Requiem for a Young Soldier Who Vanished The frightening blankness of history, memory, and the sea.

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In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

(W.H. Auden, from “Musée des Beaux Arts”)

 

 

 

 

 

All rivers run into the sea, as the preacher says, so I suppose I could start with any memory of that time—coatimundis grazing in the grass with their long tails in the air like question marks; the pitiful scratches in the jungle floor that marked the French attempt at a canal; the shrieks of laughter of the Panamanian girls calling us cochinos.

But the first and most enduring one of the event is of other soldiers rushing in and shaking me awake, lights in my face. I curled and raised my hands.

Kelley? Are you Kelley? Are you PFC Kelley? they said. Their voices were urgent, even terrified. No, no, I’m Griswold, I said with an uncleared throat, and they ran away.

Maybe it was being mistaken for that other young man that fixed the incident in my mind for 35 years. Maybe it was the helplessness of an army’s search at sea, on rivers, and in the jungle. Maybe I am predisposed to worry over everything turning away in time, calmly.

 

• • •

 

We were stationed at Fort Kobbe, a tiny U.S. Army post across the Bridge of the Americas from Panama City, home to a battalion of paratroopers, an artillery battery, and an engineer battalion.

Manuel Noriega was the increasingly-brazen dictator of Panama. The year I got there, 1985, the headless body of his critic Dr. Hugo Spadafora was found in a U.S. Postal Service mail bag near the border with Costa Rica. Less than four years later the troops on Kobbe would participate in Operation Just Cause, the U.S. removal of Noriega from power. But the 536th Engineers’ primary mission then was “nation building”: bridges, roads, wells, schools, churches, pipelines, and medical clinics for the rural poor.

My friends and I opened the first Army Dive Detachment in Panama. We were seven soldiers and a diving officer, hardhat- and scuba-trained by the Navy, and the 536th Engineers did not know what to do with us. Our MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was pronounced Double-O Bravo, like James Bond, and the vibe in the detachment was more piratical than Regular Army.

But we were motivated, capable, and volunteers several times over. I had been to Combat Engineer basic and advanced training, Jungle Warfare school, Air Assault school (rappelling from helicopters), the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC) in Florida, and the Seabee Underwater Construction School in California. I was about to go to the NCO academy and would make E-5—buck sergeant—before four years’ time in service.

I still look back at my friends’ intelligence, range of abilities, and personalities—and the leadership of our boss, Frenchy—and think how lucky I was to have had the experience. It set a benchmark for all organizations I have been with since.

We were friendly and joking with outsiders, but we knew if someone changed our balance, the beast would be reduced. Because we were arrogant, the highest compliment we could pay an outsider was that someone would have made a good Army Diver. Kelley was like that.

An engineer officer in the 536th then, who has since retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, wrote me back this week and said, unbidden, “[T]he Dive Detachment were studs, and as an Airborne Ranger serving in the [Headquarters Company] I envied the camaraderie and esprit de corps of the Dive Detachment and 00B’s in general. I loved my PT [Physical Training]…but not that much.”

We were friendly and joking with outsiders, but we knew if someone changed our balance, the beast would be reduced. Because we were arrogant, the highest compliment we could pay an outsider was that someone would have made a good Army Diver. Kelley was like that.

He worked in Headquarters Company’s arms room. Once or twice he came to our Friday-night piña colada parties in the barracks. He was smart, quiet, and smiled a lot. We liked him. I was the youngest diver, but he was younger than me, so I probably treated him both protectively and condescendingly. He used to do us the favor of accepting our weapons into the arms room when they might have been cleaner, which freed us up to go on with our lives and debauches.

Panama was a great duty station. You could catch a sunrise and sunset over two different oceans, drive through triple-canopy jungle, watch a container ship glide across the tops of trees on the unseen Canal, surf at Veracruz, and eat in the city—all in one day. But going to the field could be a misery. The landscape had been defeating intruders since 1501.

 

• • •

 

In late 1985 I called my mother from the only telephone on post that we could use for international calls. She had written that her sister, my beloved aunt, was dying of cancer, and I was agonizing over when to take leave, then or later. The Army expected me to do neither, since she was not my parent. The phone line had a ten-second delay. My mother said, Come now.

