Americans, Texans in particular, have gotten pretty good at poking holes in the ground to find oil. But we are not that innovative or visionary regarding the more precious resource of water. [...]
The war in Iraq began ten years ago as American forces began the invasion. In a few days, we began counting our first casualties. Within a few more weeks, I was on the road traveling the country to talk to families of people serving in the conflict. Some of these were families of the fallen. Eventually, I was also able to interview survivors and commanding officers who had been involved in the initial tragedies of friendly fire deaths and a battalion that lost its way. This is the first of two parts of that story.
“Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” – Otto von Bismarck
When the orders came over the radio, both of the young Marines were worried. 1st Lt. Ben Reid, and the platoon’s other officer, 2nd Lt. Fred Pokorney, talked quietly about the sudden change of strategy from battalion headquarters. A month had been spent working out a detailed plan to bypass the Iraqi city of Al Nasiriyah, after Charlie Company had crossed the Euphrates River. Three companies of Marines, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, were to secure three separate bridges on the north and south sides of Al Nasiriyah.
Already, though, something had gone wrong.
“If we don’t take those bridges now, regiment will give away our missions.” The battalion commander’s voice over the combat network was clear, and distinct. “So, we are going to run the gauntlet. Alpha, you take the southern bridge. Charlie, you take the northern bridge.”
Reid and Pokorney spoke privately, acknowledging their fears to each other, but not their troops. Pokorney, though, had no doubt about what the orders meant
“We’re dead,” he told Ben Reid.
Tanks, which were supposed to provide them armored support, had just been called away on a rescue mission, and still Charlie Company was being ordered to go straight up “ambush alley,” a main thoroughfare in the center of Al Nasiriyah. Commanders had decided there was no time to wait for the return of the tanks. Al Nasiriyah needed to be controlled by the Americans, and neither Pentagon planners nor the White House was exhibiting much patience for a more calculated approach to battle. There was tremendous political pressure to prove that a small invasion force had the strength to move quickly and decisively onto Baghdad.
The stretch of road in front of Charlie Company was known to be occupied by Iraqi irregulars, and Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen fighters, who had set up firing positions, and were hiding in buildings, waiting to attack. This information was the reason leadership had chosen a strategy of skirting the city, after taking the southern bridge over the Euphrates. Alpha and Charlie companies were then expected to close on the two northern bridges across the Saddam Canal.
A few hours earlier, Ben Reid and Fred Pokorney had gotten their first look at combat. Charlie Company, positioned at the rear of a column advancing up the main supply route, had moved northward as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at 3:00 a.m. Around first light, the two young men saw Iraqis firing at the approaching Marines.
“From what I remember,” Reid said. “First contact with the enemy was a few mortar rounds the Iraqis were shooting at us from the rooftop of a building. The front of the column also came into contact with machine guns, and I remember the anxiousness of the Marines in contact to employ their weapons systems.”
As he listened on the radio, Reid gathered information on enemy positions, unfolded his map, and marked Iraqi and friendly positions with blue and red dots. Information off the combat network radio led him to believe the Marines out front were doing a good job of hitting their targets. Reid was encouraged. In the middle of the night on the Iraqi desert, while his platoon was preparing to move out, Ben Reid had spoken with several soldiers in a huge convoy moving through his own company’s lines. He was surprised to learn that none of the personnel, junior officers, or senior staff non-commissioned officers had any maps of the area in which they were being deployed. Reid was pleased that he and Pokorney seemed to be more prepared for the coming challenges.
The morning of March 23rd was already expected to be significant in the military career of Fred Pokorney. Not only was he getting his first combat experience, the 6’7” Marine was scheduled for promotion to 1st Lieutenant. Ben Reid had told his friend to plan on a brief ceremony acknowledging Pokorney’s rise in rank, after they had accomplished their mission of taking the northernmost bridge over the canal.
Pokorney and Reid had become friends on the long ocean voyage from the U.S. to Kuwait. The two had shared a state room on the ship with several other junior officers. Pokorney was with Bravo Company, and had been attached to Charlie Company to serve as an artillery forward observer in an infantry rifle company. Standard Marine procedures, these types of rotations are designed to give officers experience in a number of different military disciplines. Pokorney, however, might have remained with his artillery unit, and been relatively safe in the rear.
But he asked for a change of orders.
His wife, Chelle Pokorney, did not learn of her husband’s plans until he was preparing to leave for the Persian Gulf.
“After September 11th, Fred was very eager, and willing to do something about what had happened to our country,” she said. “But he didn’t tell me he was going over with the infantry until the last minute. He was in the infantry before he became an officer, and joined the artillery.”
If the Marine Corps’ advertising agency had ever stumbled across Fred Pokorney, Jr., they might have used him as the new, national poster board Marine. Pokorney’s dark eyes conveyed the kind of determination Marines have used to accomplish history’s most difficult military goals. A photo during his days as an enlisted Marine showed him kneeling in the front of three officers, and holding the company banner on a guidon.
Discipline was not what Fred Pokorney was looking for in the Marines. He already had that characteristic. Born with a hardened will, no one had ever heard him indulge in remorse or self-pity. Things were just what they were, he believed; you learned how to deal with circumstance, not make excuses, and if you were man enough, you excelled. Nonetheless, Pokorney was probably hoping the Marines might become his family. As a child, his existence was disrupted by the divorce of his parents, and the nomadic nature of his father’s work. Fred Pokorney wanted a permanent home.
After a promising basketball career was ended by an injury during his freshman year in college, Pokorney went to work in the silver mines of Tonopah, Nevada, where he had attended high school. In a few years, he enlisted in the Marines; his focused self-discipline, and rigorous attention to detail brought him a quick promotion to sergeant. In Pokorney, Marine commanders knew they had a natural, and they offered to pay for his college education, which, ultimately, qualified him to become a commissioned officer after attending Officer Candidate School (OCS.)
Wade Lieseke, a decorated Vietnam veteran who became Pokorney’s adopted father, was worried about his son joining the Marines.
“I remember when Fred said he was gonna be an artillery officer, I was thinking, ‘Oh God, at least he’ll be safe.’ The artillery is in the rear. It never occurred to me they’d have an artillery forward observer. In my day, airplanes did that.
“But he wanted to be a Marine,” Lieseke said. “He said they were the best and he wanted to be part of the best.”
Before the Marines sent him off for an education at Oregon State University, Fred Pokorney was stationed at the Bangor Marine Barracks in Washington State, a submarine base. He met Carolyn Rochelle Schulgen, a nursing student, and they married. Around the time he earned his degree in history and political science, the Pokorneys learned they were going to be parents. After Chelle pinned his officer’s bars onto his shoulder at a commissioning ceremony, the young family, Fred, Chelle, and Taylor, went east to the Fleet Marine Force at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He spent more than a year in OCS and artillery training. Upon completion of those courses, Fred Pokorney became a “Mustang,” an enlisted Marine who had earned the rank of officer. He had finally achieved the stability that had been missing from his childhood; the honor and pride of the Marines fortified his already strong personal character. The Marines were his family, and his devotion to the corps took him away from Chelle and Taylor.
During the two hundred kilometer roll from northern Kuwait to the Jalibah Airfield south of Al Nasiriyah, where the Marines were to encamp, Pokorney frequently brought up the subject of his wife and daughter to Lt. Ben Reid. Inside the amphibious assault vehicle, as the tracks ground against the desert sand and the rank smell of diesel filled their lungs, Fred Pokorney was sharing pictures of his girls playing in the snow back in the Carolinas.
“Here we are, advancing on the enemy, and he’s showing us all pictures of Chelle and Taylor,” Reid said. “He was so proud of them and loved them so much. Fred was, I mean, Fred was a great husband, and the most honorable guy you could ever meet. He had good, strong values. This was the kind of guy you would want your own daughter to meet and marry.”
He was also the kind of Marine that Reid wanted in his unit as they approached enemy fire. Up ahead, the tanks from Marine Task Force Tarawa had been sent forward to rescue soldiers from the 507th Mechanized Company, a maintenance and technical support group from Fort Bliss, Texas, which had lost direction, and had fallen victim to an Iraqi ambush. Lacking adequate communications, and their automatic weapons jammed by desert sand, the mechanics were pinned down by withering Iraqi fire until the Marines pulled them out for evacuation to the rear. A series of wrong turns had led the 507th to disaster.
On the combat radio network, Reid heard a voice claiming that the 507th was attacked by Iraqi soldiers faking surrender. The description of events indicated the Iraqis had been waving white flags to lure the Americans into a position where they were easy targets for machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Although there is no evidence, or narrative testimony to prove the deception actually occurred, the information was repeated by battalion communications headquarters, picked up by embedded journalists, and dispatched to the United States as fact. Before the day of March 23rd had concluded, the story was also used to explain what had happened to the fifty four man platoon commanded by Lt. Ben Reid. But nothing of the sort ever happened to either the 507th or the Marine companies. Neither the Army nor the Marines offered any understanding of where the story originated, or why it was never clarified.
“I still don’t know where that came from,” Reid said. “It was just on the comms net, and the reporters started broadcasting it. A lot of stuff that’s been in the media, about what happened to us and the 507th, is wrong. It needs to be cleared up.”
As Reid and Pokorney’s unit edged up the road with their company just south of Al Nasiryah and the Euphrates River Bridge, they saw Cobra helicopters, and F-18 Hornets making passes near the city. The helicopters fired at a tree line, and red smoke from the trail of their Zuni rockets floated across the sky. Reid, the fire support team leader, wanted to know who or what was being engaged by the aircraft, and radioed battalion for information. The positions of the targets might be valuable when he began to coordinate his own combat fire. Although he reached commanders on the combat network, Reid got no answers. Just short of the bridge over the Euphrates River, Charlie Company came upon burning T-55 Russian tanks. A few, unmanned, also appeared untouched. Several vehicles belonging to the Army’s 507th Mechanized were in flames. A ball of fire consumed a large, armored truck used for logistical support.
Alpha Company, which had taken the Euphrates Bridge, had set up in a herringbone position to protect their location, and as Reid and Pokorney’s Marines moved through their ranks to cross the river, sporadic small arms fire was audible on the edge of the Iraqi city. Original orders for Charlie Company were to follow Bravo Company to the east, and avoid “ambush alley.” Unfortunately, visual contact with Bravo had been lost, and simple radio communications failed.
“I hate to say this, sir,” Ben Reid explained. “But you gotta remember, our radios were built by the lowest bidder. We had all kinds of problems with our combat comms network. And once all these different companies started taking fire, there was an unbelievable number of people trying to talk on that one combat net. Anything you wanted to say kept getting stepped on by other people jumping on the air.”
As a result, Reid’s company commander had no idea what had happened to Bravo after it had crossed the Euphrates. If Bravo was stuck in the mud off to the east, Charlie was certain to jeopardize the mission of securing the northern bridges by taking the same route. Everyone might end up bogged down, immobilized, and exposed to Iraqi attack. Reid was told by his commander that it was likely Bravo had made a run up “ambush alley” to get to their objective of the first canal bridge. But he didn’t really know what maneuver had been executed by Bravo. Immediately, Reid knew what that meant, and when new orders from battalion command passed over the net confirming his fears, Charlie Company began moving into the city of Al Nasiriyah, making a direct course up “ambush alley.”
Very quickly, Reid and Pokorney’s men encountered small arms fire. Their ten amphibious assault vehicles, (referred to by Marines as amtracks, or tracks,) and two Humvees, were armed with .50 caliber machine guns and nineteen 40 millimeter grenade launchers. Returning fire, the convoy hurried through the crude urban reaches of Al Nasiriyah. Bullets pinged off the side of the Americans’ tracked vehicles, and enemy fire dramatically intensified the further north they traveled into the city. While the Marines configured their armor in a combat-oriented position, on their right, to the east, they saw modest, low structures, mud huts uncommon in more developed cities. The other side of the road was lined with office buildings, and architecture slightly more peculiar to the commerce of a mid-sized city, though few structures rose to more than four or five stories in height. Iraqi gunners had set up fields of fire from hidden posts inside of mud huts, and the more modern, small office structures.
Ramp doors at the rear of some of the tracks were partially open. Lt. Fred Pokorney, and the mortar men, who would not be active until the convoy stopped, were using their M-16s to return Iraqi fire. Pokorney called out that a track, just to the rear of the one in which he and Reid were traveling, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and caught fire. Four Marines were wounded. But the platoon kept pushing up through Al Nasiriyah. Exposed through the open door, Pokorney was suddenly hit in the right arm by a bullet, and fell to the floor.
“Hey, I’m hit,” he yelled to Reid over the intercom. “Hurts like hell. I’m fine. I’m fine. I was just nicked. I’ll be all right. Don’t worry about it.”
Still under attack from RPGs and small arms weaponry, Reid’s platoon crossed the two northern bridges over the canal. In the center of the road, 200 meters north, a track was burning. Reid’s own track #C-208 stopped between the bridge and the burning vehicle. The remaining vehicles in his platoon quickly configured into a combat position on either of the road. As Reid hastily jumped down, he saw dusty agricultural fields and drained swampland spread beyond the canal and the raised roadbed. Iraqis were directing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at his platoon from a few nearby buildings.
