Keith Nightingale was present during the Grenada invasion as an officer of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2-505 Unit - the last unit to depart after order was restored on the Caribbean island 30 years ago. On the anniversary of the event, Nightingale recalled his experiences of participating in the conflict, the impact that it had on future U.S. military policy and a Thanksgiving dinner that he shared with locals on the beach villages of the exotic locale.
Thirty years ago this week – the week of Oct. 25 – the U.S. invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada, rescued some medical students, and rounded up a gang of thugs and criminals along with their Cuban communist backers.
Remember that? More than a few people back then had a hard time pronouncing Grenada or even locating it in the right hemisphere. The conflict was wrapped up in a matter of weeks and America moved on, leaving the Spice Isle all but forgotten. But in U.S. military history, the invasion of Grenada turned out to be a very big deal because of the post-mortem it put on inter-service bickering and the lack of communication during the invasion that led directly to reforms and a new kind of cooperative warfare. Today, it is clear that the Grenada conflict bore more than tropical fruit. In fact, the road to Abbottabad and the takedown of Osama bin Laden arguably began three decades ago in Grenada.
When President Reagan gave the order to take the island, the Defense Department was new to the game of small wars and did what it always did: sent everyone to the party but without an experienced organizer.
The Marines, freshly bloodied in the Beirut barracks bombing only days before, got a ride from the Navy which would be in charge. At the last minute, the 82nd Airborne was called in to ensure enough of the right people were present. Those new small teams of Special Ops forces – the Deltas and SEALS – would be part of the mix, too. In fact, they were originally the whole party before invitations were expanded. In all, 7,000 troops descended on the Caribbean island.
Looking back now, it was a dysfunctional family, gathered in duress, with each service branch trying to outdo the other. What we had here, too often, was a failure to communicate. Army helicopters bringing casualties were waved off Navy decks for a lack of Army helo pilot to Navy ship radio. And, the famous incident, the SEAL officer and his men pinned down rescuing Sir Paul Scoon forced to use his AT&T calling card to ring up the command in North Carolina to direct an air strike of the AC-130 gunships overhead due a positioning anomaly.
The U.S. invasion force restored order on the island in a matter of days and when the units later returned home to massive rallies and demonstrations of appreciation, for the first time really since the end of World War II, they knew they were appreciated. Grenada allowed us collectively to put Vietnam in the attics of our minds.
But those dysfunctional service family members still needed adult supervision going forward and that's where Congress, primarily Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, took the lead. Post-Grenada, the new policy would be called joint warfare and within that, the youngest children in the family – the heretofore suspect special operation forces – would get the respect and nourishment they needed under the Nunn-Cohen amendment.
In Grenada, my unit, the 2-505 of the 82d Airborne Division, was the last combat unit to leave. We were spread across the island, focused on re-building infrastructure and training local security forces. Thanksgiving, by then, was fast approaching. The islanders asked us what Thanksgiving is. Unbeknownst to the U.S. soldiers, boats and light planes were being dispatched to pick up bits and pieces of strange food stuffs. Cranberries, yams, canned or whole turkeys. Supplies stored in secret. Then, on the American Thanksgiving Day, the squads and platoons of U.S. soldiers were invited in to the Grenadian villages scattered up and down the island and served a memorable feast. The speech was invariably the same:
"We don't know much about this thing you call Thanksgiving and we don't understand the food. But we do know that it is important to you and want you to know that our Thanksgiving is the day you came. Thank you." And that's how Grenadians came to celebrate Oct. 25 as their own official national Thanksgiving Day.
Who knew that a small conflict on a rocky island, little noted nor long remembered, would be the time and place when the U.S. military got its mojo back? Bin Laden's last day on earth was made possible because some soldiers, sailors and Marines got sun tans 30 years before.