by Malcolm McConnell

(reprinted from Reader's Digest, October 1990 issue)

John Connors

Lieutenants Mike Phillips and John Connors sat in the humid darkness of the beach at Howard Air Force Base on December 19, 1989, watching the distant lights of Panama City sparkle in the water. Around them, men in camouflage fatigues and jungle boots rested among rucksacks and stacked weapons. They were quiet, anxious to be under way.

Phillips noted the size of Connors's pack. He was lugging a combination rifle/grenade launcher, reserve ammunition, medical supplies and a radio. "How much does all that stuff weigh?"

Connors shrugged. "About a hundred pounds, I guess."

Phillips snorted. "You planning to run with that load?"

"Try and catch me."

The two grinned. For a moment they were young athletes again, ready to compete. They had been together in the Persian Gulf and for months of jungle training in Brazil. Their growing friendship had provided a refuge from the heat, insects and pounding rain. But tonight was no exercise. They were about to go into combat.

"John," Phillips began, his voice low, "if I -if I get pinned down out there..."

"Yeah. Don't worry, Mike," John said quickly. "I'll cover you."

Joan Connors returned to the family's brick home in Arlington, Mass., after Christmas shopping. As she wrapped presents for her husband, Joe, and their five grown children, she felt a pang that John, their youngest, would not be home for Christmas. He had recently called from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he was undergoing treatment for a parasitic disease he had contracted in Brazil.

"Ma," John had said, "I don't want you and Dad getting all concerned about this." He assured her that daily intravenous medication would prevent the parasite from attacking internal organs, and he promised to send her detailed information.

"Say hello to everybody," he had said. "Give Duke a hug."

Joan smiled at the living-room photo of John grinning over his puppy, Duke. That skinny kid had filled out to 170 pounds of muscle, exquisitely trained for combat.

Every photo of John showed that permanent grin of his. But there was also a restless intelligence in his blue eyes. His love of learning had resulted in a four-year scholarship to prestigious Boston College High School and a chemical engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He also took a scuba course and a strenuous body-building program as part of the Naval ROTC program. When he completed his duty-preference form, Connors stated: "My sole desire is to become a SEAL."

The SEALs (named for their Sea-Air-Land warfare capabilities) specializing in missions behind enemy lines. Among military special-operations units, the SEALs are considered the toughest, smartest and best disciplined.

Joan recalled evenings when John had returned from an 11-hour shift on his summer construction job. After a quick meal he somehow found energy to run ten miles and cycle another 20.

With all this preparation, the family had hoped John would do well in the SEAL training program at Coronado, Calif. But there were no guarantees. Trainees swam for hours in cold Pacific waters; they ran nightmare obstacle courses. It was a season in purgatory, designed to transform each man into a team player, performing well beyond his limits.

Joan remembered her own amazement, at John's SEAL graduation in 1988, that almost two-thirds of his class had not graduated. They had lacked John's mental toughness and drive.

These very qualities sometimes worried his mother. At least, with his medical treatment ending, John would be home for New Year's.

On Monday, December 18, at the U. S. Naval Amphibious Base near Norfolk, VA., SEAL Team Four's Commander Tom McGrath was busy assembling his forces. McGrath and several of his platoons, bone tired from a training session in Florida, had been looking forward to holidays with their families. But now they had orders.

Panama's dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega was resisting U. S. efforts for his arrest on drug-trafficking and racketeering charges. He had brutally rejected a popular election that would have toppled him. He had himself named "Maximum Leader" and proclaimed a "state of war" against America. On Saturday, his troops murdered Marine Lt. Robert Paz on the streets of Panama City, then abducted and savagely beat a Navy lieutenant and terrorized his wife. Now Noriega's thugs were roaming the streets with Cuban-supplied weapons.

On Sunday, President Bush had ordered U. S. armed forces to execute a full-scale intervention in Panama. McGrath's men were preparing to go. Their objective: Paitilla Airfield on the seafront of Panama City, where Noriega based his private Lear Jet. Preventing Noriega's Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) from using the airport was a tactical necessity.