Reid and Pokorney, like the men serving at their side, had little intelligence about the military strength of their enemy. Political pressure from the White House had led commanders of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to portray an excessively optimistic and expeditious campaign. Briefings in advance of the attack on Al Nasiriyah indicated the operation to secure the bridges, and control the city, was expected to take about six hours. Instead, fighting went on for eight days before the Marines were able to take complete control. Intelligence was supposedly unclear on Iraqi troop numbers in the region, and whether the soldiers were Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen fighters, Republican Guard, or Iraqi irregulars and citizens, who often acted as observers or carried bombs.
Foreign intelligence sources later reported the Americans were battling an estimated 40,000 troops of the Iraqi 3rd Army Corps. Armaments deployed against U.S. soldiers, most of them oblivious to what they were confronting, included 250 tanks, approximately 100 mortars and 100 artillery, as well as 1000 rocket propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank guided missiles. In terms of sheer troop strength, the Iraqis doubled the number of American soldiers approaching from the south in the U.S. 3rd Motorized Infantry Division, though the U.S. offensive was supported by considerably more armor; 200 tanks, 150 artillery pieces, and 600 armored vehicles. By doctrine, U.S. military planners always try to have a three to one force ratio against an enemy. In this case, the Americans were simply outnumbered.
Grabbing the maps he had marked, and his flak jacket and helmet, Reid threw them to the ground as he jumped. The ramp at the back of the track was still up and he banged loudly to order his men out of the vehicle to take cover below the roadbed, along the canal. Reid began linking up his mortars to return fire on enemy locations. Using the guns on the tracks first, he got one of them to focus on a huge building near the T-intersection on the east side of the road. The two other weapons mounted on the track were pointed back to the southwest in the direction of Al Nasiriyah, where Reid assumed most of the heaviest fire was originating. Over the noise of explosions, he shouted at his Marines to pick up the pace of their fire. The mortars began to hit the targets Reid had selected. But there was trouble with the fire support team on the track.
Radio communications were not working.
“We’ve got no comm. on arty conduct of fire or our 81s,” Pokorney told Reid.
“Okay,” Reid answered. “Let’s forget those nets. Take a look at this map.” Lt. Reid pointed at spots he had marked. “We need suppression or duration suppression on these positions. See if you can pass them over the battalion net.”
“Got it,” Pokorney answered.
“I’m going to fight our 60s,” Reid said, as he left the safety of the track. “They’re all we’ve got right now.”
Outside, Reid moved along the road, trying to find targets. One of the Marines in his platoon pointed out a group of vehicles, and Reid ordered all the guns on the tracks to try to take them out of the fight. Directed fire from the Americans did not appear to reduce the intensity of the Iraqi attack.
Staff Sergeant Phil Jordan ran up the road to talk to Reid.
“Sir, Torres has been hit,” Jordan said.
There was no way Reid might have prepared himself for such news. His first time in combat, the young lieutenant was stunned by word that one of his men was down. Briefly, Reid admitted, he lost his focus. Jordan, who must have seen the shock on his commander’s face, offered reassurance as RPG explosions, and rounds from small arms filled the air.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Jordan said. “I’ve already killed two or three Iraqis, so we’re even.”
“Okay, Staff Sergeant,” Reid answered, regaining his composure. “I need you to run and get the fifty cals focusing their rounds back into the city. Have them fight the close fight. I’ll get the mortars to take on targets 2000 meters and beyond.”
As Jordan ran off to find machine gunners, one of Reid’s forward observers was coming down the road with the radio. Another platoon had called asking for fire support because they were taking incoming from Iraqi mortars. On the radio, Reid said he had all of his weapons in the fight, and he was doing everything possible. Seconds after the Marine had left with the radio, Reid found himself on his back, looking up at small arms rounds cutting through the air.
“Get the fuck down,” Fred Pokorney screamed. “You’re getting us all shot at.”
Reid had been tackled by Pokorney, the Tonopah, Nevada All Star football player. Before leaving to call in the artillery missions, Pokorney had noticed that Reid was standing up, and seemed almost oblivious to the danger he was attracting to himself and the rest of the Marines.
“I was glad Fred told me I was being an idiot,” Reid said. “He probably saved my head from getting blown off. “
Only seconds after Pokorney had rolled off of Reid, Phil Jordan returned to ask his commander how they might be able to improve their combat posture. The two Marines agreed their mortars needed to be more widely dispersed.
“Espinoza, come up here and take my place spotting,” Reid yelled. “I’m going to take Garibay’s gun south.”
Reid ordered Corporal Jose A. Garibay’s mortar crew to follow him down toward the canal, a spot about sixty meters south of their present location, but still north of the bridge. Staff Sergeant Phil Jordan followed with two cans of ammo. As they ran, Reid failed to notice their positions were being bracketed by Iraqi RPG gunners. One round landed long. The next fell short. The subsequent explosion was long, but closer to the Americans. The Iraqis were walking their shots onto target by adjusting off of each previous explosion.
As Reid and his men set up the mortar, they realized they did not bring a wiz wheel, which was needed for calibrating the range of their targets. A Marine ran back to grab the device while Reid put in the aiming stake. His men, however, were unsure of shooting without precise calculations from the wiz wheel. Reid told the mortar crew to estimate an elevation based upon previous missions fired. The lieutenant grabbed a round, and dropped it in to sink the base plate. Down range, they spotted the location of the explosion, and Reid dropped two more rounds into the tube to make corrections on the targets based on where the previous rounds had landed.
“I guess that was kind of stupid,” Reid said later. “I had no idea really where those rounds were going to land. But I wanted to get a round out there quickly, and adjust off of it. Besides, I didn’t want to just sit there, and do nothing, while we were under fire, other than wait for a wiz wheel.”
When the Marine returned with the wiz wheel for the mortar, he was trailed by Fred Pokorney. Most of the gun crew was provided protection in a partial defilade around the mortar. Reid was up near the aiming stake, spotting the mortar rounds. Iraqi RPG explosions were coming closer, each concussion registering more powerfully on the Marines’ eardrums.
“I got those nine arty missions passed over the battalion net,” Pokorney yelled to Reid.
“Are they the positions I gave you?”
A few seconds after Pokorney had spoken, an explosion knocked Ben Reid back onto the road. The force of the blast was felt in his arm, which Reid thought had been blown off. When he saw the arm still hanging at his side, Reid assumed it had been broken by the explosion. The lieutenant lay in the road waiting for the ringing in his ears to cease.
The first words he heard were devastating.
“Sir, Buessing is dead.”
Ben Reid, the young Annapolis graduate, in his first combat command, had suffered an initial death among his men. Turning, Lt. Reid saw Lance Corporal Brian R. Buessing, and recognized from the wounds that his Marine had been killed instantly. Buessing died serving in the same Charlie Company mortar squad in which his grandfather had won a Silver Star during the Korean War.
Reid was uncertain of what to do next, both fear and responsibility for the rest of his men racing through his head. Two other bodies lay not far from where Buessing had fallen. Reid ran to the nearest and rolled the Marine over to see who it was. Staff Sergeant Phil Jordan was also dead. The other man down was 2nd Lt. Fred Pokorney, his hulking frame lay twisted near where the round had exploded. Reid assumed Pokorney had also been killed.
“I didn’t go check on Fred,” Reid said. “I just assumed from the way he was laying, he was dead. I know he wasn’t moving. But I couldn’t see any physical injuries. I know he was at least injured by that round. I just made an assumption about Fred. Maybe it was a bad assumption.”
In a moment of doubt, Reid worried that his men had been hit by his own improperly calibrated mortar rounds. On the road, the men were slightly down range from the mortar positions, though they were considerably offline from the guns’ directions. Reid also feared that he had given Pokorney the wrong coordinates of Iraqi targets to radio into artillery operations.
“I don’t think that was it, though,” Reid explained. “If an artillery round had landed there, it would have killed all of us. And I know I wasn’t off by five kilometers on the coordinates. There’s no way I could have missed by that far.”
What Reid described as a “magic round” had also wounded three of this other men, including Coporal Garibay, Corporal Jorge A. Gonzalez, and Private First Class Tamario D. Burkett. Uncertain of the extent of injuries to his troops, Reid ordered Garibay to keep everyone in place until he returned with medical assistance. RPG rounds were consistently exploding closer and closer to Reid’s platoon. Crouching down, he turned and ran in the direction of his track.
In the low sky to the north, an American A-10 Thunderbolt jet, known as the “Warthog,” and the “tank killer,” made a turn and lined up for a gun run down the raised canal road where Reid’s men had fallen.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” – Robert Benchley
The little girl sat at the table with her face leaning close to a small piece of paper. Her dark, bobbed hair swung forward, slightly obscuring the soft curve of her cheeks. She did not notice her mother enter the room.
“What are you doing, mija?” her mother asked.
“I’m writing daddy a note.” She answered without looking up, her concentration focused on the careful shaping of words and letters.
Nancili Mata wanted to cry. Instead, she smiled, and did not let emotion take control of her. When she surrenders to her sadness, she does so in private.
“I have to be strong because if I’m not my little girl will see me, and then she’ll hurt more than I will,” she explained.
At age seven, Stephani Mata has the oversized, startled eyes of a child finding amazement in the mundane. A happiness moves across her round face, and it rarely disappears. She has figured out a way to deal with a sadness no child should ever have to confront.
“They are just so sweet when she writes them,” Nancili said. “They make me want to cry. But I don’t. I won’t let myself.”
The notes began appearing after the funeral out in Pecos. Nancili found them stuck to pictures of her husband, Johnny. In the hallway of their new home, or on shelves, anywhere there was a photo of Johnny Mata, a message from Stephani might be attached.
“Dear daddy,” she wrote. “I miss you. But I know you are happy up in heaven with Jesus. Love, Stephani.”
Johnny Villareal Mata and his wife, Nancili, were supposed to grow gray together in the house he had bought for her in the North Hills area of El Paso. In seventh grade, she had told the shy Johnny, “You’re going to be mine.” He only smiled, unaware that the entire course of his life might be determined by the strong-willed girl with high cheekbones and unabashed honesty.
Nancili got what she wanted, though, because it made Johnny so happy to provide for her dreams. The house at the foot of the Franklin Mountains, however, was also a dream of his. As a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Army, Johnny had managed his money well enough that they were able to build a new home with a two car garage, and a view of the Franklins out of almost every window.
“In a way, I felt like a queen,” Nancili said. “Johnny and I, we had known each other for fifteen years, and I think the longer we knew each other, the better we were. At the end, he was like, ‘Okay, this is your dream. I bought you a house.’”
Every day, the mountains across from her new home have a different look. Nancili Mata notices how the light changes the color of the rock, and the softening created by a passing cloud obscuring the sun. The desert heat can give the Franklins a frightening sharpness before they are colored, and made inviting by the long light of a new morning. She feels this way, too. There are dramatic changes inside of Nancili, and she struggles to be strong, to understand.
“I have my days. I like to go to the cemetery in Pecos and do my talking to Johnny. Most of the time at the cemetery, when I start getting depressed, I pray, and it helps.”
Almost a hundred people showed up at the home of Domingo and Elvira Mata the first night news came that their son, Johnny, was missing in Iraq. Each night, a priest performed a rosary, and prayers were offered for Johnny’s safe return. The crowds and the candles did not go away until Johnny’s casket, being transported by the army, was met at the Reeves County line by police cruisers. Thousands lined the roadways, silently watching the procession, holding up candles in the 3:30 a.m. desert darkness. When he was buried, half of the 10,000 population of Pecos surrounded the church, or stood in the withering desert heat at the graveyard, waiting for the arrival of Johnny’s funeral cortege.
Nancili did not get to see her husband for a final time when his body was returned. Brutalized by gun fire, she became convinced what was left was not the man she loved.
“I thought about seeing his body, and then another day I talked to my priest, the chaplain, and it made me realize it wasn’t gonna be Johnny any more,” she told a visitor. “It was just a body. And the way my husband always was, he was clean, always good-looking, detailed, and he would like to be remembered the way he was. I was speaking to the funeral person, and he said he didn’t even get to see him because he [Johnny] was so wrapped up in a blanket. I think we made a pretty good decision, and I’m pretty comfortable with that.”
Everything Johnny and Nancili Mata had dreamed about was killed in that Iraqi ambush in Al Nasiriyah. Settling into his duty station at Fort Bliss, Texas, Johnny Mata decided to invest his savings in the new home. In January 2003, Stephani, and her big brother, Eric, moved into their own bedrooms. Before the family had finished unpacking boxes, however, Johnny got orders for overseas deployment. While his family adjusted to the new house, he was packing bags for a long trip. By March, Johnny Mata was in Kuwait.