I was shy around death. Margie’s bedroom was dark, the shapes indistinct. I feared there would be a smell, but the room smelled like fresh sheets and like her, faintly floral. She was embarrassed, which broke my heart. Our conversation was brief and awkward. I felt I had failed and lost her already. I was back in Panama just after New Year’s.

Two divers were at the NCO academy in nearby Fort Sherman, but the others were packing for the field. Our lieutenant said we would be gone thirty days. We loaded our gear, and the others went to catch a boat. I got my shots and left two days later on a chopper.

Punta Diego is on the Caribbean coast of the Isthmus, far from any city. The site where the engineers had chosen to bivouac was a hilly plateau about a mile in diameter. Its front was on the sea and other sides surrounded by jungle. A DC-3, maybe an old drug runner, had crashed seventy-five meters (245 feet) to the east and been stripped. A village sat one hundred meters (328 feet) behind us, to the south.

“The houses are one- to three-room thatched huts on stilts,” I wrote in my journal then, “and the engineers are here to build them a road, a school, and probably a small hospital. [T]hey gather to watch us set up camp, with our generators and water-purification plants, house-sized tents and boats with drawbridge fronts. Huge double-rotored helicopters land and take off twice daily, and five-ton dump trucks, wreckers, and bulldozers drive across what used to be their front yard, churning the grass and flora into a knee-deep mud pit. They have to wonder, I’m sure, what they’ve gotten themselves into.”

The battalion officers, I assume, had decided our circus-sized tents would be set up right next to a cliff that dropped forty or fifty feet to the sea. The view was gorgeous. Many think of Panama as a land bridge running north-south, but it is shaped like an S lying on its back. Punta Diego is on the first swell of the belly. The next landfall north is Cuba.

“The ocean is wild, like it was when my section did the reconnaissance for the site,” I wrote. (My journal was also a letter to a young woman.) “Swells build far out at sea and work themselves into king-hell breakers as they pass over the shallows on their way to smashing into the cliff face. In some places this throws a spray of seawater thirty feet in the air. Our tents are just out of reach of that spray.”

I was surprised to arrive before the other divers. Battalion soldiers were still raising GP Medium tents, lifting eight hundred pounds of greasy canvas on poles, sledge-hammering wooden stakes, and tightening lines in unison, like roustabouts. I ducked into an empty tent to claim it for the divers. It flapped alarmingly in the breeze, but it was thirty-six feet long and wired for a bare bulb. I planned to hide there, until my friends arrived in a few hours, to avoid the Sergeant Major’s scut work. It was January 10, 1986.

Panama could be darker at night than anywhere else I had lived. It was the year of Halley’s Comet, which disappointed many because it was the dimmest it had been in 2,000 years, but I could see it from a listening post on some Panamanian mountain.

I napped on a piece of canvas, ate something from my bag, drank water. I wrote in my journal and read a book. It was very hot, but the wind was high all day. I walked out to the edge of the cliff and watched landing craft pass, halfway to the horizon. A bulldozer had scraped a ramp to the water a short distance to the west for a landing. When an LCM did pull in, bulldozers from camp dragged its cargo of trucks or semi-trailers across a strip of sand and up the already-eroding hill to the muddy plateau. A Chinook flew in and dropped off men and a Conex container slung under it, but still no divers.

After dark, the wind blew and the sea made concussive thumps on the cliff face. I wrote to my friend, “You know how we talked about being alone sometimes? […] Tonight I’m going to sit down on the beach alone where I can’t hear any manmade sound. I’ve had plenty of sleep today, so I’ll go down there for a couple of hours after midnight. With just myself and the crashing breakers I’m sure it’ll be a little eerie, but all the better. That’s alone.”

Panama could be darker at night than anywhere else I had lived. It was the year of Halley’s Comet, which disappointed many because it was the dimmest it had been in 2,000 years, but I could see it from a listening post on some Panamanian mountain. Maybe I did not want to risk turning an ankle, or I was tired and sore from travel, but I fell back asleep instead of walking down to the water. Sometime later the other soldiers rushed in to ask if I was Kelley. They did not explain, and nothing came of it. It was as dark as being in silty water at night, and I lay awake, staring up at nothing.

 

• • •

 

The next morning I ventured out for chow and got pressed into helping put up streetlamps, of all things. We all heard Kelley had gone missing but did not know what that meant. As I remember, wooden stakes were driven in along the cliff edge, and plastic tape strung between them. At 3 p.m. the other divers walked off the back of Chinook into the red dust. They had not waited for the boat, since it was presumed we would need to recover a body.

