Interview with SFC David Tetrault (2003)
C: I’m here with Sergeant First Class David Tetrault from the John Carroll Army ROTC Wolf Pack Battalion and he is gong to talk to me about his adventures in Panama and Honduras. Is there any thing you would like to say about yourself?
T: Just a slight bit of background. I grew up in Dallas, Texas. Pretty much joined the military when I was 21 years old and I have been in the Army for seventeen years. I have been deployed to four different potential “hot zones” one of which was declared an actual combat zone. Beside the fact of being Ranger and Airborne qualified I’ve seen pretty much the ins and outs of almost every type of shall we say, military deployment that we have to date.
C: Excellent, Excellent. My first question is, how would you define war in your own words?
T: War in my own words would be a conflict that we have chosen to partake in whether it’s on our soil or others. Most of it would be a conflict where we would have some type of interest, whether it be land, oil, imports or exports, and political or otherwise.
C: My next question I have for you is what were the names of the operations that you went through and would you consider them a war situation?
T: The one that was actually declared a war was “Operation Just Cause” where we went down because Mr. Manuel Noriega had overthrown his elections that year and chose to make himself the president of Panama. In my opinion it was an actual war because what went on was an exchange, ya know a conflict between two actual armies. We did have an interest in the land and in the political side and therefore with the interest that we were trying to protect ya know being our own everything from the canal to the people, because we do have people in each of these countries as well, I would have classified that as a war. Some of the others we would…they don’t actually all get, how do ya say “broadcast names” but other conflicts that we choose to partake in would be mostly, I’d say, mostly classified as national interests that we either choose to keep secret for reasons of National Security, such as ya know things that we do down in Cambodia and Honduras and other places like, which mostly come back to the U.S. people as news reporting articles such as ya know, drug exposure things like that, which we try to protect our borders from.
C: How have your ideas of war changed over the years? And if so, how have they in regards to the Iraqi conflicts?
T: War changes with time and terrain mostly. A lot of the wars that we choose to step into in the past were in third world countries and countries that don’t have a real high economy. They don’t have a lot of money and their people are not very well trained and there is a lot of conflict because of the way the people’s life style and what a lot of the dictators and the people that are running those countries choose to impose on their own people. And when you take a world leader, such as ourselves and put us in the middle of one of these countries it’s very overwhelming. A lot of the conflicts that we have been in, not including Korea and Vietnam and things like that are usually over and done with quickly. We go in, we execute the mission that our commander and chief tells us to do and what ends up happening is that the actual war time frame may only be one-two-three weeks-a month and that right there is considered a very short war. The fighting itself may only go for ten to twenty days that first month. The rest after that follows what we call the rebuilding phase; so what we are doing now, as opposed to what we used to do is we go in with the intent of rebuilding right off the bat. We take into consideration more, the collateral damage we impose. We take into consideration more the people and we take into consideration the time it is going to take us to actually execute this mission. Whereas, in the past we went in with the initial drive to subdue the forces, win the war, and then begin the rebuilding process. So, the war is much more complicated now because we have a lot of other bureaucrats and a lot of other political issues that will be in play form day one as opposed to when we would bring it in a later date.
C: Did you ever struggle with ethical questions-whether the war was just, whether decisions you made were right or wrong?
T: I think all soldiers struggle with the ethical issues whether they believe the war; especially, if say, some of the American soldiers are from that country. We do have people right now who are from Iraq and Iran who are naturalized citizens and they are serving in our forces. But, the bottom line when you sign a military contract to serve in the Army is that you will choose to defend the country no matter what the enemy; no matter if it is from your country or another or whether you believe in shooting women and children and things like that. Those are issues that everybody deals with, and until you are actually confronted with, say…an 18 year-old, what I would still consider a very young person presenting you with a rifle you really won’t know how you are going to handle that issue. But, the issue does go through everybody’s heads and everybody does handle it differently. Some people would not have any reservation, and they would be out there to save themselves and their country and do what they were told whereas, others it would actually run through their head and they would think about it before they were willing to execute an actual live shot against somebody else. That is something that everyone deals with but how they deal with a lot of times depends on when they come across that situation.
C: In Panama and Honduras were there any situations when civilians had gotten shot or were killed?
