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  • Brian M Winningham

December 20, 1989

Surrender Is not A Ranger Word

I am writing this to share some things I have held inside of myself and held against myself for more than thirty-two years. My fondest hope is that what I am doing and what I am writing will help someone else seek to change. I intend to share honestly, my perspective of what happened to me, how I reacted and what I felt.

I ended up in the Army because I was about to become homeless. I don’t think I’ve ever written or spoken that before, but it is the truth. I was living with a friend and his girlfriend in a small RV. She got pregnant and it was time for me to go. I got fired from my job around the same time. Joining the Army was the only thing I could think to do. So, I did. I got my GED because homeschool diplomas weren’t a thing at that time, and then I signed up and left a few weeks later in April 1988. My parents let me stay with them until I left but they weren’t real supportive, especially after I joined as an infantryman. They were sure I could have done better, picked a better job. They were wrong.

I went through Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1988. I had a contract for Airborne School and that was where I volunteered for the 75th Ranger Regiment. I had hoped to end up at 2/75th in Washington State to be closer to family living on the West Coast. Instead I ended up never leaving Fort Benning and spent my military career at 3/75th Ranger Battalion. I made it through the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP) and got to the unit in September of 1988. That is when I began to understand exactly what I had volunteered for. I spent the next 15 months working really hard to stay there. It was not easy.


We were alerted for Operation Just Cause on Sunday December 17, 1989, in the evening. I remember this because I was on a bank of pay phones just outside the PT field talking to my parents. There was always a line for these phones on Sundays, and that day wasn’t any different. I waited in line for a bit and finally got on and was having a really nice conversation with the parents, so much so that I didn’t notice the changes happening around me. When I got off the call after about 15 minutes, there was no one left in line and no one on the other phones. Very curious!

I entered back into a very changed environment than the one I had left about 45 minutes earlier. There was a lot of commotion as people were being recalled back to the Company area. We had formation after formation. The information about what exactly was happening was vague at first, but it sure looked like we were headed to war. We spent the next two and a half days planning and prepping. There was very little sleep, a lot of different things going on. The one thing that stands out from this time is writing my “Death” letter. All of us had to write a letter that would be sent to our families in the event of our death on this mission. I think I still have mine somewhere.

We were headed to Panama to restore Democracy and oust the dictator, Manuel Noriega. My company was part of a group parachuting into a place called Rio Hato, Panama on a military airfield, and where two of Noriega’s best units were housed in barracks adjacent to the airfield. Our job was to neutralize the threat of these two companies, which we did in less than 10 hours.

December 19th was surreal. I can still see almost as many images in my mind of this day as the next day when we were in combat. It was around 25 degrees and sleeting all that day in Columbus. It was miserable. They ended up passing out wool blankets and some extremely thin but extremely hot soup. No steak dinners for us like the paratroopers during WWII. If we got shot, they wanted it to be on an empty stomach.

This is me on December 22, 1989, Rio Hato Airfield, Republic of Panama. Notice the double ammo pouches. Our LCE alone weighed about 40 lbs. Our helmets were also noticeably heavier with all of the Infrared (IR) material on them. This allowed the Rangers to shine brighter than our foes when viewed under IR light from US attack aircraft. Between all of these equipment changes, the extremely low-level parachute jump and the extreme weight in our rucks, none of this had been previously practiced. There were quite a few injuries on the jump, mostly broken bones or joints.

We were given a list of munitions and told to go in this little shed and load up everything on the list. A lot went into our ruck sack. My ruck weighed somewhere around 120 pounds with the packing list I was given. We had also rigged our Load Carrying Equipment (LCE) in a new way especially for this mission. An LCE looks like a contractors belt and suspenders with pouches for knives, and ammunition, and grenades, and first aid kits, and snacks. Everyone had to double up on ammunition pouches, so now our LCE weighed about 40 pounds just by itself. To say we ended up overloaded on that trip is an understatement. For the most part, everybody did it though, even if it meant getting hurt or dying to get the job done.