My journal says someone told me Kelley got drunk with a fifth of Jack that he sneaked in with his baggage and fell off the edge by accident, onto the boulders in the sea. This was almost certainly second- or fifth-hand. I also wrote down a rumor that he was going to put a bottle in front of the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) tent as a joke, or was putting it on a table inside, when he heard someone coming and ran out the back and off the cliff. Another said he had fallen off while taking a leak. I saw two small marks in the mud near the edge that could have supported one of these.

As the day went on, more rumors. One said he had walked away, up the banks of the nearby river. He seemed to have made it at least three kilometers upstream, where an old Panamanian woman was said to have seen him walking at about six a.m. Supposedly an observer in a passing helicopter saw someone “dressed like him washing himself or floating face-down in the river, I couldn’t tell.”

Boats and helicopters scanned the surface of the sea, and search parties were sent from camp. The divers assembled our two Zodiac inflatables, put forty-horse outboards on the transoms, and started up the river. It was narrow, slow, and surprisingly deep far into the interior. We called and called, and the howler monkeys replied. When the river forked, we split up. The right branch immediately got smaller. The river was so shallow in places we had to cut poles to push us along, and get out and pull the Zodiac. When we could we used the motor but soon ran over a submerged log that lifted us up and ripped the bottom of the boat. We were told by radio to retrace our path, go up the left fork, and help ferry passengers back to camp, who turned out to be one of our search parties.

At 3 p.m. the other divers walked off the back of Chinook into the red dust. They had not waited for the boat, since it was presumed we would need to recover a body.

The horizon of the Caribbean was a sharply-defined line, dark as distant landfall. From atop the cliff, we watched the sun break through ominous clouds and play on the stormy surface. I wrote, “At first glance the water looks like a uniform blue throughout, but on closer examination it’s possible to make out brown sandbars close to shore beneath wind-whipped swells. The sun sends fire through one whole cloud formation, making the water below it glow with greenish intensity. One end of a rainbow is visible, the other lost somewhere far away. It is an enormous shaft of multi-colored light rising straight up out of the sea into the clouds above the horizon.”

The next day, thirty hours after Kelley vanished, we got up at dawn to search the river again. Our dive section NCO came into the tent.

“They’ve found him,” he said. “The LCMs laying offshore are pulling the body onboard and will be at the beach pretty soon.”

But there had been a mix-up on the radio. The LCM perhaps told the TOC they would be on the beach in 10 minutes and asked what the nametape on the missing soldier’s uniform read. The TOC said “Kelley” and asked, Do you have it?, meaning his body. The boat captain thought the TOC was asking if the boat had heard the name. The captain asked, Is he waiting on the beach?, meaning Kelley. The TOC thought they meant the battalion Colonel. In any case, everyone converged at the landing. The LCM slid ashore, dropped its ramp, and everyone looked at each other.

We went far enough upriver that we had to leave the boat and walk. I asked a man in a village if they had seen a young American; he said no. In the jungle, near some river shallows, I found a green plastic button like the ones on our fatigues, a Freedent gum wrapper, and white liquid splashed on the ground. Back at camp, someone insisted Freedent was all Kelley chewed, because he had to go around picking up the wrappers.

The other rumor was that Kelley faked being drunk, stole off in the night, and made his way by horse, bus, or boat back to Panama City, where he was alive and well with his Panamanian girlfriend, who had arranged his transport, swimming up to the hotel bar where they served the sweetest, coldest piña coladas in the Americas.

AWOL talk was common in the Army then, but it was mostly a game, like what will you do first when you get home, or imagining an adventure-heist movie. Many of us had joined out of necessity, not patriotism; we loved songs like Oliver’s Army (“And I would rather be anywhere else but here today”) and Road to Nowhere. Ollie North and Noriega were making plans together that year and moving drugs on behalf of the Contras. Vietnam had ended only 10 years earlier. There were no thank-yous for your service. But I did not believe Kelley would go AWOL, and, having been up that river, felt Kelley did not walk to freedom up its jungle banks in the dark.

I dreamed of Kelley just under the surface of the water; Joel dreamed of him floating in the waves, as strange men in Navy diving hats rocketed out of the water on cue, and the divers looked out over the sea for something more important.