As McGrath worked at his desk, an athletic young man appeared in the doorway, grinning widely. "Good morning, sir," John Connors said. "It looks like something's going down."

McGrath pushed his chair back. "Exactly what are you doing here?" He knew Connors had completed only half his medical treatment and had to get back to the hospital.

"I figured the team might need me," Connors said simply.

McGrath paused. He thought of the Persian Gulf, when Connors's platoon had practices raiding Iranian positions by "fast-roping" from helicopters onto a Navy barge. The SEALs plummeted 50 feet on thick ropes, braking at the last moment with gloved hands. Connors landed hard and limped away. He didn't complain, but when it came time to climb the narrow ladder back to the hovering chopper, his leg would not support him. He had cracked a bone. So he simply hauled himself up hand-over-hand.

No question about it: Connors was one of the team's strongest officers, a leader who brought out excellence in others. Besides, he spoke fluent Spanish. But skipping treatment could be a breach of the mission's security.

Finally, McGrath spoke: "If you can get yourself cleared from the hospital without arousing suspicion, then I can use you. If you can't, I want you at Walter Reed before anyone asks where you are."

Half an hour later, Connors was back, still grinning. "I'm off medical orders, sir." He had told doctors there was a family emergency.

"Lieutenant," said McGrath, "go find your platoon."

The rubber raiding boats were secured together at a rallying point two miles off Paitilla. The SEALs gazed at the glittering Panama City skyline. It looked like a normal night in the handsome tropical city. Yet the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War was about to begin. Airborne troops from bases in America, as well as ground and helicopter forces stationed in the Canal Zone, would attack 27 targets across Panama at precisely 1 a.m.: H-Hour.

The men on the boats were somber. They knew Paitilla's runway, taxi strips and grassy margins were devoid of cover. Until they gained control of the airport, they would be badly exposed to enemy fire.

Worse, under the rules of engagement for this operation - the most stringent ever imposed on U.S. forces - they were forbidden to use covering fire before they advanced. To avoid harming civilians, the SEALs could fire only in self-defense. They would have to rely on speed - and sheer audacity.

The command radio crackled. Panamanian forces had unexpectedly attacked U.S. troops in the Canal Zone. The task-force commander was advancing H-Hour 15 minutes, to 12:45 a.m. Immediately, the SEALs were under way.

Connors's boat ground ashore on the hard mud by the end of the runway, and his platoon sprawled in the low grass, weapons ready, searching for PDF guards. People were moving under the control tower's dome of yellow light, but the south end of the airport was deserted.

The SEALs advanced up the runway toward the hangars, maneuvering precisely. One squad crouched while another dashed ahead, their cleated boots muffled by the grass. From their left came a steady roar punctuated by the boom of tank guns and howitzers. The assault on Noriega's headquarters and the PDF barracks at Fort Amador had begun. Gaudy fountains of tracers wobbled above the city skyline. The SEALs' fire-support gunship whined overhead, unlighted - an unseen but reassuring presence.

While Connors's Bravo platoon prepared to block the runway with some of the light planes lining the taxi strip, Phillips's Golf platoon dashed toward the open PDF hangar that housed Noriega's Lear Jet.

Suddenly, Phillips heard a voice inside shout: "Ponganse en posicion, Preparense para disparar." ("Take positions. Prepare to fire.")

Just as Phillips yelled a warning, the PDF opened up. The Panamanians had timed their ambush well, hitting a squad from Golf platoon as it sprinted from the cover of parked planes. PDF troops blasted away with AK-47s, raking the SEALs only 30 yards away. Seven of the eight-man squad fell.

Phillips rushed his men forward, firing at the PDF muzzle flashes. As he approached, he saw the extent of the devastation.

"Heavy wounded!" he shouted into his radio. "Bravo, get up here."

He saw that the gunship could not hit PDF positions without endangering the downed men close to the hangar. Phillips's squad, together with Bravo, would have to gain fire superiority to evacuate the wounded. He spread his men and began shooting. Moments after calling for reinforcements, he heard Connors's squad pounding up. As promised, his friend was there to cover for him.

