Thomas Calabrese— It was the biggest combat jump since the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s first wartime drop in 35 years. 969 ‘Sky Soldiers’ Rangers and support personnel prepared for a five-hour flight from their base at Camp Ederle in Vicenza, Italy on March 26, 2003. It was going to be a nighttime jump and that would only add to the difficulty of the mission. There was a series of storms passing through the area, but the military weather forecasters predicted that skies would be clear by the time of the combat jump.
The men struggled up the ramps of the seventeen C-17’s transport aircraft, each one carrying over 100 pounds of gear and ammunition. In two rows they walked to the front of the plane and sat next to the man walking before him. The long green benches sagged beneath their weight.
Pfc. Jimmy Allen had only been with the 173rd for six months, and even though many of the men in his unit were veterans who had made more jumps than he had, nobody had done so in combat, so in a way they were all in unchartered territory. The mood was serious and the men were focused as they double-checked their equipment. Since every paratrooper knew what to expect when they jumped, they focused on what they were supposed to do once they were on the ground. Pfc Allen was assigned to a long-range surveillance team and his job was to scout the area for enemy activity.
Captain Walter Mayville stood up and addressed the men in his plane, “America has asked us to make the world a better place by jumping into the unknown for the benefits of others. Paratroopers, our cause is just and victory is certain. I am proud to join you tonight on this historic assault.”
The planes were cruising at 30,000 feet to stay above the storm clouds, which were lingering over the area. When they got near the designated drop zone, the pilots had no choice, but to descend through the air turbulence in a ‘crazy dive’ going from six miles up to 600 hundred feet in a matter of minutes. When they leveled off, the red light came on and everyone stood up in unison as the rear ramp lowered. Pfc Allen’s heart beat faster as he connected his static line to the overhead cable, his stomach was doing somersaults and he thought he might throw up, so he rested his head on the parachute of the guy in front of him to get his bearings. When the red light turned green the jumpmaster looked at his watch then signaled each man to jump by a tap on his shoulder. The men moved as quickly as possible, but by the time Jimmy got to the front of the line, the 60 seconds had expired, putting the plane outside the drop zone and the ramp began to close, “That’s it,” The Jumpmaster said.
At the particular moment, the plane turned violently when it was hit by a wind shear and Jimmy was slammed against the side of the plane. He bounced on the ramp then out the back and was unconscious by the time his chute deployed. Things quickly went from bad to worse as lightning lit up the night as the young paratrooper hung limply in his harness.
Suddenly there was a bright flash and a deafening crack and the nylon canopy caught fire. Once it burned through, Jimmy fell the last 100 feet to the ground.
If the storm had not drenched the area and created a soft mud pit that Jimmy was fortunate enough to land in, he would have been crushed on impact. He was 300 yards outside the drop zone and surrounded by brush and buried two feet deep into the ground. This made it impossible for anyone to see him even from a few feet away, let alone from the distance where the rest of the brigade had landed. They had no reason to look for him anyway, since the paratroopers on the ground were notified that not everyone made the jump. Jimmy’s team just assumed that he was still on the plane, so they proceeded with their assignment.
It was several hours later when he felt the sunlight on his face and when he opened his eyes, Jimmy could see the clear blue skies above him. He tried to move but couldn’t so he took a deep breath, gathered his senses and slowly remembered what happened in the plane. He assessed his situation then spent 30 minutes struggling to slip his arms out of his pack’s shoulder straps. When he did, he had more upper body mobility to turn his head and get a better view at his predicament. His pack and legs were buried in mud so Jimmy took the K-Bar knife from his ammo belt and began digging his lower body out from the quickly drying muck. Unable to free his pack, Jimmy cut it open and took out absolute essentials; a pair of socks, t-shirst, c-rations and extra water. He placed everything in a waterproof bag and began crawling slowly out of the pit, inch by inch so as not to sink again. His Colt M-16A4 rifle was nowhere to be found and he assumed that it was buried somewhere. Jimmy wiped the mud off the face of his watch and saw that it was 0900 hours. The drop was at 0300 hours, which meant he had been on the ground and separated from his unit for over five and one half hours. It took him 45 minutes of slow and careful crawling to reach an area where he could stand up.
