You probably know country singer and Grand Ole Opry member Craig Morgan from his hits "That's What I Love About Sunday" and "Redneck Yacht Club." You may also know him for his support of veteran causes and his extensive work with the USO. You may have even seen him this year on the CBS competition reality show "Beyond the Edge."
Morgan is also an Army combat veteran who served during the 1989 invasion of Panama that ended with the arrest of that country's dictator, Gen. Manuel Noriega.
Morgan tells his story in a new memoir, "God, Family, Country: A Memoir," that he co-wrote with Jim DeFelice. DeFelice is best known as the co-author of Chris Kyle's "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" and Taya Kyle's "American Wife: "A Memoir of Love, War, Faith, and Renewal," but he's also worked with Army vets Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennington on the 2022 book "Swords of Lightning: Green Beret Horse Soldiers and America's Response to 9/11" and World War II veteran Ray Lambert on "Every Man a Hero: A Memoir of D-Day, the First Wave at Omaha Beach, and a World at War."
Note that Morgan didn't team up with one of the excellent authors who specialize in helping musicians tell their stories in a book. He teamed with one of the finest writers of military-themed books (both fiction and nonfiction) working today. That should give you a clue as to where Morgan's heart lies when telling his story.
Morgan served with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions during his more than 10 years on active duty, but his fellow soldiers knew him by his birth name, Craig Morgan Greer. He dropped the Greer when he started his music career, and you might have guessed there's a book out now that tells that story.
We've got a great excerpt from "God, Family, Country," which is available now. It's pretty long but worth every minute that it will take for you to read it. There are several references to "Greer" in the text, and that's our man, Craig Morgan.
Excerpt from "God, Family, Country" by Craig Morgan with Jim DeFelice
On December 15, , Panama's general assembly passed a resolution declaring that the country was at war with the US. The same day, Noriega declared himself "Maximum Leader" and made comments strongly hinting that he planned on attacking Americans and taking over the Canal Zone by force.
The next night, Panama Defense Force (PDF) troops stopped a vehicle driven by a Marine captain, Richard Hadded, in downtown Panama City. When the PDF ordered Hadded and his three passengers, all servicemen, to get out of the car, they declined. The PDF soldier inserted a magazine into his AK-47.
Hadded hit the gas. The Panamanian began firing. So did others at a second PDF guard station. By the time the Americans reached safety, Hadded and two passengers had been hit by several bullets. One of the passengers, Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz, died at Gorgas Military Hospital.
Two other Americans, a Navy SEAL and his civilian wife, were detained by Panamanians after witnessing the incident. The pair were beaten and the wife assaulted while being questioned.
Americans had been harassed in the weeks before -- the so-called police would often stop civilians or soldiers dressed as civilians and rob them. But that incident was the last straw. In Washington, President Bush authorized a plan to overthrow Noriega and allow the elected government to take over.
A day or two after Lieutenant Paz died, we got orders telling us we were going into action. By December 18, we were set and ready. Roughly twenty-seven thousand American servicepeople were directly involved in the operations, which stretched across Panama but were mostly concentrated on the coasts.
The infantry unit we were working with was part of Task Force Bayonet. Their objectives included securing an American base, protecting an area where American dependents lived, and securing some roadblocks and police stations in the area of Ancon Hill and Balboa. The Panamanian Defense Force and the police had considerable men in that quadrant, which included the highest terrain in Panama City. It was a large and strategic area.
Bayonet had a subtask group organized as Wildcat, which included me. The units were directed to secure the grounds around the American command headquarters on Quarry Heights. Alpha Company, 508 (Airborne), the group I was attached to as fire support NCO, would land on a golf course near residential units, gather up the dependents nearby, and evac them to a safe place.
Different golf course, in case you're wondering.
We didn't know the whole plan for the country, of course, and we weren't privy even to the details of the different task forces working near us. We did hear a lot, though. We knew a good portion of the 82nd Airborne was coming in; we knew the Rangers would be there; we knew a SEAL team had something going on. They'd all be operating nearby. This was a big show, the real thing.
