International DistressA buddy from Arkansas asked his sister to ask me about the time I inadvertently sent out a double international distress signal to anyone happening to pass by the American Embassy in Liberia.
I was an embassy guard and young; it was my last day on duty in Africa. Its tough to say this, but I was leaving in disgrace. I had married four days before and had done so against orders; but the way I saw it, they were not valid orders and I had solid ethical reasons for thinking so…. I thought I had a baby on the way.
I was having a great career in the marines up until then. I had made my fateful decision in the face of my company commander, who warned me of dire consequences from all the way across the African continent where he had his headquarters in Nairobi. Being a stubborn cuss, I went ahead with my marriage.
For months I had stood my post in the embassy, mostly without incident. Out of the hundreds of days accomplishing my duties, I’d only had a couple of minor "blooper" screw up moments.
Once, a couple of young American backpackers had come inside the embassy lobby on a Saturday, and I had let them leave their packs with me while they went down to the cafeteria. I should have searched them first, but I knew them well and knew they were okay. Just my luck, the Master Sergeant in charge showed up and demanded to know if I knew the contents of the packs. I got a real dressing down for that one – ouch!
The only other time that I had officially messed up was at the end of a midnight to 7 a.m. shift. A critical key was missing from the Post 1 key box. The marine who had signed it out had put it back on the wrong hook, but I couldn’t find it in my exhausted state. In my frustration, I fired back at the "boss" as he gave me the "third degree" and I came pretty close to being insubordinate. He "locked me up" into the position of attention and I took my medicine with another chewing out, after which I apologized for my misstep of temper.
There WAS one time though, where I messed up when no one saw me, and it could have been THE most serious. Once again, I was on midnight shift, and cleaning my revolver, as all watchstanders were required to do at sometime on that shift. I think it was two or three a.m. After wiping off the last of the cleaning oil and rechambering my five .38 caliber rounds, for some unexplainable reason I went back into cleaning mode, noticing that there was still some excess oil under the trigger. Without thought, I pulled it back and immediately realized with horror that I had cocked my loaded pistol. Luckily it wasn’t hair triggered; close to panic, I stuck my thumb into the hammer mechanism to prevent an inadvertent firing. I must have kept it like that for ten minutes until I finally forced myself to carefully remove my thumb pad. Slowly and gently I let the trigger return to its uncocked position. Several marines every year accidentally discharge their weapons doing equally unmindful things, or just being idiotic, like playing quickdraw in the mirror; and it always results in being sent back to the States in disgrace. Eventually, I too would return under a dark cloud, but for a different reason.
My last shift ever as a United States Marine Corps Embassy Guard was on the 3rd of July 1978. My wedding had been on July 1st and even though I was in trouble for going through with the marriage, I was given July 2nd off to "enjoy" my honeymoon. My last watch was to be at Post 1, right inside the front door of the embassy.
Before relieving the mid-shift Post 1 guard in the lobby, just before 7 a.m. the oncoming dayshift watchstander raised two U.S. flags in front of both the consulate and the ambassador’s residence. So, to begin my final day as a Marine Security Guard, that’s what I did, and with all the military ceremony and solemnity expected of a squared away marine, even a so-called "disgraced" one like myself.
I had always enjoyed the morning ritual of raising the flags. Cradling the tri-cornered folded American flag against our chests with folded arms, we marched straight and proud to each flagpole. All embassy personnel and anyone else in sight of the flag raising was required to stop and stand silently and respectfully. It was kind of cool being the center of attention, knowing all eyes were on you.
Upon arriving at the flagpole, we unwound the lanyards and clipped the rings to each end of the flag, the top clip to the blue, the bottom to the red. Then, taking one step back we raised the flag briskly to the very top of the pole and then tied off the rope. After which, we snapped off a sharp salute, immediately followed by an about face in marching.
After raising the second U.S. flag in front of the colonial style ambassador’s residence, I marched smartly back to the embassy lobby. I accepted the logbook from the offgoing marine and made note of my acceptance in the same book. I took my seat next to our Liberian receptionist and settled in for another and final eight hours on guard. Moments later, grinning and shaking his head, the sergeant whom I had just relieved walked back in the front door of the embassy. He beckoned me over to the window and pointed at the top of flagpole. My heart dropped into my stomach, and my stomach fell to my knees. There, flying proudly, was the American flag that I had just raised…and it was UPSIDE DOWN!
And that wasn’t all. My marine comrade snickered, "How did you manage to raise BOTH flags upside down man? Are you sure marriage hasn’t done something to your head?" He laughed and continued, "I’ll fix it Phil, but you’re going to hear about this until the day you leave!"
Forlornly, I replied, "Well, I guess it’s a good thing I’m heading back to the States tomorrow then. Damn, I can’t believe I did that…both flags? Are you sure? Damn!"
"Yep!" He passed back out the glass double doors, stopped, came to attention and marched back to the flagpole to "fix" my inadvertent international distress signal. At that point, clearly, I was the one in distress. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to do such a boneheaded thing. It had happened to a couple of the other marines, but I never imagined I would do it. I’m sighing now, just thinking about it.