After seventy-two hours the search ended. On the plateau, soldiers played football, well back from the cliff’s edge. Some guys from Alpha Company rappelled down the assumed accident site, got pounded by the surf, and had to be hauled up.

That night felt freezing cold, as it can in the tropics. I dreamed of Kelley just under the surface of the water; Joel dreamed of him floating in the waves, as strange men in Navy diving hats rocketed out of the water on cue, and the divers looked out over the sea for something more important.

 

• • •

 

Two days later we flew to Coco Solo, a staging area, where trucks and equipment sat surrounded by water, barbed-wire, and military police of both countries. The boredom, confinement, and inactivity raised tempers. We were unhappy when we were told our next job was to recover an anchor from one of the landing craft off the coast.

LCMs and the much bigger LCUs drop their anchors before they run up on beaches, so they can use their engines and anchor cables to pull themselves back out. In Virginia they lost so many anchors that Frenchy said we would not try to find them anymore unless the boat crews attached floats to them, since the anchors were designed to bury themselves in the sand and mud.

Now the weather was so bad on the Panama coast that LCMs—armored, compartmented, vessels of 75 feet—had stopped taking supplies to Punta Diego for fear of broaching. The current and conditions were not safe for scuba, but we did not have hardhat gear with us. There was no good way to deploy a Zodiac off the bouncing ramp of an LCM, or to anchor the Zodiac over the job site. We felt our lieutenant did not want to tell the colonel his organization could not do it, or that the hunk of metal was not worth the risk. An experienced NCO will take a young officer aside and explain how things are done. Frenchy, who was the Master Diver and top NCO for the detachment, would have done this but had been reassigned.

“Frenchie,” I said in my notes, “knows his stuff, utilizes material/manpower/time correctly, and fights like hell for the safety and morale of his men. [He] is what I would like to be if I were going to stay in this crap.”

Most of us had volunteered for Panama specifically to work with him. I had extended my enlistment by a year to do so. Now our section NCO was not a Master Diver, and “the LT is going to have his way on this upcoming job,” I wrote. After a litany of written complaints I told my friend I wanted someone to know what happened if it went bad. My journal ends there. I did not mail it, because there was no way to mail it.

It was Super Bowl Sunday, Bears and Patriots. We took a beating getting to the site. In calm water, any of us could have swam down with just a mask and fins and attached a line to the anchor. But the water off the north coast was like photos I had seen of the coast of Washington, or the North Atlantic: wild with swells, waves, whitecaps, and shoal-motion. The water was confused, and I thought of Kelley.

The three of us got the Zodiac launched off the ramp. My roommate Mark was the backup diver, also dressed in scuba, and the LT sat there in his green coveralls, looking frightened. I went off the Zodiac’s gunwale backwards and upside down, white legs disappearing into the green water.

After a litany of written complaints I told my friend I wanted someone to know what happened if it went bad. My journal ends there. I did not mail it, because there was no way to mail it.

Any diver might face rough water on the surface. Underwater there could be a steady current, the back-and-forth of surge, or the plunger motion of large waves and troughs passing overhead. All of those were present, plus odd sudden rotations. I finned down and held on to the anchor, was swept over it onto my back, held on and kicked hard to stay in place, then was pushed headfirst into it. There is no point dramatizing it. Training had given us such endurance it had become a game to try to reach our limits, but it was the worst dive I ever made, like being in a washing machine.

I finally got a shackle and sling hooked up to the anchor, and when the lift was ready I surfaced and swam to the Zodiac to get out of the way. Mark looked worried for me, and the LT was green. The boat crew were leaning over the rail and looking at my head bobbing in the swells. They watched me hang exhausted off the side of the Zodiac and calmly moved on. The Bears won. I got a medal.

There were more jobs that spring, more schooling, a temporary duty in Florida. But something had gone wrong. Frenchy was no longer with us, and the beast had been reduced. I began to think of all the times in the Army I had been injured, or might have been, because someone with power over my life had not been thinking, like the time a dive supervisor let my partner get us tangled in line, until I breathed my tanks dry and had to do a free ascent, or he told us to get into a contaminated recompression chamber and clean toxic chemicals, and I had to have blood tests to see if my organs were failing.

