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Night jumps and cracking ice: A true story of Green Berets in Alaska

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I was in the First Group of the Green Berets (Airborne) in Ft. Lewis, Washington. We were stationed there together with another battalion of our same group, just the two of us on an army base. The other battalion had a mission that took it to the Philippines, Thailand — Southeast Asian countries where the weather was warm and the atmosphere exotic.

My battalion… ours was a cold weather unit that reported to everywhere, Alaska. We lived the arduous cold weather life and nothing but the life. We lived on skis, pulled akio sleds, wore mukluks, admired the Aurora, and thumbed our noses at cheechakos. Akios were kind of like those dog sleds you see on TV where they have about eight badass Huskies pulling a sled with the driver standing on the back — riding!!

Green Berets Alaska
(Troops on the march in snowshoes pulling an akio sled [photo by Michael S Obrien])

We trudged through snowy bush woods cursing Robert Frost, typically falling down a couple of times per minutes. Our rucks sacks were huge and heavy, packed with what it took to keep us alive and fighting in arctic climes. We were on skis but we carried teardrop-shaped snowshoes with us, sticking up our of the tops of our rucks looking like huge white rabbit ears.

The struggle was constant to take the pain away, switching from skis to snowshoes and back to skis in the hope one would make for easier travel:

“Dig in, boys… next time we come out here we’ll have banana peels attached to the bottom of our boots and you’ll see the movement isn’t any harder.” my Team Sergeant (Team Daddy) leveled with us.

He was right, of course; We were just going to have to put in the time and take the pain.

Our was a mission to explosively destroy an RF tower way up north were the sun didn’t set that time of the year. That would in itself be rather novel for me, or so I fancied. I would get to see the sun… not set — woo-hooo! I could cry out with exorbitant enthusiasm to my brothers:

“YEE-HAWWW… lookee there, boys… the sun not a-settin’!! Its jus kinda hangin’ there!” I was just at the age when I really didn’t know what I wanted.

After a five-hour hump we rallied together to form a tactical perimeter to stand down for priorities of work: Security, weapons maintenance, five-point contingency plan, food, sleep. Personal hygiene? When one felt awful enough, a snow bath was an option for the most spited hardcore among us.

“Go ahead and warm up some grub; when we get in our hide site there won’t be any cooking… so bon appetite.”

(Bask in the radiant glory of USGI snowshoes [binding straps not shown])

We brought water with us but were guzzling it down pretty good with the work we were doing during movement. Yeah, melting snow for water is a survival method; we knew better than to use that technique operationally — it took a hell of a lot of fuel to melt enough snow to sustainment capacity. Probably a five-gallon bucket of snow melted will give you a decent drink. You’re better off using the snow to make ice cream.

I got selected to gather canteens and make a water resupply run.

“Dae Wii… why do I always get put on water runs — not complaining… just curious.”

“I’ll tell you why, damnit… because you’re the strongest, toughest, baddest-ass guy on the team, Geo.”

“Yeah… yeah I pretty much figured that was the reason — just wanted to check tho.”

We went to find water in a three-man element. Me and our Jr. Communication Sergeant dumped our rucksacks and filled them with the empty canteens. We took a third pipe-hitter to pull security while we filled canteens.

We elected to back track our route to a babbling brook we had crossed some 15 minutes prior to stopping for our stand down. We could no-brainer follow our tracks back to the brook giving us a chance to peer back a quarter hour to our rear to see who or what might be showing an interest in our route. It beat the dog poop out of just wandering around trying to find water.

The jump into our mission was something else. I had taken a medicine called a Blue Bomber that our Senior Medic gave to calm me down, as the flight was going to be a terrain-following flight called a Nap-of-the-Earth (NOE) flight, meaning the jump aircraft was to fly low to the ground following the contours of the ground. Alaska is mountainous therefore the aircraft climbed and fell vigorously.

