“Once and for all I push away the clouds from my eyes.
I can see misery and pain all about me.
Suddenly I am where I began,
still too weak to help the underprivileged of our world.
My responsibility and what am I doing?
While Bernal and the rest of the team saw to the offloading of our equipment and supplies, I went to a telephone to call the charge-of-quarters (CQ) so he could dispatch a vehicle to transport us back to the unit. It was a little after 0330 hours. Sanborn was the unit armorer, but didn’t have access to the arms room since he accompanied us to Guyana. I asked the CQ who had the keys to the arms room. He told me the company’s executive officer, First Lieutenant Elias Canasta had them. He was not my favorite officer in the unit.
“Well, please call the XO and let him know we are back so he can come in and sign the weapons back into the arms room when we arrive,” I directed the CQ.
Canasta and I had not hit it off from the very beginning, when he became the platoon leader of my ambulance platoon at Fort Gulick on the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone. He was a very strict, inflexible, authoritarian leader with no sense of humor. He was conservative, a staunch and stodgy Roman Catholic, originally from Columbia, with a habit of making rash decision that usually were, in my estimation, wrong.
About half hour after I first talked with the CQ, a follow-up phone call assured me the vehicle would arrive at the terminal momentarily. Before terminating the conversation, I asked if Lieutenant Canasta arrived yet at the company.
The CQ paused a few seconds and said, “He said he’d be in at 0800 hours and y’all are to wait until he gets here.”
“He what?!?” I asked incredulously. The CQ repeated what the lieutenant had told him, adding this time that he didn’t appreciate being awakened at that hour of the morning.
Major Burgos and Captain Skinner had left in the brigade surgeon’s vehicle and I had no one to back me up. I told the CQ to give me the lieutenant’s home phone number. He reluctantly complied.
I immediately called the XO. He answered the phone with, “What do you want now?”
“Good morning lieutenant, I hope I didn’t disturb your beauty sleep,” I said snidely.
“Who is this,” inquired the arrogant XO.
“This is Specialist Six Brailey, just back from Jonestown, Guyana, with five men who need to turn in their weapons and go home and take a bath,” I replied lightly.
“I expect you’ll be at the company before we arrive from Howard. We are leaving in about ten minutes.”
“I told the CQ I’d be there at 0800 hours and that’s when I will be there,” Canasta stated.
“Listen you sorry piece of shit, I’ve always thought you were fucked up asshole, and you just proved it,” I shouted into the telephone. “As far as I am concerned you are an arrogant little snot who wouldn’t make a pimple on a decent NCO’s ass. We are tired, smelly and hung over and we don’t need any shit from an asshole the likes of you!”
“What did you say?” screamed Canasta into the phone.
“You heard me you insipid weasel. You’d better hope we never go to war because you’ll be dodging bullets from both sides you fuck!” I taunted. “You are such a sorry excuse for an officer I didn’t expect you’d drag your sorry ass into the company at this hour of the morning. We’ve all known how much you suck. The troops will be talking about your sorry ass forever!” I concluded forcefully.
“I’ll see your ass in the orderly room, Specialist Brailey!” Canasta spit into the telephone.
I quietly hung up the phone’s receiver and smiled at my men who had been listening intently to my end of the conversation. “The XO says he’ll see me in the orderly room fellas,” I announced as they continued to stare at me with an astonished look on their faces.
Our truck pulled up in front of the company dayroom. I told the driver to secure the vehicle in the motor pool and go to bed. We would unload the equipment tomorrow.
The team picked up their personal gear and stacked it against the building. We already decided since it smelled so bad, no one would dare steal it. We then walked enmass into the dayroom.
As I expected, Lieutenant Canasta was standing there awaiting our arrival. His face was beet red. He was having some difficulty containing his rage. The keys to the arms room were in his left hand. I walked directly up to this young officer who I had successfully goaded in to coming to the company at 0430 hours instead of 0800. I rendered a proper salute with my right hand and at the same time, relieved him of the arms room keys with my left.
Tossing the keys to Sanborn, I kept my eyes on Canasta, “Thank you for coming in to the company at this ungodly hour lieutenant,” I said, “We certainly appreciate it.”
I felt Canasta seething as I said to Sanborn, “Mike, go open the arms room and receive the weapons from the men.” He and the rest of the team started for the stairs.
Finally the outraged Lieutenant spoke, “Would you care to say to my face what you told me on the phone this morning, Specialist Brailey?” asked a barely under control Canasta.
“No sir, I don’t think so. My words served their purpose so I find no need to repeat them,” I stated calmly to the fuming lieutenant.
“What, aren’t you brave enough to say them to me in person? Don’t you have balls enough to say them?” screamed the young officer as he tried to goad me into disrespecting him in front of witnesses.
