By Steve Cañon
It’s common for aviators and fishermen to tell “war stories” at the bar. Most yarns begin with something like, “There I was…”, or “Hey, this is no s—t, I swear….”
While this isn’t a tale of extraordinary flying skills or the huge sea creature I managed to land, since I was in the military at the time, it does qualify as a “war story” and it revolves around a single .38 snubbie, and about ten M4s.
The episode unfolded as I neared the end of “my turn in the barrel” as a command post controller at a semi-large air base. Now, the term “controller” is misleading because the only thing controllers actually controlled was access into the command post (a secured room requiring badges and security clearances to enter).
Besides that, our job was to take and receive messages, passing them on to appropriate agencies and senior staff as required. We also relayed messages between aircrews, maintenance personnel, and sometimes the security force on base (which is part of the story).
The command post in question had a duty component of one officer and two or three enlisted specialists. Officers were all aviators of one kind or another, while the enlisted were mostly long-term professionals in the command and control specialty code. At any rate, they were to be only the assigned staff inside the “cab” where there was yet another controlled door, two large consoles of telephones and radios.
There was a long desk provided for the two to three controllers. Essentially, for security purposes, everyone in the “cab” (including the random approved visitor) had to maintain sight lines to everyone else.
To reinforce the seriousness of the security requirements, command post controllers each carried issued sidearms (that .38 snubbie revolver). Because this was the military, the snubbies were carried holsters intended for revolvers with four-inch barrels. We often felt like we were Barney, and Sheriff Andy only gave us half-guns.
One other oddity of the command post will set the stage for the events that unfolded. There was a panic button located on the floor under the controllers’ console to be used if and when the command post was assaulted, and there was no time to actually use a phone or radio to signal base security forces of the threat.
At our base, however, that panic button was subject to random auto-initiation for some reason. After two years in the “cab,” I has been lucky and had never dealt with that. I was looking forward to being one of the few controllers to totally escape my time of duty without an auto-initiation of the panic button.
As an added bonus, the controllers had no indicator when an auto-initiation happened…except the sudden appearance at the front door of the equivalent of a SWAT team leader demanding complete evacuation of the command post.
As it happened, one afternoon while I was on duty, the “SWAT team” leader announced his presence, along with a ten-person squad, all armed with M4 carbines. The procedure was for everyone to evacuate the command post, be detained, and the potential hostage location searched.
We sent three people out of the command post while the one enlisted controller and I remained. The command and control security procedure prohibited abandoning the post entirely, as two armed controllers were required to be present to safeguard classified information and equipment.
But that created a stalemate. I asked the other controller how things worked in other episodes when the panic button auto-initiated, but he had no experience to guide us. I informed the SWAT team leader that we couldn’t leave the command post and invited the team leader to send his people into the area to confirm there was no emergency at hand.
The team leader refused, and demanded we evacuate. After about five minutes of seesaw demands (me out, him in), I instructed the enlisted controller to contact headquarters and locate the senior commander on base to explain the situation. At that point, I proceeded to the front door to confront the SWAT team leader and dare him to attempt to penetrate our secured location.
Arriving at the door, I unlocked it and kicked it hard to open it. There, I faced the SWAT team leader with his pistol drawn, and ten squad members in various defensive positions, all with M4s pointed in my direction. My half-gun was a poor counter to what I was facing.
The event finally unwound when the SWAT team leader received a radio call from the senior commander on base ordering him to stand down, and have the team leader’s unit commander front and center, immediately. The SWAT team then de-camped and I returned to the command post “cab”.
The enlisted controller looked at me in amazement, commenting that it took some big ones to take on a SWAT team with only a .38 snubbie. I explained that what it really took was a whole lot of stupid, not big ones.
Within a few months, the base security office finally re-wrote its procedures to line up with the security procedure for command posts. An entirely new (and I guess more reliable) panic button system was installed. I haven’t heard from anyone who rotated out after I did, telling tales of any more security stand-offs.
Gun handling lesson of the day? When the SWAT team leader demands you present yourself, don’t violently kick open the door while armed. My good fortune was that the team was highly disciplined. That could have quickly turned ugly…and painful.