The first time I saw the LDS missionaries was through the scope of my sniper rifle—their white shirts strikingly visible against the intense green of the jungle. Who would dare be so visible in the middle of a war?
During my seven years in the Cuban military, I was trained by the Soviets and Vietnamese to carry out special warfare and insurgency operations throughout the world. We smuggled guns, ammunition, people, and explosives to 27 countries. We exploited revolution in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. We made war—that was our only purpose. Though I had no faith of my own, my grandma had taught me the principles of the Bible well. Throughout my missions, her words were always in the back of my mind. I would need them to become the man I wanted to become. And, as I would find during a mission deep in the Guatemalan jungle, I would need them to stay alive.
I joined the Cuban military right out of high school and stayed there for seven years. The military in Cuba is compulsory, and you can opt to be drafted as soon as you finish high school or after you finish college. But my mom had a very difficult time after she got divorced, and the domestic environment was not easy for me. So after high school, I just wanted to go away; the military provided mobility.
Though the domestic situation with my mother was never very good, my childhood had been happily spent in the company of my great-grandmother. Because my mom worked in a research facility pretty far away, my grandma was my main emotional attachment for many years. She was, more or less, my most significant relationship.
Growing Up with Grandma
My grandmother had a deep faith. She constantly taught me about the Bible, especially the words of Isaiah and his prophecy of a temple in modern times. This temple, and whatever took place in it, was critical to Grandma's view of God.
One night, she told me, "God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He has been my God since I was 23 years old and will be my God forever. God gave men clear instruction of how He wanted His church and His affairs handled. Men, in their arrogance, changed everything. They broke the commandments; they changed how things ought to be done. Thus, they’re cut off from Him."
"So, God isn't with us any longer, then. Are we on our own?" I asked.
"No, Son, He is here," she said with certainty. "You tell God that you know He is there, that you know you're cut off from Him because we've lost the way, but that you love Him. He will hear you."
Right before I left for the military, she warned me of the dangers and implored me to remain clean. "I send you out into the world in the hands of God. I urge you to seek Him in everything you do. I'll pray for your safe return day and night until you come back. But keep silent prayers in your heart always, listen to His voice, and you'll be safe."
And off I went. They did some tests and I scored high in certain areas; I had also studied martial arts since I was young. Because of these things, they told me I would do well in special forces. I figured if I was going to go with the military, I might as well go with the best and the brightest.
In the Field
I worked for the equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they would call me any time of the day or night. What my group did, for the most part, was to shadow enemy troops. The Central American Civil War—the Dirty War, as we called it—was a war of proxies. The U.S. was not directly involved, neither were the Soviets. They used proxies to fight the war for them.
The U.S. had CIA, special forces, trainers, and military advisors on the ground. The Soviets had them, too. The Cubans did the fighting, the training of insurgents, and so forth. Our task was to follow the enemy troops, and occasionally to grab military officers and pass them along for interrogation.
One time, our mission was to extract a lieutenant. We watched him go into a bar and brothel, on the second floor. The idea was to grab him without having to destroy the place, shoot people, or make a lot of noise—and all we had was an ice cream push cart.
We got to the second story of the building with a rope; we came in through the window, shot him with a tranquilizer, and put him in the ice cream truck. But when you lower the temperature, it diminishes the effect of tranquilizers. So we started pushing this ice cream truck down the street, and he started kicking and screaming. People were looking at us, shocked, and asking, "What have you got in there? A pig?" We tried to assure them that it was just a pig, but we had to finish up—fast.
We ran to the end of the street where the extraction truck was waiting. When we opened the lid of the ice cream cart, he jumped out and started running down the street. Now it just so happened that at the end of the street there was a mental hospital, so the people were afraid that he was a patient, and they actually helped us get him. We shot him again with the tranquilizer and got him in the truck.
Months later, we were in a town nearby, and an old man came up to me and said, "Hey, doctor, how are you?" I was confused. Doctor? Then he asked, "How did the situation with your patient end up? Did you get him back in the hospital?"
Then I realized he was talking about the lieutenant. "Oh, yeah!" I said. "He was totally insane." My comrades and I laughed. From then on, my friends started calling me Doc. It was a story we told many times.
In what we did, humor was a way to keep your sanity, because if you started thinking about what you were actually doing, there was no reason for laughter.
You have to understand there are three rules in the jungle. One, you have to blend. If you don't blend, you're going to become somebody's lunch real fast. The other rule is to move slowly. If you're moving too fast, you can't hear anything, such as something coming up on you. The last thing that is really important is that you have to be aware of the environment—you don't make yourself known.
One time we were waiting for an equipment drop on a hillside in the jungle. Suddenly, something came out of the bushes and started coming down the hill—and whatever it was, it was ignoring all three of the jungle rules.
I looked closer and it was two kids—jumping around, happy, talking, and not paying attention to anything. They're lunatics! I thought to myself. They're gonna get themselves killed. They were wearing white shirts and ties in the jungle, skipping and jumping animatedly down the hill. I could see one laughing. "Who are these people?" I said out loud.
"Oh, they're missionaries," said one of my comrades.
To me, my grandmother's student, this was fascinating, but my companion didn't seem to care. Who in their right mind would come into this godforsaken place, in the middle of a civil war, to talk about God? The missionaries had safely gone about their business, but the memory of those white-shirted boys lingered for days.