By Jennifer Martin - email
JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Darrell Graf was just 17 years-old when he joined the Army in 1988. He wanted to use the GI Bill to pay for college. He joined the 82nd Airborne Division. And in just a year, his unit would be called for the Invasion of Panama, code named Operation Just Cause.
"As a PFC, when the call came to jump into Panama, it was very shocking. You always trained you could jump into combat. But when that really happened, you look back and you think this isn't happening. So all in the process of getting ready to jump into Panama, you're in disbelief."
At the time, Panama was under the volatile rule of Manuel Noriega. The dictator was linked to drug trafficking and had threatened the lives of US citizens living in Panama. Some politicians say he had also threatened the neutrality of the Panama Canal.
"We were the 1st wave of the 82nd in to Panama. I remember getting to the door and looking down and whether it's adrenaline or your imagination, I can remember reading the license plate of a Volkswagen driving down the road. That's how low you knew you were. I landed on, I guess, a civilian's roof, cut myself down and linked up with 3 or 4 men. We followed the sound of the assault force.
I was so scared, I remember not unbuckling my parachute. It was simple. But I remember pulling out my bayonet and cutting myself out of the harness. You were baptized by a little bit of reality. You were training for it for a while and here it is.
We linked up with the 75th Ranger Battalion. When we linked up they still had to assault the main hangar of the airport. And we were part of their crew when they went to do that. You just went and did it. You didn't think about it very much."
He stayed in Panama 45 days. US troops took Noriega into custody in January 1990. It was in the summer of that same year, the 82nd got the call for Desert Storm.
"We were already on DRF1. So we were ready to go. Everything was packed. It was only a matter of loading the equipment and landing us in Saudi Arabia."
Their job was to protect Saudi Arabia from a strike by Iraq.
"We were one of the 1st elements on the ground. We were there strictly as a deterrent force at that point. But there was not much we could do if he wanted to come across. We knew we were there to hold ground, hold time so the 24th Mechanized Infantry and a lot of the heavy units could get on the ground.
We did a little bit of interdiction and border insurgencies. We'd cross the border and do scouting operations while the mech and the 24th were getting in place. It wasn't until the air war started is when the scud missiles and the units started positioning themselves according to the theater commands operation. The real initial assault was as history would show the 100 hour war, when all forces went across."
Once the operation ended, Graf's military career would soon change course.
©2009 WLBT. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Story idea or news tip? Email us at News@WLBT.COM or call 601-960-4426.
715 South Jefferson Street
Jackson, MS 39201