“We made a video the night he left, and you could hardly see Johnny because Stephani was all over him. Every time you look at the picture, she’s climbing all over her daddy.” Nancili drew her index finger across the recesses below each eye, pressing away the tears. “Stephani is such a daddy’s girl.”
Johnny Mata was movie star handsome. A photo that circulated in his hometown of Pecos, Texas, showed him with his strong, angled jaw tilted slightly upward, dark, wavy hair shining in the sun, and a smile that dominated all of his other distinguishing features. Nothing, his family said, ever deterred Johnny. Even Pecos, suffering a kind of dry desperation on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, did not wear down Johnny Mata the way it did so many of the other young people. Great commerce, and big dreams have never come closer to Pecos than the eighteen wheelers howling past out on Interstate 20. But none of that ever affected Johnny’s attitude. He loved his parents, Domingo and Elvira, and his four brothers and sister. He loved his wife, and his children. And he loved his country, so much that he was willing to go to war.
“He always wanted to serve his country that way,” Nancili said. “The reason that it didn’t bother me was because I would see it in his heart. If he wanted to do anything, it was like excitement. You would see that glow. You would see that glow.”
While Nancili spoke, an old-timers’ baseball game was being played on a nearly grassless ball diamond beyond a tall fence. On the outfield wall, carnations, made out of tissue, spelled out the message, “In your honor, Johnny.” A blast furnace wind meant that even the shade of a temporary awning did not offer relief from the heat. Flavored ice cones and barbecue were being sold behind the bleachers. Money raised was to be donated to local charities in the name of Johnny Mata. His daughter, wearing a tee shirt, spun around to show the silk screen to a stranger; “In honor of my father and hero, Johnny Mata.” Mata’s face, encircled by the text, shines through the cotton fiber.
As a mechanic, Johnny Mata had acquired expertise in all of the heavy vehicles used by the United States Army. When his commander-in-chief, the President of the United States, issued orders that the 507th Mechanized Company relocate to Kuwait, Johnny saw his role as that of a soldier doing his job. He and Nancili did not talk about the politics of going after Saddam Hussein. There was no point to such a discussion. Orders were orders. He had to go, and so did all of the other soldiers in his outfit.
No one at Fort Bliss knew about faked documents trying to prove Saddam had attempted to buy uranium from Nigeria. They didn’t know there were no provable connections between Saddam and al Qaeda terrorists. Their commander-in-chief, they were certain, took his duties as solemnly and seriously as everyone at Fort Bliss. If the president said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, every soldier accepted the statement for fact. As hazy as the politics were, they were irrelevant to everyone shipping out from Biggs Army Air Field at Fort Bliss. A soldier does not debate the politics of a presidential decision. He follows orders.
“We don’t think about no politics in our family,” said Domingo Mata. Johnny Mata’s father is a man whose impressive size reflects an appetite for all of life’s pleasures. He had been hovering nearby, listening to his daughter-in-law answer questions.
“Politics is just when someone tells you they’ll do something so you’ll help them get something they want, and then when they get in there, they forget all about the people who got them in. In our family, we just do what we need to do, what we think is right. That’s all Johnny did. When he went up there, (Iraq,) he just wanted to help all those little children who were hungry, and hurtin’, you know?”
Logic told Nancili and all of the Matas that they did not need to fret too much over Johnny’s deployment. Even though Johnny was in Kuwait, the president sounded like he was trying to give the situation time to work itself out, peacefully. Surely, he did not want a war. Besides, Johnny was not with a combat unit. He fixed vehicles. His work was done at the rear. By the time the 507th moved through, the Matas reasoned, the Marines, infantry, and air support were certain to have secured the area and chased off, or killed the enemy. Odds of Johnny Mata encountering harm or great danger were considered minimal.
But Nancili Mata knew her husband, and it made her worry while her family expressed confidence.
“I did not think he was safe. I said, ‘Johnny, I want you to tell me, if a vehicle is broken down, how are you gonna fix it? Are you gonna go out there and fix it, or are they gonna bring it to you?’ And he said, ‘Well, sometimes they bring them and sometimes you have to go out there and fix them.’ And I said, ‘Okay, if they break down you send somebody else to fix it,’ knowing well that he wouldn’t do that. He would go out there.”
She believed in her president, though. This was the United States of America. George W. Bush had grown up just down the highway to the east. He had to have the basic, common sense that comes from learning to live on such a harsh, unforgiving landscape. Nancili Mata shared that with the most powerful man in the world. Her family traced its lineage way back to the days when the state had been called Tejas, and it was ruled by Mexico. She knew the kind of sensibilities a place like this could provide a person, the cold, clear judgment it taught by the desert heat. There was no reason not to trust a president who came from here. Surely, her president would be guided by restraint and honor, a wisdom swept clean by the dry, desert winds of his youth.
Instead, Nancili Mata has new troubles.
“I worry, sometimes, that he, (God,) will come for me, too. And I’m ready. I want to go be with Johnny. But we…I’ve got these two kids to raise. I have to be here for them. I want to see them grow up. And then I’ll go see Johnny.”
Eric, who is 16, has already made plans. After high school graduation, he will enlist. “My intentions are to go into the Army,” he said. “My father’s death has strengthened that decision.”
Stephani Mata walked up and touched her mother’s arm, needing nothing more than closeness. Just then, Nancili tilted her head back, and lifted her eyes toward heaven, as if she were speaking directly to her husband. Her gaze burned through the makeshift awning protecting her from the white, hot Texas sky.
“Wait for me,” she said.
And then her voice softened.
“I’ll be there. But not yet.”
There was a joke making the rounds in the Texas capitol when George W. Bush left for Washington that he had affixed a bumper sticker to his car for everyone to read as he drove north. “If you think I was bad,” it supposedly said, “wait till you meet the guy who replaces me.” Turns out to be not that much of joke. Rick Perry has made Bush look almost logical and moderate. Not even W could stare $100 billion in free health care money from the federal government and say no.
But we have another gubernatorial loon in the pipeline that might give Perry a chance to repeat the Bush bumper sticker apocrypha. Greg Abbott, who is presently the attorney general of Texas and is reputed to have about $15 million in campaign funds in his account, is beginning to make Perry look like a PhD. instead of an aggie with a below average grade point. Abbott’s hoping Perry won’t run again for governor and the door will open for a new GOP candidate. Unfortunately for Abbott, Perry wants to run for president again and if he’s not governor he won’t be in a position to strong-arm donors. The only way Perry gets cash again is from people who think they have to do business with him in Texas, so he’s running.
But just in case, Abbott is trying to get to the right of Perry, or at least let the loons on our Texas landscape know that he’s the ideological equivalent of our current governor. Abbott put a graphic photo on his Facebook page that shows a handgun and a Bible with the line, “Two things every American ought to know how to use, neither of which are taught in schools.” Let’s get to his bad grammar first. “Neither” is singular, not plural, so it should be “neither of which is” not “are taught.” If you weren’t paying attention during grammar lessons, what in the hell makes you an expert on what is and isn’t taught in schools?
The funny, and sad thing is that the Bible actually is taught in Texas public schools, and Abbott damned sure ought to know that. It is an elective class and he was one of those leading the legal charge 5 years ago to put religion into publicly funded institutions. He should have that basic knowledge of his own state. Of course, schools are hardly teaching the Bible in an academic manner or using a non-devotional approach. A report prepared by the Texas Freedom Network indicates Texas children are often being taught the earth is 6000 years old and the origins of racial diversity can be traced back to the curse put upon Noah’s son.
The courses almost always end up being a kind of taxpayer funded Christian evangelism that in one school concludes by asking the students if they “want to invite Christ into their lives as their personal savior?” Anyone wanting to take a course in the history of the Koran or Buddhism or atheism will have to go to one of those commie public schools north of the Mason-Dixon. None of this should be shocking, though, in a state where the new head of the Texas State Board of Education announced she would urge a “softheaded approach” to teaching evolution and will see to it that textbooks include opposing arguments to evolution. Even though science isn’t argued. It’s proved.
But man do we have that softheaded thing going on in Texas.
Greg Abbott is, in fact, our most shining example. Plus, he’s built an entire political career on rank hypocrisy. In 1984, he was out jogging when a tree fell on him and left him a paraplegic. Abbott, now wheelchair bound, sued the homeowner and the tree trimming company, and won what has been estimated at about $10 million. He reportedly gets annual payments of more than $300,000 a year for the rest of his life. Abbott then got busy as a Supreme Court justice under George W. to promote tort reform. He had his money but he didn’t want others to be able to sue and get similar satisfaction. In fact, if the accident happened to Abbott today in Texas, he would not be able to get more than $250,000 in one time damages because of the tort reform laws that he helped pass, and his lawyers would spend that much just getting the case to court.
But a gun and a Bible will become the icon of Abbott’s campaign when he eventually runs for governor. Never mind that the Bible’s story is about a man who worked to change the world without weapons. Nor that our country has a long history and fundamental belief in keeping a single group’s religion out of public institutions. We’ve got a future candidate who is not only unafraid of hypocrisy, he uses it to build his ideological platform.
Greggy get yer gun!
Twenty years ago today TV cameraman Kirk Swann and I raced to a spot outside of Waco where ATF agents were in a firefight with a religious fanatic and his followers. The next 51 days turned into an American tragedy that I don’t believe we’ve bothered to take the full measure of. Below is my final report on the US Government’s standoff with the Branch Davidians. It is nothing like what we are being asked to believe. – JM
A gray, photocopied map with the tracings of yellow highlighter was on the passenger seat of the new Isuzu sport utility truck. Jim Peeler was trying to drive, read the map, and talk on his cell phone. The lowering sky and wet roads complicated his tasks. Frustrated, he touched a speed dial button on his cell phone.
“Dan, I can’t find this place. Are you sure you know where it is?”
“You just need to find EE Ranch Road, Jim.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do for about an hour, Dan. This map ain’t much of a help, either. And the weather sucks.”
Waco television photographer Jim Peeler had been given only vague directions to his destination. His KWTX-TV colleague, Dan Mulloney, was taking the lead on the story. Mulloney’s sources had told him to be near the location of a religious commune east of Waco, off of U.S Highway 6, EE Ranch Road, and the Old Mexia Road. Reporter John McLemore and Mulloney were to approach the site along the ranch road, which dropped south off of the state highway. To ensure the TV crews did not miss law officers as they arrived or departed the location called Mt. Carmel, Mulloney had asked Peeler to come up the two-lane from the south and be ready with his camera.
Out the window of his new truck, Peeler saw the buffalo grass lying flat with moisture and the winter fields in a lingering brown. A year earlier, February had shown a bloom of wildflowers; bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in purples and red had spread across this same section of Texas prairie. Peeler wished for a bright day. He did not like the feel of this heavy air and its cold weight. Before he had loaded his camera gear into his truck that morning, Peeler had been disturbed by a lack of information about this assignment. Just the day before, on Saturday, the television photographer had confided to his wife and a close friend about his discomfort over the upcoming story. The weather had felt like an additional clue to a dread he had begun to sense.
“Have you ever felt darkness?” he asked. “Or just blackness. I honest to God felt that all weekend long and when I got up that morning. I told my wife about it, what I was feeling, and she told me not to go. But, you know, I had to. It’s my job. I’ve got a family. And I thought I was just being silly, you know, superstitious. But I think it was what most people feel before lightning strikes them.”
“Just don’t go, James,” Peeler’s wife had urged.
All sinew and bone with narrow hips and overworked shoulders, Peeler had dressed for the weather, putting on a heavy pullover with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s logo on the front, a tee shirt, and a windbreaker. The extra layers made him less agile in dealing with his bulky TV equipment. Behind the wheel of his truck, Peeler looked at the scattered ranch houses and mobile homes, trying to find the cutoff to the ranch road. Nothing promising or hopeful had yet occurred that morning.
Within a few hours of Peeler’s wandering lost on the back roads outside of Waco, I, along with dozens of other journalists from across the planet, found ourselves racing to a remote location where federal agents surrounded a community headed by a religious zealot. We listened to daily lies, distortions, and calculated misinformation that we had no real way to contradict or question because of a lack of alternative sources. Fifty one days were to pass before the unimaginable conclusion. My friend Jim Peeler still blames himself for much of the tragedy.
Relentlessly hard working, talented, and likable, the Waco TV photographer Jim Peeler ought to have reached financial comfort and professional acclaim. Both had eluded him. A man with a soft voice and abundant thoughtfulness, Peeler was earning around $17,000 annually the year he stepped into the political and weapons crossfire of the Branch Davidian standoff. Individuals like Peeler, in any profession, were not expected to fail. Unfortunately, success in television journalism often requires deft political as well as reporting skills. Peeler did not possess that kind of personality.
The morning that Jim Peeler and two of his KWTX-TV colleagues approached Mt. Carmel they were certainly not oblivious to the potential dangers of their assignment. The Waco Herald-Tribune had begun publishing a series of stories about the people living in a commune referred to locally as Rodenville. Mark England and Darlene McCormick’s articles had suggested the leader of the religious sect at Mt. Carmel was an evil zealot. According to the newspaper’s sources, Vernon Howell, who referred to his followers as Branch Davidians, was being investigated for child sexual abuse, drug manufacturing, and illegal weapons possession.