At zero dark thirty (12:30, or half past midnight) 19 December, we headed to the Black Hawk helicopters tasked to take us to the target area. One thing struck me right away as I boarded my aircraft: the seats had all been removed. That would allow for maximum flexibility -- emergencies, more passengers, whatever. The crew could pack in as many people as needed. It was something you only did if you're in combat and expecting the unexpected.
I was tasked to stand by the helicopter hatchway -- the doors were off, replaced with a safety strap. When we landed, I'd remove the strap and leap out, leading the pack.
We started taking fire on the way in. One of the helicopters with us got hit bad. Damaged, they had to break off and find a place for an emergency landing. My commander, a lieutenant, was aboard that helicopter. Wounded by the gunfire, he would end up out of action not only for that night but for months. That injury made me acting commander that night, and for the rest of our time in Panama.
At that particular moment, though, I didn't know any of that. I was looking down at the ground, trying not to fall out of the aircraft.
"Sergeant Greer! Get ready!" yelled the crew chief.
I was more than ready. Adrenaline was flowing. I leaned forward, ready to get out and fight.
We were coming in very hot. Muzzle flashes, tracers. Pop. Pop.
Bullets snapped against and through the metal hull of the helicopter, but I couldn't register the sound; I had no idea what it was.
There was no time to figure it out. The ground was getting real big below me.
"Now!" yelled a voice in my head. "We're down."
I pulled the hook off the door strap, waited a second, and jumped out. But the ground wasn't quite there.
I must have practiced the procedure I don't know how many times.
And I'd never misjudged the distance to the ground before. But this time I had -- badly. We were still twenty feet from the grass when I leapt out, expecting to be no more than two or three.
I hit the ground, rolled, and dislocated my right shoulder. The guys behind me, keying on me, came out right behind. They fell all over me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tail wheel of the Black Hawk coming right toward my head. All I could think about was the rear rotor, spinning somewhere above the wheel. A meat grinder.
I flattened. I don't know where that rotor went, or exactly where the helicopter set down; all I know is it didn't hit me.
I got up as the Black Hawk pulled off. My right arm hung limp off my body.
Hurt like hell too.
Realizing it was dislocated, I tried yanking my arm in place as I headed toward my position with the headquarters element, where I'd be available to call in fire support if needed. I still had my M16, but using it with any sort of authority was pretty much out of the question. I spotted a tree as I ran. Could that help?
I ran into the tree as hard as I could, thinking the impact might hammer my shoulder back. I don't have to tell you, all that did was make it hurt even worse.
There was gunfire everywhere. It was your usual combat situation -- confusing as hell, dark night, everybody scrambling around trying to figure out exactly where they were and what was going on.
I made it to the headquarters element in time to hear the commander give an order -- "Shoot out the streetlights."
Guys started popping off rounds. The area got even darker, but somehow less confused.
"Hey, there're American civilians here. Be careful where you're shooting!"
Our soldiers moved in from the perimeter, gathering up the civilians and securing them in a safe area where we could protect them. If there had been Panamanian forces there, they retreated pretty quick, and except for the target practice on the lights, things calmed down quickly.
My shoulder still hurt like hell. I found a light pole and went back to my homemade therapy, bashing against the pole as I tried to get the joint back in its socket.
"What are you doing?" shouted a soldier running up to me. I explained.
Turned out he was a medic.
"Lay down on the ground," he commanded.
I dropped. He grabbed my arm, wrapped it in a poncho liner for leverage, then put his foot in my crotch -- none of this was gentle. He did some other contortions, got a knee on my leg, and warned me that he was going to yank real hard and that it might hurt.
"Go ahead," I told him. What he was doing already hurt. How much worse could it really be?
That much worse. Damn!