T: There were. The majority of the shooting and the fighting when we first entered Panama was within the first week. After that it died down considerably and what was left were basically a few insurgents here and there that would come and aggress you. As far as running into a lot of all out fire fights after that first few days of the actual invasion, the fire fights were pretty much subdued. So, the units that were there from day one were involved in a majority of those. The unit I flew in with, we arrived approximately six days after, and when we arrived, the majority of the conflict had been subdued. So we were there to basically seek out the insurgents and Mr. Noriega, who was still on the run. And once we had come across a few people like that we had to handle it according to our chain of command and how they actually addressed it. Some of them chose to stay and seek out the snipers or the little pockets of people that chose to aggress us. Some of us chose to take another route and go around because our mission initially might have had a different desired outcome. Say we were going to secure another piece of land somewhere and our mission was not to chase down people shooting but our mission was to chase down a piece of land or a political leader’s home and go and search it. So, when we did get aggressed by some people it was up to our chain of command as to whether we would actually take them on or not.
C: Since you did go over seas, what do you remember about the other places you have been, the people, and their culture?
T: AHHHH….There’s an interesting one. Like I said, the majority of the countries that we choose to aggress or we choose to take part in as far as wars or conflicts are third world countries. So when we show up we see a lot of what we would call very poor cities and towns and villages, a lot of poverty. These people are not fed, they don’t have clean water. Most of them will live in homes that just barley have four walls and a roof and we show up in big trucks with weapons and all kinds of clothes and all the amenities that we need to survive and actually conduct ourselves in someone else’s land and these people cannot even survive in their own land. So, what you run across is another one of those issues that we just talked about, kind of an ethical issue; why are we here aggressing people that can’t even feed themselves? But, it gives you a whole new aspect on life when you see a family of ten running down the road trying to get food from you because you have a HUMVEE so to speak, full of MREs or chow that we could actually live off of for the next month or two; and there is more food in the back of this one truck than say this family as seen in the past month. Same with, the way these people actually act and conduct themselves. They don’t act poor in their eyes. They are chasing you for food and clothes and whatever you are willing to give them, but, to them that is human nature, that is their life, that is how they survive. Whereas, if we were to go to downtown Cleveland and walk into Sacks Fifth Avenue and try and chase somebody down for food or clothes, we would probably get thrown in jail. But that is how they live and that is how they survive and you get a whole new aspect on life when you get to see how these other people go from age three to age thirty and you wonder how they actually survived that long.
C: Did you ever experience combat?
T: Yes, I’ve actually been in one declared combat zone and been in three actual zones where gun shots were exchanged. Panama would be the actual declared combat zone and prior to that I had one trip to Panama once prior to him overthrowing the elections and one trip to Honduras which was listed as a show of force; our unit went down and there were shot fired there as well.
C: Can you tell me some of the items that the soldiers carried with them in their rucksacks and about weaponry?
T: Our soldiers or theirs?
C: The U.S. soldiers.
T: Our soldiers for the most part, the experienced ones carry what they know they need to survive. But, each unit will provide a packing list of what they will carry. As you know, most of the countries that I talk about are in Central America where it is very warm. So what you have are soldiers that will carry socks, so that they can change socks frequently, a lot of medications, some t-shirts and not a whole lot of cold weather gear obviously. We carried uniforms, a couple of pairs of boots because they will get torn up quickly. But not a real heavy load. The weapons that we usually carry are, in the traditional units the M-16. Some specialized units will carry different versions of the M-16; 9mm and of course other weapons such as grenades, rocket launchers things like that: that we will typically have in a unit. A few squad automatic weapons such as a SAW or an M-60 depending on the size of the unit are carried. And of course mortars, which just about every unit has depending on the size, 60mm or 81mm. And of course in the uniform themselves they will also carry as far as protection flak vests, kevlars. A lot of them now carry elbow pads and knee pads because of a lot of the MOUT training. We don’t crawl around in the dirt as much anymore we walk through cities and buildings. And when you have to get down on the ground in the middle of concrete slabs, parking lots, or apartment buildings, it’s rough on the joints. So, we have a lot of the protective gear that we now carry.
C: Can you explain what MOUT means?