Howell, soon to adopt the biblical name of David Koresh, had attracted dozens of adults and their children and convinced them to make their home in his wooden castle at the end of the world. Set upon a wind-scoured rise of bald land named Mt. Carmel, Koresh’s believers lived behind clapboard walls on the edge of McLennan County, waiting for Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil predicted in the Book of Revelations. A few of them had grown impatient, however, and had left for California. They were some of the sources of information for the series of reports the Waco paper had entitled, The Sinful Messiah.
As disgusting a character as David Koresh was, there was nothing incontrovertible to prove that he was living outside the bounds of the US Constitution. Texas child care workers had investigated allegations of pedophilia several times and found nothing. The religious leader was also accused of having sex with the wives of male members of his congregation but that appeared to be at the consent of the married partners. Koresh, in fact, was guilty only of participating in American conservative endeavors: practicing his religion and acquiring weapons to protect his property and way of life.
Finally having the name of his destination, Jim Peeler tried to recall what he had heard about Rodenville. The name came from George Roden, the man who had founded a branch of some kind of church or religious sect. The newspaper’s articles indicated that Koresh had taken control of Rodenville in a power struggle against Roden, which involved a gunfight. Rodenville was supposed to be a series of ramshackle houses built around a circle but Koresh had ordered the homes torn down and rebuilt into a single structure.
Lost and increasingly frustrated, Peeler resisted using the two-way radio. The team of TV reporters did not want to prematurely alert authorities to their presence. The 41 year old Peeler was struggling with his nascent unease, however, and he needed to hear another voice.
“I was distracted,” Peeler explained. “I kept thinking about the day before. My best friend Woody Bland had come up from Marlin and we went over to the hardware store to look for something he wanted. On the way over there I told Woody I had an awful feeling about a big deal I had coming up the next day. And he said, ‘Just don’t do it. You gotta pay attention to that little voice, Jim. I know what that feels like. I had it once and I ignored it. And I ended up in a serious motorcycle accident.’ I guess I should’ve listened to him and my wife.”
A television photographer in Waco might be forgiven by his profession, if not his employers, for refusing to put himself at risk. An annual salary that left his family of four qualified for Food Stamps provided only modest motivation for accepting dangerous assignments. Jim Peeler was working a Sunday to earn precious overtime dollars from KWTX-TV. Although his wife had a staff position at a nursing home, Peeler took on jobs mowing lawns and taping weddings on weekends to support his two young daughters. In the newsroom, few of his colleagues had ever seen Peeler actually eat. Living on coffee, he rarely brought a lunch, never purchased even a drive-thru burger, and waited for whatever his wife prepared for the evening meal with his family. Either his income was too sparse to spend on food for himself or he was a nervous, hyperactive man who did not overly concern himself with nutrition.
Jim Peeler had been my friend for almost a decade the morning he scrambled down the back roads near Waco and searched for Mt. Carmel. As a correspondent for a Houston TV station, I had met Peeler at one of the many news stories we both covered in Central Texas. He consistently shared information, interviews, and videotape, and never cared who got credit for his work. Peeler’s videotape and sources were invaluable to me and every other journalist who reported on the federal government’s standoff with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. The 51 days I spent at Mt. Carmel leading up to the final conflagration were all made easier by the assistance and friendship of Jim Peeler, Dan Mulloney, and John McLemore.
In the collegial community of Texas television photographers, Peeler was considered more craftsman than artist because he worked too hard at his daily assignments to devote himself to award-winning special reports. Nonetheless, a number of golden statuettes from the Dallas Press Club decorated his work cubicle. Small market television does not provide the time or resources for employees like Peeler to produce the types of eye-catching segments needed to advance careers. Jim Peeler’s days were normally spent taping more than a half dozen different stories while a photographer in nearby Dallas might be given a dozen days to shoot one high-profile piece. Peeler’s ambition and creativity were being consumed by pressures for functionality and job security.
He picked up the cell phone and called Dan Mulloney again, hoping for more detailed directions.
“Mulloney, I’m tellin’ ya, I can’t find this place. Help me out, will ya?”
“Well, you see anything goin’ on? Any suspicious looking vehicles, like unmarked cop cars or feds?”
“No, man. How do you know anything’s gonna happen, anyway?”
“It’s big and it’s gonna come down this morning, Jim. I need you to get in place. You need to find EE Ranch Road and then call me.”
Peeler continued looking for a roadblock Mulloney had insisted had already been established by the Texas Department of Public Safety. A small, white station wagon was in front of his truck. Presently, the car turned around and sped off. Peeler watched as the driver repeated looping back to the same spot in the road.
“Jim, go up there and see if you can see anything,” Mulloney insisted.
“There ain’t nothin’, Dan. I told you that.”
“No cops? No noise? No cars or anything?”
“Nope. Nothin’. Just this Waco Herald-Tribune car coming back and forth and throwing gravel when it spins around.”
“How do you know it’s theirs?”
“Trust me. I know.”
“They don’t have markings on their cars.”
“It’s them, Dan. I know their people as well as you do.” Exasperated, Peeler repeated the question he had been asking all morning. “Are you sure this is gonna happen, Dan?”
The people who had informed Dan Mulloney that a cadre of federal law officers was going to arrest David Koresh were solid, dependable sources. Mulloney, known for having his own network of reliable informants, had cultivated the confidences of police, ambulance drivers, defense attorneys, dispatchers, bail bondsmen, and anyone connected to criminal activities around Waco. In this case, though, a radio operator for an emergency medical transport company, a woman with whom Mulloney was living, had been corroborating his information. He also told me that he had been tipped by one of the reporters from the Waco newspaper. Peeler’s anxiety, however, prompted Mulloney to double check the info with his girlfriend. His call to the emergency hotline was automatically recorded and became a part of the body of evidence related to the Branch Davidian raid.
“I thought you said this was happening this morning for sure,” Mulloney said. “We don’t see a thing.”
“It’s happening,” his girlfriend said. “They’re already out there and they’ve asked for body bags to be brought with rescue.”
The confirmation was passed on to Peeler, who had made his way around to Old Mexia Road and had pulled off on the shoulder to study his map. The window was down to let in some cool air when a Buick with faded paint stopped near the driver’s side door. U.S. Mail carrier yellow lights were attached to the roof. The man behind the wheel of the Buick leaned over to speak with Peeler.
“Hey buddy. You lost? I’ve been watching you drive up and down this road out here.”
“Yeah, matter of fact, I am,” Peeler admitted to the stranger.
The two men got out of their vehicles and stood beneath a tree.
“It seems like there’s a lot of traffic on this ole country road today.” The observation sounded innocent to Jim Peeler. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Mister, you know where this place is they call Rodenville or Mt. Carmel?” Peeler had ignored the question put to him.
“Sure. See that big yellow building over there with the satellite dish on the roof? That’s it.”
“Yeah? That’s it? How do you know?”
“I’m a mail carrier. I used to deliver mail to them.”
“Yeah, and they are all crazy down there. They used to ask me into their house and all. I got along with them okay. But I don’t do that road no more. I deliver in the China Springs area now. But something’s goin’ on out here. Something ain’t right. Hey, is something gonna happen out here? You know anything?”
“Yeah. Could be. But I’m not really sure.”
“You with Channel 10?” The man had finally taken note of one of the KWTX-TV markings on Jim Peeler’s news truck.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Oh yeah? Me and my wife, we live in a trailer house out on Beaver Lake Road and we watch Channel Ten all the time. I reckon we’ll tune in tonight and see what’s gonna happen.”
The mail carrier’s name was David Jones, a slender, six foot blade wearing a brown and red plaid jacket that looked like a shirt. Peeler remembered Jones listening to everything he said with his arms folded across his chest. A baseball cap was on Jones’ head and long, straggly blonde hair hung out from beneath its edges.
A distant fwop-fwop of helicopter blades interrupted their conversation. Jones kept talking as Peeler walked toward the nearby fence line and scanned the horizon to confirm what he suspected was the source of the sound.
“You hear those helicopters?” Peeler asked Jones.
“I don’t hear nothin’. I just hear that dairy over there. Used to be a dairy made noises over in that direction. But I don’t hear no helicopters.”
Suddenly, the rotor slap got louder and Jones knew Peeler’s assessment had been correct.
“What’s helicopters doin’ out here? Something’s gonna happen. I know it. But them are Apaches and Chinooks. They damn sure don’t belong on this side of I-35.”
“How do you know so much about helicopters?”
“I was in the service. I used to be a helicopter mechanic. You learn the sound.”
Peeler watched as the choppers passed low in the sky between him and the yellow building with the satellite dish on the roof. Jones followed him back to the car as Peeler ran to answer his chirping cell phone.
“Where are you?” Dan Mulloney’s voice sounded desperate.
“I’m with a mailman,” Peeler said.
Mulloney repeated to reporter John McLemore what Peeler had said and then spoke back into the phone.
Peeler did not know if David Jones had heard Mulloney’s complaint on the other end of the line. Jones resumed talking about Rodenville and said he had read the morning paper about how David Koresh and his people were supposed to have guns inside their compound. Gunfire was sometimes heard at Mt. Carmel but Jones said he thought it was mostly shooting at jackrabbit and javelina. Subsequently, Jones got back into his car and pointed it in the direction of the big yellow building with the satellite dish. Peeler noticed the car’s old paint was probably yellow or gold. Jones stopped beside the KWTX-TV truck as he completed turning around his car. Peeler was listening to his two-way radio.
“Hey man,” Jones said. “I’m gonna go down there and see if I can tell if anything’s happening.”
By the time Peeler had turned his head to respond, the Buick was moving toward Rodenville. He phoned the television station to give the news director an update on the situation.
“Hey, a bunch of people been stoppin’ to ask me what’s goin’ on out here,” he told Rick Bradfield.
“Okay. If anyone else asks what we are doing, Jim, tell them we’re doing a garbage dump story.”
“Okay. I’ll get back with you later, Rick.”
Unexpectedly, three unmarked Texas Department of Public Safety cars roared past Peeler’s parked truck. A dark blue Plymouth was leading them in the same direction that David Jones had earlier traveled. Peeler started his truck, dropped it into gear, and slipped in behind the speeding procession before he keyed his radio microphone and alerted Dan Mulloney.
“Hey, man. It looks like it’s goin’ down now.”
The gloom that Jim Peeler had been feeling for the past day was becoming more of a physical presence as he raced to catch up with the lawmen. In the pre-dawn, the TV photographer had been on his knees, beside his own bed, praying for the feeling to pass. Morning prayers were a ritual he had performed without fail for thirty five years. The day federal agents surrounded Mt. Carmel, Peeler had asked God if his worries were only his imagination. He told himself that he would be back from his Sunday morning assignment in time to attend regular services with his family at their church in Marlin.
Peeler will never understand why his God led him to a chance meeting on a country road with a mailman named David Jones. He will always believe that the lives of the Branch Davidians were destroyed by the almost incomprehensible circumstances of that encounter and he has spent many years accepting blame for their deaths. Mail carrier David Jones was a Branch Davidian and close confidante of David Koresh and after talking with Jim Peeler he had hurried to Mt. Carmel to inform Koresh that law enforcement was approaching their compound.
“The night before I was lying on the floor watching TV with my little girl,” Peeler said. “I can remember this like it was last night. She had her little head right here on my shoulder, just above my arm. And I told her, I said, ‘Your daddy’s got to go to work tomorrow but it doesn’t feel good. I just don’t know about it.’ And you know what she said? Hell, I should’ve listened to my six year old, too. None of this would’ve ever happened.”
“Don’t go, daddy,” she begged. “Please? Just don’t go.”
A break in the topographical surface of the land traverses Texas, north and south, from just outside of Fort Worth to the Hill country beyond the reaches of San Antonio’s western suburbs. The Balcones Escarpment is a minor geographical separation of the rocky, unforgiving ground, which has left the sunset side eight hundred to a thousand feet elevated. Geographers argue that along this frontier is where the South ends and the West begins. The evidence is not easy to ignore. Westerly, trees begin to lose their stature in the heat and cholla cacti proliferate. The soil fades into unpromising sandy loam with rocks protruding above the surface and rainfall accumulations are modest. On the far side of the Edwards Plateau, along the Concho River Valley and west of the branches of the Llano River, the South surrenders to the ocotillo, huisache, mesquite, and varieties of cacti that populate the Chihuahuan Desert.
Looking eastward from the top of the escarpment, dark, hopeful soil spreads toward the Gulf of Mexico. Neat fields of corn and cotton are visible all the way to the horizon and rainfall is greater. The land is greener. In an airplane, the contrast is stark, sudden, and unsettling. No real connection exists between the two ecologies. These two worlds are intuitively disassociated while still being physically adjoined. The escarpment has become the only explanation for a number of strange people and occurrences around Waco, as if the lack of a geographical transition between the two topographies has had an effect on psychological development. The pecan bottoms along the Brazos River Valley and the black pasturelands of Central Texas seem to have produced a disproportionate share of tortured souls.
