2LT James E. Parker Jr. Aka “Mule” is interviewed by John Thomas Wiseman
John Thomas Wiseman: How do you define National Security?
James E. Parker: Well certainly any dictionary will have an answer for that, but my definition would be something more personal…. it would be not only efforts to keep us safe, but situational awareness of the things out there in the world (and here at home) that might put our life style in some danger, and then doing something to take away that danger. And I’m speaking of US National Security ’cause I don’t know what they think about security in Brazil, or in Uganda. You know ol’ George, Senior used to talk about how our country is a thousand shards of light, and I’m thinking he meant our geography, our history, our public utilities, our sense of justice, UNC bar-b-q, Hollywood, the Super Bowl, the freedom to go anywhere or say anything, that your home is your castle, your weapons a symbol of your freedoms, the interstate highway system, the Mississippi, and the Rockies, good hospitals and a 4th of July hot dog. That’s America.
And those things ain’t free. You gotta protect them. ‘Cause if you’re born in Timbuktu to a family that ain’t never had anything, they might not understand how we take it all we got for granted. How being American is also about being a little cocky, that we got it good. We are lucky in that we got all that Pacific and Atlantic water out there protecting our flanks. And a northern neighbor that’s part and parcel of the American culture. That shares our interest in protecting what we got…
National Security starts with an understanding of what we mean by national – and to my way of thinking that’s Bush Sr.’s thousands and thousands rays of light.
And Security is the means we have to use to protect our nation from those who wish us harm.
JTW: Which organization did you enjoy the most in your career?
JEP: Probably that would be the current Mule enterprises. I am at my core a story- teller. All my travels and adventures and utterances and thoughts and actions seem on some level to be just fodder for stories. And that’s the level I’m at now. Looking back, remembering, and often comparing this time with that to see how my perspective has changed… and my vantage on… life its ownself. Like today at the movies, it’s all about animation of dragons and talking animals and the incredibly stories of daring do… bases of which are not taken from anything I’ve known.
And the ads on TV show people of all persuasions enjoying this and that, as long as they buy this or do that. Venal appeal… buy this and life as you know it will be better. And the actors presenting this message are not like anyone I can identify with.
And the shows are just a waste of time. The news reports are so programmed and narrow in focus as to be nothing that seems relevant to my life. Headlines are always the presidential elections; as if that’s the most important “news” of the day… well I don’t think so. Not in the world I live in… not in what I know about life.
Values are transient, often created by same-age airheads, not learned or taught by adults who fought life’s wars. Celebrity trumps peace of mind. Money often man’s raison d’etre. And so many people out there. On the roads, in Africa, at the grocery store. There is no solitude anywhere close… except here at my desk, alone with my thoughts.
Aw, and to think back in the way of a story teller… there was purpose, and some real danger, and exciting places to see and smell and touch before the Discovery Channel, with the testosterone surging through my body 24/7. Demanding this course of action or that.
I think this is the best time of my life. My best “organization.”
JTW: What was your favorite assignment in your long career?
JEP: Well let’s see here… favorite?
If you were to ask my wife what was her favorite assignment, I think she’d say, all of them. But hell, she’s easy to please. Look who she married. She wakes up in the morning with a good attitude. Positive. She sees that glass half full. There was a story I used to tell about us meeting this woman in a Wal-Mart years ago…. in the 90s when we were still living in NC. She was big, wore a Wal-Mart mu-mu dress, round flat face. I have honestly forgot what it was that caused our meeting… but as we were walking away and I was looking for the right words about this woman was really in her element, and Brenda said, “Didn’t she have a nice smile.”
Brenda had a stroke in 2010, paralyzed the left side of her body. She’s done remarkably well since. Gets around mostly with a cane, and although she hasn’t regained the movement of her left arm and hand, she types her email.
And she has never complained. Not once that I can remember.
Now I’m goin’ to answer your question, but let me finish this thought. We used to live in a big ol’ sprawling house here in the SW of Las Vegas, but after Brenda’s stroke it was just too much to keep up – plus we were under water what with the real estate crash here in Vegas town, so we moved to the condominium we live in now… and in making the move, Brenda almost helpless, this Mexican woman pitched upon our doorstep saying she heard we might need some help.
