A Main State (Dept of State) letter to me back in the Summer of 1992 mentioned that I am subject to a perpetual program of travel accompaniment because of anomalous circumstances regarding my identity. On June 28 of 2017 (reconfirmed June 30), Main State said that because the program is interdepartmental all instances of the program are destroyed from the beginning except a basically unmaskable summary kept only by the Director of the CIA and the Secretary of State. The program can run without anyone accessing that summary. Whenever I travel, I’m accompanied. Period. I’m just a “package” to be delivered. The guy making the assignments doesn’t have to know anything, nor those who carry out the assignment, just that I’m the “package.” People ask me if I’m harassed by the TSA or whatever. Never. Just the opposite. They treat me very well indeed. All very polite. The FBI underlined that perpetual travel accompaniment program for me four years later overseas when speaking to me about that letter (1996). Outside of the summary (which would never be seen) no one knows why the accompaniment order is in place, whether I’m a good guy who needs this for whatever reason, a bad guy who is nevertheless valuable for whatever reason, or anything whatsoever. It is what it is. It is actually fairly common. I always have interesting travel companions when I fly. Always diplomats, intelligence services, air marshals, military, operators. Only. Always. Same on this return trip from Rome to Atlanta.
Delta likes to look like it likes the U.S. Military, especially when they are boarding. Like little kids, those in wheel-chairs, those who need extra time to board, service men and women are invited to board early. The invitation was made like a half dozen times, that is, to the military, twice as much as the others. No takers, but they were there aplenty. If they don’t want to be known to everyone on the flight, Delta shouldn’t point them out. After the flight is over it doesn’t matter. But while boarding it does. In the same way, Air Marshals also hate it when they have to look the part and do stuff which makes it obvious who they are. It’s easy to look for tell-tale signs of “carry” if you know what to look for. But anyway…
While boarding I said to the huge guy pictured above: “Oh, only two engines.” He then proceeded to tell me the make and model and horsepower and history and pros and cons of that particular engine, saying that we could last on just one engine for some nine hours with this particular plane with the load we were expected to have. I asked if he was avionics in the Air Force. He said that he was. As it turns out, there were a number of avionics guys (I was personally introduced to just three) and others of the group in the Air Force on the flight, a very particular, cohesive crowd, sitting next to my seat and all around me (as always). One of the guys, a couple of rows ahead, on an aisle seat, older, clearly the leader, stood up after we got up to altitude, turned around and stared at my face with the wryest, most subtle smile ever, I guess successfully distinguishing me from my “Shadow.” Yes, I was the “package.” Sigh. As I once told my “Shadow” that this seems to be such an enormous waste of money and resources, which he immediately dismissed as being only the tiniest part of the program and was no big deal. These guys weren’t in uniform, but I got to know them as the flight continued on for its 10 hours 31 minutes.
The guy next to me was pretty open about what he did and the kind of training he had and pointed out who in the group would know what about whatever. Very cool, really. Very competent operators. All very friendly. It seems that they were all PJs, that is, Pararescue Jumpers, that is, the rescue crowd the Navy Seals and Seabees and Army Rangers and Green Berets et alii call when they get in trouble and need some help. The PJs are the only operators dedicated only to rescue in the U.S. Dept. of Defense. I’m guessing they were coming back from a mission further away to the East from Rome, and it was just as easy for them to get on a civilian plane in Rome as it was to get on a military transport running through Germany.
Of all the logos of all the groups of all the branches of the entire Department of Defense and beyond, the PJs have far and away the best logo:
Who knows what their mission had been, but the guy next to me, a really nice guy, I suppose because he saw that I was a priest, said they were all on a “Follow-In-The-Steps-Of-Saint-Paul” pilgrimage. I didn’t ask. He just went ahead and offered that, it seeming to him that their rather special group needed an explanation. Which is interesting in itself. Anyway, I’m unrelentingly bad and evil. And hearing such a thing as that, and being ever so cynical and doubting as I am, I did up a little interrogation with him:
- Me: “Oh, so, while you guys were in Rome you must surely have gone to Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, where Saint Paul is buried?”