T: The definition of MOUT is mobile urbanized training. What we do is, anyone that is trained in a MOUT environment or a mobile urbanized environment is trained to go into a city or a building and is learned to seek out insurgents or snipers and things like that and actually bring them out of buildings or take them out. It is a much harder fighting environment because you know buildings are not built very sturdy as far as…anybody that’s ever been in an apartment building knows that the walls are paper thin. An M-16 round can actually go through two or three rooms in an apartment building before actually hitting somebody. In the same respect you could see somebody in a building and not actually have to chase them out if you could put a round through the wall, you might be able to take them out without even having to enter the building. Other things would be room clearings and things like that where you go in with teams of people to clear one room say full of people. You have to know who to shoot, when to shoot, and when not to shoot. It is a very complicated maneuver going into a MOUT environment.
C: Did you have non-combat encounters with the enemy? Like say with prisoners?
T: Oh yes. Every time you go into a conflict you are going to come across people who are not willing to fight for their country. You can choose to take them in a number of ways most of it is going to be on your commander or your ROE, rules of engagement. Non-combatives such as medical people or professional people, if they don’t choose to fight and they don’t choose to come after you; depending on your rules of engagement you would either secure them, interrogate them and maybe send them on their way or if it was a country where you were not sure if they were combatives or not but they were not carrying any weapons, you may choose to detain them for a period of time. But, you will always come across non-combatants in a combat zone. There is always going to be somebody that is not willing to fight who is not there. The majority will be women and children and professional people usually; doctors, nurses and things like that.
C: I am sure that you have been asked the million dollar question and I am sure you know what that is (head nod). So, I would like to ask you, have you ever killed anyone before? If you do not want to answer that is perfectly okay.
T: No, that’s fine. Actually the question is going to seem kind of vague even by saying it; I don’t know. I have had to fire. And it was in the direction of combatives. And to be a little more specific, it was a sniper inside a building. The sniper fire did not return, but in the same respect our mission was not to seek them out so, we did not actually go into the building to see if we had taken out that sniper.
C: Thank you.
C: Were you wounded in any way (physically, emotionally, psychically, spiritually) as a result of your war experience?
T: Physically and spiritually I was not. However, mentally, I think everybody has a little piece of them that might be thinking back if they have ever squeezed the trigger or if they have done something against somebody. I think they will always think back to wonder if that is going to affect them later. I think about it but I don’t dwell on it to the point to where it affects where I want to go now. It was something that I was told to do. It was something that I did and according to the rules of engagement and what we were there for it was executed with in the guidelines. So, I don’t think it has affected me as much as some. But, I have seen some that are really, really beat up over just showing up to another country and seeing what they have to do.
C: What has it been like returning to normal life after your war experience?
T: Returning to normal life is awesome! The part about this and we touched on it a bit earlier was that once you see how other people live and how their countries are run and things like that: when you come back to the states and you walk in and you see your car in the parking lot! And you drive down the street and you see Burger King. And you go down and you take your girlfriend to Chipotle and you get yourself a nice burrito with a nice big old glass of lemonade you are happy! This is home. This is where you want to be. Christmas rolls around you get to go home and hang with the folks ya know, this is, this is how you return to normal life. Interaction, you get back to the people that you know; the people that you want to hang out with and you actually have a good time. But, for some people the adjustment is hard. Depending on the length of the deployment, some people have been out six months, eight months to a year and they come back and they don’t really know how to act. They will see their girlfriend for the first time in twelve months, and the girlfriend has changed, she is totally different. And the first thing you want to do is, exactly what you were doing when you left. Ya know, take her out to a movie or go to dinner, whatever. And she is going to go, “wait a minute, I need time to adjust, you just got back.” And the military has addressed this. They have put programs in place to get you re-adjusted to normal life. They do a lot of counseling. They have a lot of activities that they will bring families into. They will have welcome home parties, where they will get you back into a social environment, and they will watch you to see how you interact with people again. If they see you acting a little weird or goofy, they have counselors and religious folk that will help get you back to a normal state. These days it is not as bad because of the environment and the way we train our soldiers. But, yes, there is a lot of adjustment that needs to be done. For the most part, most people cannot handle it. As for me, every time I returned home; AWESOME! I had a good time.
C: Have any of your fellow comrades, your friends that you might have gone to war with, have they had any problems re-adjusting?
T: A lot of them did. Most of it was not necessarily; do to what we were doing. Most if it is do to time. A lot of families cannot handle time. Wives, girlfriends, and things like that; before the Army really got into helping out their soldiers on re-deployments a lot of families were broken up when they returned. This happens because, the wife couldn’t handle a year away. So, she would go home and so on. But, for the most part, I’ve seen very few actually totally fall apart when they returned. The majority of them, they hold their own and they get back to a steady normal life style so to speak.