Best I can figure it was God who talked her… because she’s still with us, three years later. Illegal as all hell, ain’t got paper one, but she’s an angel and has given Brenda back her pre-stroke freedom. They go shopping together, just to go shopping. Go to the grocery store, cook meals. Alma is here a lot… and she always talking, always asking Brenda’s advice, and always laughing. I don’t mean to say everything’s perfect, but damn it’s nice.
So what was the question?
Got another story that you may have read in my Rants and Yarns… about my great Aunt Wilma, taught in NC classrooms for more than 70 years. Let me say that again, she taught in schools for more than 70 years. In her 90s she was driving around picking up relatives of migrant workers in Johnston County, NC, taking them to the local CC, teaching them English as a second language and then taking them back to their homes. I remember speaking with her once and said something like, “Boy you been teaching forever. Bet you’ve had some pretty smart students, huh?” And she said she had, “And I’ll bet you’ve really had some idiots too, huh?” And she, “No, every single one of my students was special. Every single one was smart.”
So I reckon to be true to heritage and my wife, on the favorite assignment thing, I have to say I have not had a favorite assignment, I’ve liked them all.
Some stand out, or come first to my memory. But favorites, nope. Here are some that I remember.
My number 1 assignment was growing up rowdy in the mid-south, with a father that let me roam, telling me to “go out there and make something of yourself.” I got a lot from my youth. The “getting” part was not always appreciated by fathers of some of the girls I dated. If we carried a laugh-meter like health nuts carry around a step-meter on their belt… I laughed more than most of my peers growing up, did more stuff and certainly said more, “Holy s**t, what am I goin’ to do now?”
But here again, there’s a side story… that sort of explains my DNA…. it’s one of my early Rants and Yarns titled something like Travelling man… an interview my cousin Alan did back a couple of years ago.
Number 2 as well remembered events go, would be my year spent as a platoon leader in Vietnam. I’ve been blessed in this life… and one of my earliest conspicuous blessings was Staff Sergeant Cecil Bratcher who was my 1st Squad leader… until I made him my platoon sergeant. And we developed a great division of labor in running the platoon… I was just out of OCS and without his knowing hand, Jesus, what would have happened? You know so often in Vietnam, a young 2nd LT, especially a replacement, was merely the platoon mascot. The network of sergeants – from platoon sergeant down to fire team leaders really ran the show. There was zero room for error for replacement Lts. They mess up once in the field, some men get hurt, and the sergeants would take over. Or the sergeants would take over from the start, telling the new looey to just keep the Captain informed of what was goin’ on…. and they’d do the war fighting.
But there was never the case with Bratcher. We did it together. And he even came to my defense – supported me – when I picked a jive talking black I think from Detroit – a guy named Spencer – to be my radio operators. This was in 1965. Remember, for many of the good ol’ white boys in my platoon, this was their first chance up close and personal with American Blacks. It was when they were called Negroes, which the white grunts in my platoon would just spit out, rather than articulate. But here’s the thing, the majority of my Sergeants were black. So there was tension there, not that it was disruptive, but it was there… plus there was the sense that the black sergeants in my platoon were disenfranchised. But when Spencer started carrying my radio, things changed. Most notably was that the black NCO felt more involved, because the job of the RTO in the field is that he speaks for the unit commander, or figures what the commander wants and passes that on to Company or Battalion who were always on the horn when the shit hit the fan. And in free time Spencer would hang out with black buddies, and we were friends, Spencer and I, and that word got passed around in the platoon, and we were a better fighting unit as a results.
Bratcher and Spencer made a difference. Plus despite the great emotional horror that goes with war fighting, I enjoyed combat. The risk taking, the camaraderie, the job leading men on a battlefield.
Number 3 would be my first CIA assignment, upcountry Laos. To work with Hmong hills tribesmen fighting invading North Vietnamese. Just great on several different levels. One was the opportunity to work with American Ravens and Air America pilots and the collection of case officers the CIA hired to do this job… one of the biggest jobs in the history of the CIA. Who staffed it was no small matter. Now some of the CIA people up country looked as rough as cobs, but god almighty they were good, with great depth of character. Check out Kayak and Hog and Shep. Dick Johnson. Moose. All mentioned in my Rants and Yarns. Well for sure check out Shep and Hog.
And we won our fight. Beat the hell out of tens of thousands of attacking North Vietnamese… commanded by some of the NVA’s best field Generals.
