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American students at St George’s University on Grenada surround a US soldier after his arrival at the campus with peacekeeping forces during the US-Caribbean intervention there, October 25, 1983. DOD file photo

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, USA — On Friday, officials from US Southern Command and the US Embassy in Grenada were due to join leaders from Grenada and its eastern Caribbean neighbours to commemorate the 30th anniversary of a multinational intervention that rescued Grenada from chaos and restored the security and democratic institutions it enjoys today.

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of US Southern Command; Larry Palmer, US Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, and families of the 19 US service members killed and US veterans of the mission will mark what Grenadians have come to call “Thanksgiving Day.”

Hosted by Grenada Prime Minister Keith Mitchell and Gov. Gen. Cecile La Grenade, they were due to attend Thanksgiving Day services, lay a wreath at the Intervention Memorial Monument and attend a ceremony honouring the US service members who lost their lives in the operation.

Among those accompanying Kelly to the ceremonies will be Nelson Del Valle, a conference coordinator for Southcom’s Regional Engagement Branch. For Del Valle, who works regularly with officials from nations throughout its area of responsibility, including Grenada, to promote partnership and cooperation, the visit is profoundly personal.

Del Valle was a 23-year-old Marine corporal stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC, when he got the call during a late October 1983 evening ordering him to report to base with his gear. He and eight other members of the 2nd Marine Division’s interrogation unit were loaded on a helicopter and flown to Pope Air Force Base, NC, where they joined soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division based at neighbouring Fort Bragg.

“We all thought we were going to Beirut,” Del Valle recalled, assuming they were part of a response to the US Marine barracks attack in Lebanon just two days earlier that had left 241 US service personnel dead, most of them Marines.

But seated together in a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, the troops were told that they were headed to Grenada for a mission the military had code-named Operation Urgent Fury.

They learned during their onboard intelligence briefing that Grenada’s Prime Minister Maurice Bishop had been abducted and assassinated during a bloody coup, throwing the tiny island nation into escalating violence. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, as well as the nations of Barbados and Jamaica, appealed to the United States for help.

The United States responded with its first major military operation since the Vietnam War.

A nearly 8,000-member joint force, designated Joint Task Force 120, included the Army’s Rapid Deployment Force, made up of Rangers from the 1st and 2nd Ranger Battalions and 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, the Army Special Forces, Marines, the Navy’s Independence Carrier Battle Group, and Navy SEALS and Air Force fighting and airlift wings.

Joining them were about 300 members of the Caribbean Peace Forces, fielded from Jamaica, Barbados and the eastern Caribbean.

The goal was three-fold: to protect innocent lives; prevent the chaos from escalating; and help restore government institutions and rule of law in Grenada.

The intervention began early in the morning of Oct. 25, 1983, with a parachute assault by Army Rangers at Point Salines and a Marine assault at Pearl.

Working out of a detention facility, Del Valle’s job was to gather intelligence to support the combat operations. Information about the situation in Grenada was limited, he said, but the Grenadian locals went out of their way to provide details he knew would benefit the combat soldiers and Marines.

“They did their job and protected us so we could do ours,” he said of his comrades. “It motivated us to get them the information they needed to save lives. It was definitely teamwork all around.”

Over the next nine days, US troops rescued and evacuated 599 US citizens, including medical students at a university, as well as 121 non-combatants from other nations, according to a report Dr Ronald H. Cole of the Joint Staff History Office compiled on the operation for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In addition to protecting innocent lives, they also helped the people of Grenada restore law and order and governmental institutions, Jose Ruiz, a Southcom public affairs officer, told American Forces Press Service.

“In a show of regional solidarity with the people of Grenada, more than 300 peacekeepers from Jamaica, Barbados and the eastern Caribbean joined US forces in intervening to end the violence and intimidation that threatened not only Grenada’s citizens and visitors, but also the future of an otherwise peaceful island nation,” he said.

The intervention has had a long-term impact in strengthening the United States’ partnerships with Grenada and it regional neighbors, Ruiz said.

“What has followed the success of international intervention is three decades of peace for the people of Grenada and the eastern Caribbean, during which our countries have strengthened their friendship and expanded their economic, cultural, political and security ties,” he said.

Meanwhile, lessons learned through the intervention led to major changes in the force that to this day improve its ability to conduct joint operations.

The intervention highlighted communication problems and difficulties in coordinating between the services, Coles noted in his report.

Ultimately, that led to some of the most-sweeping changes within the Defense Department since its establishment in 1947. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 instituted broad reforms in US military organization, doctrine and operating procedures.

Del Valle said he saw the benefits of those reforms firsthand when he deployed to another joint operation — this one, Operation Just Cause in Panama in December 1989.

Today, Del Valle said he’s excited about returning to Grenada for the first time since the intervention to see the fruits of what he and his fellow service members fought for three decades ago.

Remembering the destroyed buildings and burned cars along Grenada’s streets in 1983, he said he looks forward to seeing the country stable, secure and prosperous. Most of all, he said, he wants to be able to see the impact it’s had on the Grenadian people.

“I remember seeing the faces of the locals, and the terror and fear in most of their eyes,” he said. “Returning there is important for me, because I don’t want to remember them like that for the rest of my life.”

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary commemoration, Del Valle said he’s proud of what he and his fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines accomplished in Grenada.

“I think it’s a good thing that people know what the United States did for this little nation that needed help, and that we were able to do the right thing there,” he said.

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