By Rosalinda Romo
I was 34 years old when I joined the U.S. Army. I was separated from my Alcoholic/Abusive Vietnam Vet Husband. I had known this man since I was 15 years old. I knew him before he was called to Service for the USMC in Vietnam. As the years passed (15 years), his drinking and abuse became intolerable. It was so bad that I contemplated suicide, but instead I decided to join the Army, in search of a new and better life for me and my children.
It was January 15, 1988, when I signed the documents that officially enlisted me in the U.S. Army. I was sent to New Jersey in the dead of winter, a girl from South Texas, who didn’t even know what snow looked like.
I was the oldest person in Boot Camp. Everyone called me Grandma. It was tough for me to compete with 18 and 20 year old soldiers who could out-run and out-do me in most physical activities. I hung in there and never gave up until I was able to build myself up to the point of out-running the new recruits that came in. A Sergeant once came over and told me “Romo, you have a lot of Heart.” I had no clue what he was talking about and gave him a puzzled look back. Then I asked someone what he meant, and they told me he was saying that I don’t give up, even if it’s killing me. He was right, it was killing me to hang in there, but I was determine to stick it out and I made it! I was never a quitter even when the odds were against me.
Let me continue my story of my experience in “Panama”. My tour in Panama was the most unforgettable and yet for two years I blocked it out of my mind. After over a year of training in the States, I received orders for Panama which was to be my first Duty Station. During my tour in Panama, my perspective on events and life itself changed. Fear and Danger brought a new meaning to me. Power and control, especially the control of one’s mind, was an experience I had to face, and eventually would manage to get some control over how this affected me. I had an advantage over most of the young soldiers there, because I was much older than they were, and I had experienced life longer than they had. I can only imagine how much more venerable the younger soldiers were to the events that followed.
The last thing I wanted was to be in Panama, even before the Military sent me there. It was December 17th when I boarded the Plane to Panama. This would be the first Christmas I would be away from my kids during the Holidays. My father was Battling Cancer and his prognoses did not look good. I had tried several times to get a compassionate reassignment but was turned down.
I felt so bad when I got on that plane, leaving my kids behind during Christmas, and not knowing if I would see my Dad alive again. I cried all the way to Panama. This event changed the Christmas Season in my life forever. No longer would I be able to feel the cheerfulness of the Christmas Season. Instead I would feel the dread of the memories associated with this time of the year. Mark Twain made a statement in his story “Reading the River”; he said: “I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived”. This is so true, experiences in life can change forever how we now view things. I believe that it is all the experiences we live through in life that changes us forever from who we were in the past to who we are now. Sometimes these changes can be good, but in the case of trauma, it is the loss of innocence that can never be retrieved. It slips through your fingers like the Sand of a Beach. No matter how hard you try you will never be able to hold on to it. The “Death of Innocence”, I think this is what makes us sad.
The pleasure of Christmas, for me was gone forever. A time of festivities and light-hearted fun during the holidays would be replaced by gloomy memories of war and destruction. Instead of feeling close to God, I had lost sight of God, and even doubted His existence. Instead of wanting to be with my family, during the holiday season, I dreaded this time of year, and wanted to be alone. Christmas no longer gave me pleasure; it had been replaced by the fear and danger I had experienced in Panama.
As the plane landed in Panama, I looked out the window and saw a dense green jungle. When I got out of the plane, the heavy humid air hit me. There was a lot of shouting and confusion as I looked around to see if my escort was there waiting for me. People were being shuffled to different places. A military person suddenly approached a group of people and myself and told us to follow him. We were herded onto an awaiting bus that quickly drove us off into the city. I could sense there was tension and urgency in the air. I looked out of the bus window and saw armed Panamanians in the streets. They did not look friendly or welcoming, as they held their machine guns in a menacing position. The heavy tension in the air made me uneasy, being an outsider in a strange Country.
I was speechless and overwhelmed and did not know what to expect.
The people were scurrying along in the streets as if there was an urgency to get to where they were going. I had no clue what the situation was there. No one told me that there was a possibility of a war between the Panamanians and the U.S. I think that if someone had told me there was a possibility of a war, I could have better prepared myself mentally. I was innocent of the current situation in Panama. I could see in the distance the jungle-covered mountains. As we approached the military base I saw that the gates were barricaded and heavily guarded. We were taken to a reception center where we were processed and assigned our barracks. We were warned not to leave the Base under any circumstances. If we needed to go to the Base Convince Store or the Commissary, we had to request permission. I felt like we were being held prisoners and didn’t know why.
On December 19th we were issued live ammo and weapons. I was surprised when it came to my turn to get my issue; I was told there were no weapons for the rest of us. The Military had run out of supplies!
Those of us who were not issued weapons were told to go to the game room, where we remained there waiting for orders. We were later told that we would have to stay and sleep there until further notice. We were to be rotated out only for guard duty. On December 20th at dusk, all hell broke lose. It was still dark outside when the mortars Bombarded Ft. Clayton.