But it was like a miracle. My arm snapped back into place. The pain -- a lot of it, anyway -- was gone. I got up and resumed my post. A year later, I found out that I had probably torn my rotator cuff when I dislocated the shoulder. But at that moment, all I felt was relief. I'm not sure how much time passed, whether it was a few minutes or hours, but at some point, a busload of Panamanian soldiers tried driving up the road in the direction of the houses. They were cut down quick, bullets splaying through the vehicle. The vehicle went off the road into a ravine. Worried that the bus might be booby-trapped or that Panamanians nearby were plotting an ambush, our commander on the scene decided no one would go down until morning light. So we held our position.
We could hear the groans and cries of some of the injured through the night. It would turn out most were dead by the time anyone got to the bus.
The area was secured to the point where the civilians could be bused out and then evacuated to an airstrip to be flown out of the country the next day. By then, I had moved with some of the unit down toward the water, where the navy had secured some twenty or thirty Panamanian Defense Force soldiers earlier. The PDF soldiers -- they weren't sailors as far as we could tell -- had been intercepted and brought to shore nearby, and the unit I was with was tasked to take them to some trucks and transport them to an area set up as a temporary containment center.
A sergeant major came over. "Hey, anybody speak Spanish?" I looked around. Surprisingly, no one did.
"Uh, I do, a little," I admitted.
I went over to the Panamanians. They were standing around, stripped naked. I guess you can't blame the navy for not taking any chances.
"Sergeant Greer, tell them to put their clothes on," commanded the sergeant major.
I hesitated, desperately trying to think of the right words. Ready phrases like cómo estás seemed wildly inappropriate.
Put on. No. Take off . . .
My store of Spanish was quickly depleted without noticeable effect.
Finally, I resorted to a more universal language -- I pointed to the pile where their clothes had been left, and mimed getting dressed. I got the idea across, but unfortunately with their hands tied, they had a hell of a time even picking up their clothes, let alone getting them on.
"Sergeant Greer, tell them to get their pants on!" demanded the sergeant major.
"Well, they're gonna need help. Get it done!"
"Yes, Sergeant Major."
I employed all of my training as an NCO to solve the problem -- in other words, I looked around and found a private.
"Help these men, Private!"
I grabbed three or four privates to assist. They'd get the prisoners clothed, then walk them over to the truck. Unfortunately, the soldiers worked it out so that as the prisoners arrived, they "inadvertently" bumped their heads against the back of the truck. I didn't catch on until the second or third loud smack. At least one of the privates objected when I put an end to it.
"Sergeant, these may have been the guys shooting at us."
I understood the attitude, but that didn't make smacking them around "accidentally" right. I found out later on that a lot of the PDF members had been forced to take the job in the first place. These guys, I think, had probably tried running away when the attack started, going AWOL because they didn't want to fight and kill Americans.
At some point later that day -- my personal timeline has blurred a bit over the years, but I believe I have the sequence correct -- my company was assigned to guard the Presidential Palace, a few blocks away in Panama City. It had been secured by the time we got there, but hadn't been fully searched. We started going through methodically, working our way around. For some reason, a notion jumped into my head as we entered the room: Maybe there are booby traps.
"Whoa, hold on," I yelled as one of the guys went to open the first door. "Better check for booby traps."
Sure enough, a grenade was rigged to go off in one of the rooms. We proceeded carefully after that.
Noriega had a stash of gold and money in the palace; it had already been found and was being guarded. But no one had gone through his mountain of Christmas gifts. We found something like forty bottles of champagne apparently earmarked for foreign supporters around the world. Rumor has it that a bottle intended for Muammar Gaddafi made its way from that stash into someone's private possession. And according to said rumor, the bottle was later relocated to somewhere in the States, where it now rests in a secure storage area.
At some point in the future, I plan to pop it.
If I were the person who ended up with it, that is.
Sitting in Noriega's office, at his desk, was unreal. There were some
cigars in a humidor box, and I believe one or more might have been smoked -- someone had to make sure they weren't booby-trapped, you know?
I didn't have much of a chance to enjoy the good life of a dictator, as word soon came that members of the task force near Balboa DENI police station were fighting Panamanian forces there and needed fire support. I was the closest fire support guy, so I temporarily put the ranking NCO in charge of the rest of the teams and took off with my radioman.