Before the Branch Davidian shootout, Waco was known for more than being the town where the Dr. Pepper soft drink was created. A seventeen year old black man, who was being tried for the murder of a farm woman, made the mistake of admitting the killing in open court. Jesse Washington was convicted of the slaying of Lucy Fryer in the 1916 trial. Although the law called for a life sentence, Washington was surrounded in the courtroom and dragged outside where a chain was slipped around his neck and he was dipped in hot coal oil. A crowd estimated at fifteen thousand watched as the uneducated farmhand choked slowly to death hanging from the branch of a post oak tree, his flailing legs speeding suffocation.
A photographer recorded the lynching of Jesse Washington and witnessed body parts being cut off and passed through the crowd for souvenirs. The mutilated carcass was placed in a burlap sack and dragged behind a car before the remains were then hung from a pole. The photos and written descriptions were distributed nationally and the rest of the U.S. began to refer to the mob justice as, “The Waco Horror.” Of the 4742 lynchings known to have occurred on American soil between 1882 and 1968, Jesse Washington’s actually had a sociological impact. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People employed the record of Washington’s death as a tool to get the nation’s first anti-lynching law passed by Congress in 1921.
Waco and vicinity are replete, however, with more modern examples of ruined individual minds. David Koresh was simply a prime time, internationally broadcast episode of the region’s dark history. The other stories are as fundamentally frightening. Possibly the most unsettling is the tale of Kenneth McDuff, a man who tortured cats as a child, was convicted of multiple murders, and sent to prison. Raised in a crossroads rural town with a café, feed store, and a water tower, McDuff got out of prison as part of an early release program and then hurried back to killing. He left an unknown number of victims buried in unknown locations. McDuff was finally run to ground by U.S. Marshals Parnell and Mike McNamara and executed by the state of Texas.
George “Jo Jo” Hennard’s heinous act was a single incident of astonishing violence. Whatever was screaming at Hennard’s consciousness on a sunny afternoon south of Waco, it caused him to point his pickup at the front wall of a Luby’s cafeteria. He accelerated into the glass and his truck came to a stop inside the dining room. Hennard stepped out of the cab of his truck and walked around the shattered cafeteria systematically executing the mostly elderly diners by pointing his handgun at the back of their heads and pulling the trigger. Twenty three people lay dead before Hennard decided he was finished. The horror concluded when he put the gun to his own head and fired.
No one in Waco had any reason to be contemplating the past in February of 1993. Wildflowers and warm days were close and the city was about to entertain a convention of travel professionals. There were significant clues, however, danger was afoot in Waco. The Chamber of Commerce had scheduled the tourism convention for the weekend of February 27 – 28 and had booked every hotel room in the city for travel industry writers and executives. The U.S. federal government offered no explanation when it ordered the rooms turned over to agents of various unspecified operations. The travel professionals moved to the closest hotels in Hillsborough and Temple. At the Waco Convention Center, which is part of the Hilton Hotel complex, men wearing nylon jackets bearing “ATF” stitching were walking the hallways with travel conventioneers. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms had also booked a room at the convention center for a 4:00 p.m. Sunday news conference.
Federal agents had done nothing to disguise their identity over the course of several days in Waco. The Waco Herald-Tribune’s reports on the Branch Davidians ought to have been motivation for them to take off their marked jackets and badges. Instead, they talked openly about why they were in town. At a downtown bar, agents had brashly drawn an outline of the Mt. Carmel compound on a napkin and carelessly left it to be recovered by a waitress. KWTX-TV’s Rick Bradfield is still in possession of the haunting sketch. Possibly more astonishing was the appearance of agents at the city’s charity ball a week before the Mt. Carmel raid. KWTX-TV General Manager Ray Deaver told investigators that he had seen BATF officers walking around the ballroom wearing the government insignia.
A hundred miles north on Interstate 35, the Dallas regional office of the BATF had been busy making cryptic phone calls to journalists telling them about an impending event near Waco. Public Information Officer Linda Wheeler had contacted television news departments in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to inform them of potential “good visuals” associated with the execution of a search warrant. One day prior to the Mt. Carmel incident, Don Marion, news director of the Waco ABC-TV affiliate, was asked by a Dallas television station if he was planning to have cameras at the location when the warrant was served.
“Absolutely not,” Marion answered. “Of course, we had no idea what might happen.”
The conscientiously ignored truth about what was unfolding outside Waco is that the entire community had been inadvertently placed on alert. Prisoners in the county lockup had information about the BATF’s plan. A jailer told KWTX-TV photographer Dan Mulloney he had heard an inmate talking about the raid two days before it had happened. Ambulance drivers, local police and fire departments, and rescue teams had all been placed on twenty four hour call. A two part, front page newspaper series, commandeered hotel rooms, media tips from government offices, and law enforcement warnings meant that, if the Branch Davidians did not know the BATF was coming, they were the only souls in a five county region who did not. Photographer Jim Peeler’s chance conversation with mailman David Jones was only one more piece of information; not the sole cause of the tragedy.
Photographer Dan Mulloney told me several years later that he had gotten his advance information on the raid from Tommy Witherspoon, a reporter for the Waco paper. Mulloney and Witherspoon had become friends through their mutual interest in the courthouse and police beats. According to Jim Peeler, Mulloney had also informed him that the tip came from Witherspoon. The newspaper reporter has refused to speak to anyone about his sources on the Branch Davidian tragedy. Mulloney confirmed Witherspoon’s information by checking with his law enforcement contacts and then encouraged Peeler to help him cover the story. He did not, however, provide Peeler with details.
Dan Mulloney had a thick silver beard, long gray hair and a gruffness that did not offer comfort to people sitting for interviews in front of his camera. Generally, television news photographers with Mulloney’s experience have moved on to larger markets and more lucrative paychecks and his failure to make that transition gave him some resentment. He was, nonetheless, a very capable photographer and an even better newsman. Uninterested in artsy features, Mulloney released his energy and talent by covering hard news, breaking crime, and disaster stories.
By 7:20 a.m. on February 28th, Mulloney had already been in his first minor dispute of the day. Reporter John McLemore, who had been called in to write the story of the impending arrests, had demanded that he ride to the site with Jim Peeler because he wanted to enjoy Peeler’s new truck instead of Mulloney’s overworked old Ford Bronco. The aggressive and confident McLemore had often irritated Mulloney with his comments and field directions on how he wanted a particular story to be taped. This morning Mulloney was not listening to McLemore’s insistence on riding with Peeler.
“I’m going to be on the front side, John,” Mulloney explained. “If anything happens, that’s where it will happen and that’s where the reporter needs to be.
McLemore dropped his arguments about riding in the other truck and as he and Mulloney traveled down U.S. Highway 6, the photographer began to fill in some of the blanks for his colleague.
“You read the paper, right, John?”
“Yeah, I’ve got the basics.”
“It’s pretty unbelievable, actually, but the feds managed to get that story killed twice before it was published. They went in there and told the editors they couldn’t publish. Said it would cause a big legal problem. They were threatening and all. Said they had been working on an investigation of Vernon Howell or David Koresh or whoever in the hell he is for about a year and publishing the story would blow their chances at arresting him. Such bullshit, man. I guess the paper’s editors finally got some balls and said they were tired of waiting on the feds.”
If any law enforcement official had wanted a simple, risk-free method for arresting Koresh, almost any co-ed at Baylor University might have suggested a plan. Koresh was a regular at the Chelsea Street Pub, a popular hangout for Baylor students. He also patronized the same grocery store each week and jogged almost daily at a scheduled time on the Baylor running track. A great portion of Koresh’s day was also spent refurbishing automobiles in a small garage near U.S. Highway 6, an aluminum walled structure referred to as the Mag Bag. Koresh was often curled over the fender of an old muscle car, his head peering under the hood as he worked alone.
Unaware of the Mag Bag, Mulloney’s Bronco passed it on the left as he and McLemore turned south along the ranch road. Phone calls kept coming from an agitated Jim Peeler. Peeler and Mulloney were best friends but Peeler’s calm and unflappable demeanor often irritated the unsettled Mulloney. Peeler, however, had always proved reliable, both professionally and personally.
In a low spot, Mulloney positioned his car where he and McLemore had a view of the road leading to Mt. Carmel. No law officers would be able to pass without being observed by the photographer and reporter. They got out and stood by the road. A Waco Herald-Herald Tribune vehicle had also stopped at a location that afforded an expansive view of the rise of land topped by the yellow compound. Mulloney assumed the reporters who had written the special series on the Branch Davidians were inside the station wagon with a photographer. Phone calls from Peeler had ceased after he got directions from mailman David Jones and McLemore and Mulloney waited for federal agents to approach and arrest David Koresh.
The cell in Mulloney’s car squeaked again and he knew it was Peeler. “Hey. A bunch of marked cars with feds in ‘em just passed me. Looks like this thing is finally goin’ down.”
Mulloney told McLemore what Peeler had just said and instantly caught sight of a flatbed cattle trailer being pulled behind a truck. A tarpaulin covered the bed of the trailer and it flapped in the wind, undulating up and down as if some large live beast were struggling beneath for release. In a rear corner of the trailer, two men in blue garb with bulky chest armor raised the cover and revealed themselves to Mulloney and McLemore. They smiled and offered a friendly wave, leaving the two journalists with the impression there was no cause for concern. Clearly, the presence of reporters was not a surprise to the BATF agents. They wanted a public record of this moment when the BATF expected to cover itself in law enforcement glory.
Mulloney jumped into the passenger’s seat with his camera and quickly powered up the Sony. McLemore accelerated the truck and caught up with the trailer loaded with armed federal agents. As the caravan rolled onto Branch Davidian property, the lawmen began to release the stays of the tarpaulin and prepared to hit the ground running. Dan Mulloney and John McLemore were still expecting to be back at the television station’s newsroom within an hour.
Unmarked autos stopped in front of Jim Peeler. Drivers and passengers jumped out, popped open trunks, and began putting on bulletproof armor. Peeler turned on his camera and taped the men checking their weapon loads. Two young agents left the car’s doors open and turned up the volume on a two-way radio. One of the agents realized Peeler was taping and pointed to the gravel shoulder of the road, ordering the photographer to keep a measured distance. Peeler still heard the radio transmissions and was able to record them with his camera. A rancher drove up to the roadblock established by the BATF agents and Peeler heard the man say he needed to go up the road to get to his house. The man was informed the road was closed but was expected to be open in about thirty minutes.
The loud aerodynamic noise of rotating helicopter blades caused Peeler and the officers to look up as the choppers moved into view.
“There were three of them,” Peeler remembered. “I don’t know anything about helicopters but there were two big ones and one small one. I know that much because I taped them. And I heard them over the radios in the ATF cars and I recorded those transmissions, too.”
Situated about a half mile from the tower of the Davidian compound, the roadblock where Jim Peeler and the federal agents were located had an unobstructed view of the helicopters as they dipped in closer to the structure.
“Tell the trailers to move up. Tell the trailers to move up. There are no weapons in the tower. There are no weapons in the tower.”
The pilot’s voice on the radio sounded easy and reasoned in Peeler’s earpiece. Through his viewfinder, the choppers looked closer to the compound than they actually were because of the compression effect caused by the focal length of the lens.
Another report came back from one of the helicopter crews. The voice on the radio this time was frantic and worried.
“We are taking massive fire. We are taking massive fire.”
Presently, Peeler’s camera recorded smoke coming from the tail boom of one of the helicopters. Peeler tracked the ship downwards with his camera as the pilot prepared for a hard emergency landing.
A popping sound of automatic gunfire was suddenly being broadcast on one of the two-way radios. Astonished by the significance of what he was hearing, Peeler looked at the agents to see if they were reacting. One of them touched the gun in his hip holster and made a smirk of acknowledgement to another officer. Peeler unsuccessfully attempted to contact Dan Mulloney on his cell phone.
When gunfire finally made its deceptively harmless sounding pop-pop-pop on the radios, Peeler noticed a white Herald-Tribune wagon being halted by DPS officers and BATF agents. Darlene McCormick, one of the two reporters who wrote the series on the Branch Davidians, was lying in the back seat, face down, crying. She composed herself enough for Peeler to ask her a few questions.
“Darlene, what in the world is going on over there?”
“It’s bad, Jim,” she sobbed. “It’s real bad.”
“You see Mulloney and McLemore?”
“Yeah, they’re all over there. They’re pinned down. God, it’s so awful, Jim. I don’t know if Rod and Mark and Tommy have been shot. Jim, can I use your phone?”
“Sure. Can you reach Mulloney?”
“No, I already tried before my phone went dead. I need to try to call inside to speak with Koresh.”
“I was supposed to have an interview with him this morning. But we had this tip that something was going to happen. I was afraid of going inside their compound. The ATF guys kept telling me Koresh might take me hostage and that he was some type of desperate character.”