The Blue Bomber was a thing I never took again. I understood that NOE made men very sick and we didn’t want vomit all over the place, but that pill put me down on my ass hard. I was out like a candle and snoring hard. When I was shaken awake for the jump I swear I felt stone-cold… STONED! I had no real grasp of what I was doing. I shuffled to the ramp with the boys and just fell off of it into the chilly night.

Green Berets Alaska
(Green Beret making night ramp-jump [photo Sgt. 1st Class Kassidy L. Snyder/Released])

That cold blast slapped my junkie ass awake, corralling my wits. It was dark but the snow below seemed bright and I could see the canopies of the parachutes below me. When my feet hit the snow I kept on going, sinking down just over my waist. The 15-foot tether connected to my rucksack that I lowered just before impact snaked along the snow and down into another hole in the snow where my ruck had sank from view.

Looking around me I could see most of my team bros silhouetted darkly against the bright upward-sloping snow-scape behind them; they looked like randomly augured posts across the field. It was amusing for as long as it took to begin my struggle to dig myself out and render myself into a posture for movement. It may have taken me 45 minutes to get that way.

Very slowly we all managed to rally ourselves in a movement formation and start our trek. Our route took us to our first worry — a river. It was supposed to be frozen. If it was not we would have to divert to a bridge many thousands of meters out of our way. We were banking on that river to be frozen solid enough for us to walk across.

“Whose the poor sap that get’s to test the ice thickness?” I wondered.

Our Senior Medic was our heaviest man, but our Commo Sergeant carried the heaviest load. But when it came right down to it, our Team Daddy took the risk. He stripped out of all his gear and stepped out onto the ice carefully with a safety line hooked to him. When he was out, he had another man come out to his location. Ok, the ice supported more than 400 pounds in that one spot — it was safe for a fully loaded man to tread.

“Let’s stay at least five meters away from each other on this crossing,” Team Daddy admonished, “we don’t need to be loading up this ice unnecessarily in any one spot.

Every man had a safety line with snap link attached, ready to throw out if he went through the ice. I stayed in the rear watching behind us. We crossed fast and quietly.

I paused some 15 meters from the far shore and swiveled around another time to inspect our six-o’clock. Immediately I heard one of the brothers call out to me in a loud hoarse whisper:

“Geo, Geo, Geo… get across — get across now, now, now!!”

I “skated” quickly to the shore where I was pulled up greedily by two brothers. I could only look at them with pop-eyes and wonder… WTF?

“Dude… the ice under your feet turned opaque white… it was cracking, man!”

I patted them on the arms vigorously and slammed a gulp of water down my gullet to settle the lump that was suddenly there.

“Well… I suppose that’s why we are specially selected, right? I mean if this job were easy monkeys could do it, right?”

“Yeah, Geo… or a big ugly ape — like you!”

(A serendipitous capture of me and the brothers crossing the frozen river in Alaska [courtesy of Emanuel Leutze])

That movement of about five hours brought us up to where we laid in for rest and food. My rest and food was humping about 100 pounds of babbling brook water back to the sloths on my team just in time for their dinner prep.

“Hey, you princesses let me know if this water tastes ok [tossing canteens to supine dudes in the snow], “If it is unkind to your pallets I would be ever so happy to go out and get you some other water.”

Good-natured ribbing from the strongest, toughest, badest-ass water-boy on the team. “Heh, heh… Geo, you ‘carry water’ for us and you love it — dismissed!”

By Almighty God and with honor, geo sends

green berets Alaska
(A serendipitous capture of me and the brothers crossing the frozen river in Alaska [courtesy of Emanuel Leutze])

This story was originally published 10/1/2020

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George Hand

Master Sergeant US Army (ret) from the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. In service, he maintained a high level of proficiency in 6 foreign languages. Post military, George worked as a subcontracter for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the nuclear test site north of Las Vegas Nevada for 16 years. Currently, George works as an Intelligence Analyst and street operative in the fight against human trafficking. A master cabinet-grade woodworker and master photographer, George is a man of diverse interests and broad talents.