Our first problem was getting there. Balboa DENI was at least a mile or two away. The solution presented itself when a car appeared on the nearby road. We pulled the driver over and saw that he had a bunch of guns in the car. Now, I don't know what all he was up to. I can't say that he was going to use those guns against Americans, or if he had some peaceful and logical reason for them. All I knew was that we had to get over to the police station as quickly as possible. And I couldn't just let him go.
We took the guy, bound him, and put him in the trunk of the car. I figured we'd get him over to the containment center when whatever we had to do at Balboa was done.
Honestly, I didn't think there would be much to it, given all that had happened so far. But the firefight at Balboa when we arrived was hotter than a five-alarm barn fire. Well-armed Panamanian forces had holed up in the police complex and were putting up such a fight that the assault teams tasked with taking the building couldn't make any headway.
My radioman and I reported in, then found an overwatch building about a football field or so away from the police station where I could get a good read on what was going on.
It wasn't long before we got the order to bring in "fire on the target." The sun had set, which meant we could count on fire from an overhead gunship which had just started circling above.
The AC-130 Spectre is a four-engined Hercules aircraft. While most Hercules C-130s are basic cargo planes used to ferry troops or supplies, AC-130s are armed with cannons. The exact configuration depends on the aircraft model, but whatever version, they pack a serious wallop. You do not want to be on the receiving end.
I started feeding the coordinates to the gunship. The first shell from the Spectre's 105 mm cannon hit the police station with a bang so loud my ears popped. I thought our building was going to collapse because the ground shook so bad.
They were good, those air force boys. Artillery you give a grid, and they hit anything in that grid. Generally. You close your eyes and hope for the best, at least in those days. But the Spectre shot with pinpoint accuracy. If they missed, it was by a millimeter or two. A good thing, since we were so close. The fire control officer in the plane knew my position thanks to a strobe we had, but even so -- a few degrees off and I would have been 105 mm dust.
Funny. You don't think about that when you're in the middle of combat. You don't even pay attention to the bullets whizzing by while you're calling in fire, or at least I didn't. It was only later, when the sun came up and everything was calm that I realized the fpppp and the klipppkit I'd heard were bullets passing a few inches overhead.
Obviously not well-aimed, but tell that to the one that hits you.
Things calmed down some after the AC-130 strike. There were still Panamanians inside the police building, though most of the survivors had been severely wounded. The roof had been blown off; a lot of the concrete brick walls had been shattered and tossed every which way. No windows, no doors anywhere.
By the time our troops began clearing the building at sunup, the bodies of some of the dead had stiffened with rigor mortis. War is exciting, but it's also a very ugly thing.
Remember that guy we left in the trunk of the car?
We'd forgotten all about him until the building was secured. We ran down to the vehicle and saw it had taken shrapnel or bullets at some point that night. I cringed as I opened the trunk.
Our prisoner was breathing and untouched. Petrified, probably out of his mind, but alive.
We drove him over to a school being used to process potential prisoners and got him checked in. On the way out, a news reporter came up to us and started asking questions. I can't remember exactly how it went, but it must've been something along these lines:
"Excuse me, Sergeant, can I have a word?" "Uh, sure."
"What are you doing?"
"Escorting a prisoner."
"How do you think the war's going?"
Damn good from my point of view. I translated that sentiment into military speak: "I believe we have the situation under control."
"Did you get Noriega?"
I of course had no idea. I translated that into military speak: "I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
There were a bunch more questions. I popped out a couple more "I'm not at liberty to discuss that," supplemented by the occasional "I don't have that information," before managing to conclude the interview.
Honestly, I would have completely forgotten about that incident except for the fact that the interview ended up getting carried by some news stations and picked up by newspapers back in the States. Karen's father in Texas was among those who caught a broadcast -- as did Karen.
That was how Karen and the rest of the family knew I was in the thick of things when, not all that long afterward, a US Army car pulled into Karen's father's driveway. A gentleman in uniform came to the door.
