had seen the enemy on his back, crying and defeated.
Something snapped. Instead of fear, I felt only rage and hatred as I launched myself at the other boy. Every bit of stored up shame, and fear exploded in a flurry of fists that caught my antagonist by surprise.
The older boy again went down, and then it was me who jumped on top of him, pummeling the bully’s face until he was bloodied and shrieking in terror and pain. Lost in the heat of battle, I might have kept at it, but Robby pulled me off. The bully got up and ran away with his friend.
Later in the pool bathhouse, I washed the other boy’s blood from my hands at the sink and tried to remove the red stains from my T-shirt and swim trunks. Seeing the pink swirl of the blood mixed with water as it went down the drain, I knew something had changed in me and with that came a sense of guilt. I hoped I had done the right thing, but it was not what my parents had always taught me. Turn the other cheek. Take the high road.
But, of course, I reveled in my victory over an enemy. Again and again, I relived the moment—in technicolor! I was proud that I’d stood up to the bully and protected myself and my friend. From that day forward, I knew that I would never run from another fight.
Camp Mackall, North Carolina
THE TALL BLOND MAN materialized out of the dark on the rough dirt road I was walking down. He seemed to come from nowhere, and he startled me.
“Don’t you think we should get off the road and move tactically through the woods?” he growled as he fell in alongside me.
It took a moment as I peered through my night-vision goggles, but I recognized him. His name was John M., a tough-looking, hard-built man who quite frankly made me nervous with his intensity. I’d noticed him and his companion, Mike Rampey, as I’d worked my way through the Special Forces Qualification, or “Q,” course, the last phase of training before I became a Green Beret at twenty-three.
Neither of the other two was physically imposing. Mike was also tall and blond, but like his constant companion John, he was more fit-looking than big. In their mid-thirties, they were a bit older, more mature, than all but the oldest Special Forces instructors. Even around the instructors they seemed to exude a whole other level of competence and professionalism.
They kept mostly to themselves and I had little contact, though I’d noticed small differences in their personalities. Mike was soft-spoken and seemed friendly. John, on the other hand, hardly talked at all. Asking me whether I thought we should be walking down the road or “tactically through the woods” were more words than he’d said to me in the five months we’d been at Camp Mackall.
That night I had been placed in charge of fifty other candidates during an ambush training mission. We’d just completed a four-mile hike through the woods over rugged and swampy terrain on a moonless night, when one of the instructors told me to move my men down the road back to the trucks that would return us to our barracks at Camp Mackall.
Having been given only those instructions, I was left on my own to decide how to implement them. I deemed that with the mission over, there was no reason to move tactically by approaching the trucks stealthily through the woods. So I’d told my men to just walk down the road to the waiting vehicles.
Now this strange, severe man, John, had just questioned—or more accurately commented on—my decision. I didn’t take it well; I felt he was inferring that I was doing something wrong. So I explained to him my rationale for walking down the road. I was sticking to my plan, too, I added.
John, with his lower lip bulging out from dip, cocked his head and gritted his teeth, which caused his jaw muscles to bulge, and said, “You know I’ve killed a lot of people.” With that, he walked off into the darkness, leaving me behind to wonder what he meant.
Here at Camp Mackall in North Carolina, I was going through the agonizing training to become a Green Beret. But my sojourn as a soldier had started in the fall of 1985 when a high school friend who was home on leave from basic training talked me into enlisting. Of all things, this happened as we were driving to a John Cougar Mellencamp concert in Indianapolis, rolling down Interstate 65, tossing beer cans into the backseat with Mellencamp blasting on the stereo. “The Army is fucking great!” my buddy exclaimed as he rubbed a hand across the stubble on his head. “I don’t even mind the haircut!”
At the time, I was a normal, if unremarkable, young American, rocking a mullet and living in Columbus, Indiana, where my family had moved when I was twelve. I’d participated in sports in high school and seemed to have a knack for being the guy my friends and teammates rallied around.
Right out of high school, I had started working construction, which I liked a lot, and was thinking about starting my own company. I also smoked a lot of pot, drank too much beer, hung out with my buddies, and was seeing a pretty, petite brunette named Debbie.
But I knew I was not on a fast track to where I wanted to be, and not even sure where that was. Cold beer, chasing girls, and rockin’ out were certainly fun, but they really didn’t get you very far. The military had always interested me, so I listened to what my friend had to say.