When we began to feel wasted in the Army, many of my friends and I got out. Whatever happened to Kelley was also a waste and still makes me angry; who puts a battalion on the edge of a cliff for a hearts and minds job?

Once, I hit my tibia with a machete while chopping a landing zone and spent a week in hospital. That was on me. My bad back and hernia were mostly my own mutinous body. What I hate is waste. I have come to loathe it. When we began to feel wasted in the Army, many of my friends and I got out. Whatever happened to Kelley was also a waste and still makes me angry; who puts a battalion on the edge of a cliff for a hearts and minds job?

 

• • •

 

I have spent the month tracking hundreds of leads, but I have to admit, as something important to the project, that no one’s memory has been completely reliable, including mine. I did not remember many of the details I have written so far until I dug through decades of boxes and found my journal-letter, drafts of other writing, and photos from the time.

I misremembered the spelling of Kelley’s last name and could not remember his first. I am positive that the soldiers who shook me awake asked for PFC Kelley, but he was, it seems, then a Specialist Fourth Class. I did not know where Punta Diego was, exactly, and I seem to have been wrong about the name of the nearby river. I could not recall chronology of various diving jobs, or when I went home on leave. I had to Google my aunt’s death to know the month she died. Due to an unsettling but typical blankness, I cannot say when in the last 35 years I heard a rumor that a chopper came and took Kelley’s body away from the bivouac site after the divers left.

Memory is a wasteful organization.

But staying true to fact by researching is also hard. Has anyone tied the difficulty of knowing in the digital age to the rise of crackpotism? For all the paranoia about being tracked in our culture, it can be nearly impossible to find so much as a simple obituary. Everything is not digitized, let alone stored online. Many local newspapers simply went in the trash.

Yet think of the sea of data since Kelley’s disappearance, and specific points, like lost anchors, designed to bury themselves in the sand. Google, Nexis, newspaper aggregators, and other search tools and databases failed me almost completely. Online information can be so hard to manage and search that graduate library science programs are changing their identities to informatics programs. The state of Internet knowledge and communications sometimes makes me feel as if I am my sharecropper grandfather, trying to get information from a poor farmer in France. He knew such people existed but had almost no way to contact one.

The National Archives database shows two hundred U.S. military deaths in Panama from 1980 to 1999, when the Canal was turned over to the Panamanians, excluding combat deaths of Operation Just Cause. Most of those were training accidents, and a handful were disappearances with no remains recovered. In the same period, 19,251 U.S. military personnel died in accidents around the world. It is a shocking number, ten times those killed in action in the War in Afghanistan.

As I searched online and spoke to archivists remotely, I also tried Facebook groups for Panama veterans. Some said they recalled the disappearance but admitted they left before it happened. A man who claimed incorrectly to have been the First Sergeant of our company said he had no memory of “a trooper” going missing. Others did take part in the search but had nothing to add.

Yet others said specific things (all sic): “Kelly and some others from Aco, 1st plt we’re drinking booze they snuck in. He missed formation. All his stuff was there. There were rumors that he had his parent mail him a bunch of money and it had been taken out the day before we deployed out. Don’t know if that’s true. Do know that the CO cdr and supply sergeant didn’t secure his room/ gear very well and a bunch of his shit went missing from his room and or supply room. Kelly’s parents got upset and got some local politician involved and there was an investigation. Bivouac area wasn’t far from a drop off into ocean. Speculate he went out to piss like a lot of us did and fell off the cliff. Nobody ever proved anything that I know of and I was there for several years after that.”

Another: “Absolutely!! He was a member of my platoon, 3rd of the 518th Engineers [former name of the 536th] and then A Co., the whole time, up until he disappeared. It was him and PFC Dally who were on guard duty, guarding the commanders tent when the event occurred.”

Others in the groups wanted to talk instead about men who went missing or were killed in their own units: “I don’t remember him but we had a Pvt, in USCAIC, don’t remember his name, went missing on the island of Taboga after he separated from his friends while they were on the far side, and was said to have cut across the island instead of following the coast trail back around to the boat dock. He was never found also, about the same time period, 85-86.”

In fact, the National Archives database shows two hundred U.S. military deaths in Panama from 1980 to 1999, when the Canal was turned over to the Panamanians, excluding combat deaths of Operation Just Cause. Most of those were training accidents, and a handful were disappearances with no remains recovered.

