Voices From The Front:
'I Wanted To Get Back Into The Fight'

Apr 30, 2006

Army Sgt. Maj. John "Stan" Parker of Valrico recently returned from Afghanistan as a war hero. His reception was much different from 38 years ago, when he came back from Vietnam with two silver stars for valor.

In an interview with Tribune editorial writer Jim Beamguard, the Special Forces soldier contrasted the two homecomings. "In late '68, people were very hostile. I felt more at home in Vietnam than I did back home in Gary, Indiana. Neighbors would wave at you but didn't come over to talk, because they didn't want anyone to think that they were pro-military."

Now, he says, "everybody wants to know, 'Are we winning?' I say, yes, we are. They say, 'Why is there nothing in the paper or on the news? Why is it so negative?' "

On a first-class reception: Coming back from Afghanistan, I was flying from Baltimore to Atlanta. A passenger insisted I take his seat in first class. He told the stewardess to tell the pilot not to take off until I changed seats. What was really astounding, when I stood up to take his seat, the entire aircraft started clapping. It was a very emotional experience.

On his disrespect for the Taliban: The blatant disregard for human life that the Taliban had, that affected me. The Taliban will shoot at you if there's civilians in between. It hampered your ability to defend yourself because of the noncombatants in the way.

It just overwhelmed me that they had no compassion for their own people. They will use them as human shields in a heartbeat.

There was one small kid, about 5 years old. When a firefight started, he was still out there. He was gonna get killed. I ran out there and removed him from the danger area. The locals just thought it was great, but they couldn't understand why an American would risk his life to save an Afghan kid. They were extremely grateful. To me, it was like my own kid or grandkid.

[Parker was awarded the bronze star for valor for that episode. The official citation said that with bullets kicking up dust all around him, he ran directly toward the enemy, grabbed the child with one arm and continued shooting back with the other hand while he ran to safety. He saved several wounded Afghan soldiers in the same battle.]

On being an old soldier: I'm 59. I stay in good shape. We had a parachute jump yesterday right into Tampa Bay. I don't miss a chance to jump. [Parker is presently assigned to Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base and plans to retire at the end of the year.]

On his role in special operations: In '96 they asked me to come back on active duty, Special Forces. We were in a lot of places. We do a lot of training of foreign national armies, making sure their armies are adequate to defend themselves from outward aggression. In special ops, we get down to the brass tacks rather than involve too many conventional soldiers in land warfare. We can get the point to the enemy quicker.

And I've done a number of humanitarian assistance missions over the years [while in the reserves and National Guard]. I've never been to a country where the people are ungrateful.

On body armor: It was heavy, awkward, heavy, cumbersome, heavy. It will stop bullets. At 28 pounds, that's a lot of weight. It keeps you hot. The American people don't really know the sacrifices. You wear that body armor all the time. It's kind of difficult to go to the bathroom with it on. To get in or out of a vehicle is a major chore. They don't need more armor; they need lighter.

On a modern warrior's load: On patrol, I carried the M-4 carbine, the advanced version of the M-16. It's shorter, more robust. Flashlights on it for looking in caves. Laser systems, invisible to the naked eye. I carried eight 30-round magazines and seven 40-round magazines. Thirty rounds is the standard magazine. I carried special-made 40-rounders. Ten extra rounds can be the difference between life and death.

I carried four hand grenades and a couple of knives. In Vietnam, that's how I got wounded - hand-to-hand knife fight with a guy. We only had one knife, but he took it away from me a couple of times. He stabbed me in the arm and side. I got him different places but eventually in the throat. He had a death grip around my neck. I could see the lights going out when he finally succumbed to the wounds. I don't go anywhere now without more than one knife. You always need a backup.

On his family: I am extremely proud of my two sons, Wes and Jason, and my wife, Anna, for the support she has given us. I have four granddaughters and a fifth one on the way. It's great to be a grandpa.

Both of my sons were called up through the Florida National Guard. Wes, my oldest son, went to Iraq when it first kicked off, in 2003. He was gone for 15 months. While he was still gone, Jason got called up with Special Forces. He went to Afghanistan. I was envious of both of them. I was stuck in a staff job and wanted to get back into the fight more than ever.

On his mission in Afghanistan: I went to Afghanistan from November 2004 to mid-December 2005. The first seven months, I handled all the air missions involving rotary wing aircraft for all Special Forces operations. I sent out 2,500 air missions. Everything needed in the camps, 90 percent of it had to be moved by air. I made sure everything was on that helicopter. Troops, materiel, equipment, vehicles, generators, food, fuel to be used in generators, ammunition up the gazoo. I inserted teams looking for the bad guys.