LA Times Story - Ranger Force Bore Brunt of Panama Toll

For this mission, my job was to carry and operate a radio (RTO) so my Platoon Sergeant (PSG) could maintain communications with his boss, the Company Commander (CO). I followed my PSG around on December 19th before boarding our aircraft. We shook a lot of people’s hands that day and wished them luck. This was my first time going to combat but my PSG’s second time. The last person we shook hands with before boarding our aircraft was Staff Sergeant Larry Barnard (RIP) who my PSG worked with previously.

We finally got our parachutes and gear rigged and boarded our aircraft, a C-130 cargo plane. I was outboard on the left side of the plane, one person away from the cockpit. This means I would be the third to last person off the aircraft on my side. The person next to the cockpit was our Battalion XO, who had also parachuted into combat in Grenada with 2nd Ranger Battalion in 1984 as a Company Commander. He may never know it, but he helped me tremendously that night. All he did was talk to me a little but then I settled down and even was able to sleep for a bit.

When I woke up, my legs were completely numb from all of the weight of my ruck resting on them when we sat down. It took about 5 minutes or so for them to regain any feeling at all and then I didn’t really get full feeling again until I was on the ground, what seemed like lifetimes later. I remember bending over as we waited to jump, my legs still very numb. I kept shifting my ruck to rest first on one boot and then the other. Just before we began to jump, I felt and heard a huge bang to the aircraft right where my numb right foot was placed. We were taking anti-aircraft fire! I moved my ruck to see if my foot was hit and it wasn’t, I was still okay.

Suddenly people ahead of us were moving, but our platoon medic in front of me was having problems with his rucksack. He was a small guy and the rucksack weighed almost as much as him. He made it part of the way toward the door and then he tripped over his ruck and fell. Time seemed to stop/start right then. I reached down and grabbed him as the person in front of him jumped. I picked him up and threw him at the jump door like he didn’t weigh anything. He hit the edge of the door and fell down again. I picked him up again and this time threw him out, and then I jumped. This little delay meant we were kilometers away from the drop zone where most of the rest of our unit was fighting. It was 01:03 December 20, 1989.

The sky seemed really lit up while I was in the air. There were strings of tracers coming up off the ground and it looked like they were coming right at me, but they didn’t really get close. When they get really close you hear the zip and the snap as the round breaks the sound barrier near you. We jumped from less than 500 feet AGL (Above Ground Level). This is a very low parachute jump, too low for your reserve to even work, and with all the weight I was carrying, I wasn’t in the air long.

I landed extremely hard and then couldn’t move because I was taking direct fire less than a foot above me from a machine gun. I could see the tracers and could hear the zips and pops of the rounds passing over me. My parachute had hung up in a small tree behind where I landed, and it gave whoever was shooting a target to fire at. I was never able to figure out where they were so I could return fire, but they stopped firing at me what felt like hours later but was likely only a few seconds. I gathered my gear and started to put it on when I heard someone coming. I got my rifle up and ready, and then they crept into view.

“Bulldog.” I whispered the running password. “Shit!” was all I heard as the person fell to the ground. It was our platoon medic, who also happened to be the person who fell down on the aircraft. He was my responsibility because he was new, and I had been trained to be our back-up medic. I’m not sure how far out we were but it was between three and five kilometers from the airfield. We walked a long way to get back. We were far from the only folks who ended up out there too. We eventually ended up in a squad sized group of about six or eight for most of the movement back to our objective.

My medic wasn’t doing well. He shouldn’t have been there at all. I’m not sure how he made it through RIP. He was on the smaller size, but that isn’t why. I knew smaller guys who belonged and proved it every day. He didn’t belong and he didn’t stay very long after we got back, but he was there in combat and my responsibility.

It began with him crying. Then he stopped pretending to pull security when we stopped and would just flop over on his back. I got angrier and angrier with him. I had told him to shut up and ridiculed him to try and get him to wise up and do his job. It didn’t work. It finally came to a head when we were most of the way back to the Objective. He flopped over on a rest stop and started crying about how he was going to get rid of his aid bag because he couldn’t carry it anymore.

I ran over to him, and butt stroked him to the ground with my rifle. I leaned over and jerked his face up to mine and whispered “If you say one more word about getting rid of your aid bag, I will kill you and leave you here. If you flop over on your back one more time, I will shoot you in your face and leave you here. Hooah?!” I was dead serious and I was so angry! I did not want to take care of this guy. I was scared enough on my own.