In the same period, 19,251 U.S. military personnel died in accidents around the world. It is a shocking number, ten times those killed in action in the War in Afghanistan.

 

• • •

 

I was able to find contact information for several engineer officers in the time of Kelley’s disappearance, including the battalion commander; its executive officer; the commanding officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Company; a lieutenant who served a variety of roles, including S3 (Training and Operations) and S1 (Personnel); and a diving officer. Only two responded, with cordial hellos, and did not reply again to my shortlist of questions, including who made the decision to bivouac so close to the cliff, on the pitch-black plateau, without marking its edge.

Former NCOs, senior and mid-rank, in the battalion recalled a pattern of problems, including a poorly-chosen bivouac site that flooded when tropical rain predictably washed down a hill; an operation, before 1986, for which the battalion commander “apologized and apologized” and eventually said “we’re not going to talk about that any more”; and a mission with the Panama Defense Force that damaged equipment and involved “lying about our ability to perform.” One of my last jobs in the Army was scouting a newly-built river bridge for demolition, because Army Engineers gave no thought to trees and other biomass washing into its supports and forming a dam during rainy season. The river was backing up around the logjam and flooding villages.

There appears to have been a lack of understanding of, or respect for, the power of nature, especially the jungle and water.

Multiple sources tell me too that the battalion commander, whom I will not name because I have not verified details, was stripped of his command for conduct unbecoming, apparently racial and/or financial in nature.

 

• • •

 

Army units are constantly activated and deactivated, transferred to different posts, put under different commands, and renamed. The 193rd Infantry Brigade, which most soldiers in Panama served with, was moved after the Canal was handed back to the Panamanians and is now a training unit at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I called to ask if a board inquiry that was done after Kelley’s disappearance was in their unit archive.

“The Brigade left Panama with its colours [ie, flags] and little else,” their Public Affairs Officer told me. He did not know where any unit records might be archived.

I did get some help on a military history chat board, which led me to the Defense Casualty Analysis System at the National Archives, and suddenly there he was:

David Alan Kelley, born September 14, 1965, from Walled Lake, Michigan, in the outskirts of Detroit. Methodist. Disappeared in Panama, January 11, 1986. His body was not found. He was a 12B (Combat Engineer) and a Specialist Fourth Class.

The file says he was National Guard/Army Reserve on short-term active duty, but Kelley was on full active duty in Panama. (I too am listed as Army Reserve gone active duty, though I served four years active duty in the Regular Army, with no other active Reserve time. I am also listed as having been issued the Driver badge, not the Diver badge.)

There was no other information, but this allowed me to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Army for any report they might have.

I spent the best part of a month tracking hundreds of leads for anything more about this event, but I had not found David Kelley’s family.

 

• • •

 

Ellen (Kelley) Stanley lives in Texas now. She is David Kelley’s older sister. Obituaries of their mother, which contained David’s full name, led me to Ellen’s niece, who works in a big church with a web presence and online directory. Kristen, the niece, put me in touch.

“It killed my mother,” Ms. Stanley told me. “She was totally just devastated, especially when David was the youngest child, her baby, and her most difficult birth. She nearly died, he nearly died, and he was her favorite baby.

“He was always smarter than the rest of us. He was so accomplished, all his life, not just in the military but also through high school. He was always hungry to learn and wanted to be a lawyer, so he joined the service for the college program. He read, nonstop, every book he could get his hands on.”

She said he did not have a girlfriend back home, “but maybe had a gal in Panama he might have been interested in.”

The family was upset that few of David’s belongings were returned, including anything that might have indicated who his friends were, so they could ask about him.

There was a photo of a young woman in David’s personal effects, which did not arrive home for nine months. The name on the back of the photo was Soraya Felicita Alnengor Hernandez, but Ms. Stanley does not know anything about her. The family was upset that few of David’s belongings were returned, including anything that might have indicated who his friends were, so they could ask about him.

“David was an avid photographer and had lots of expensive camera equipment, and it didn’t make sense that we only got six photos back: two of girls in Panama; one of some Spanish ruins; a picture of him in Taboga, which says, “Me and Pete and friend”; and a picture of shopping in Panama City. No scrapbooks, no nothing, as if everything was purposely removed. No good friends, any of the guys in his unit. Odds and ends—all the camera equipment was gone except one lens. No personal correspondence.