Then I was moved over to the coalition force. We had nine other nations helping us with Special Forces personnel. I was task force sergeant major. I was ecstatic, having troops with me on the ground. I think I only missed a couple of patrols. The bad guys will limit their engagements with you from 15 to 30 minutes. Then, they're running and you're chasing. It's terrible terrain. They got mountains there, 18,000-footers. We flew over and around them. There was a lot we were doing at the 10,000-foot level.

You're constantly in the hard chase. Don't give them any sleep - that's how you win. You're going to find him, fight him and beat him or totally push him out of the area.

On winning the war: In Iraq, they're doing a great job over there. They're winning, if people would listen to what the soldiers are saying. [Both of Parker's sons] were disappointed because nothing is being told of the accomplishments being made, or of the locals, how they're glad we're there.

The locals were telling us where the bad guys were. It was dangerous for them. The Taliban would come in, use them as examples not to support coalition forces. People would actually cover themselves totally up and be smuggled into our camp to keep from being identified, to keep [from having] any reprisals on them and their families. They want the Taliban totally done away with.

There was an old Afghan man I came in contact with at our camp one day. He kind of looked like my dad, except for his clothing. I was looking at this old guy, and he smiled and in broken English said, "I want to thank you very much for what you do. I'm so grateful you're here. I voted, like an American."

I got the same type of dialogue from different people. I was in Afghanistan with guys who had been in Iraq, and they were saying the same thing. The people in Iraq were very supportive of the American troops being there.

On questioning prisoners; You are going to see what you can find out from them. To get information, you don't have to have kid gloves with them. But roughhousing, I didn't go along with it. There was never any complaints from the bad guys. We got information and I was never ashamed of anything that was ever conducted. I was totally against that whole situation in Abu Ghraib. I'm glad those people went to jail.

On religious faith: Three times a day they would stop and get on their knees and bow to the east. We wondered if we were in the middle of a firefight, would they stop and do this? Maybe they would. I was impressed by a people that were that religious.

I'm solid in my own religion. I'm not going to do anything to compromise myself. I'm a born-again Christian.

I had tablets, chalk and pencils sent over from my church, Belle Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon. Boxes and boxes of it, which we would distribute.

On his darkest days in Afghanistan: I had two helicopters that crashed. One killed 18, on April 6. It crashed in a huge dust storm. On June 29, we had another go down and killed 16. It was shot down.

When you've stood there and said, "Hey, I'll catch up with you in a day or two," and then that don't happen, it gets to you.

On the Afghan people: The Afghan people are very proud, yet humble. I could count on one hand the times they hollered at me and shook their fist. Hundreds of times they said thank you. They said, "You tell President Bush I said thank you."

I never saw so much support in my life. They love us.

I was impressed with the Afghan national army. These guys are aggressive right out of the gate. I mean, wow. These guys charge right into it. Fantastic. They almost have no fear.

On being an ironworker and a teacher: I worked on high buildings and bridges, all over the country. Late in life, in the '80s, I went to college, got my degree and taught school for one year. I loved it, but I about starved to death. It's a great profession. I was a history teacher. One year, and poverty-level wages, and I went back to construction.

On U.S. military history: We occupied Germany and Japan until they were self-sustaining. We stayed there with a military force so aggression couldn't take them over again. In Korea too. If you look back, nowhere in history have we gone in to support someone and ruled their country. An occupying force is essential to stability and prosperity of the country you're in. We will be out of Afghanistan and Iraq one of these days, for sure.

On the Taliban vs. the North Vietnamese: There was times in Vietnam when we got overrun in hand-to-hand fixed-bayonets fights. Five or six times. There was more of them than there was of us. The North Vietnamese were well-trained. If you had a company, they would engage you with a battalion. They outnumbered you most of the time. In Afghanistan, the training we had is so superior to theirs. Their engagement with you is 15 to 30 people at a time. They're going to be on the losing side every time.

On homeland terrorism: One of the reasons they're not here giving us a hard time is because we've got them busy on two fronts in the Middle East. They don't have the time or resources to even think about hitting us again in the homeland. I don't think they'll ever be able to touch us again like they did. If they do, whoa, boy, I don't want to be on the receiving end of what's going to happen to them.