I had eagerly watched war movies like The Green Berets, Rambo, and even older films like Sands of Iwo Jima. I preferred their unabashed patriotism and the heroics of the soldiers they portrayed to “serious” films that showed the darker sides of war and the gory details of actual battle, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. War seemed heroic, even if sometimes the good guys died; it involved parades, and adoring women and neighbors waiting for the warriors’ return with big “Welcome Home” signs.
I didn’t connect what I was seeing in the movies to the homeless Vietnam vets I’d see when I visited the “big city” of Indianapolis with their long stringy hair, bloodshot, desperate eyes, bushy beards, and filthy field jackets, standing on street corners begging for money. I couldn’t help but think they should be doing more to help themselves, instead of looking like bums, smelling of alcohol, and lowering themselves to plead for spare change. They made me nervous, and I wanted nothing to do with them.
In February 1986, I enlisted and was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training, or boot camp as it was called. I enjoyed the basic training and especially liked learning to shoot. And I was really good at it. My range instructor said I was the perfect student because I’d never handled anything more than a BB gun. I could learn fresh without the baggage of bad firearms habits.
I appreciated that the Army was demanding and required discipline. If you were out of shape, they got you into shape. I had no problem there and sailed through the physical fitness requirements. On the other hand, if you were a smart-ass, like me, they quickly knocked it out of you. I seemed to get my fair share of that, including being given the nickname “Shit,” as in “You’re in a world of shit, Shit.”
I figured that the verbal abuse was to make recruits mentally tough and build a sense of “us against the world”—our world, in this instance, being that of the drill sergeants. Nobody escaped the berating, the ridicule, or the physical abuse. Everybody was treated equally.
The Army wanted to break us down to human clay so we could be remolded into its image of a soldier. It was about taking individuals and merging them into a whole unit, who did what they were told to do, when they were told to do it. The emphasis was on building a belief that we were stronger together than apart.
We marched together. Ran together. We stood at attention for hours in the hot sun together. We ate together. We exercised together. We went to the bathroom together in a long line of toilet bowls openly displayed along a wall with no dividers or stalls. We went to bed at the same time as one another and got up together. They even cut everybody’s hair off so that we all looked the same. And if someone messed up, we suffered the consequences together. What better way to turn two hundred strangers into two hundred soldiers who belong to a fraternity and call each other “brother” than to put them all through the same hardships?
As boot camp progressed, I felt I was becoming a part of something larger than myself and the small-town world I’d grown up in—that the path I was on now had a purpose. Protect America. Protect my home and family. Protect those who could not protect themselves. Save innocent lives. Kill bad guys.
After basic I was assigned to the US Army base in Wildflecken, Germany. Nervous about going overseas and into my new life with the Army, I married Debbie so I wouldn’t have to go alone. Not exactly the best reason to get hitched, but I was like a lot of other newly minted soldiers off to see the world for the first time.
Arriving at Wildflecken, I was assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion as the driver of an M113, a fully tracked armored personnel carrier. The battalion’s job was to prepare to halt the Russian horde crossing into the Fulda Gap, a primary invasion corridor into Western Europe for Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks. If war broke out, my unit’s mission would be to slow down the onslaught long enough for NATO and the US military to respond.
My job was fun at first. Not everybody gets to drive what is essentially a small tank, minus the gun turret. Another facet of Army life, especially for a young married couple, was drinking a lot of beer and schnapps. Go to work, train, get drunk, go to bed, and do it all over the next day. It was beginning to seem a lot like home.
AS I GREW TIRED of the monotony of regular Army routine, I began hearing about the Green Berets, a part of the revered Special Forces. I’d met a Green Beret while training for my specialty after basic and been impressed with his professionalism and how he carried himself. He was obviously a cut above the other soldiers I’d met, including my drill sergeants. An Army buddy of mine, Kevin, had a photograph of his dad, who’d been a Green Beret in Vietnam, holding him as a baby wearing his father’s green beret. Kevin dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps. I didn’t tell Kevin, but looking at that photograph, I adopted his dream as my own. The thought of being one of “America’s best” appealed to that part of me that was always trying to prove that I was strong enough and good enough to make a difference.
Another great influence on my future path were a couple of my platoon sergeants who encouraged me to attend commando training courses run by special operations units in France and Germany. The courses were physically and psychologically demanding—designed to weed out the weak.
One of the toughest of the commando courses, Platoon Confidence Training, or PCT, was put together by Green Beret sergeants. They had a motto: “Pain is only weakness leaving the body.”