C: Did your war experience resemble portrayals of war on TV, in film or in literature? Movies like “Platoon” and “Blackhawk Down” are examples. Can you comment on that please?
T: Yes. Very few conflicts that I went through at the time simulated what you see in the movies. Some of it now, because we are actually able to take TV crews and reporters into a combat zone are reflecting a more accurate view of what war is like. “Blackhawk” Down is a good example. That is a much more accurate view of what we do. Movies like “Platoon” or “Full Metal Jacket” when you saw them going in, I am sure they were pretty close based on the stories that they portrayed. But on actually what we see and do, I think a lot of it was Hollywood. Now, “Blackhawk Down” had actual footage and reporters and the same with Iraq. As you know, we are able to take reporters from TV crews and are actually video taping a lot the things that we are doing. So, you see a much more accurate picture now. But as far as what I did and what the movie showed; No, it wasn’t as close to what you are seeing today.
C: Did you think about your war experience often?
T: Actually every time I turn on the TV. Being that I am still active duty for another three years, I have a lot of friends that are still active duty. A lot of friends of mine are over seas in Iraq. Unless I get e-mails, I have no idea of what their status is or what they are doing. So, as long as I have an invested interest in what we are doing being friends of mine over there and things like that, it’s always going to be on my mind. It’s always going to be something that I am going to think about and wonder; “Should I be there with them. Should they be there? Are we doing the right thing? When are they coming back?” There are a lot of questions that I think about. As a matter of fact, I got an e-mail today, asking if I wanted to go. I have a friend of mine that just took over another unit and he is looking for a First Sergeant.
C: WOW! What sorts of different memories come back to you?
T: A lot of the memories that I think about are the good ones, because they stick with you more. The bad ones, if you hang on to them, you are going to dwell on a lot of ill feelings. But if you think about the good things, when we went to Panama and Honduras we didn’t loose a single soul. Everybody that went came back. The ones I went to Panama with for the most part, whether they stayed in or not, I still correspond with. We throw back stories and stuff, ya know shoot stuff across the internet. So, if you think about the good side of it, ya know, what we actually did when we were down there, did we think we did right? For the most part most of us were single and we met a lot of very nice ladies when we were down there as well. Of course, we could not obviously stay but, we did have a job to do and we did it well, we were well trained. And, for the most part, yea, if you hang onto the good memories and the good stuff you did, the bad stuff will slowly subside.
C: My last question is, when you get together with the people you had your experience with what sorts of stories do you share? What things do you not talk about? Why?
T: Most of the stuff now…when we get together, we really don’t talk about stuff form the past. A lot of us are looking toward the future. Today we share stories about our families, what we have done since then and stuff that we go over in times that we weren’t in the same unit. A lot of things that we don’t talk about, again, is the bad stuff. Nobody wants to hear it. It is just not part of a conversation that you want to bring up, unless you want your BBQ to be a short one. But what we do is talk about things that we might like to do in the future. Maybe later on things after we retire, what our families are going to do, where we are going to live, what we are doing now as far as jobs. We talk about a lot of stuff. Another fine example of that, I guy I came in with seventeen years ago, I’ll be going to his wedding this weekend. So, this is stuff for the future, this is what we want to see and this is what we will dwell on. And it is good. It keeps everybody tight. Not many people can remember who they went to high school with. For some of yall, that might be seventeen years ago.
C: Thank you Sergeant T. Thank you very much for your time and thanks for sharing everything with me.
Interviewing SFC Tetrault helped me grasp the real picture of war. Yes, the interview did reveal experiences of war that relayed experiences in the war literature that we have read in class. Throughout the entire interview all I could think of was the Vietnam literature, especially The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
The interview resembles the Vietnam War motif more than any of the other war motifs in this class because the majority of the places that SFC Tetrault went to were in hot-jungle climates. In Tim O’Brien’s book he spoke about his unit and how they went on patrols often and of especially the items that they carried. O’Brien’s soldiers carried similar weapons to that of SFC Tetrault’s soldiers. In the book, it is noted that the soldiers carried the M-16, grenades, and rocket launchers just like the soldiers in SFC Tetrault’s soldiers in his unit. While I was conducting the interview I had in mind that I was going to ask the question of “what things did you carry” because I wanted to relate it to O’Brien’s book. I did not get the chance to ask SFC Tetrault about how the patrols were conducted in the jungles of Panama and Honduras mainly because I forgot, but I can be sure that they were very similar to those of the patrolling techniques use in the Vietnam War. If you wonder why I say this, because we still use the same patrolling manuals that were used during the late 60s and early 70s.
