RIO HATO, Panama -- With Afghanistan dominating the headlines, it can be easy to forget that 20 years ago U.S. troops moved against a ruthless dictator and restored democracy in Panama. It was a short, but violent conflict that remains fresh in the memories of those who were there.
CBN News reporter Chuck Holton took part in that fight and recently returned there with other former U.S. Army Rangers.
Click here to read Holton's blog "Boots on the Ground: Operation Just Cause."
The Panama Invasion
The year was 1989. Tensions were high in the Central American country of Panama. Self-proclaimed president, Manuel Noriega, was threatening U.S. interests in the country - including the Panama Canal. After years of failed diplomacy, then-president George H.W. Bush took action to bring Noriega to justice and install a democratically-elected government in his place.
Almost 30,000 U.S. troops converged on the country the week before Christmas to pull off the largest military operation since the Vietnam war.
"On Dec. 20, 1989 at 1:00 a.m., over 700 Rangers parachuted from the sky onto a airfield 40 miles south of Panama City. I was one of them," Holton recalled. "Our objective was to take out the Panamanian Special Forces base located here at Rio Hato. In that, we succeeded. But for one of my Ranger buddies, it was the last parachute drop he would ever make."
"The light turned green in the C-130, and it was the first time I wasn't afraid to jump," former Army Ranger Mac McElrath told CBN News. "It was remarkably light out for being one o'clock in the morning. I jumped out. As I fell, I could see jumpers all over. I could see tracer rounds shooting up through the sky, and pretty quickly I realized I was walking on top of somebody else's parachute."
"No Big Deal"
McElrath knew he was in trouble, because the lower jumper's canopy created a vacuum that caused his chute to collapse.
"I thought no big deal," he said. "They teach you this in jump school. So I pulled my risers to the right and I ran off the parachute - it's like walking on a pillow."
However, this was no training jump. Anti-aircraft fire forced the planes to fly faster and lower than normal, and there wasn't enough time for McElrath's parachute to re-inflate. Carrying a full combat load, he hit the ground so hard that it knocked him unconscious. When he awoke, he knew something had gone terribly wrong.
"As I tried to roll over so that I could get my 9mm out, I could hear this crunching in my back and the pain just passed over me, and I passed out," he said.
A buddy soon found McElrath face-down in the grass and went for help. After several hours, he was evacuated on the first plane back to the States, where he soon was given the news that his spine had been severed. He would never walk again.
More than 300 other American servicemen were wounded, and 23 were killed in the short Panamanian conflict. Within three weeks, the operation was over. Noriega had surrendered. Eventually, the former dictator was convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. He was sentenced to 20 years in the federal penitentiary in Miami.
Since then, the United States has turned over control of the Panama Canal and moved all of its forces out of the country. Today Panama is a thriving financial center, tourist destination and enjoys the highest per-capita income in Central America.
As the 20th anniversary of the invasion approached, McElrath and I returned to Rio Hato, which had served as our drop zone on December 20, 1989. While it was clear the landscape had changed, we also saw how much we had changed.
"I'm just going to try and hold it together," McElrath said. "I mean, the last time I could walk was 500 feet above Rio Hato, so that's kind of weird, you know? I didn't get to do my job. I wanted to be the Hooah, I wanted to stop bad guys, and all I wanted to do growing up was to be a Ranger. And that envy is something I have to live with every day of my life."
A Life Changing Decision
McElrath also shared how he was able to make it through the disappointment after his injury.
"I wasn't a Christian when I joined the Rangers, but my roommate was having a revival at their church in Lakewood which was near Fort Lewis," he recalled. "So we go down to Panama for the invasion and he gives me a little New Testament, which I'm reading in the C-130 on the way to Noriega's place. I had a Bible and I was reading it."
After his injury, his Ranger roommate continued to talk to him about God.
"How do you not like Jesus Christ?" his roommate asked. "He's going around healing people."
"Then my roommate calls me in February and says, 'Are you ready, do you have enough information?'" McElrath recounted. "And I did and we prayed over the phone together. And it was by far the best thing I've done in my life."
That decision changed everything. It has even enabled McElrath to be grateful for the way his life has turned out.
"Ever since I broke my back my life has been amazing," he exclaimed. "I cannot tell you how awesome my wife is. And my kids, I could never ask for anything more magnificent. And my job and my career and my friends and my mentors. I don't know how it could have been any better."
"Our return to Panama 20 years later was in some ways, therapeutic," Holton said. "Healing old wounds and bringing closure, reaffirming the bond between a few old Rangers who went war together.
"I know the people in Panama don't ever think about Mac McElrath," McElrath said. "I know the people in America don't think about Panama and Mac McElrath. But I don't care. I wasn't doing it for America, I wasn't doing it for the Army. I wanted to be a Ranger and I wanted to stop bad guys. And I think we did a pretty good job here."