“Why’d he want you to come inside, Darlene?”
“He was pissed about our series. He said I could just come in and look around and talk to him about anything I wanted. That they had nothing to hide. But I’d gotten afraid. Those ATF guys had gotten to me. I don’t know. God, this is just horrible.”
McCormick handed back Peeler’s phone after she had dialed the number inside the Branch Davidian compound. She had picked up a busy signal. Peeler returned to his camera as a dark blue GMC sport utility arrived at the roadblock. The driver was immediately recognized by the other officers. A brief conversation followed and the dark-haired man began to wail, banging on the roof of his car. Peeler was close enough with his camera to record the emotional outburst.
“God, why? Why? I told them not to come. I told them. Why did they do this? They knew we were coming. I called the commanders. I told them they were aware we were on our way. Why in the hell did they do this?”
The man cradled his face in his arms and sobbed. Jim Peeler did not learn until viewing the tape many days later that the man was Robert Rodriguez, an undercover agent who had been living with the Branch Davidians and providing investigators with information. Through the camera lens, though, Rodriguez was just another frightened witness on a Sunday morning when the air filled with the thunk and snap of discharging guns.
“Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Let’s go, John. Damnit. Dan Mulloney was loading tape into his camera as he urged reporter John McLemore to increase their speed.
“I’m hurrying, Dan.”
The two were already hearing reports of gunfire as McLemore brought the Bronco to a stop near a bus, which was parked, improbably, in front of the Davidian’s home. BATF agents had scattered across the open space between the bus and the compound. Several were advancing closer to the yellow walls. Mulloney ducked out the door of the Ford, dragging his camera and tripod, hunching low beneath the bullets zipping through the air.
McLemore tumbled out and tried to get a sense of what was happening. Moving over on the other end of the gray bus, he saw the blue-jacketed BATF agents pointing their automatic weapons at targets as indistinct as walls and windows. Splinters of wood blew off when bullets tore through the thin clapboard. One agent was already lying on the ground, motionless.
Near the front of the bus, Dan Mulloney had spread the legs of his tripod, snapped down his heavy camera onto the plate, and began recording. Mulloney would have been safer if he had hand held his camera and crawled under the bus. Instead, he had positioned himself just inside the field of fire and concentrated his lens on a spot where agents were bringing forward a ladder. He taped as BATF officers climbed up on the roof, clawed at window frames, punched out glass with the stock end of their weapons, reached in and began firing blindly. In one sequence later broadcast around the planet, a Branch Davidian behind the wall fired through a second floor dormer where an officer was positioned. The BATF agent watched the bullets explode the wooden slats on either side of him and then slid down the roof to his ladder. Wounded were staggering away from the building with their blue uniforms darkened by blood. Bullets pinged off the side of the bus where Mulloney was standing next to his camera. One tore into the doorframe of the Bronco.
McLemore got Mulloney’s attention and pointed out action the photographer was unable to see through his viewfinder. The reporter was watching scenes he wanted captured and did not think Mulloney was recording enough of the standoff. Mulloney resisted and asked for more tape from the car. The gunfight had been going on long enough that the photographer was worried about his twenty minute cassette being expended. Unseen people fell behind the walls and bleeding government agents were screaming for help.
McLemore eventually worked his way back to the news truck and phoned in several descriptions of the battle. Station archives record him saying he and Mulloney were, “pinned down by a firefight,” and weapons fire from within the compound. Mulloney moved his camera and taped McLemore hunkered down on the front seat below the level of the windshield as he spoke to the station. McLemore was in a position to see Waco Herald-Tribune reporters Tommy Witherspoon, David Sanderford, and Mark England, who were flattened out on the ground and exposed to harm. Bullets sent up puffs of dirt as they landed on their periphery.
“I could not believe how unorganized and chaotic everything was,” Mulloney recalled. “It just seemed like nobody was in command and agents were running around everywhere, just shooting and shooting in the direction of the compound. A bunch of them were trying to get those big doors open at the front and another group was going up on the roof. Nobody looked like they were working with anybody else to get anything done. There just didn’t seem to be any kind of a plan.
“Everybody was panicked, I can tell you that. Especially those guys who had been hit. They were screaming. I think one or two of them got hit in the gut just below their armor. You just could not tell what anyone was trying to do. No one other than the ATF and the Davidians knew what started all the shooting.”
The BATF officers went ahead with their plan of attack even though they had been told by their own undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, that the Davidians were ready and itching for a fight. David Koresh had been tipped by David Jones, the mailman who had met Peeler on the country road. The Davidians must have been blind if they did not pick up on many other developments in Waco that indicated this was to be an unusual Sunday morning. A parade of agents in their personal cars had stretched out over two miles up Interstate 35 as they drove up from their training grounds at Fort Hood. The team assembled at Bellmead Community Center where highway 84 and Loop 340 intersect. Even on a Sunday, there was passing auto traffic as the agents milled about the parking lot wearing their Kevlar suits and BATF insignia. The raid team on the cattle trailers also passed the Mag Bag where three Davidians had been hanging out and working on cars. In the fifteen minutes it took the BATF raid team to drive between the Mag Bag and Mt. Carmel, one of them could have easily phoned Koresh inside of the compound to offer a warning.
Gunfire stopped and Mulloney and McLemore saw the wounded BATF agents lying in front of the compound. A cease-fire had been negotiated over the telephone and injured were being evacuated. Mulloney changed tapes in his camera and slipped the first one down the front of his pants because he was worried that police or BATF officials might try to confiscate his recording. He walked over to his KWTX-TV news truck, which was one of only two vehicles capable of carrying the wounded. Three seriously injured agents were loaded into the Bronco, holding their open wounds as McLemore drove them back to meet the Lifeflight helicopter for transport to a hospital. BATF officers thanked Mulloney and McLemore and credited them with saving the lives of the agents. The two journalists had also assisted with communications. The BATF had asked them to call for medical help because radios being used by agents, absurdly, were not programmed to communicate with the command and control center.
Mulloney backed away from his truck with the camera rolling as McLemore eased his passengers across the gravel to the hardtop road. The photographer had chosen to walk out and look for the microwave relay truck that he expected KWTX to have parked close to the scene of the shootout. The tape Mulloney recorded during his exit, which was never nationally broadcast, is the most revealing documentary record of the standoff. Before reaching the ranch road, Mulloney taped five agents as they carried out the limp body of a fallen officer. The man’s neck dripped blood in a trail across the ground. Mulloney turned around near the fence line and saw agents walking beside his news truck with one of their fellow officers draped across the hood. They were holding onto the man, offering encouragement as they tried to reach the medical evacuation point. All of the agents scowled at Mulloney and his camera.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Mulloney spun to face the accusatory questioner, one of two sheriff’s deputies.
“You don’t belong here,” the second deputy said.
The camera recorded a dull whacking thud and Mulloney crying out in pain. The camera was taping as Mulloney was attacked by the lawmen. Blows came from nightsticks and fists. Angry voices are heard on the videotape.
“Damn you. You’re the cause of this happening.” McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell was making the allegation. “You know better than this. Goddmanit. Who the hell do you think you are? You got no business here and you know it.”
More blows landed on Mulloney from the lawmen. The camera’s viewpoint jumped around and tipped as he was being hit. Mulloney moved off and made no attempt to defend himself because he did not want to be arrested and surrender his historic videotape of the shootout. Hands grabbed at his camera.
“Let go of my camera,” Mulloney protested. “Leave me alone. This is mine.”
Deputy Sheriff Coy Jones attempted to kick Mulloney’s legs out from under him as the BATF agents and the sheriff reached for the camera. His retreat marked the last time there was any neutral observer near the Branch Davidian compound before it was consumed by fire.
“I don’t know any other way to say this except the honest way and that’s that they were all assholes. The ATF screwed up. They knew it and I had it on tape. I had pictures of their guys dying for no reason. I had pictures of them assaulting citizens who were exercising their right to practice religious freedom and to keep and bear arms. It was all there on tape. They just wanted us there, originally, so that we could videotape them playing cowboy, making Koresh out to be Satan and them being the great heroes to protect us all. That’s obviously why they had their people call us from Dallas and tip us. What a bunch of bullshit. You know my job was never to take sides on this thing and I didn’t. I just recorded it as it happened.”
Mulloney had recorded the deadliest day in the history of U.S. law enforcement. Four BATF agents were dead, seventeen injured, and an untold number of Davidians were dying and bleeding inside of their flimsy compound. Eventually, the gun battle was also going to destroy Dan Mulloney.
On his way to the newsroom the next morning, Jim Peeler stopped at a Shell gas station to buy newspapers and see how the story was being reported. A woman working behind the counter was making breakfast tacos. She noticed Peeler’s interest in the front page headlines.
“Looks like them religious fanatics got them some trouble, don’t it?”
Peeler offered no response.
“Yeah, that mailman of theirs? He was in here just yesterday trying to convert all of us.”
“Mailman?” Peeler asked, shaken.
“Yeah, he comes around here in that old, yellowish gold Buick he drives on his route.”
Rolling up the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle as he walked, the TV photographer found a trashcan and tossed away the newspapers. He said he felt like he had taken one of the Branch Davidians’ bullets in the gut.
“I know in my heart I wasn’t responsible for what happened out there that day. But, you know, I don’t think they would’ve been prepared if I hadn’t run into that mailman. The whole surprise thing would’ve still been working for the ATF. I don’t know. I’ve got to live with the guilt of what happened because a lot of people think I’m responsible for those lives, the agents and the Davidians.”
There were many people who agreed with Peeler’s critical self-assessment. On ABC-TV’s Nightline a reporter from the Houston paper, Kathy Walt, who later become press secretary to Texas’ Republican governor, went on the air and repeated information planted from BATF sources that claimed TV crews were hanging out of the trees when the cattle trailers arrived at the compound loaded with agents. Desperate for someone to blame for the epic failure, the federal government pointed investigators at Jim Peeler, Dan Mulloney, and John McLemore. The BATF turned the three KWTX-TV employees into suspects and accused them of tipping the Branch Davidians. They were innocent of doing anything other than acting with great courage to report on a story of profound national importance.
Jim Peeler still worked for almost the same salary at the same television station in Waco more than a decade later. He also kept the clothes he was wearing the morning of February 28, 1993 and they are crumpled in a box at his home in the Waco suburb of Hewitt. The BBC pullover, nylon windbreaker, and his jeans have never again been worn. Back in the corner there are also some colored drawings. His daughters, who were then attending a Christian school, had told other children of their father’s work as a photojournalist at the shootout. The girls’ teacher allowed the class to make colorings of how they thought things looked that morning at Mt. Carmel. Across the top of one of those drawings, Peeler saw a child’s large block print. “You must be a hero.”
“Not only was I not a hero, I was the opposite of a hero. I don’t care what you say; it would have all been different if I hadn’t talked to that mailman. Everything that happened that day was sad. I feel sorry for all of those people, the adults and the kids. But you know what? I got it, too; just in a different way.
“You ever see that movie? The Sixth Sense? I’m like that guy in that movie. He’s dead but he just doesn’t know it yet. That’s me. I’m dead. My body’s alive and everything, sure. But otherwise, I’m just as dead as they are.”
As crushed as they were by being blamed for causing the tragedy, Peeler, Mulloney, and McLemore were diligent and productive during the 51 day standoff, often breaking stories the national journalists were compelled to chase. None of the three ever seemed to leave the narrow stretch of ranch road that had turned into a media compound.
I was working twenty hour days with Kirk Swann and Victor Cooper and was afraid to leave for food or even sleep. Finally realizing that a hot meal at a table might help me escape the daily death watch, Kirk and I ventured into Waco for lunch at a café along the Brazos River. As our food was being delivered, a television screen above the bar showed smoke rising from within the Branch Davidian compound. We raced back to the scene to report on the fatal fire. Peeler, McLemore, and Mulloney were still standing their watches, delivering the news, underpaid and unrelenting, as dozens of Koresh’s believers and their children were consumed by the federal government’s prairie fire.
Dan Mulloney and John McLemore joined Peeler in becoming casualties of the fight between the Branch Davidians and the United States of America. McLemore, a talented young reporter, was never able to get hired at a major market station even though his work was consistently strong and he had performed ably during great danger. He left television, entered public relations work, and was deeply troubled by his memories of that day. McLemore’s marriage failed and he left his wife and child in Waco and went to live in Houston. He has finally recovered and built a successful life as an executive in the energy industry.
Mulloney’s decline was precipitous. Peeler was often called by his friend to bail him out of messes when Mulloney had been drinking. His videotape of the shootout never received any kind of national recognition and Mulloney left KWTX-TV to try freelancing. He made enough money to pay rent on a second floor walkup apartment on the edge of Waco, which is where his landlord found Mulloney’s body when he died of natural causes at age 52. Mulloney’s drinking, combined with Hepatitis C he had contracted during a blood transfusion, had destroyed his liver.
