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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shadows on the Towers

By David "Jager" Burnell  

While stationed in England on a base that was a staging area for missions in Europe, the Mediterranean and other places.  We would train hard, support Special Operations missions and do what ever we could to stay challenged in the long haul of a four year tour over seas.

One night I set out in between these frequent “exercises” and grabbed a couple of my buddies.  I convinced them that we needed to do some night tactical rappelling off the 80 foot free standing water towers on base.  It was getting late on our quiet little base and it was time to sneak in a few fast free falls before sun up.  We used these towers often for this purpose, but that was during the day and the command post was notified. 

Well, it took some convincing to get my buddies to come with me on this trip, but they finally agreed.  With painted faces and camouflaged uniforms we grabbed our gear and infiltrated the towers near the Ministry of Defense checkpoint.  We made our way up the towers and began to have a grand old time zipping down at intense speeds. 

The cool thing about night rappelling Aussie style (hookup in the back) and free falling face first is that your depth perception gets off just a little.  As the ground comes up you have to really adjust to get the breaks on at the right time. This went on for about 30 minutes of pure joy.  Then out of the corner of our eyes near the bottom of the tower we saw an off duty British man walking his dog (that looked like him) down the road that ran near the towers.  We froze. He walked right under the tower following the road to the Ministry of Defense (MOD) shack a quarter mile away and then made large circle back.  We froze like the ninjas we thought we were and felt we were safe. As the man passed by we continued to hook up and zip down the ropes at high speed.

What I failed to realize was that this was the same day in 1988 an Iranian Airliner was shot down by a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf.  All 300 souls were lost.  Because of this, we were on a war footing (again).  Major events happened so often it seemed like just another day in the world as far as we were concerned.  Unfortunately, the security forces on base were not as casual about this event as we were.  As a result, the security forces on base, which we did our best to avoid on missions like this one were on high alert.  Little did we know the British gentleman walking the dog was a Sergeant Major in the British Army with exceptional powers of observation.  He stopped at the MOD shack and called out the security forces to investigate the “shadows on the tower”.

The security forces were very covert as they surrounded the water towers. We watched their approach and it was a very good one.  There was no place to go. We were trapped and our fun was going to be over soon.  I was hooked up and ready to rappel again and then beat feet to get away when all of a sudden the tower was illuminated in a blinding bath of intense light.  The voices below yelled, “Do not move. We have you surrounded”.  Guns were visible and we were ghosted.

After we yelled, “We are Americans! Don’t shoot!” They hauled us off to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC).  It was here I met some folks that I would become friends with for a long time to come.  This lead me to many more great opportunities to train and operate in very unconventional ways and with some excellent people.  The USAF Sergeant in charge asked why we were on the towers.  We explained that it was a “training” mission (wink wink) and we needed the cover of night to rehearse our skills. Instead of getting “busted” I was asked if I wanted to teach rappelling to the Emergency Services Team (EST) from Mildenhall and then later RAF Lakenheath.  I ended up teaching rappelling and hand to hand combat to these teams and gaining some life long friends in the process.  Within a couple years Desert Storm would happen and we would all be split up permanently.  Occasionally, I hear about some of my mates and what they have been up to over the years.  I will never forget the friends I made after the Shadows on the Towers we captured.  The resulting bonds of friendship have passed the test of time. It is wonderful to remember the good times like these that balance so well the hard times and costs of military service.

Morale of the story: Don’t get caught stealing covert training time during a high profile world crisis. But, if you do get caught offer your skills with a big grin!

NOTE:  EST is the equivalent of a SWAT team on a base.