In a calm manner, I started to respond, “Like I said, sir, there is no need for me to…”
“YOU ARE NOTHING!” yelled Canasta. “YOU ARE NOTHING!” he screamed again, apparently so angry his brain was unable to conjure up more painful epithets.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it,” I said in a building voice and paused. The CQ and his runner quickly caught the reason for my hesitation and immediately left the room, closing the big metal fire door behind them.
“If that’s the way you feel about it,” I repeated in a calm voice, “You are a fucking asshole.”
Canasta looked around the room for witnesses and when he didn’t see any, he spun around and strode toward the orderly room in defeat. As soon as he was gone, the CQ and his runner returned.
“I heard that. What’s gotten into you Jeff?” he asked.
“Oh,” I replied, “The only way I could get him to come into the company at 0430 hours was to rile him up on the phone by calling him a bunch of names. I beat him and he’s pissed.”
“Man, you’d better get in there and apologize,” said the timid CQ.
“You are probably right,” I replied walking toward the orderly room.
As I entered the hall where the company offices was located, I saw Lieutenant Canasta sitting behind his desk, feverishly writing on a yellow legal pad. I knew he was writing me up, preparing a report on the names I called him. He appeared to savor each word he put on the paper. It seemed almost a sin to interrupt the obvious fun the XO was having composing a list of all my acts of disrespect and insubordination. But I interrupted his reverie anyway.
I calmly approached the front of Canasta’s government issue metal desk, stood straight and stiff at attention, rendered and held a proper military salute and said, “Sir, Specialist Brailey wishes to apologize for his disrespectful and insubordinate behavior. I said a lot of bad things to you on the phone that I knew would upset you and cause you to come into the arms room. I know I was wrong, but my men were tired and smelly. I was hung over and…”
I would have continued, but as I stood there, pouring my heart out apologizing, holding my unreturned salute while I was talking, the XO continued his scribbling and totally refused to acknowledge my presence or even return my salute. Seeing I was getting nowhere with this prim little sissy of an officer, I dropped my salute and bent down so my head was right next to his and said, “But if you aren’t man enough to accept my apology, the fucking asshole stands.”
I executed an about-face and went to the arms room to turn my side arm in to Sanborn. While I was in the arms room, Mike said not to worry about the XO. No one will admit hearing my half of the conversation and he didn’t have a leg to stand on.
I wasn’t so sure. When Canasta was a second lieutenant and new to the unit, I had really pissed him off and now he was the company XO and I was antagonizing him again. I was a little worried that the ice was getting pretty thin under my feet. After I turned in my .45, I went home to my family, took a long hot bath and called First Sergeant Art Phillips for advice.
The sun was just rising in Panama when I called Top that morning. He was glad we were home and told me to come over to his house for a beer. I related the events that occurred between Canasta and me and he told me to forget what happened and not to worry. I don’t know what Art Phillips had on Canasta, but the incident of disrespect and insubordination were never mentioned again.
First Sergeant Phillips saved my butt on several occasions during my 20 year career. I first served under him as a private-first-class in Vietnam. My indiscretion with Lieutenant Canasta was the last time he had to pull my buns out of the fire.
A few days after returning from Guyana, Phillips called me into his office. It was around 1000 hrs. He looked at me quizzically and asked if I or any of my men had done anything wrong while we were on the Joint Task Force. Having already briefed him on the sexual exploits of the young studs on my team, I asked him if he thought that might be the reason for the inquiry. Top said that was doubtful. Then he told me our team’s presence was required at the local Army CID office at Albrook Air Force Base.
We all loaded into a gamma goat ambulance and drove the two miles to the CID office. When we arrived we met all of the soldiers from the brigade who were on the task force. They were sitting on the lawn all around the building. No one seemed to know why we were there.
My five subordinates and I reported to the receptionist and she checked off our names and told us to wait outside. Finally, after about 90 minutes, my name was called.
I walked into the building and was greeted by a young man who had “U.S.” where everyone
else in the Army wore their rank. It was the CID’s way of intimidating soldiers by not letting us know what rank our inquisitors are. He directed me to a room that was furnished sparsely with a small table and three chairs. Another CID agent was waiting for our arrival.
The two introduced themselves but didn’t reveal the reason for our meeting. Then I was read my rights under Article 32 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The words started with the familiar, “You have the right to remain silent…” My two interrogators seemed to accept my contention that I had no reason to be silent because I didn’t do anything illegal in Guyana. They said they only had a few questions to ask me. I told them to go for it.
“Did you bring anything back from Guyana that you did not take there with you?” questioned the CID agent who had met me out in the reception area.
“Yes, a bottle of Banks Beer, unopened, a bottle of DM Gold Label Rum, a can of mixed nuts, a can of Fritos, some cancelled Guyanese stamps and some photographs.