“Wet clothing is all we got, two trash bags of wet clothing in a beat-up box. I still remember stuff laid out on tables to dry in the garage.

“So many unanswered questions. We sent for information from the Army and got an inch-thick sheaf of handwritten notebook papers, blacked out. Nothing of substance could be read. Words like ‘In Panama…’; ‘The evening of….’ My mother was so angry when it came in the mail, because it was basically a book and nothing in it.”

Ms. Stanley said their family “got that story” from the Army about David drinking at Punta Diego and falling from the cliff. But she says the military is “very secretive about many things,” and that they had a distant cousin who was a general’s aide at the time, who said he was working unofficially with the general’s permission to find out what actually happened. The cousin told them that the Army’s story that David fell was not likely, since the tide was so far out that his body would have been on dry ground and not been washed to sea for hours.

(He seems to have mistaken the tidal differences between the two coasts of Panama. The Pacific coast gets twelve-foot average tides, and there is an enormous mudflat at Panama City at low tide. The Caribbean coast averages only ten inches, and I do not remember a beach directly below the cliff.)

The cousin (who is now deceased, I discovered) also told David’s family that he believed David was not in Panama when he disappeared, and may have been doing a secret mission in Nicaragua.

“If the Army goes someplace for less than six months, they’re not officially there,” Ms. Stanley told me, “so they can send troops anywhere.” She said the cousin told them he was forced out of the Army because he knew too much.

Ms. Stanley said the Army declared David missing. A year and a day later he was declared dead. There was a memorial service at United Methodist in Walled Lake. He received full military honors and a marker in Arlington National Cemetery. A dozen articles were written about his disappearance in Detroit-area newspapers.

The cousin’s account is extremely unlikely. David was, on paper and from what I remember, a hard charger, a good soldier, but as a Spec 4 serving as a 12B, he likely would not have had any reason to be chosen for something covert. A senior NCO from the 536th said it had no one in Nicaragua then.

Ellen Stanley told me details of David’s military training, including jump school in 1984, and Jungle School, twice. He received two certificates of achievement and had his civilian PADI dive card, which I did not remember, though it must have come up. He was due to get out of the Army in October but said in a letter to his mother they would not let him extend in Panama, so he would be sent to the 82nd Airborne in March 1986. He went home for Christmas in 1985.

Their mother, sister, and father died several years ago; their other brother, Michael, died only two months ago. Ms. Stanley wept.

“I’m the only one left. I’m the only one who remembers him,” she said. Her son, who was David’s beneficiary, is 46. Ellen’s niece, Kristen, was born after David disappeared.

Their father, she told me, was a Korean war veteran who became a math and science teacher, then a research scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers. Their mother was a manager and diamond specialist for jewelry retailers, a seamstress, and a cake decorator. All three of their maternal uncles served in the military. David’s brother was a mechanic, his other sister an office manager, and Ellen Stanley is a small-business owner.

Ms. Stanley said the Army declared David missing. A year and a day later he was declared dead. There was a memorial service at United Methodist in Walled Lake. He received full military honors and a marker in Arlington National Cemetery. A dozen articles were written about his disappearance in Detroit-area newspapers.

She said David loved his time in the military. “I know he partied with the best of them at times,” Ms. Stanley said. “I’m not a prude; he was a 20-year old young man, enjoying life. But when you never get a body, and they were not forthcoming, and all that blacked-out info, and none of his personal effects—you really kind of wonder.”

 

• • •

 

The Kelley family has had to live with not-knowing for decades. It continues. When I asked after the journalist at the Oakland, Michigan paper who wrote the best article about the disappearance, the current editor replied, “The reporter you asked about has not worked at the paper for many, many years. No forwarding info available. Sorry.”

According to the article, the family gave the photo of the presumed Panamanian girlfriend to their House Representative, William Broomfield, for investigation. He died in 2019.

Frustrations are common in research, but there is something about this event that resists understanding. I do not mean conspiracy. I mean, for example, that my FOIA request came back with:

“My staff made a good faith effort and conducted a thorough search of the Army’s accident database for the time period of January 1, 1985 through December 31, 1987; however, they were unable to identify any records that matched the description you provided. Consequently, I regret to inform you that we have no records responsive to your request.”

Ellen Stanley said she did not know what to make of that. I told her I did not either. I asked if I could see the redacted report her family got from the Army. She has many of the things from that time but cannot find the report, which she thinks may have been lost when she moved her parents to be near her.