The game room only had windows at the top of the ceiling so you were not able to see what was going on outside. The only thing we could see was the sky light up like a display of exploding fireworks every time a mortar hit. These fireworks struck terror in my heart because I knew they were not for entertainment, but were meant to kill. The ground would shake like an earthquake and we sat in the dark without any means of self defence. We huddled against the wall praying the next mortar would not find us. The door to the game room suddenly opened and five of us were called out for guard duty. I was one of them. The darkness outside became a menacing presence. Every sound was amplified, every shadow had life. The night brought on new terror, not being able to see clearly if the enemy was hiding around a corner or hidden in the darkness. I took refuge behind a garbage dump and waited quietly for any sounds. My heart was pounding wildly as the night seemed to drag on forever. As the night stretched endlessly like a curtain of doom, which encompassed my whole world at that moment, I begin to wonder if I would live to see the light of day. I started to imagine if I were killed in this strange land, how my kids and family would react to the news. What would go through their minds if I returned in a black body bag? How would they feel knowing their mother was killed in a foreign land? Would they be able to understand what it was for? Would it change their lives forever? Would they hold in anger because of it, and possibly take a different path in life then they might otherwise take? Had I done the right thing in joining the Army in hope of giving my children a better life? What if now they were motherless? They would be worse off now than if they were living in an abusive home situation.
I thought about how sorry I was if I were not able to at least say goodbye to them. I regretted that I would not be able to tell them how much I loved them. I had done all of this for them, because I wanted them to have a happy life. I waited in fear for the moment that might end my life, and all I could think about was my children and wishing I could see them again. It was hard to focus on the present and keep my mind from wondering on thoughts of death. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, my relief from guard duty arrived. I was thankful for having survived my time out, with only a scare from a raccoon that was checking out the garbage that was close by. The second night the fight continued; my group was still confined to the game room. We sleep on the hard cement floor because there was no time to issue us gear. We asked the Sargent who locked us in the game room “Why we were being locked in?”
He said that he wanted to be sure no one left the area, because if a mortar destroyed the building, they did not want to be looking for bodies. A cold chill ran down my spine when I heard those words. My imagination started to run wild as I pictured the building coming down on us, and we had no were to run and take cover. We were trapped! It was as if we were left in a death trap waiting our destiny! The mortars kept getting closer and the ground shook harder. We could see the lights outside the window from the explosions. Since we were not allowed to have any lights in the room, we sat in total darkness huddled against the wall. It was unthinkable to even try to sleep. We could hear the fighting going on outside the wall, but we could not see what was happening.
One of the girls in my unit lost her nerve and started screaming, “We are all going to die!” She was frantic and started to run back and forth in the room waving her hands in the air as if fighting an invisible demon. Her fear made my heart come to my throat. Her screams raised the hair on my arms and I covered my ears because she was upsetting me. I felt a wild pang of fear go through my body and I sat huddled in the darkness shaking, thinking she might be right. Maybe it was true; that we all were going to die in that room. I imagined the enemy breaking down the door and shooting all of us on the spot.
Thoughts raced through my mind. I thought that if we were killed, what is it we were dying for? I didn’t even know why this war had started. We weren’t even able to defend ourselves. What a waste. At least if you have a cause, you gladly fight to defend it. I didn’t even know what the cause was for. Funny thing that later this Conflict was known as “Just Cause” (just cause we say so). That must have been the cause.
Someone finally calmed the girl down and she was taken out of the room and sent next door to the hospital. I never saw her again; her name was Anne and I still have her cap. I was told she was later evacuated to San Antonio, Texas.
The third night was just as terrifying. It was hard to sleep with all the commotion going on outside. I was afraid if I fell asleep I would not wake up to see the next day. We were still locked in the game room without weapons. If the base was over taken, we were basically sitting ducks, easy targets for the enemy. We all sat quietly huddled in the darkness listening to every sound. Suddenly there was screaming and shouting outside in the hallway. “The enemy is at the gates!”
The sound of those words struck terror in our hearts. Those words rang in my ears like an unforgettable echo. My mind raced wildly again of what that could mean to us who were locked in the room with no way of defending ourselves. I imagined again the image of the enemy kicking in the door to the room we were in. I visualized them coming in with machine guns and spraying everybody with bullets, because they had no way of knowing we were unarmed. I felt sick with helplessness of not being able to defend myself. I felt trapped! I felt I was just waiting to die! There was nothing that could be done if this really happened. I sat there and prayed, like I am sure everyone else in the room was doing. There was no need for sleep that night as we all sat in the darkness and waited in terror. It was an endless night. In the morning the aftermath of what had taken place that night was visible. We were escorted to another room where we were to be separated into groups and sent out with units.
As we walked down the hallway, we could see the wounded. The hospital was behind our building, so we were able to see the soldiers being unloaded from the trucks into the hospital. You couldn’t tell if they were our soldiers or the Panamanians. They were covered in blood and some were missing limbs. I thought how lucky I was not to be among them. We passed a huge airplane hanger where there were dead bodies placed in black body bags waiting to be taken elsewhere. The sweet sick smell filled the air. It is a smell hard to forget.
Most of the heavy fighting was over, but the war was not over. We were divided into groups, some of us were sent out with the infantry to do sweeps. Some of us went to help out in Interrogation Camps, some volunteered at the Hospital.
I was sent out with an Infantry Unit, to chase snipers and locate individuals on the “Black List”. I participated in roadblocks, sweeps, and enforcing the Military Curfew. Anyone not authorized to be out after the set Curfew was picked up and detained until the next morning, if they were not on our list. This went on for another month. There was destruction and devastation all around. The rebuilding of Panama had begun!
Copyright 2011 by Rosalinda Romo. Used with permission.