Antigua, West Indies, Caribbean
Me and a teammate.
The flight to Antigua was a long one. The Seals that sat near us were really talkative, and they apparently heard of the jump through the grapevine as well. I was amazed. I wonder who else would be at this jumpfest when we arrived? The Air Force Pararescue? Combat Control? The Delta Force? This was going to be very elite indeed!
My answers came when the doors of the aircraft opened up once again, this time in Antigua. A very warm breeze blew into the aircraft as the engines shut down. We all gathered our things and walked into the night sky at the International Airport. The stars were out brightly that night, and the whole place looked heavenly. Surrounding us were several other C-130s as well; they apparently came from Fort Bragg, and other parts of the United States. A few platoons of people that hadn’t been on our craft were milling about around it, and a few of them greeted Herbie as if he were an old friend.
I looked at the patches on the people’s uniforms surrounding me, and they were all members of JSOC. For the uninitiated, JSOC is the combined arm of all the US’s elite forces. Consider it the umbrella that all special operations forces work under. These were the guys that got the call in the middle of the night that takes them on missions across the globe that no one would hear about. People that actors like Chuck Norris, Stallone and Van Damme love to portray, and who get paid millions to portray the actions of people who get paid virtually nil for their service. It was elements of these guys who were at the ill-fated Eagle One Desert during the failed hostage rescue attempt in Iran. It was these dudes that did the dirty work in Panama. It was these guys that got the green light to go into Afghanistan after September 11 to overthrow the Taliban regime. It’s these guys who continue to serve this very day and minute, doing things that we will only read about second-hand in newspapers years from now.
It was very awe-inspiring to be among them!
After an hour we were sitting in a Navy office for our in-country briefing. The Naval officer there was going to tell us about the places to go and see during our off hours in Antigua. I was really excited, this trip being my first outside the United States.
The young Navy Public Affairs Officer quieted us all down as he began his briefing. “Welcome to Antigua/Barbuda,” he said in a monotone voice, sounding as if he has said this dozens of times before. “For those of you who don’t know, Antigua is the largest island of the Leeward Chain, with Barbuda, not too far from here, being the smaller.
“This place was discovered by the West by Horatio Nelson, who found the island to be a perfect naval base for England. That was in 1784. Nowadays this area is one of the hotspot destinations of a lot of Westerners on vacation, as you will see when you explore the island. You will also realize that the US Navy has a base here as well, and normally use this place for water training with the Seals and EOD who have accompanied you.” The Seals and EOD let out their infamous shouts of “Hooyah!” as they were recognized. “There is also an intelligence-gathering capability here, as you will see when you get to your barracks. You will see two huge satellite dishes not far from them; that’s where I normally work when I’m not being the ad hoc PR guy on the base.” To tease him everyone let out an “awwwwww,” causing the officer to laugh.
The Naval captain went on to point out some of the places to see on our several-day stay on the island, such as Shirley Heights. A decayed fortress on top of a mountain, Shirley Heights was used by the British to fight off pirates trying to use the natural harbor below, called English Harbor. On Sundays reggae bands gave concerts up there. There was one going on soon, which was Valentine’s Day. The day of my Cherry Jump.
The city of Freetown wasn’t very far, and we were told there wasn’t a whole lot going on there, and said it was a bit dodgy to hang out at during the night. Though we could check it out if we wanted, or head to the center of the island to All Saints.
We were warned about the roads though. Cows, donkeys and other animals roamed around the dirt pathways in Antigua all the time. It was a sign not to speed, for there had apparently been several fatalities from speeding people who crashed into the animals on Antigua’s unlit roads. There were potholes as well, that would destroy any jeep’s suspension if you flew over them at high speed.
St. John, the main city, was located on the other side of the island, and it was a place to go eat, buy souvenirs, and see the American tourists coming off of their massive luxury liners from Florida.
The captain also warned us about the local transportation of Antigua, which was notoriously slow. It ran on that “Caribbean Time” that all the islands had, and you couldn’t count on it if you had to get anywhere in a hurry. Hence renting a car from the airport, or from one of the rental agencies that dotted the island.
He warned us about the island of Barbuda. “Barbuda is very expensive to get to,” he said. “And if you watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous you will realize that the people living there don’t want to see you. In other words, the island is very exclusive. Lots of Hollywood movie stars have their villas on the island, and want their privacy. So I wouldn’t go there if I were you. There isn’t much to do there anyway.”
He then told us about the beaches. They were everywhere. Our barracks was only going to be right outside one of the best beaches on the island, too. All we had to do was walk out the doors, grab a towel, and stretch out. Perfect. And we could watch all the parachuting from the shore!
After that it was to the barracks, where we all mingled with one another to chat and hang out. I was very excited to be there, amongst all these legendary units, and was even more excited at losing my Airborne virginity in Antigua on a “Hollywood” (meaning, “clean, no equipment”) water jump, on Valentine’s Day, with German jumpwings waiting for me at the end of it all. My only fear was that someone would spill the beans and word would get around that I was a cherry! I hope it didn’t!