And the wonderful balance between war fighting with these great men, and then coming down to Vientiane every two or three weeks to that warm family of Brenda and the kids. Goin’ from Here to Eternity to a chic flick.
And also, or maybe first, was my contact and day-to-day emergence into the Hmong culture. The Hmong warlord we worked with, Vang Pao’s, first CIA case officer was a guy named Vint Lawrence. He told me once that it took him a year living in Long Tieng, working every day with VP and the Hmong, for him to get to the point where he could ask a good question.
They were humans, for sure, but they had had no contact with the western culture, these Hmong we worked with, and just went about life differently. There is so much we assume when we meet new people, but when those people are unlike any people that have ever dealt with Westerners, you gotta expect some newness, you know what I mean? Newness that it would take a year to really understand, and really come to grips with.
My first Hmong unit was GM 22, at the time out camped near Ban Na, north of Long Tieng… completely surrounded by Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. And I would go out to their positions every day, by first convincing one of them mean sumbitch who flew Air America that it was safe, or safe enough, and then in arriving out with my people, having overflown enemy AA on the way, to do that terrible work most morning of sending wounded and dead collected from the night before, back to Long Tieng on the helicopter. Now here your mind’ll mess with you, ’cause it seemed this happened a lot, but probably not so much, it just seems that way because it was so poignant. Morning of just goin out to the position so uneventful.
The Hmong would, if you applied enough pressure, dig bunkers… though mostly they liked to hide behind rocks and scamper when the enemy came in force. But since we occupied this space out near Ban Na, they would send one of the littlest kid in their unit down the front side of the mountain where they were, send him down with a box full of grenades… and if the bad guys did come up to checky-check in the night this little guy’s job was to throw those grenades down the hill at the sounds he heard below and then beat feet back up to the top of the mountain. Well often one of those grenades would have a short fuse and go off in the little guy’s hand or it would hit something and bounce back, or the bad guys would pick it up and throw it back at the little guy. Or the little guy would be shot trying to get back to the top of the hill.
What I remember so many mornings was these young, small and dirty soldiers laying there on blankets used as stretchers for the wounded or dead in the catastrophic way young men or killed or wounded by grenades. Loading them up on the helicopter and send them back to Long Tieng.
And then standing at the site watching that helicopter flying high over the enemy, and away from me. First losing the sound, and then watching it got as small as a dot in the early morning haze and then disappearing behind some distant mountain… and I would realize how quiet it was… and how particularly I was alone… except for these rock age Hmong.
And then over the course of months and months, coming to know them.
How innocent, how un-greedy, how smart, how interested they were in the US, like travel to the Moon for Christ sake, how they did math, what was important to them. And in all that, going about getting out there to find out where the bad guys were and killing them. And then later directing their attacks on North Vietnamese as they moved in force back the PDJ.
The enormous depth to that experience. How it made me understand how the life I knew from my mid-south upbringing was different, not better or worse than the experiences of these good men, just different. How I had no right to be critical – maybe judgmental of their lives, their hopes and dreams.
How their religion was so similar to mine in that it provided for a larger omnipotence, different in the detail but so absolutely the same human longing for understanding of this life we lived in…. No not absolutely the same…. they were more fatalistic… like no matter what you do, you still goin’ die.
And then later the evacuation from Vietnam… I mean there was a whole lot of interesting stuff goin’ on with that. No movie I have ever seen had as much drama as that evacuation… and I had a leading role.
And later that tour in Africa and my friendship with John Sherman. Here again you’ll have to read my Rants and Yarns on that guy – surely the most interesting man I ever knew.
I was a chief of station and had two posting that are still very classified… but they don’t compete with the others as memorable. Chief of Station was full of personnel problems. If not with my case officers, it was with night people that my case officers hung around with, rather than their wives, who complained to me that it was all my fault.
And then now, like I was saying above. I enjoy my life now. Every single day. I read three papers, but don’t watch the evening news. I read a book or two a week. Got a great man cave in which I write almost without distraction… like this email. Alma brought in my lunch of noodles around noon, but other than that, no pressure to go mow the lawn, or whatever it is that other 73-year-old men do with their mid-day Fridays. And I like to write. Like to tell the stories.
This has been fun… writing about not having just one favorite time.