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Trial by Fire: Phoenix veteran remembers Operation Urgent Fury after 35 years

PHOENIX – The rounds were coming in at an unrelenting pace, as the C-141 Starlifter prepared to make its descent over Point Salines International Airport in Grenada.

Inside the aircraft was 19 year old Spc. Mike Jetton, an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division, the tension insurmountable as he and his fellow paratroopers waited to jump from the plane at 500 feet and prepare to fight.

He had only been in the Army for a little over a year.

Now he was seeing combat.

It was Oct. 25, 1983, and just a day earlier the Grenada Conflict had begun, when various U.S. forces invaded the small island, in an attempt to remove the People’s Revolutionary Government, who had overthrown the previous regime with a communist takeover.

For Jetton, a retired master sergeant, who currently serves as a program analyst for the Phoenix Recruiting Battalion, these events had seemed distant just several days earlier, before the announcement was made that the military would be sending its Rapid Deployment Force into combat.

Jetton was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment, at Fort Bragg, N.C., right at the start of his Army career.

“When I joined the Army (in 1982) you could get a direct assignment, so I took infantry and the 82nd Airborne Division – I was exactly where I wanted to be,” Jetton said. “We were on the Division Readiness Force (DRF), so we were always training for worldwide scenarios where we would deploy immediately.”

“At that time unbeknownst to us, there was something going on with the Cubans and American college students being trapped on the island in Grenada,” he continued. “As our leadership passed it down to us we were going through some practice drills. All of a sudden they said ‘you’re going to Camp Grenada.’”

Upon receiving this news, Jetton said he felt no nerves, but also no excitement.

“When I was that young and wanted to be infantry, it was more anticipation than anything,” Jetton recalled. “We had trained for it and everything happened so quickly, there wasn’t much time to think.”

The next day Jetton and his unit made their way onto the aircraft at Pope Army Airfield, ready to enter the fray in Grenada.

“During the boarding process we were given any equipment we needed, nothing hand receipted. Then there was ammunition, grenades, weapons … anything we needed,” he said. “When we got on the aircraft we had to make sure there were no rounds in the chamber … but we were ready to go.”

Jetton said he clearly remembers only being rigged up with one parachute and no reserve, with his weapon exposed and not concealed.

“We were supposed to be jumping in at 500 feet, which meant as soon as your parachute opens you only had a few seconds before you hit the ground,” Jetton said. “All of our training jumps were with a reserve and a weapon carrying case. Without those in this situation, it started setting in that this was the real deal.”

Ultimately Jetton and his unit never had the chance to make the low-altitude jump.

“During the approach into Grenada we felt the plane starting to bounce around – there was too much live fire coming back at us,” Jetton said. “We took a detour to Puerto Rico, where we boarded C-130’s.There were no seats at all, so we strapped ourselves in on the floorboards.”

Once again the aircraft came under heavy fire as it descended into Grenada, Jetton said, leading to an abrupt departure from the plane.

“The pilots didn’t even stop the plane. They lowered the ramp enough so we could run off it,” he continued. “We ran off the back ramp and as soon as we did that we were instructed to find cover and concealment the engineers had created for us.”

The first thing Jetton saw upon entering the battleground was the spectacle of the Navy making air strikes.

“I could see the Navy strafing the mountainside … the tracers were everywhere, red mixed with green,” he said. “But I wasn’t scared … at that age I felt bulletproof. I had no negative thoughts at all.”

Jetton said his unit set up a perimeter at Point Salines, until they were given the word they were able to start their search and destroy mission.

“We left the airstrip and made our way onto the main roads, where were going to start clearing houses,” Jetton said. “Before we did that we came across a Russian BTR personnel carrier, which had been turned into Swiss cheese. You could see where the Navy had come through and destroyed it and everything surrounding it.”

Jetton and his unit also observed the remains of opposing forces who had been caught in the crossfire.

“My platoon sergeant looked back at me and gave me a hand and eye signal to look under the BTR. There was a dead Cuban Soldier under there who had tried to escape the fire, which had gone right through the carrier,” Jetton continued. “That was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that.”

Jetton’s platoon continued on foot throughout their designated area and cleared houses, until encountering several wounded Cuban Soldiers, who engaged them directly.

“They opened fire on us and we returned fire back immediately,” he said. “Our grenade team with the M203’s then started pumping rounds into the side of the mountain they were on. We worked our way up there and continued on with our objective.”

Although there were other battles including Rangers and Navy Seals, that skirmish was the last for Jetton’s platoon.

“After we cleared everything and secured the island, we made our way back to Point Salines and set up a camp until the flights back to Fort Bragg started,” Jetton said. “There wasn’t much talk going back, but when we returned we found out we’d been put in for a combat patch and the CIB (Combat Infantryman Badge.”

Jetton said he had deliberately not told his mother he was going to Grenada, in order to allay any fears she might have had about him in combat.

“My mom had no idea … I remember her saying to me ‘I’m so glad you’re new to the Army, because there was all this stuff going on in Grenada. I’m glad you didn’t have to go,’” he recalled. “I told her I’d been there for 18 days and had already come back. She immediately started crying. I told her that’s what we train for.”

35 years since Grenada, Jetton looks back at Grenada as a pivotal moment in his long Army career, which included graduating Ranger School and becoming a first sergeant in the United States Recruiting Command.

“Between Grenada and Panama (in 1989), I think they gave the Army an ability to test its skills before conflicts like Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jetton said. “From what I saw in Grenada, no enemy is a match for the Unites States Army at all. We’re not scared, we’re well trained and we execute. I didn’t see any major mistakes while I was there.”

Jetton still thinks about the brief war, but never in a negative way.

“I’ve never had any bad dreams or lost sleep over it. If anything ever prepared me for schools or recruiting, it was being in an actual live fire environment,” he said. “It shaped me into the Soldier, man and father I am today.”

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally published at the Defense Video Imagery Distribution System Hub (www.didvshub.net). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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