- PJ: “No, um… we didn’t go there.”
- Me: “Oh, so, I guess you went to the Mamertine where Saint Paul was imprisoned?”
- PJ: “Mamer… What?”
- Me: “Oh, so, I guess you went to Tre Fontane, where Saint Paul was decapitated?”
- PJ: “Um… No… Never heard of it.”
- Me: “But I mean, you must have gone to Malta, where he was shipwrecked…”
- PJ: “Um… Where?” [He honestly knew nothing about the nation of Malta…]
- Me: “Or you must have gone to Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, Crete, Greece, Sicily, southern Italy… you know, the steps of Saint Paul…”
- PJ: “Those must be on another Steps of Saint Paul trip…”
I stopped there with that. Too embarrassing. So, he lied about the purpose of the trip. No big deal. Obviously they were up to something else. Hey! If it was the steps of Saint Paul maybe they went to Syria and did some stuff. Anyway…
He told me that his big passion in life right now is historical architecture. So, I showed him this picture…
I soon found out he knew absolutely nothing about the most basic things about historical architecture. Nothing.
Anyway, he said he was a photographer for the group, and had been a photographer for the Air Force, specifically also for the PJs, and not just photos, but also a number of promotional videos for the PJs, going with them on actual rescues, which, as he said, had him either dropping into the sea with them or hanging from razor-edge tops of mountains. I couldn’t resist asking him about that too.
- Me: “So, a lot of that must be online if it’s promotional, recruiting stuff.”
- PJ: “No, actually. None of it is online.”
- Me: “But anyway, it’s all very interesting. I mean, you must have had a lot of the same training as the operators.”
- PJ: “Oh, no. Not really. No.”
- Me: “But I mean, in jumping into a stormy ocean or hanging off a precipice while manipulating a camera, during actual rescues, you will surely want to be accomplished enough where you absolutely will not ever for an instant get yourself in trouble as you would then drastically lower the chances of the success of the mission because you have to be rescued instead of the guy originally in distress. So, I mean, you really have to be as good as PJ operators, because, really, you’re doing the same stuff as them.”
- PJ: “Well, it’s just that I don’t bear the wounds on the inside that they do. I mean, I’m an avionics guy as well, and I’ve had jet engines fall on me half ripping my arm off (as I was looking at his arm which was missing a huge chunk of flesh just below the elbow, with massive scars the length of his arm). [And on and on he went describing stuff he had been through in the action one does see in avionics, but he insisted, rightly, that this was nothing compared to what his brothers went through in being in direct battle and seeing really bad stuff as your brothers lay down their lives that we may live.]
And so it went. Lots of lies. (It’s always that way. Always.) Really of lot of sincerity. (It’s also always that way. Always.) I have no right to know anything. I know that. I’m guessing that they had no idea who Saint Paul was, and that they were returning from a pretty wild mission.
The PJs are the best there are for rescue. I’m happy I didn’t have to get any green feet tatted on my posterior, five toes on one foot, six toes on the other foot if you want to be precise, a tradition for PJs and those rescued going back to rescue choppers landing in rice paddies in Nam. But I am happy that they were there on the plane to do some field accompaniment for me. I wonder if they could use a chaplain for what Pope Francis calls a field hospital even while being in one of the PJs’ field hospitals (stretchers, harnesses and choppers). Can Missionaries of Mercy do that too? I was very impressed with these guys. Of course, I knew something of the PJs beforehand, having a good friend who was invited to be one of them when he was just picking up the phone to call the bishop to ask to be admitted to the seminary. He chose the seminary, but later discerned out and got married. Lovely wife. Great kid. Still the best Catholic ever.
Of course, if I were a PJ chaplain, that would mean I would also have to do the same training. Um… that ain’t gonna happen… :-)