WE got pardoned. We walked up on our gun jeeps just a few minutes later and were able to catch a ride back to the Company CP on the Objective. The medic became someone else’s responsibility for a little while as he got drafted to go to the Casualty Collection Point (CCP) and help the wounded and hurt. We ended up getting him back later that day.

One thing that happened while we were on our way back, was like something you would see in the movies. Our Chaplain who had jumped in without a weapon was standing on this rock structure that went over the entrance to the airfield. He was planting an American flag there. It still gives me chill bumps when I think of that of that image. There was shooting and explosions behind him, backlighting his act. If a camera had captured the exact moment, it would have been an iconic photo, but instead is just a memory for me and the others who were there in that moment.

This is the flag planted by our Chaplain on the rock vault over the entrance to the Rio Hato Airfield. This photo was taken later on during the day of December 20, 1989, after the airfield was secure. The soldiers in the picture are a Ranger Fire Team providing security at that location.

The moon had set while we made our way back to the Objective that night and it got really dark. I ran into another guy from my platoon who showed up at the Company CP at the same time I did. The pointed us toward our Mortar Platoon but I couldn’t see them. In fact, I couldn’t see anything at all. It was like looking down a pitch-black tunnel. We moved a little way away from the CP and sat down back-to-back. I felt blind and felt certain I didn’t want to get shot by our guys because I was wandering around unable to see. My buddy was unsure where our platoon was either, so he agreed, and we sat there back-to-back for some indeterminable time until the world turned from pitch black to grey, and I was able to see again. We moved over and linked up with the platoon not too far away, now that a lot of the shooting had died down and we could now see where they were.

Doc showed up back at the platoon sometime that day. I was still really angry at him, but I didn’t say anything to anyone. I had threatened to kill him after all. We started digging-in and improving our positions, slowly to start. The ground was extremely hard since it was an airfield. We were digging positions in a loose circle, when suddenly, there is this whistle and a loud bang right in the middle of all of us. I was looking right at it and saw the explosion. In a delayed reaction everyone fell to the ground but there were no more mortar rounds on top of us. I hear one of our guys yelling “They shot me in the ass!” He had taken shrapnel in his butt as he was bent over digging and happened to be facing away from the blast. He was the only casualty, and he didn’t need to be evacuated. I still talk to him, we both live in the same area of Texas. All of us were really lucky. No one was complaining any longer about digging in, after this mortar attack.

There are a few things that happened on that deployment I have avoided thinking and talking about because I was ashamed and angry:

My incidence of hysterical blindness when I got back to our CP. It took a long time to even understand what happened to me. At the time, I just felt confused and frustrated. I understand now that it had taken all I had to get myself and Doc back to a “safe” place. After I got to a “safe” place, I was afraid and not being able to see kept me from moving. I know it was dark, but this was more than that. The physical aspect of it was probably due to the adrenaline dump and intense fear. I literally couldn’t see my hand two inches in front of my face, even though I could still hear shooting all around us. All I could think is that I would end up getting shot by a Ranger and that thought took over my mind and kept me from moving forward at that time. I eventually did move forward and was “fine” for the rest of the deployment, but truthfully, I believe my fear colored the rest of my time with Bravo Company. I was an ashamed, angry, and bitter young man.

After the jump, I was so scared, I forgot to turn on my radio for several hours until the sun was rising. As mad as I got about Doc and him wanting to drop his aid bag, my mistake was just about as bad. I have only just now forgiven myself for it and released the shame I felt. It is why I held so much against Doc, to shift the focus of my mind from owning my own mistakes and dealing with them in a healthy way. This is why I acted the way I did in PLDC toward Doc. I was the still an ashamed, angry, and bitter young man.

As we made our way back to the airfield and the Objective after the jump, my group of about 6 folks ran into about a platoon or more of Panamanian soldiers getting into two-and-a-half ton trucks. We didn’t engage or even call it in to report it to my knowledge. Just like with the radio, shame kept me quiet about this. I don’t even know what six of us would have done against the large group, unless we called in attack aircraft. Maybe someone did call it in, and I didn’t know about it, but I didn’t ask or even question getting the heck out of there, which we all did, quickly.