It was the sort of challenge that appealed to me. When other soldiers quit the courses, it made me more determined to finish, and finish first if I could. I took pride in being one of the few still standing at the end.
I got into every specialized course I could, including one with German special operations in which I had to compete against a thousand other guys in the battalion. I took extra classes offered by the Army and in 1987 was named the battalion’s Soldier of the Year. This honor was all I needed to whet my appetite for going as far as I could in special operations.
There was one other event that would change the course of my life. It started when I attended a recruiting and informational briefing for a “special missions’ unit,” which was in fact the Unit.
I HAD NEVER HEARD of the Unit and was wondering how it might be different than any other special operations forces. Then a map of the world flashed onto the screen. “This is our training area,” the lecturer, a man dressed in a cheap suit with longish hair who had been introduced simply as “Mr. Smith,” said.
Standing at the back of the auditorium, listening and looking at that map of the whole world, I found myself thinking: This must be the way the real pros do it. No borders. No restraints. Just doing what needed to be done, wherever it needed to be done. This was why I signed up for the Army.
I knew I couldn’t get into the Unit right away. I didn’t have the rank and, apparently, they only took the best from those who were already in a special operations unit, like the Green Berets or US Army Rangers. This was a dream that was a long way off.
By late 1988, with one more year left on my enlistment, I considered what to do about the future. I didn’t want to stay in if it meant being in the regular Army. I decided I’d try to get into Special Forces. I knew that the Green Berets were tasked with five missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counterterrorism. But the primary mission since Vietnam was to train local defense forces, or guerilla units, in occupied nations.
It all sounded exciting and meaningful, however, it was the Special Forces motto—De Oppresso Liber, to “liberate the oppressed”—that particularly appealed to me. Due in part to my experience of having been bullied while I was growing up, I believed I knew what it felt like to feel helpless against a more powerful enemy. Conversely, I also knew how good it felt when I’d stood up for myself and my friend.
The idea of teaching others how to defend themselves from tyrants and terrorists was a powerful draw. I hadn’t been to war and had no idea what it could do to a man. It still sounded like the great adventure they sold in movies, on TV, and in parades where the soldiers were the heroes.
After deciding I wanted to be a Green Beret, I immediately ran into a roadblock. One of the basic requirements for the Green Berets was a course that would not be offered for another six months. Rather than wait around, I decided to volunteer for jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, which was required for Special Forces anyway. If I made it, I’d be assigned to an airborne unit at Fort Bragg, the massive Army base in North Carolina, which also happened to be the home of special operations. That way I would be that much closer to my dream, and Debbie would be closer to home, which I hoped would make her happier.
Working to advance my Army career meant a lot of time training in the field, often several days a week without going home, as well as the specialized courses that could run for weeks. Meanwhile, Debbie didn’t have much to do except wait for me. Sometimes it didn’t feel like we even lived together, and there’d be an emotional distance we had to overcome when I did return.
As a result, we fought a lot. Over money. Over the amount of time I spent in the field. Over nothing, except the fact that we were growing apart. I hoped that being back in the States would help with that, but first I had to get through jump school, which meant more time away.
In August 1989, with jump school under my belt, I was accepted to the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) program at Fort Bragg. As opposed to jump school, and even other commando courses, the twenty-eight-day SFAS process was a nightmare. It began with the recruits having to pass a physical fitness test by meeting or exceeding minimum requirements.
I prided myself on always exceeding minimums. I showed up and crushed the test by pumping out as many situps and pushups as I could before running the two miles like I was in a race.
Passing the fitness test was only to establish that a recruit was in good enough shape to take on the grueling physical requirements of SFAS. As with the European commando schools, there were long marches carrying heavy loads and weapons, as well as land navigation tests to master. However, Special Forces emphasized teamwork—after all their main mission was getting locals to form their own units for defense—which included obstacle course runs as a team event that might include carrying long telephone poles, or finding ways to work together to push an old truck that was missing a wheel eight miles while still carrying all their own personal gear and weapons.
During the team events, candidates could not encourage, or pressure, other candidates. They had to struggle on their own, which meant the team struggled. It was okay, however, for leaders to step forward and, without speaking, take up the slack.
I was one such leader. When others were down, I prided myself on getting stronger. I helped any way I could, even if it meant putting an extra sandbag on top of my rucksack and carrying two or three more in my arms to take the load off of others on my team. Whatever it took.
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