Karen looked out and saw him. There's only one reason an official army vehicle comes to a loved one's house, and it's not a very pleasant one.
"Daddy, I just can't answer," she told her father.
Her father opened the door with a heavy heart.
Karen couldn't hear what was said at first, but soon she felt as if she'd witnessed a miracle: The car pulled back out. They'd had the wrong address.
As badly as she felt for the family of the man who'd been killed, she was grateful that it wasn't me.
People say that your training kicks in in combat. It's the truth. You get in the motion of doing what has to be done -- what you've done before, what you know how to do.
What you can't do is let your thought process interfere, not at the crucial moment. Because if you do, you'll scare yourself into doing something that'll get you killed.
That's how I think about it now, looking back. At the time, it was all just happening.
This was my first test in combat, the real crucible of a soldier. You never know how you're going to react when the bullets fly until you face them. I think we did well because the men who had trained us had done a good job preparing us. My team passed a gut check, thanks to a lot of other guys who showed us the way.
Of the many honors, badges, and awards you can receive in the military, one of the most important is the Combat Infantryman's Badge, or CIB. You can get it only one way -- by being in combat. Up where the bullets are flying, and you're fighting back. Ordinarily, the CIB is issued only to infantrymen; you have to be a "grunt" to get it. You're artillery -- sorry, we have other badges for you. Good ones, just not CIBs.
But even though we weren't officially infantrymen, we got orders following Panama authorizing us to wear the badge on our uniforms. And we certainly did. (I'm guessing there's an obscure regulation relating to our serving with infantry during the combat, but no one ever bothered to show it to us.)
It may seem like a little thing, but I cherish that badge. I was proud to wear it on my uniform, joining the ranks of men since World War II who risked bullets and death in the service of their country. You can never reduce yourself to a ribbon or piece of metal, but symbols are important, and I greatly appreciated the honor of wearing this one.
The fight was quick, but the US did take casualties, as the car that pulled into Karen's dad's driveway attests. Twenty-three men were killed in action, and another 325 wounded. To the families of those brave men, it wasn't an easy war.
Panama also suffered casualties. Estimates go from 234 to 314, and those numbers aren't anywhere near as precise as they may look. Nearly two thousand members of the forces facing us -- whether members of the Defense Force, police, or whatever -- were captured and held, at least briefly. Task Force Bayonet was credited with twenty-four enemies killed, nine wounded. The force captured 463 Panamanians.
Organized resistance throughout the country wound down within days if not hours of the initial assaults. A SEAL team mission -- one of the very few that has ever been publicly acknowledged by the US -- blew up Noriega's yacht, the Presidente Porras, inside Balboa Harbor on the canal. Another team destroyed his Learjet and other aircraft at Paitilla field, but met heavy resistance there before completing the mission; four Americans died and eight were wounded. Noriega, cut off from escape, went into hiding at the Papal Nuncio, a building belonging to the Apostolic Nunciature, essentially an embassy complex owned by the Catholic Church and its Holy See.
The US command decided that we couldn't just charge onto the property and take him. So instead we would drum him out. Loudspeakers were set up, and for two days straight, the Nuncio and surrounding buildings shook to the loudest, most obnoxious rock music available. There was a lot of heavy metal in the rotation, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, with the occasional Doors and Bon Jovi song thrown in. Played at teeth-shattering levels, it was a PsyOp -- a psychological operation, as opposed to a physical assault -- without parallel in the history of warfare.
Noriega surrendered on January 3, coaxed out by priests in the Nuncio, whom I suspect had had enough of the music.
With Noriega corralled and the fighting over, American troops began returning to the States. In early January, the 82nd Airborne returned to Fort Bragg, staging a combat jump that caught a lot of media attention.
I saw none of it. I had been tasked on another mission, one involving the CIA and the Green Berets.
The details of that mission are still hazy to me, and not just because so many years have passed since then. As occasionally happens, information was handed out on a strict need-to-know basis. Even though I had to work closely with the ground commanders, I apparently didn't need to know much. I didn't even know the CIA was involved until many years later. Heck, I still don't officially know.