I listened over the radio and watched from a distance as SSG Larry Barnard and PFC Roy Brown were shot, rocketed and ultimately killed later that morning of December 20th. The screams for “Cease Fire” and the calls for “Medic” were heartbreaking. My heart split in two when I heard those radio calls and something in me hardened then. My heart rate shoots up and I can still hear the radio calls when I think about it. Two of my really good friends were also shot and rocketed at the same time, but they lived. It was a friendly fire incident. SSG Barnard is my Airborne Ranger In The Sky. I wear his name on my wrist every day. I think about him almost every day and all that he missed. I also sometimes think about how easily it could have been me. How any of our dead could have been me. I’m not glad it was them, but I am glad it wasn’t me. That produced some hard feelings inside me. I started to justify it as being lucky. For a long time, my favorite saying was that “I would rather be lucky than good.” The problem with this theory is that you no longer get to take credit even when you are good. It all feels like blind luck. I think a lot of people come away from combat feeling the same way. This also wasn’t my first time walking away from something terrible.

With my therapists help and the tools she has shown me, I have found ways to release the pain. Writing helps. I meditate every day and I journal most days. I spend a lot of time thinking about what happened to me and facing the effects, because running away from it has just meant that I couldn’t ever let it go. The key is to look at things differently based upon the evidence instead of emotion.

I ended up looking after Doc the rest of the deployment. He managed to fall 15 feet out of a helicopter on the insertion for one of our final missions and land on his head, knocking himself out and giving himself a concussion. I had to nurse him for that whole mission. Doc was gone from the Rangers not long after we returned home, within the matter of a few months. He wasn’t cut out to be there and it was better that he left.

3/75 Ranger Battalion, Bravo Company, Weapons Platoon, Mortar Section – Rio Hato Airfield, Republic of Panama, December 22, 1989. These are all my brothers.

Our other platoon RTO and I got left off a Company mission on Christmas Eve. That sucked! Not knowing how everyone was and if they were fighting (turns out they weren’t) was tough. They captured a whole town and over 5,000 small arms that day. When the B Co 3/75 Rangers showed up the whole town and garrison surrendered on the spot. My Ranger Buddy and I got left on Howard Air Force Base with no supervision, so we made our way over to the Air Force chow hall and got a really good Christmas dinner the next day. This in no way made up for not being with our platoon but it was still a meal I won’t ever forget.

I’m playing solitaire while “guarding” our tent, mostly from the mischief and pranks of the other platoons around us. Howard Air Force Base, Republic of Panama, early January 1990. There were some serious shenanigans that happened too. Someone had an accidental discharge that went through their hand and into another guy’s butt. Some folks came up with some elaborate plans to smuggle "lost" gear back home. I’m sure some got away with it, but most didn’t. I know some got caught and were prosecuted.

A few days after this, we were set up in tents on the airfield at Howard AFB and that’s where we ran the rest of our missions from. We also played a lot of cards. I got really good at Spades and Solitaire. We flew back to Fort Benning on January 7th, 1990. Some Rangers had family show up to meet them. There wasn’t anyone for me. I was on my own, but I was gaining things that my family could never give me. Capacity, competency, confidence and purpose as well as a few coping habits that weren’t always as healthy or helpful as I could have chosen. When looked at overall, the outcome has been more and better than I could have ever dreamed. The Ranger Regiment has given me more than I could ever repay, even if the price I have paid has been high.

I have always been proud of my service and especially my combat service, but I have beat myself up ever since my time in combat because of how I treated our medic and because I was scared. I used my anger at him to fuel me and keep me going that night. It gave me something to think about outside myself, but I ended up blaming him that I had to take care of him. I was really mad at me for being afraid and projecting that anger onto him.

For a long time, I haven’t understood the things that I carried away from my experiences. I minimized my wounds because they couldn’t be seen and because I felt others did so much more than me. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t a super warrior. I felt ashamed because I felt I somehow did not fully live the Ranger Creed that day because I felt murder in my heart at Doc. On one hand I have felt very blessed that I wasn’t hurt or killed and on the other hand ashamed that I wasn’t hurt or killed while also embarrassed I didn’t do more.