Another example of why my interview with SFC Tetrault reflects the Vietnam motif is because when he and his unit were over there, they had to deal with a lot of civilians and non-combatives. During the Vietnam War the soldiers had to deal with many civilians and had to be careful not to harm them. SFC Tetrault had to deal with the same problems when he was in Panama and Honduras. The problems that many of the soldiers of both eras faced were with, which civilians are hostile and which are not? SO, therefore you much treat each person the same. This was usually by means of interrogation and detainment until you knew that these people were safe and the area was safe. What factors into a lot of this is the question of ethics. Many times in Vietnam civilians were killed because they were thought to be hostile. Similarly, when I asked SFC Tetrault if civilians were killed, he responded with yes. Therefore, both the Vietnam War and SFC Tetrault’s war experiences were similar to the motifs we discussed in class.
Yes, I feel that the interview revealed different areas of war literature that we have discussed in class. I would like to break this down into two sections, the first being the examples of MOUT training and the second being the adjustment to normal life when returning home.
In my interview with SFC Tetrault he spoke of how soldiers do not spent as much time crawling around in the dirt. Today, he explained that most of the fighting is done in an MOUT environment. The definition of MOUT is mobile urbanized training. This training involves fighting techniques that are used in cities and in buildings. Much of the fighting today in Iraq is in the urban environment. In my interview SFC Tetrault said that the soldiers today are equipped with elbow pads and knee pads to protect their joints when they crawl around on slabs of concrete and on rough gravel parking lots and even in buildings. Also, this type of warfare is very different form anything we read in class. MOUT also involves the tactical procedure called ‘room clearings.’ This technique is used to basically clear out rooms of the enemy and search for prisoners. In room clearings the soldiers are taught who to shoot, who not to shoot and finally when to shoot. Clearly, this tactical procedure is of noting we read about in this class.
My second point I would like to make, is in reference to when the soldiers return from their deployment. Many of the stories and poems we read about in class have dealt with specifically the war and the actual fighting component of the war and brief historical facts. However, none of the literary pieces have dealt with readjustments to normal life after a deployment or a war experience. In the interview SFC Tetrault spoke of how it has been hard for many soldiers to make the adjustment back to normal. He says that, “they don’t know how to act…they want things to be like they were.” Not being able to read about how soldiers react when they get back is a key component to war literature and I feel that many of pieces did not address this.
First off, I would like to say that even as an interviewer we cannot say that we are secondary witnesses to a war experience. To experience war is to have been there. However, I feel honored to have listened to a soldier who has seen war and was grateful enough to have shared his war experience with me. But to say that I experienced is wrong, even if it was in a secondary sense, I was just a listener. There are two stories that grasped my attention. The story about the sniper in the building and the stories about the poor starving people, these are what I would like to address.
What prompted the story about the sniper was the million dollar question; if you killed before. I was reluctant to ask the question originally, but, I felt that it would add greater dimension to my interview. He did not hesitate when I asked the question and he gave a definitive answer. I found it very interesting to hear from him and his actual attempt to kill. The way that he gave his answer was profounding despite the slight crackle in his voice because I knew it was bringing back memories. Later after my interview in went into more depth at what really happened. I found this very interesting because in a way it was like a movie script. I took heart to this because in a few more years I will be in the active Army and may one day have to take out a sniper.
The constant theme of being grateful for what you have is displayed throughout this interview. SFC Tetrault explained how the people of Panama and Honduras were extremely poor and could hardly survive. He wanted to make it know that he felt bad for these people but could not really do anything for the people because they had a mission to complete and did not have time to feed everyone that was starving. When he made references to coming back to the states and being grateful he got a little choked up and his voice changed. He did feel sorry for the people but like was said, there is only so much you can do for so many people. You cannot solve all their problems but, it does let you reflect on what we really have in the states and take for granted.