Thursday, November 7, 2013

Desert One: Evolving from Tragedy

By Nate Bender

The year was 1979.  I was 36 years old, and had completed all the requirements in being awarded a Ph.D., including dissertation and intensive internship.  Two years into functioning as an Army Psychologist, stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, my spirit became deflated.  I started questioning my chosen career, whether I was in the right niche and whether I was in the right organizational structure.  I refer to those dark days of my development as a form of post-traumatic stress, as the rigors of academic study were behind me and the realities of being a psychologist had a chance to be tested.  Something was not right.  My body, mind and spirit, collectively, revealed an imbalance; my energy levels were diminished, I was becoming short tempered and life outside the military seemed as unappealing as life within its structure.  While not a fully formed conclusion at that time, I needed a more compatible, a more non-traditional forum in which to apply my talents and abilities.

Unknown to me, answers to my evolving needs were in the making, as decision makers in the Pentagon and the Surgeon General’s Office were considering who, among all Army Psychologists, would best fit a new, highly sensitive, secretive, position at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  In short order, I received orders to report to this mysterious Unit, to be evaluated for possible assignment.  The organization was revealed to be The Delta Force, a newly formed, top secret counter-terrorism assault force with a global mission to disengage hostage taking terrorism incidents, which were then growing in number.  

Delta personnel embraced my role as being vital to the overall operations of the Unit, warming my spirit.  This was quite a contrast to my previous assignment where I felt relegated to a subservient role under Psychiatry.  My new role held intrigue, presenting an expanded application of my talents, while also stretching my skills into new and different venues.  Initially, four roles were defined:  evaluation of Unit applicants in the assessment and selection phase; hostage negotiation, including management of adversarial relationships; sounding board for leadership team on matters of training and development; and, an undefined interface with outside organizations such as the FBI, CIA, State Department, DOE and city police departments.  I felt like I had entered the world from which mystery novels are formed!

Shortly after my official assignment to The Delta Force, while on an elaborate training exercise, word was received that the American Embassy in Tehran had been seized with a goodly number of Americans having been taken hostage.  Directives from the Pentagon had Delta to begin preparation for an immediate rescue mission.  Off to a secret site we went, and plans were formulated to enact a rescue attempt, only to learn of a need for additional preparation, involving other units of the military complex.  

My role during this preparation phase was vague, offering ample time to know the Unit members/operators, live in their quarters, and recreate with them in the local gym.  Ultimately, I was sent to spend time with the rescue-mission command element in the Pentagon.  Interestingly, I was a bearded, casually dressed Captain, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, sitting in on a number of planning meetings, recognized more by my role as Doc Bender than as an Army Captain!

Following my Pentagon placement role, I was sent to another site to evaluate helicopter pilots from the Marines and Navy.  I was housed with them and flew night training missions with them.  Again, my role was vague, with no formal protocol to produce an evaluation report.  Later, I was sent to assess US military Iranians, for inclusion in a rescue mission.  Again, the parameters were not fully defined, leaving me to report my ‘best clinical judgments.’

When President Carter gave the go for Delta to be the lead rescue force, code named Eagle Claw, we were sent to a remote staging area in Egypt.  From this obscure place, the complex, highly vulnerable mission was launched.  I was assigned to be part of the medical team of doctors and nurses, to be employed on a hospital-configured Air Force C-141 cargo plane, with the mission to fly into Tehran, once the rescue was enacted, and retrieve the hostages, wounded and deceased.  

Positioned in Bahrain, awaiting instructions, we learned of the mission’s desert fiasco (Desert One), in which a HH-53 Marine helicopter, loaded with a fuel bladder and Delta operators, careered into an Air Force C-130 cargo plane, also loaded with a fuel bladder and Delta personnel. This occurred after the mission had been aborted and extraction was being managed. Instead of flying into Tehran, our hospital plane flew to the island of Masirah, where we retrieved the Delta operators and wounded who were burned in the desert debacle.  To this day, I am able to re-experience the distinct odor of burned flesh when recalling the scenario.  Sadly, the eight flight crew members who were killed, were left in the desert, as the urgency and confusion surrounding the drama, made it impossible to retrieve their bodies.

After all the debriefings, including a visit by President Carter, Secretary Brown and Nat’l Security Advisor Brzezinski, and processing of the mission, it became clear to me that I was no longer enamored by serving as an Army psychologist in a specialized, non-traditional role.  An unexpected job offer to join an international Corporate Psychology Consulting firm became the final link to leaving a military career, one in which I was a mere nine years short of being vested for retirement benefits.

What did I learn from my two-year stint with Delta?  I learned that military might does not ensure victory or mission accomplishment.  I learned that resourcing military operations is costly, monetarily and with human casualties, and not necessarily effective in fostering positive international relationships.  I learned that terrorism is real and not easily contained or eradicated via military might, holding a demand for alternative intervention(s).  I learned that job security took second place to personal and professional well being.  I learned WAR IS COSTLY AND PEACE IS PRICELESS. And, I learned my experiences enriched the next phase of my life, including restarting my marital life in forming a union with my wife, Sandra.

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