Jimmy did a 360, scanning the area as he went, but saw nothing. He had a .45 caliber handgun and four magazines and his knife for weapons, but they were all encrusted with mud. He headed east which was the way that his team was supposed to go on their patrol and though he was in hostile territory and alone, he was alive and that was the most important thing. Jimmy’s first priority was to find his brigade or another American unit. When he came across a stream he sat down next to it to clean the dried mud off his boots, hands, clothes and weapons. It took a while, but it lightened his load by several pounds and made Jimmy feel a hell of a lot better.
He heard the sounds of vehicles in the distance and took cover behind some rocks and saw a long convoy of Iraqi trucks and tanks coming down the highway. There was the roar of jets and in less than a minute the convoy was turned to burning hunks of metal as the bombs and missiles obliterated it in less than a minute. Jimmy was mesmerized by the immense power of the Air Force ordnance and wasn’t paying attention to anything else. A patrol of Iraqi soldiers had managed to come up behind him and when they opened fire, Jimmy was forced to run for his life right toward the burning convoy.
There were numerous secondary explosions that posed a significant danger, but that was the risk he was willing to take to have the smoke obscure him from his pursuers. Jimmy found an AK-47 lying next to a dead Iraqi soldier and took several bandoliers of ammunition off him.
He found cover and concealment in a ravine on the other side of the highway and when the Iraqi soldiers came out of the smoke, Jimmy was waiting and he shot four of them, the remaining eight retreated. He stayed parallel to the highway while continuing eastward and the two times he saw vehicles, they were filled with Iraqi soldiers. “Damnit, where the hell are the American units!” Jimmy cursed out loud.
The sound of gunfire could be heard around the next curve so Jimmy approached with extreme caution and once he got a visual of the situation, he saw that a group of Iraqi soldiers had ambushed two vehicles. From his location, Jimmy couldn’t really tell what military service the men were in, but that didn’t really matter right now. The enemy of his enemy was his friend. He had to help, so he crawled quietly until he was behind several Iraqi soldiers and shot them. When he came face to face with another Iraqi and they were only two feet apart, Jimmy pulled out his K-Bar knife and stabbed him in the chest before he could fire his rifle and picked up additional ammunition. He continued toward another group of enemy soldiers, found cover and started shooting. When the Iraqis realized that someone was behind them, it diverted their attention just long enough for the men inside the vehicles to escape the trap. After several minutes of intense fighting, the enemy soldiers were lying dead.
A group of men approached Jimmy. From their attire and weapons, he guessed that they were civilian security contractors, “Thanks for your help,” First Man said.
“No problem,” Jimmy responded, “I was passing by.”
“What are you doing out here alone?” Second Man asked.
“I got separated from my unit during a parachute jump,” Jimmy answered.
“You were with the 173rd,” First Man stated.
“How did you know?” Jimmy asked.
“We were hired to help get everything ready for the invasion, been in country a couple weeks now,” Second Man explained, “We knew of your insertion.”
“Do you know where the 173rd is right now?” Jimmy asked.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea,” First Man said.
“Is there any chance of getting a ride with you?” Jimmy asked.
“We owe you that much?” Second Man said, “Get in.”
The two SUV’s continued down the road when the First Man received a call on his satellite phone, “We’ll be right there,” then turned to Jimmy, “We have to make a detour.”
The two SUV’s detoured off the highway and across the desert and when they reached a fortified compound, a gun battle was already in progress. The men in the SUVs’, including Jimmy quickly joined in and they eventually overcame the resistance and entered through the gate. They killed several Iraqi guards inside the fortified compound then kicked in the front door. Jimmy didn’t know what else to do except fight alongside these men. Once inside, they went from room to room until they found a barricaded door. It took several men to push it open and once inside they found that one of the walls was constructed of cinderblock. It seemed out of place with the other plaster walls, so one of the men kicked it with the heel of his boot and a block fell out.
Everybody started kicking and pushing the wall until it fell, exposing a separate room filled with dozens of steel boxes. One of the men broke the lock on one and opened it. It was filled with hundred dollar bills in twenty plastic wrapped bundles of $100,000. By the time the men finished searching the entire grounds, including the dog kennels, storage buildings and the trunk of a dead tree, the count had risen to 370 boxes, each filled with $2,000,000.