Connors did not hesitate. Using hand signals, he arrayed his men in a line formation and led them directly toward the PDF. Phillips could see Connors's face. His eyes were focused with absolute determination. His intensity was controlled. He showed no fear.

Bullets struck Connors's web gear and ammunition pouches with sledgehammer force. But he regained his stride and ran toward the enemy, firing as he advanced.

The maneuver worked. By drawing attention away from the wounded, Connors and his squad had given the medics time to move in.

By now the PDF volley intensified. The hangar's cinder-block walls offered the Panamanians solid protection, and their weapons swept the parking apron, throwing up chunks of asphalt.

Lying on the tarmac, Connors saw that they were making little progress against the enemy. He had a grenade launcher, but it was difficult to use from his prone position. It was time to up the ante. Now!

Phillips saw Connors rise to one knee and level his grenade launcher at the hangar. From the rear, Phillips heard the sound of reinforcements. For an instant, the scene seemed to freeze. Then a heavy-caliber automatic weapon blasted. Connors flew backward in the darkness. He'd been hit squarely in the chest.

Phillips ran to his friend and dragged him out of the line of fire. Other SEALs helped bundle Connors to the medics' triage point. They cut away his bullet-torn pack and ripped open his shirt while a corpsman tried valiantly to resuscitate him. The SEALs watched silently as Connors's lips moved in a mumbled prayer. Then he was gone.

Behind Phillips, the sounds of combat rose and fell in echoing waves. Reluctantly, he turned away and ran back to the fighting.

SEAL squads were now pounding the hangar with rockets, grenades and machine guns. A rocket struck Noriega's Lear Jet, disabling it.

Once the perimeter was secured, Mike Phillips rushed back to the triage point. Torpedoman's Mate Second Class Ike Rodriguez lay mortally wounded. Nearby, three dead SEALs - Connors, Boatswains Mate First Class Chris Tilghman and Engineman Chief Don McFaul - lay together on the grass. In the chalky glare of aerial flares now illuminating the battlefield, the young men's faces were smooth, feed of pain, as if they were sleeping.

Two Navy officers and a priests arrived at the Connors home on Wednesday. There had to be some mistake, Joan told them. John couldn't be in Panama. He was at Walter Reed. The officers explained that John had suspended treatment to go into combat with his men. That he had exhibited bravery on the battlefield. That he had died honorably in the service of his country.

After the men left, the Connors family sat together in the kitchen. Slowly, the realization of what their son had done took hold. "That was typical of John," Joe Connors finally said. "He was there when people needed him."

The next day, neither Joe nor Joan could face all the reporters. John Sheehan, John's best friend, offered to talk to them.

Standing on the icy front porch, Sheehan verified to one newspaper reporter that John was an honor student, had studied abroad, spoke several languages. He was considered one of the finest men his town had ever produced. The young woman rapidly jotted notes. Finally, she looked up, puzzled.

"He had overseas experience, a college degree. He could have found a good job and made a lot of money...." Her voice trailed off. "I don't understand. Why did he want to be a SEAL?"

Sheehan was stunned by the question. Clearly, to some of the reporter's generation, money and a prestigious job were the only measures of a life. But to others, like John Connors, they were not the only measures, or even the best ones. How could he convey John Connor's values - honor, loyalty, sacrifice - to this smart reporter? He could only say, "If you have to ask, you'll never know the answer."

Over 1000 people jammed St. Agnes Church for the funeral of John Patrick Connors, age 25, filling every pew and standing quietly in the aisles.

The night before, the Connors family had been called by Eduardo Vallarino, the new Panamanian ambassador to the United Nations. He asked to attend John's funeral, as a gesture of respect from the new democracy for which John had fought.

After the psalms and the homily were read and the color guard carefully removed the flag from the coffin, Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. William Dempsey summarized what so many in the church felt. "He fulfilled every obligation our country asked of him," he said. "We are what we are because of men like John."

There is a postscript to this story. On the cold morning of February 7, 1990, Mike Phillips's wife, Audrey, gave birth to their first child, a boy. To honor a beloved friend, they named the baby Connor.

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