The ears of the second agent pricked up when he heard the word “photographs.” “Where did you get these photographs from?” The story of how I acquired the 20 Polaroid photos from the young Guyanese man in the Matthews Ridge bar was the truth, so I told it.
“Are you sure you didn’t steal those photos from Jonestown?” I was asked.
“Quite sure was my immediate and terse reply.
“What are these pictures of,” one of the CID men asked. I told him about each photo and the fact that I paid ten American dollars to the young man who shot the photographs. I also told the agents I had a signed receipt that I had the young man sign so I could verify ownership should I decide to sell the photos to the media.
“Where are these photos now?” the older of the two agents asked. Tiring of playing their game, I decided to stretch the truth and said I sent all but one to my stepfather in the USA and asked him to try to sell them to Newsweek magazine.
“Why did you keep that one picture?”
“I thought it had no commercial value.”
“We want to see the picture.”
“It’s in my quarters, I live right next door in the Corozon housing area, I’ll go get it for you,” I volleyed.
“No,” said the older CID agent, “We’ll drive you over there.”
I could see my house from the CID office. It would take longer for us to drive out the Albrook gate and into Corozal, but the CID wanted to keep me in custody for some reason.
So the two soldiers with the U.S. insignia instead of rank insignia on their uniforms drove me to my quarters. I got out of their car and walked to my front door. I unlocked it and started inside, followed by the agents. I turned and told them to stay outside unless they happened to have a search warrant. I locked the door and went into my bedroom. I took the picture that showed a beehive. The photo along with the receipt I had the foresight to have the photographer sign was all I needed to defuse the situation.
Upon returning to the CID office, I insisted they provide me with a receipt for the photo and receipt I gave them. After this was accomplished, I was told I was free to leave.
Outside I learned that several of the task force members had been forced to return brochures and campaign buttons with pictures of Jim Jones face on them that they had picked up in Jonestown. This angered me and I decided to go to the Staff Judge Advocate’s office at Fort Amador to complain about the CID’s witch hunt.
After providing facts about the afternoon’s activities at the CID office, one brave captain attorney called the Provost Marshall and suggested he stop this illegal search and seizure immediately. The CID did stop the inquiry and most of the soldiers who lost their souvenirs got them back. Major Burgos was required to return the training microscope he liberated, however.
Months passed. In 1979, the soldiers and American residents of the Canal Zone were more interested in the treaty negotiations between Panama and the United States than what happened in Jonestown. Those of us who had participated in that bizarre mission tried to dismiss the horrible memories associated with the savage massacre. Try as one might, the indelible recollections of that haunting experience were not easily repressed.
I did pretty well, immersing myself in my work to block Jonestown out of my conscious mind. I thought I was doing great until the second Sunday in November of 1979. I was walking through Balboa, the Canal Zone city outside Panama City. It was early morning. I was passing near the bakery when the overpowering sweet smell of freshly baked pastries enveloped me. I began to perspire and then to shake uncontrollably and before I knew it, I was vomiting on the sidewalk.
The sweet smell of the Balboa Bakery, that I had enjoyed several times a month for three years, on this particular morning, reminded me of the odor from the 913 bodies that littered Jonestown a year before.
I made my way home as quickly as possible after my embarrassing experience in front of the bakery. For he next two weeks or so, my life was in shambles. It was difficult to sleep at night and when it finally came, it was disrupted by vivid and awful nightmares. My screams shattered the sleep of my spouse and children many times the second and third weeks of November 1979.
My relationships with family members and associates alike were very tenuous during this time. I was unusually moody and emotional. Then, as quickly as they visited me, these foreign feelings and strange behaviors abated. The next seven months passed uneventfully. I was transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Life was good. I enjoyed fishing excursions to the nearby wildlife refuge and leisure time with my family. Things were going well, until mid November when I started getting weird again.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a victim of a type of post-traumatic-stress-disorder called anniversary syndrome. Psychologists refer to it as a type of PTSD that affects the lives of sufferers around the time of the year some very traumatic event occurred in the lives. It doesn’t need to be a particularly dangerous or long event, just one that was shocking to the person.
Once I realized what was happening to me each November, and the cause, it was easy to have a therapist help me work through it and control its symptoms. Putting everything into perspective and understanding that the event causing the syndrome was a minute slice of a much bigger life, helps us except the tragic event as just another part of history, not the present and certainly not the future.
The Jonestown experience did have a permanent effect on my life. The sign that hung over Jim Jones’ throne at the pavilion flashes through my memory and affects my feelings about many social and political events from my views and actions regarding the war in Iraq to how I deal with bigotry and race relations.
 Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 30-31.