Not to say that we didn't kind of know at the time. But there's a vast gap between "kind of know" and "know for certain." What I do know for certain is this: the US wanted to find some men who were thought to be in the jungles on the border of Panama and Costa Rica. The people we were with were supposed to find them.
We jumped on the border of Costa Rica -- or more likely a few miles inside that country -- landing in an established landing zone. Established here meaning someone looked out of the aircraft and said, "That looks like a big enough clearing to land."
We made the jump with a minimum of hassle, organized on the ground, and then pushed into the jungle. I believe we had upward of a platoon of "regular" army in support. Obviously, they must have been airborne-qualified, but whether they were from the 82nd or some other unit at this point I can't recall. We all wore B-1s -- battle dress uniforms and jungle hats, your very basic combat work clothes, with names and all insignia removed. I remember old-style flak vests, but I think they were ancient and lacked plates -- easier to move without all that weight.
Moving through the jungle was . . . interesting. I've never seen so many bugs in my life. Or monkeys. The monkeys would steal your pants off you if you weren't careful. Anything not tied down at night became monkey property.
What spooked me, though, were the vampire bats. We heard they would fly down while you were sleeping, bite you, and lick the blood off. Something in their saliva acts as a numbing agent and they get quite a feast without you even waking up.
And then there were the snakes.
I'm not saying the stories were worse than the reality, but I didn't get bit by a bat or snake while I was there.
As the fire support guy, I stayed close to the Agency operatives and SF guys. It wasn't like in the movies; none of that Rambo bravado. The Group guys were low key, no name tags, easy-going. ("Group" is another name for Special Forces, SF, or Green Berets. The nickname comes from the way the teams are organized, which is unique to Special Forces.) They weren't a talkative bunch, but they were friendly enough, and pretty much accepted that we were all professionals. By contrast, the Agency people kept to themselves. You got the idea that they expected you to speak to them only when spoken to, and they weren't about to speak to you.
We pushed through the jungle that night, got some sleep, and continued the next day. It was a long, hot march, but without anything going on, until early that evening when the advance team came to a bamboo wall.
We'd walked without warning to the edge of a village. Apparently, this was our target, because orders were issued to set up a perimeter and prepare to go in. There was at least one aircraft flying somewhere above -- "on station" as the air force would put it -- and I got ready to call it in.
The SF and Agency guys moved to the village entrance. I joined them, mentally calculating targets, grids, everything I'd need to tell an aircraft if things got hot. One of the Agency guys turned to me and asked if I was ready. I'm pretty sure it was the first time he'd spoken to me since the operation started.
I ticked off some of the aircraft we could call in if needed; at least one was on station with us the entire mission. "Just tell me what you need."
"Thanks," was all he said, but there was a lot in that single word and the nod that accompanied it. It seemed pretty clear he'd done this before. It also seemed pretty clear that he liked the idea that we could nuke the place if necessary.
Figuratively speaking. As far as I know.
The team went in. I held back with one of the commanders, waiting for gunfire, careful to stay under cover in case I needed to call in support.
Really, nothing. The place was about as calm as a park on Sunday morning. There were plenty of people, but no gunfire, no fighting, no resistance. The locals quickly turned over two guys who were not part of the village -- apparently the guys we'd come to find.
The Agency people made everyone but me and two of the Group guys leave while the men were questioned. What exactly they said, I have no idea. I'm guessing it was important information -- right? -- about the possibility of some guerrilla movement relating to Noriega, or maybe a rebel group that had been operating against him. Honestly, though, it could have been about anything -- baseball, the weather, vampire bats. All I know is that when the conversation was over -- and I don't believe it lasted five minutes -- the Agency guy was satisfied. Happy, even.
"Pack up," he said.
And that was it. We didn't even take the two guys with us. We marched on back to the area where we'd landed and were picked up by helicopter the next day.
Mission accomplished, whatever it was.
From "God, Family, Country" by Craig Morgan with Jim DeFelice. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2022 by Craig Morgan.