I drove to Waco for Mulloney’s funeral. He had been a friend who had always been generous helping me produce my own stories. We saw each other frequently on various assignments around Texas. I sat next to Jim Peeler as Rick Bradfield, news director of KWTX-TV, eulogized his lost photographer. A handful of people were in the chapel of the funeral home. Peeler kept looking over at me, shaking his head in disbelief as if he feared the same premature end as a result of the things he carried with him from Mt. Carmel.
“You know, Dan’s partly responsible for what happened to him,” Peeler told me afterwards. “You can’t fight stuff by getting’ drunk. But man, he got screwed, too. He should have won every award there was to get for them pictures. But it’s almost like he didn’t exist. His own profession wouldn’t even acknowledge him. It was like everybody in TV believed that Dan and John and me were the cause of it all. Well, we weren’t.”
U.S. Marshal Parnell McNamara, who had directed the early investigation of the shootout, stood near the door of the funeral home talking to friends after the service had concluded. He and his brother Mike had initially been suspected as possible sources of the leak about the raid to the Branch Davidians in spite of their impeccable record of nearly three decades in law enforcement. As I shook his hand and said hello, McNamara agreed with Peeler that Mulloney was just another fatality of the Branch Davidian and federal government shootout.
“Hell, we all died out there that day,” McNamara said. “It’s just taking some of us a little longer to get into our graves.”
The Perry Principle is simple to state: If a law, policy, or idea does not in any manner provide benefit to the businesses and personal welfare of Rick Perry’s political donors, it is to be avoided.
Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry does not view the working poor as his constituents. Corporations seeking millions in business development grants and investments are his supporters, and they are rewarded, consistently, through institutions that give away tax money from the poor and middle class. These funds, the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), the Emerging Technology Fund (ETF), and the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF), have mostly benefitted individuals and businesses with political connections to Perry. CPRIT is still under a potential criminal investigation by the Travis County District Attorney.
That’s okay, though, but it’s wrong to accept health care from the federal government that would provide coverage for up to two million people. Perry, politically obstinate, will create victims of the uninsured to make his points with the White House. If he simply said yes, Medicaid from Washington would deliver $100 billion in funding over ten years for Texas at a cost of about $15 billion to the state. The first three years are free. The state never spends more than 10 percent on the cost of Medicaid. But the Perry Principle requires Little Tex to say no even after Florida’s conservative governor, who had resisted, has come to his senses. Rick Scott said that he just could not, in good conscience, deny health care to people who needed it. He is the seventh conservative governor to surrender to logic after saying they would not allow Medicaid expansion in their states.
But the Texas Rick would call the Florida Rick a wuss.
Perry will have blood on his hands, though, if he persists. People who would have health care will end up in situations that could have been avoided if Perry had said yes, and they will die. And it will be his fault. No one else’s; Rick Perry’s. He might as well have injected them with Ebola virus. And if those two million people get sick enough to go to the hospital, remember that the law does not allow them to be tossed out the door at publicly funded facilities. They will get care. And who do you think pays for that? Not Rick Perry. You will. Health insurance premiums will increase so hospitals can make up their losses. And local property taxes levied through hospital districts will also jump. A few years ago the Texas comptroller estimated uninsured health care cost taxpayers in the state about $10 billion annually. Almost equal to the state’s share for ten years of Medicaid coverage for those two million uninsured. No, it doesn’t make sense. But this, mam, is Texas; we don’t have to make sense.
Just so Rick Perry could say no. Dead people. And higher taxes.
Perry is, basically, telling the taxpayers of his state that they can go ahead and send their tax money to Florida to keep healthy the people who have a more rational governor. If Perry could say Medicaid was not needed because his state was well insured, he might begin to have an argument, but he does not; one out of every four Texans is without health care insurance, which is the highest rate of uninsured in the land of the free. According to several reports, the quality and availability of health care in Texas rates as the worst among the developed countries in the western world.
The contradictions and ironies in Perry’s ignorance are too wild to ignore. His gun control arguments are that we need to address personal and human problems because guns aren’t the issue. Funny, then, that accepting the Medicaid expansion would provide complete coverage for significant numbers of mental health patients, which Texas doesn’t ever treat like health care priorities. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently ranked Texas last in health care in the US at 51st, behind the District of Columbia. Even stupider is the fact that Perry’s choice means that patients that are currently the most expensive for the state’s share of Medicaid, like those getting long term home care or pregnant women, would be moved into Medicaid coverage paid almost completely by the federal government.
Perry won’t last on this one. If his political people aren’t working on a compromise and a message to follow, they will soon find themselves saying, “Oops.” The Texas Medical Association, Texas Hospital Association, the Legislative Budget Board, and the Greater Houston Partnership are just a few of the organizations that want the Medicaid expansion. Houston and Harris County, for instance, would get about $4 billion annually in the deal and would have to fund only $50 million. What a lousy deal. No wonder Perry doesn’t want to touch it. But the monied interests and Perry’s pals will take this decision away from him. There are billions of dollars to be made by insurance companies and health care providers being paid by Medicaid for treating the ill. They will let the Texas governor know that his posturing has gone hyper-absurd and that, at least in this one instance, it might be a good idea to just grow up.
But some people never do.
The weather wailers this past week got me to thinking about a blizzard that didn’t happen one day in Nebraska. I think of it as the “Great Non-Blizzard of 1980.” There, obviously, was no Internet or Weather Channel or wireless phone with which to spread the approaching news of doom. But we did a pretty prolific job with just a little TV tower set upon a hill above the Missouri River.
The National Weather Service, and our TV station’s meteorologist, all began using ominous words to describe an approaching low-pressure center coming across the High Plains out of Wyoming. They were certain the people of Lincoln and Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa were about to be homebound for endless days because of the approaching snow dump.
Our newsroom prepared. Reporters were dispatched to do stories on items needed to outlast the blizzard. What to do if stranded in your vehicle. How to handle power outages. And then we had to do historical pieces on previous blizzards and explain how civilization had managed to survive in spite of journalistic prognostications of a weather apocalypse. Pretty good fun for a young TV reporter.
When the forecast first began clacking over the AP wire, our editors and producers read it and then the executive producer got on the station intercom and announced, “Paging Dr. News. Paging Dr. news.” As the new kid in town, I was uninitiated to this secret mantra. The executive team had decided that in order to prevent panic when a big story happened and all hands were needed, they would page “Dr. News,” and the staff would assemble. I never figured out who was in the building that might be scared of a forecast or a news story but I understood later that this was a derivation of a hospital intercom call for “Paging Dr. Blue,” which is a code for a life-threatening emergency situation. News has to be kept a secret before it can be news, I reckon.
Our newscasts that night, however, were intended, if not to startle, at least to scare people into paying attention to the fact that an historic blizzard was about to set upon the Cornhusker state. Our cameras captured traffic jams and our anchors speculated on how still the streets might be in 24 hours, and we predicted areas that would suffer the most from the snow while also offering free advice on how to check on the homebound and elderly. Gee, it was all swell and useful stuff.
But it damned sure didn’t snow much.
It turned out that the epic storm didn’t have that much precipitation, and, in any case, it had veered to the north as it crossed the cornstalk strewn west. Poor Omaha was barely inconvenienced with hardly six inches of snow, which is less than Nebraskans carry around on the bill of their gimme caps in the dead of January. Unfortunately, at least for me, word had come in that the trailing edge of the storm left an accumulation of maybe 8-10 inches about 30 miles north of Omaha in a small college town called Blair.
“I need you to head up there and get the story,” our assignments editor said. Ann was a lovely woman with a genetically improbable amount of patience and tolerance, whose parameters I daily tested.
“What story?” I asked.
“The snow in Blair.”
“Why? Did they get a lot?”
“More than us.”
“A lot more?”
“Enough to make it a story.”
“Why’s it a story?”
“Right now because I decided it was and we need stories for the six o’clock. Meet the helicopter out at the airport.”
“I have to take the helicopter?”
“Yes, aerials of the snow.”
“I hate helicopters.”
“Sorry. Hurry up or you won’t make deadline.”
The TV station had contracted with a local company to fly a helicopter, when needed, to cover the news. The ship was a Hughes 269C, which, to me, was nothing more than a plastic bubble powered by a four cylinder VW engine strapped to a bench seat. The maximum payload did not appear to be greater than a few days’ groceries and a couple of books but we managed to get on board with a pilot, a photographer, camera gear, and a cranky young correspondent. I had never flown in a helicopter prior to this assignment and I knew I would not be able to avoid them my entire career but flying over snow-covered snowfields hardly seemed a worthy risk.
The assignments desk had called ahead to set up an interview with the mayor and the head of the little street crew that had removed the traces of the “blizzard” from their roadways so that “amble hour” in Blair might proceed without delay. As we flew in, Uncle Pierre taped brown and brittle cornstalks protruding from a snowfall of maybe six inches. I think most of it was melted by the time we met the mayor at the hangar and I pulled out the microphone.
“Did you all have much of a problem with the storm yesterday?”
“No, not really. We managed,” he said.
“What’d you do to prepare?”
“Not much. Some folks left work from the college early, but it wasn’t too bad, other ‘n that.”
“No trouble with your roads?”
“No, sir, we’ve got a couple of graders kept what little snow we got off the surface and we threw down a bit of salt.”
“Any problems you can think of at all?”
The helicopter pulled pitch back into the sky and we circled around poor weather-plagued Blair to get some more pictures of the town recovering from an epic snowstorm. I looked at Uncle Pierre and he just shrugged and when I got back to the newsroom and was asked by Ann if I had gotten the story I responded positively and even a bit enthusiastically. Stories in journalism, of course, are nothing more than a narrative telling of facts, and I had the facts. I’m not sure how I ever got it past the editors but it ended up on the six o’clock news, I think, as the lead story.
“It also snowed in Blair yesterday. They, too, plowed their streets, although there were no difficulties created by the almost six inch snowfall recorded by the national weather service. A few people left work early but local officials say there was no record of accidents or any emergencies. From the Action News Six Chopper Cam, you can see the snow accumulation did not reach to the tops of the harvested cornstalks. Life in Blair goes on.”
TV was exciting because it offered the prospects of being annoying on a more widespread basis. I no longer had to settle for one on one conversations. But he newsroom went silent. Everyone turned away from the monitors to stare at me. And then most of them left for home without speaking to me. Nobody even bothered to laugh. I didn’t get my additional journalistic training until the big boss came in the next morning. I did keep my job, but just barely.
I hear the lovely community of Blair has also recovered.
George P. Bush is burning with ambition, not ideas but lots of ambition. The latest Bush to sprout on the Texas political landscape is long on pedigree and short on ideology. Of course, that never stops a Bush from running for public office. They call it public service but they act like it’s a birthright, and when a Bush leaves office the greatest accomplishment left behind is that certain donors to their political dreams now have bigger bank accounts. And in George W’s case, two wars were burning our national treasure.
Think of George P. as a small W. Like his uncle, the former president, George P. hasn’t expressed his views on issues prior to filing for a Texas campaign. Karl Rove practically drafted W. to run for governor of Texas when all W wanted to do was to become the commissioner of Major League Baseball. I caught the former president’s ambivalence toward the White House one night on a late flight from California back to Maine and I asked him, “Governor, what happens if you lose this thing?”
“Oh that wouldn’t be so bad,” he said. “I’d go back to Dallas, run the baseball team, sit on some boards, Laura and the girls and I would have a good life.”
A lot of other people would have simply had lives, if that had happened. We certainly would not have invaded Iraq and any other president would’ve gone into Afghanistan first to get Bin Laden where he lived instead of pretending Saddam were involved.
Small W isn’t up to speed on any issues. But he thinks he ought to hold office. He’s said publicly, “We’re definitely running, we just don’t know what office yet.” Clearly, he’s called to serve. Or just hold office because he’s a Bush. Small W went to Austin and visited the office of Land Commissioner like he was shopping for a new house to buy, which is kind of what he’s doing. In a matter of weeks after filing, he had raised well over a million dollars from the usual Bush family cronies like Harold Simmons of Dallas, a multi-billionaire who is making untold buckets of money dumping nuclear waste into the ground outside of Andrews, Texas, a town that I am certain Small W doesn’t even know exists. Simmons was a big contributor to Rove’s failed Crossroads group and funded much of the Swift Boat Veterans’ attack on John Kerry. Just, generally, you know, a good fella.
But George P. says nothing on issues and is, at best, a political dilettante. He does have the knack for Bush opportunism, however. After Chris Kyle, the American Sniper was murdered while trying to help a fellow veteran, Small W let it be known he was going to meet with Kyle to talk about veterans’ issues. He, subsequently, took the courageous stand of wanting to help veterans. “Today, I won’t be having that conversation with Chris, but we as Americans need to do a better job of understanding the realities of PTSD and what we can do to help our veterans transition successfully back into society, including offering counseling, mentoring, and support.” This is what’s known in public policy circles as a tenacious grasp at the obvious. Except, if he followed family protocol, he’d vote to fund the wars the Chris Kyle’s have to fight but he’d skimp on the money to take care of them when they got home. At least Small W, unlike his uncle, served in a war zone, doing six months in Afghanistan under a secret identity.