 

• • •

 

I searched the north coast of Panama a long time with satellite images, looking for Punta Diego’s scarred plateau, the village, a river that splits, maybe even the crashed DC-3. Resolution is adequate to see surf against the cliffs. I finally found it, doing the same searches I had done many times before.

 

• • •

 

I know what I believe—that David slipped and fell but did not suffer—but I still have many questions.

Why, if I was shaken awake in the middle of the night, were there not boats or Blackhawks on station within an hour to spotlight the sea, plateau, and river? Why were we bivouacked within 25 feet of a fatal drop-off in the black of the Isthmian night? How did no squad leader or battalion officer think to check on people being rowdy, before it led to a death, especially since the TOC was involved? Why did no one rappel down the cliff for three days?

If David was one of a pair on guard duty at the TOC, as someone said, was he really drinking, when officers were present or could have been at any moment? If he was on guard duty there, how could he be sneaking out to leave a bottle in front of it, or running out under its back hem when he heard someone coming?

How did a report of a U.S. helicopter taking away a body found by a fisherman, several days after David disappeared, not get investigated for three weeks, according to the paper, then get dismissed as rumor?

Why, as contemporary articles call out, did questions from his family about discrepancies with his bank account and pay never get resolved? How did a report of a U.S. helicopter taking away a body found by a fisherman, several days after David disappeared, not get investigated for three weeks, according to the paper, then get dismissed as rumor?

Why were David’s personal effects not returned for nine months? Why did the battalion commander not immediately find his missing things and punish their thieves? (“That galls my ass,” Frenchy told me this week.)

“Why are there so many answers to one question?” Roelene Kelley, David’s mother asked in 1986.

How, in our connected age, can we not know more than we do?

 

• • •

 

I have been surprised at David’s and my similarities, which I never knew or had forgotten. We were both from the Midwest, both joined the Army to get college money, both considered law. Guidance counselors at our high schools made similar passive-aggressive remarks about bright kids taking things more seriously. Both did basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, nearly in the same training platoon. Both of us had fathers and maternal uncles (only) who served.

Both have an older sister named Ellen, and a niece named Kristen (mine spelled Kristin), who would be left to tell our stories if something happened to us.

Most of all, I suppose, I feel I could have died on that field exercise, and maybe David Kelley would be remembering me, after thirty-five years. I could have slipped off the cliff on my way to sit on the tiny strip of beach at the landing. I could have been on the beach and heard someone cry out, tried to reach them and been drowned myself, in the vicious breakers and riptides.

Both of us were scuba divers. We both ended up in Panama, had Panamanian girlfriends, wanted to extend in Panama but were not allowed to, and so were getting out within months of each other. Both went home over Christmas 1985. I had the uncanny feeling I was looking at some other version of myself in an alternate timeline.

Most of all, I suppose, I feel I could have died on that field exercise, and maybe David Kelley would be remembering me, after thirty-five years. I could have slipped off the cliff on my way to sit on the tiny strip of beach at the landing. I could have been on the beach and heard someone cry out, tried to reach them and been drowned myself, in the vicious breakers and riptides.

I could have drowned on the anchor job, in the same water, even slipped my tether and not have left a body for my family to mourn, due to misjudgments by someone with power over me.

I was sorry for David, whom I barely knew, but appreciative of the life I was given. At least I knew why I was writing this finally.

 

• • •

 

“Why are you writing about a boy about your eldest’s age disappearing, right before you are to drop him off at college in the midst of a worldwide pandemic?” a friend asked.

 

• • •

 

I went downstairs, where my elder son was on the couch, reading. I told Jack about research resources I had discovered, because he will be a poli-sci major and has a bent to history. He would love to join the military but cannot. He is, as we used to say in the Army, full of piss and vinegar, ready to be independent and to start his future.

“Chip off the ol’ blockhead,” Frenchy says of him.

I told Jack I had recovered much of the story of the disappearance of David Kelley, which had bugged me for a long time. I summed up what I knew. He looked at me and made an obstinately hopeful statement about Kelley living with some tribe somewhere, drinking gin, and being happy.

Neither I, nor all the massed armies of the President of the United States of America, could say any different. In fact, there was no one in the entire world who could say he was wrong.

Read more by John Griswold here.

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