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Grenada 1983: How the U.S. Military Got its Mojo Back

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Grenada 1983: How the U.S. Military Got its Mojo Back

Keith Nightingale

Thirty-four years ago, this week (October 25th) 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 the name of the place or even locating it in the right hemisphere. The conflict was wrapped up in a matter of weeks and America moved on, the Spice Isle all but forgotten. But in U.S. military history the invasion of Grenada turned out to be a very big deal indeed because the post-mortem on the inter-service bickering and lack of communication led directly to reforms and a new kind of cooperative warfare bearing more than tropical fruit today. The road to Abbottabad and the takedown of Osama bin Laden arguably begins three-decades before 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 insure 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 party and then the invitations expanded.  Seven-thousand troops, in all. Looking back now, it was a dysfunctional family, gathered in duress, with each service 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 ATT 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 attic of our minds.

But those dysfunctional service family members still needed adult supervision going forward and that's where Congress, primarily Senator Sam Nunn, 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 what that was?  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 October 25th 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 thirty four years before.

Categories: Grenada invasion - Grenada

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.


I was on the runway at Pope when the last troops came back from Grenada worth being delayed on my flight out.
During Grenada, there were numerous problems that were still being worked out afterward in Desert Shield exercises, in Germany and across the board.
But the author is right, President Reagan brought the Mojo with him into office.
Morale after Vietnam was horrible it was a food stamp army. The DNC has attacked the all volunteer Army's pay as exorbitant, and claim it is only to keep the enlistments up, but President Carter had to cope with service families on welfare. Besides the technical deficiencies lack of funding for training; and physical and other standards lagged, drug testing had not been implemented, and a number of other issues were at the level of crisis.
That the US military turned around and emerged from post Vietnam syndrome under the Command of Stormin Norman is worth studying. It took a lot of great leaders many of them Vietnam Vets. Grenada was a giant first step on the right path and it did redress some of the bad feelings left by a public that generally supported the troops but were too often shouted down by war resistors or draft dodgers.
I don't believe like some that Vietnam was the cause of the state the military was left in aftermath but the division between anti-war activists is still alive and well. They simply aren't as whiny and loud because they are not drafted.
The author neatly addresses Grenada in this short essay with the spirit of jumping with the enthusiasm of the 505th, before H-Minus hour.

I would reply that Operations Urgent Fury and then Just Cause were minor sorties compared to the campaign in Vietnam. The true crucible was, in fact, Desert Storm. Not only did Desert Storm involve more personnel (peak) than Vietnam, but it was also the first time that the 2nd Offset/Precision-Strike/RMA was used in actual combat at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. Nevertheless, Urgent Fury was a necessary step on the path of conventional superiority.

I apologize for the obvious obtuseness. In my view, Grenada restored pride in our military with the US public-that put Vietnam and all its emotional encumbrances behind us. That was the point of the comment. It also permitted a great deal of pride amongst the troops that participated and gave them a measure of self-confidence in the path they had chosen. The gratitude of the Grenadian people, clearly shown by the media, was extraordinarily helpful to both the US public and the deployed forces.

J Harlan

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 9:49am

"Grenada allowed us collectively to put Vietnam in the attic of our minds."

So a bunch of people were killed as a morale boosting exercise for DOD? Panama must have really improved everyone's job satisfaction.

Thanks for your clarification. Having enjoyed your stories and comments in the past and found you to be a consummate pro. I in hindsight was a bit startled at the opening phraseology and over reacted.

I remain: Semper Gumby (Always Flexible)

No animus at all. Just the point that the Navy was suddenly, unexpectedly responsible for JSOC and XVIII Abn Corps. Tho it was initially a Lant mission, it grew into a 3 headed command monster very quickly. No Joint CEOI's or even clear orders for all parties. As always, it was sorted on the ground. I personally relieved Ray Smith and his BLT so they could proceed to Beirut. And yes-Trobaugh sat the division on its ass at Saline waiting for more battalions and he deserved the kick in the pants from Vessey.

My point was that we had non-interoperable forces because they had no history of Jointly working together tho all the seniors claimed it wa sno big issue. Congress, rightly understood that to be wrong. From there, all blessings flowed.........

Am I to infer a bit of sarcasm or animus by Nightingale with his characterization that, "Marines, freshly bloodied in the Beirut barracks bombing only days before, got a ride from the Navy which would be in charge?"

The fact was the 22nd MAU was already aboard ship in route to Lebanon to relieve the Marines in Beirut prior to the bombing but were redirected to invade Grenada.

I've a bit of sarcasm as well: it seems the Marines continuously pushed out their phase lines, something not lost on C/JCS Vesey, who tersely asked with words to the effect why a brigade of the 82nd Airborne was sitting on it's butt unlike the Marines.