Small W does, at a minimum, have political vision, even if he lacks issues awareness and ideology. If he runs for Land Commissioner in Texas in 2014, he will benefit from his mother’s Hispanic ancestry as well as the likelihood that his father, Jeb, will almost certainly be in the primary race for the GOP nomination in 2016, which would only boost George P’s profile. But what does he know of Texas? He went to law school in the state and now works at a big firm in Dallas but I’m guessing Jon Steward knows more about Texas than Small W.
It’s likely America still has Bush fatigue and it won’t go away in the next four years. But Texas never suffered from it. And Small W is the latest symptom for which we’ve yet to take a cure.
We just can’t stay out of the news in Texas, and the headlines are generally embarrassing. Of course, when I say that, I know that there are more people who are pleased down here by our consistently odd publicity than there are those who grimace. Whenever Texas makes news, it tends to be for something unpleasant. I had a British tabloid reporter tell me that on Fleet Street in London where the tabloids are published, the editors all snicker that “The only two certainties in journalism are death and Texas.”
Guns are driving the news this week. Chris Kyle, a Texan, was killed at point blank on a gun range. Kyle was known as the “Devil of Ramadi” because he was the most prolific sniper in American military history. The stories of him are legendary and he is said to have once made a kill shot at 2100 yards, about a mile and a quarter, a takedown that saved the lives of U.S. soldiers. Kyle’s book, “American Sniper,” had become a best seller and he had taken to helping his fellow vets deal with PTSD. The early reports of his death on the range outside of Stephenville indicated Kyle had been counseling Eddie Ray Routh, the man that was said to have killed Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield.
This made convenient irony for Englishman Piers Morgan, who has a bit of a low-rated show on CNN. He brought his nightly broadcast to Texas to shoot a big-assed machine gun, talk to Kyle’s co-author, and give air time to our state’s attorney general, who is working hard to position himself to the right of Rick Perry. AG Greg Abbott’s arguments in favor of no new gun control can be summed up as, “Just because.” It is immediately entertaining to listen to Texas elected types try to explain their resistance to gun control. They have no logic or rational arguments. They simply believe restrictions can’t be allowed “just because” of the Second Amendment. The existence of guns is sufficient reason for them to be owned and unrestricted. After New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the most restrictive gun regulations in the country, Abbott made a fool of himself by placing an ad in the New York Times urging the state’s gun nuts to move to Texas.
The closest Texas leaders ever come to explaining their resistance to gun control is their insistence that their weapons are the only thing protecting the country from anarchy, fascism, and government control. It’s a hilarious line of thinking. All of the guns in all of the closets and cabinets and pickups haven’t stopped the government from approving the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows your arrest and detention without rights of habeas corpus. Those guns won’t stop a damned thing if Uncle Sam decides to go rogue. Are we going to protect our homes from drones with our AR-15s and grandpa’s 12-gauge shotgun? If the government wanted to take away your freedoms, it could happen tomorrow and household weaponry isn’t going to stop anything. There is a bit of a technological and historical difference between where America is now and the situation it found itself in back in 1776. Today, the revolutionaries would be called Minutemen because that’s about how long they’d last.
I was also going to write about Texas’ public education system being ruled unconstitutional, but, hell, a guy gets depressed and doesn’t even want to think about it, much less punch a keyboard to explain things. Think of this: the first suit challenging the unfairness of Texas schools was in 1968, and the state lost. I think it’s lost a total of six times after the latest ruling. And nothing ever changes. Lawmakers file appeals, promise to improve funding for poor districts, and provide a quality education, but mostly they resist. And nothing ever improves. A guy like Rick Perry says the schools are very well funded. And another suit gets filed.
I need a beer.
Whenever one of his football players has done something improper and in public, University of Texas head football coach Mack Brown tries to put an end to the controversy by saying, “We’ll deal with this like a family, privately, and keep it in our house.” The tactic is reasonable for a coach managing young people but it ignores the actual size of the UT family, and it raises the question of what obligations Brown has to the alums that write big donor checks, as well as the faithful fans who buy tickets and cheer the old school.
Just keeping it in the family can create new problems.
A little more than a month after two of his players were sent home from the Alamo Bowl when an unnamed woman accused them of sexual assault in a hotel room, Brown now has before him a story that he’s kept in “the family” for four years. Former Longhorn quarterback and assistant coach Major Applewhite has acknowledged a sexual indiscretion outside of his marriage during the 2009 Fiesta Bowl appearance by UT. According to a number of sports writers doing simple math, Applewhite and his wife had a daughter born in January 2009, which means Applewhite was messing around just as he was about to become a father. This might make the Opie-faced country boy something more than a basic cad.
The university announced that it was aware of the situation, Applewhite had been disciplined, and he was undergoing counseling. But that fails to answer questions that linger. Why now? Was someone threatening a lawsuit? Was a reporter finally onto the story and ready to confront the university? There is also some relevance to the identity of the involved female. A few of the UT football fan sites, which often have information ahead of traditional sports media, have suggested she was a student trainer for the team. This might suggest to the Longhorn nation there was something more to the Applewhite situation than a one-time lack of judgment. Regardless, Applewhite is back on the job.
But Bev Kearney is not.
The UT track coach, who had been with the university for 21 years and had won 6 national championships, resigned when she learned she was going to be fired for a relationship with an adult student athlete that she coached ten years ago. There’s no indication the university had worked to keep this quiet. But what confounds any observer is the timing. Kearney was on the verge of a receiving a raise that would have taken her compensation package from $270,000 for $475,000 by 2017 and she would have become one of the highest paid Olympic sports coaches in the country. Instead, she was forced out for her lack of judgment even after UT Women’s Athletic Director had given her a “near perfect” review and called her “a gift to UT.”
In terms of public relations, the timing of this is horrific for the university. There are also further complexities related to policy and morality. Like most major universities, UT has a policy against employees being involved with students they coach or teach or otherwise supervise, regardless of whether the athlete or student has reached a legal age of consent. The morality of this may be obvious, designed as it is to keep those with supervisory influence from exercising it for personal benefit over younger, impressionable people, but it leaves unanswered how much discretion there might be in enforcement. If Applewhite’s involvement was, in fact, with a student trainer, he undoubtedly encountered her regularly at practice and during travel, and trainers tend to report to coaches and respond to their concerns for athletes. Wasn’t his influence, in that sense, even greater than Kearney’s?
There are distinct differences between policy and law in this case. Consenting adults don’t need to seek institutional or public approval for sexual relationships. But coaches are governed by policy. Unfortunately for the University of Texas, the timing and blunt comparisons of these two cases are causing great pains. What’s being absorbed by the public is that a married, male, white football coach had extra-marital sex with a student trainer, was disciplined, got counseling, and kept his job. This is compared in graphic relief against the fact that Bev Kearney, a track coach with a record of success and an inspiring personal story, African-American and lesbian, has an adult relationship with one of her student athletes and is chased from her job and huge pay increase.
If UT is to avoid damage to its reputation, it has to be convincing that policy was uniformly and fairly applied in both cases. This will be difficult since both are matters of personnel and privacy. Also, the nature of Applewhite’s behavior will be assessed against the punishment given Kearney. In his public statement, the young coach describes his indiscretion as a solitary event, but this will not be believable to many of the Longhorn faithful. If his partner were a trainer he encountered daily, there is a real possibility there was an established emotional relationship that led to Applewhite’s actions. Was there more to it than sex and, if so, how is his behavior different than Kearney’s, especially in light of the fact that she had continued to build her reputation and the university’s over the decade subsequent to her involvement with the student athlete she coached.
The larger problem is that the university, as an institution, leaves a vague impression that it has acted a bit like Lance Armstrong and has attempted to suppress bad PR. Why now, four years later for Applewhite, does the story emerge, and what caused the Kearney story to surface after a decade? If there are lawsuits or other claims that were quietly settled, this is best disclosed. If policy is applied uniformly, it needs to be strongly communicated.
The more pressing matter, however, is that UT needs more transparency. It is a public institution and needs to be responsive to the people who put their money into the university. Coach Mack Brown might want to consider that his “family” is a bit larger than he realizes and includes the fans and donors and taxpayers. He doesn’t get to simply say, “It’s been dealt with and let’s move along.” He and the board of regents need to give some understanding of the logic behind various decisions. There is more to being a “family” than keeping secrets. In fact, Brown’s declarations of family and not offering more information can be viewed as offensive. And often are. Fan and taxpayers and tuition payers are owed more of an explanation. What are the standards? How were they violated?
It might simply be a problem of sports hierarchy and nothing becomes more important than protecting the football team. Track suffers an inferiority to football and basketball and baseball, and is, therefore, expendable. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the late UT basketball coach Abe Lemons, who was being questioned by a reporter about his salary crossing the $100,000.00 mark in the late 70s. The men’s track coach at the time was earning about a quarter of that amount. But Lemons took great offense at the comparison.
“Don’t compare me to a track coach, son,” he supposedly said. “You know how hard it is to coach track? You go up to your runner and whisper in his ear, ‘Keep to the left, kid, and get back in a hurry.’”
Maybe there is no fairness in sports. But a great university must offer it. Communicate it. And practice it. Along with transparency.
Doing anything less will spread failure like a disease.
If there were ever a hall of fame for crazy, it ought to be in Texas. We’ve had David Koresh and rapist and murderer Kenneth McDuff and tower sniper Charles Whitman and federal judge assassin Charles Harrelson and baby killer nurse Genene Jones and serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas. But we also cultivate and elect a certain kind of crazy.
Our latest poster boy of stupid is Republican Senator Ted Cruz. He was on his first nationally broadcast senate hearing over the nomination of a fellow Republican Senator as defense secretary. Chuck Hagel was an infantry sergeant in Vietnam and did a 12-month tour in the jungle during the year of the Tet Offensive in 1968. He served in the same squadron as his brother and they both reportedly saved each other’s lives. Maybe because he witnessed U.S. military excesses in Vietnam, Hagel has expressed restraint on the use of such power.
Which made him a target for Crazy Cruz of Texas.
During his confirmation hearings, Hagel had to look at a sign Cruz had up for reporters to see that said in 2006 the Nebraska senator called Israel’s military campaign against the terrorist group Hezbollah a “sickening slaughter.” He did. Sort of.
“How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon, is going to enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East?” Hagel asked on the Senate floor. “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end, and it must end now.”
Of course, Crazy Cruz cut off Hagel before he could offer the context. It’s as politically vile of a tactic as Washington has to offer. Hagel appears to have angered Cruz for not universally praising Israel, questioning the invasion of Iraq, and the effectiveness of the sanctions against Iran. (He, unfortunately, kissed the ring of Israel in his testimony, which is a defense secretary litmus test.) Cruz has never served in the military but he projects an effete anger that suggests he’d happily vote to send young versions of Chuck Hagel into combat while the Texas girly-man stood safely on America’s shores and beat the war drums.
* * *
Crazy counts as a positive attribute right now here in Texas. Cruz has the highest net approval rating of any politician in the state and is comfortably ahead of Governor Rick Perry, the senior U.S. Senator from Texas John Cornyn (R), and, of course, President Obama.
These new numbers from Public Policy Polling (PPP) do show some hope for emerging strains of sanity under the Lone Star, however. Indications are that Hillary Clinton could win the presidential race here in 2016. Fifty percent of Texas voters have favorable opinions of the retiring Secretary of State, including independents that view her with a 52% positive against a 41% negative perspective. And Mrs. Clinton leads prospective GOP presidential contenders in a Texas contest with margins over Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and, more comfortably, Rick Perry. The governor’s own party doesn’t want him to run for president, in fact. Seventy percent think it’s a bad idea and only 19% think he should lace up his ignorance and again get in the race.
Perry’s not the least popular man in Texas, though. The yellow jersey for that goes to Lance Armstrong. The former golden boy from Austin has only a 16% favorable in the PPP poll and a 59% negative.
* * *
A quick thought about the gun guys and gals, too. They marshal an argument that everyone has a right to protection, which, of course, is as sound as their logic ever gets. But they insist that if the president gets to have armed guards to keep him and his family safe, the general public has a right to be armed and protected. U.S. taxpayers spend an estimated $1.4 billion a year to wrap the nation’s president in a cocoon. The costs include Secret Service, Air Force One, various advance teams, FBI, military, and any other service required to keep the president from harm.
But Texas taxpayers have spent $2.4 million on security for Governor Rick Perry since he started wandering the landscape in 2010, trying to talk all president-y. He took a $140,000 security detail with him to Italy to talk “bidness,” visit the Ferrari plant, and watch a Formula One Race. And unlike Mr. Obama, Perry carries his own damned gun: a laser-sighted, 9mm, coyote-killing luger pistol. Does he really need a couple of million in tax money spent to keep him safe when he’s packing his own heat?
Seems a likely place for Perry to make a budget cut.