I ran into Doc again when I went to Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC) in the early summer of 1991. The school was a requirement for anyone who was about to become a Sergeant. Doc, who was in the class with me, came up to me early in the course and tried to talk to me. He tried to thank me for saving his life in combat. I got right up in his face and spoke to him very softly and told him that if he “ever tried to speak to me again, I would kick his fucking ass.” I haven’t talked to him since that day and haven’t seen him since PLDC ended. I have now let the hate in my heart toward Doc go. I understand that the hate I felt was because of my shame and not his actions. I now understand I was just as scared as him, so I can now give him the grace he deserves, and I can give me the grace I deserve. Anger got me through that night and more, but I don’t need to be angry any longer. It is past time to let it go. Shame has kept my mouth shut and my story hidden for 32 years. Shame has made me minimize the things I went through, because I didn’t feel like I did enough to earn my wounds.

A big part of the shame associated with my service comes from the way I left the Army. It’s a big part of what makes the “Just Cause” anniversary (December 20th) so hard for me. When the Regiment can’t use you anymore, it doesn’t have any use for you. At least that was how it felt at the time. I was medically separated from the service because of my right knee. I hadn’t told the Army about my prior ACL injury or knee surgery when I joined or about the ¾” surgical staple still in my knee that ended up migrating into my knee joint and destroying most of my meniscus. They pretty much just said “Oh, well! You got one over on us!” I was an E-5 Sergeant in 3.5 years, I had my Ranger Tab, I was a Jump Master, I had a Combat Infantryman’s Badge (CIB) and all those things negated the lie I told when I joined the Army. Regiment remained unimpressed and considered me broken and thus worthless, but then I also got in trouble.

In September of 1991, I got arrested with a friend in Phenix City, Alabama by the local authorities and we both ended up in County jail over a long September weekend. The Army and Regiment didn’t do anything about it, other than remove me from my duty position but that was happening any way because I was hurt. I ended up with a negative NCOER (a formal written military evaluation for NCO's) and a block to re-enlistment, but that was it. I got out of the Army with an honorable medical discharge about a month and a half before my enlistment was originally scheduled to end. I gave an attorney some money and basically ran away from the civilian case against me.

As part of my medical discharge, I received a pretty considerable lump sum payment from the Army. After I got out, I took the money, I went to my old hometown and went into a room and stayed there for most of the next year. I hated myself for letting my brothers down, for not being smarter. I did find my way out of that room eventually; I think probably when the money ran out. I have found ways to keep going and even thrive at times since then. But even when things were going well, I was always extremely hard on myself and those closest to me because of my multiple traumas and Complex PTSD. I practiced a lot of self-defeating habits that only caused the harm to grow. Pushing through was all I knew to do.

Now I am here: Learning to do something new and digging up everything I buried then. It’s part of who I am, how I got here and worth acknowledging the good with the bad. Looking at the truth and acknowledging the evidence makes all the difference in the world when you have some habits you want to change, especially if those habits are negative patterns of thought about yourself.

It’s been exhausting fighting the whole world and myself too for the last thirty-two years. So, I Surrender, even though Surrender is not a Ranger word. I refuse to let fear and shame guide my actions for another moment. Surrender is the only way forward as I break the hold that the past has held over me, and as I forgive myself for making mistakes, even big ones. The only way I can truly repay the many blessings that being a Ranger has brought me, is to heal my soul, find peace and live an introspective, purpose-filled life. I owe it to my Ranger Brothers who gave everything, I owe it to my Ranger Brothers still with us and who I don’t see enough of, and most importantly, I owe it to myself. I deserve these things, just as everyone does, not because I earned them. Peace and purpose can’t be earned, only accepted. I deserve peace and purpose because I can be a better person with them and then in turn better serve myself and others. Rangers Lead the Way!

From these chains that oppress you, that keep you confined In the hostile arena that is your own mind My darling, the way to return to your light Is surrender resistance, to give up the fight

Brian M Winningham 02/14/2022

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