Two large trucks arrived and the men began loading the cash. When they were finished, the Second Man called his comrades over, “We can’t let that soldier go, he knows too much.”
“He saved our butts back there,” First Man reminded the group.
“This is business, if you feel bad, you can always say a few words over his unmarked grave,” Second Man smirked.
“Funny guy, how bout’ if you go through me to get to him…are you up for that?”
Second Man quickly dismissed that option, “Take it easy…take it easy. I was just putting it out there for discussion.”
“This is my operation…I call the shots. If anybody else has got a problem with that, now is your time to speak up so that we can come to a mutual agreement,” First Man said. The group of men looked at each other, but nobody spoke up. “This matter is closed, finish loading the trucks.”
First Man walked over to where Jimmy was sitting on a short stone wall, “Why is it that I’ve got a feeling that was about me?”
“It’s been resolved,” First Man responded.
“I won’t go down without a fight,” Jimmy vowed.
“I said it was resolved…don’t push it,” First Man warned.
“So what’s the plan now?” Jimmy asked.
“That’s on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know.”
“What about the part that pertains to me…do I get to know that?” Jimmy asked.
“I’m going to give you a ride back to your unit,” First Man said.
“Then…is that what you’re asking? Do I look like a fortune teller? You go back to what you do and I’ll do the same.”
“What about what I saw here?” Jimmy asked, “Are you trusting me not to say anything?
“Trust…that is short supply in my business,” First Man responded with a voice that was detached and clinical, “I won’t ask for promises and you won’t have to lie.”
When the trucks were completely filled with the metal boxes, they went in one direction and Jimmy and First Man drove the opposite way. They found the 173rd Brigade about 30 miles way and Jimmy got out of the SUV, “Thanks for the ride.”
“What’s your name?” First Man asked.
“Jimmy Allen and yours?”
“It’s for the best if you don’t know,” First Man smiled, “Where are you from?”
“Jimmy Allen, Vista, California,” First Man made a mental note then added, “Good luck Sky Soldier,” then drove off.
Jimmy already knew by the time that he got out of the vehicle that he wasn’t going to tell anybody about the money or the men. He finished his tour in Iraq with his unit then went back to the states and he completed his enlistment. When he returned to Southern California, Jimmy obtained a trainee position under a veterans’ job program with the Vista Irrigation District.
He also started attending classes in the evening at Mira Costa Junior College on the G.I. Bill. Jimmy was currently renting a one bedroom apartment on Melrose Avenue and started 10% of his salary in a Navy Federal savings account each payday. There was nothing unique or special about his life except for Danielle, a woman that he had been seeing occasionally. While he cared deeply for her, he had little hope for their future. Jimmy was working full time and going to school and Danielle was holding down two jobs including weekend shifts and raising two children as a single parent. Over the past month, they had only seen each other once. All he could do was his best and hope for the best.
After work on Wednesday, Jimmy went straight home to get something to eat and take a shower before going to class. A note was posted on his door; I’m holding two packages for you, Fred.
Fred was a retired Marine, divorced and the resident manager. Jimmy knocked on the doorjam since the door was open. Fred peered around the corner from the kitchen, “Hey Jimmy.”
“How are you doing? You left a note about packages for me?”
“They’re in the hallway, UPS brought them a couple hours ago, kind of heavy, want me to get you a handtruck?” Fred asked.
Jimmy walked over to the large boxes and bent down to pick one up, “No thanks, I’ll just make two trips.”
After setting both boxes next to the couch in his apartment, Jimmy went into the kitchen, poured himself a tall glass of ice tea and took a knife out of the drawer. He returned and sat down next to the boxes and saw that the return address was a P.O. Box in San Diego. It didn’t look familiar and he knew that he didn’t order anything. The boxes were tightly wrapped and firmly secured. Jimmy cut the nylon string and the cardboard paper and opened the top flaps.
The box was filled with 20 bundles of $100 bills. Jimmy slowly counted the money from one bundle three times over, just to be sure and it amounted to $200,000. An identical amount of money was also packed into the second package and the total came to 8 million dollars! As he leaned back against the couch and tried to compose himself, Jimmy noticed a small envelope taped to the flap of the box. He opened it and read the contents. There were only four words on the small sheet of paper, but they brought back a flood of memories and explained everything; Good Luck, Sky Soldier.