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“Man is it hot here, how close to the equator are we…?” I thought, my attention span fluttering as I sat in this grossly hot classroom, sweating through my clothes pushing into the fourth hour of discussing American/Malaysian cooperation. I was in a planning conference; we were preparing for a joint/combined military exercise later that year near Melaka, Malaysia (roughly ‘93).
This was all part of a larger strategy known as Theater Security Cooperation that applies various DoD programs and activities in coordination with the Department of State, encouraging ($$$) and enabling ($$$) countries and organizations to partner with the US to achieve strategic objectives. This particular effort was part of Pacific Command’s (PACOM) strategy to keep South East Asia stabilized. Now known as Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM) to show we are serious about not just the Pacific but across the Indian Ocean as well. I spent most of my military career out there and I thought that was understood. The name makes me cringe. The change in letterheads and signage alone must have cost millions.
In the meeting we had high ranking members of the Malaysian Defense Force, officers of the Malaysian 22nd Commando Regiment, operations officers and logistics officers from Special Operations Command, Pacific (SOCPAC), US Embassy Malaysia Defense Attaché personnel, pilots from the USAF 353rd Special Operations Group, a Warrant Officer (me) and a great NCO from the US Army 1st Special Forces Group. This was my first planning conference and my company commander just the day prior had to return stateside as his wife had become ill. I was a team leader of a Special Forces team and now I was holding the bag for a company-level joint/combined exercise. And so far this morning we had really done nothing, zero, zip, nada. I had to put some structure to this whole thing and couldn’t seem to get there being dumbfounded by a grossly unproductive gathering. I needed to plan and coordinate billeting, training areas, periods of instruction, ground/air ops integration, basic contracting for water (...don’t drink the water…), transportation, laundry, and other various goods and services; basically lay out the nuts and bolts of the whole exercise. Thus far we had discussed how great we all are, the importance of this trip, American – Malaysian relations, integration of both ground and air ops and maximizing cooperation. This merry go round of verbosity had been relentless with each ranking member pontificating their slight variation of the above. Currently, a somewhat self-important Major from SOCPAC was piling on. As I started to drift I looked across the room spying one of the pilots from the 353rd rolling his eyes at a critical point in the Major’s rhetoric. Bingo!
To my relief shortly thereafter we broke for lunch. I saddled up to the pilot on the way out the door.
“You getting anything out of this?”
“Not a thing.”
“What’s your play in this?”
“I am the Ops O at the 353rd and the HH-53 pilot responsible for the air ops.”
“Great! I am from 1st Group trying to map out the training, where you staying?”
“The xxx hotel.”
“Me too! Meet for dinner tonight and we’ll sketch out a plan?”
Turned out I had a good read, he was the man. That night over dinner, a couple of beers, and a few hours we planned all the lifts and mapped out a rough timeline giving structure to the majority of the exercise. The MH-53 Pavelows would do some basic transportation to and from training areas, some free-fall parachuting jumps, and a large number of soft ducks my team would lead. Soft ducks were colloquial for jumping from the back of the helo into the water (cannonball!!). As the helo flying is flying low and slow you push a boat called a zodiac first followed by personnel. There also was a static line parachute jump to kick off the exercise utilizing one of the 353rd’s MC130s.
Now having a rough structure to our exercise we spent the next two days nominally looking at training areas, landing zones, airstrips, drops zones, medical facilities (yikes), a look at the ocean areas we’d be training in, talking with the Commandos and their capabilities, discussing Malaysian to American training consisting of jungle ops and tracking, and coordinating all the admin. While on the landing zone where the 53’s would land we were adjacent to a road replete with motorcycles, a third-world traveling staple. Many were wearing helmets and this is very unusual in most SE Asian countries; a luxury most could not afford particularly well outside of any major city. One of the commandos asked me if I knew why they were wearing helmets. I gave him “the look” and said, “of course I know, in case they crash.” He flatly stated no, it was to keep the cobras from striking them in the head launching from the trees as they drove by. “The look” changed to consternation. To this day I have no idea if he was messing with me or that was legit. Suffice it to say I kept looking up when in the jungles of Malaysia.
Interestingly there was tension when we mentioned soft ducks to the Commandos. Two years prior there had been a “hard duck.” This is where you parachute a zodiac from an airplane and then drop personnel out after it. The zodiac is lashed to a weighted wooden pallet in order to give it enough weight to deploy the cargo chute. Once in the water, you swim up to it and if you want to retrieve the pallet (and we usually do) you cut one side of the pallet away from the zodiac. For weight, we use sandbags inside the pallet. Cutting it this way allows the pallet to hinge away from the boat underwater allowing the sandbags to slide/fall out. Once they are out you cut the other side away and pop the pallet out from under the zodiac. Apparently that message was not clear that year. The commandos swam up to the zodiac and cut it all away at once. It sunk like Michael Moore at a Proud Boys rally. A piece of the tubular nylon caught one of the commandos and he was never seen again. Thus the understandable tension. We assured them soft ducks had just a piece of plywood underneath for stability and no weight and were not a threat in any way.
Three days later I was back at home station. I laid out the plans for our company and the four teams and command element involved. For the next several months planning, coordinating travel, gathering logistics, preparing periods of instruction, and preparing in earnest occurred and soon enough it was go-time. We boarded a USAF C-5 from McChord Air Force Base and off we went. I was in charge of the movement; herding the cats. “You got orders? Credit card? ID card?” Everything else was negotiable. Equipment had been packed days before on a pallet and checked and rechecked then moved to the airfield. A mere 38+ hours from leaving we were there. I arrived at the airport in Kuala Lumpur strung out from the trip and the time change. A friend of mine had been the advance party, responsible for final prep of the exercise, and assisted with getting the equipment off the plane and onto trucks headed for the camp. He had his own vehicle and looked at me “you want a burger?”
“Seriously. They have Burger King close and we can stop on the way to the camp.”
We arrived at BK lounge (as we liked to call it) and as I looked around in my travel stupor it appeared to be like any other BK. I wandered up to the counter and asked the server, a Muslim girl, for a Hamburger. She was seemingly rappelled backward by my request and said curtly in perfect English “sir, we do not serve hamburgers here, we serve beef burgers!” I wondered if I was dreaming or this was some kind of joke glancing over at my friend. There was no sign of either. “OK, beef burger it is…” I said smiling.
And that set the stage for the rest of this exercise.