It’s unnerving to think about where the world would be without our military. Would communists control Nicaragua? Would Nicaragua have overtaken Honduras? Would Iraq have invaded Saudi Arabia? How many soldiers would have died if military aircraft hadn’t been so well maintained?
There are a lot of questions that have gone unanswered thanks to the people who devoted their lives to serving our country. People like Ralph Pallotta. He was there to keep the peace in Central America. He was there to repel an Iraqi invasion during Operation Desert Shield/Storm. And he was there to remove a Panamanian dictator who was slowly eliminating one human right after another.
And, because he was there, because he was involved in those operations, his kids never knew an America that wasn’t the most powerful nation on Earth. They grew up knowing our military could and would protect them from anyone who gets the wild idea they can take down the greatest nation. They grew up knowing there are men and women fighting every day to ensure their freedom.
That’s his legacy.
At a time when many other young people were trying to get into New York City to start their adult lives, Ralph was trying to get out. He grew up in Brooklyn and went to a nearby college, but it wasn’t for him.
Ralph had been working in restaurants all his life, but he knew that wasn’t the career path for him. It was a rough area, not the best place to start a business — he said sometimes you’d even have to pay people to leave you alone.
“I decided I’d get out of New York somehow and start somewhere else,” Ralph said. “The only way out for me was to join the Army and start from scratch.” So in 1974, he enlisted.
He knew once he served for three years, his Vietnam era G.I. Bill would give him 90 percent of his college tuition, plus a stipend. He decided to serve those three years and then see if he wanted to stay in the military or move on to a mostly-paid-for college life.
Turns out, he did both.
In his 30-year, Army career, Ralph was stationed all over the world. Some of the places were beautiful, like Savannah, Georgia, or the tropical settings of Honduras and Panama. Others, like Saudi Arabia, were just hot. Ralph wasn’t looking for vacations or sightseeing, though. He went to all of those places to work.
Honduran Hall Monitors
When Ralph was stationed in Honduras for a year, his mission was to make sure then communist-controlled Nicaragua didn’t try to take over, which they were threatening to do. This was in the 1980s, right as the Cold War was ending, when the US was doing anything to keep communism from spreading. Nixon had started the War on Drugs in 1971, and the US was still fighting to keep drugs from reaching Mexico and then the US.
“The US put troops in Honduras in order just to have a presence there, to make sure the Nicaraguans didn’t expand their boundaries by taking over a part or all of a very poor country,” Ralph said. “(And) you had civil wars going on in El Salvador… at the same time. So, that area between Guatemala and Honduras and Nicaragua was very unstable. … Not only did you have communism trying to spread, but you also had drug smuggling and weapons smuggling going on.”
Ralph’s job was to support and sustain round-the-clock reconnaissance aircraft missions to learn more about what was happening in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Those flights were like the hall monitors of the world, making sure nobody was spreading lies and rumors or beating up on the little guy.
“You didn’t want those … countries to get a foothold in Central America because they’ll infuse themselves, and then how do you get them out?” Ralph said. “Then you have these countries that are unstable being used by drug cartels and weapons smugglers.”
Having troops in Honduras meant that we could keep an eye on the drug and weapons traffickers who were moving by land and water into different countries.
At the same time Ralph was in Honduras, there was another key player emerging in Panama.
“Something Had to Happen”
Manuel Noriega started out as a CIA asset who even supported the US with their efforts to control Nicaragua. For a while, he seemed to be on the side of the good guys. That was short lived, though, and soon enough he was the de facto dictator of Panama, controlling the Panamanian Defense Forces in addition to a large part of the drug and weapons trade into and out of the country.
During the 1980s, tensions between Noriega and the US were mounting, ultimately leading to the decision that he had to be ousted.
Ralph had a rear detachment in his battalion, so he had Panamanian people who worked for him. On occasion, he travelled to Panama because they had a bigger US military presence than Honduras.
“Every time I went to Panama, which was pretty often, you could see where the Panamanian Defense Forces were harassing US bases, harassing Americans on the road to go to the airport,” Ralph said. “They were also going into places where the teenage kids were dancing, and they would harass them and beat them up. And there were times when they would actually hijack school buses with kids on them.”
Noriega’s troops also killed a US serviceman.
The US doesn’t like it when you mess with our people, and we like it even less when you mess with our kids. At the time, Ralph had a 6-year-old daughter and a newborn son, and he keenly felt a duty as a father and protector.
Noriega didn’t just mess with Americans living in Panama. Panamanians were faced with extreme poverty and human rights violations under his reign. He rigged at least two elections, limited the free press and had a gang who would beat up or kill anyone on his command. His political opponents were imprisoned for no reason, and he developed a cult following that still exists today.
“General Noriega was getting ambitious, plus he just didn’t want the United States there anymore,” Ralph said. “He wanted us out because he was making lots of money with drugs. Plus, when you’re in those types of countries, the best way to stay in power is to either have an enemy or make yourself look like you stand up to everyone. … It’s just like any of these small countries — in order to stay in power, you have to make everyone think that you’re their big protector, (when really) you’re their big thug.”
Ralph got orders to go to Panama when the US invaded Panama City to remove Noriega.
“At the time, I knew something was up because there were indicators out there that something was about to happen,” Ralph said. “First of all, the United States Army replaced the commanding general down there with a guy who is a no-nonsense general. … The other indicator was on the bases. … They started practicing rehearsals about quickly getting their weapons, moving out to a perimeter, and protecting themselves.
“What was going through my head? That something had to be done.”
Ralph was called at the last second to send in reconnaissance aircraft in case Noriega tried to escape. The fear was that he would flee into the surrounding, dense jungle, but he didn’t. He went to the Vatican City embassy instead.
Let’s back up. All of this happened in the middle of downtown Panama City. It’s a crowded area full of buildings — similar to what you’d see in any booming metropolis. It’s where most of the commerce and industry for the entire country happens, so the buildings are close together, and there are a lot of people and even more places to hide.
“You were dealing with a threat in a big city,” Ralph said. “It was going to be urban warfare one way or another. Whatever had to happen, had to happen very quickly before (they) could ever figure out what was going on.”
Ralph tells one story where the Air Force took down a three-story building with a cannon in the middle of the night in the middle of Panama City with such precision they left the chain-link fence surrounding the building intact.
Noriega holed up at the Vatican City Embassy while US pilots flew overhead, blasting rock music over loudspeakers. Within two weeks, the invasion was over.
After his yearlong tour in Honduras, Ralph spent six months in Savannah, Georgia, before another maniac became a threat, and Ralph deployed to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield/Storm.
“Their country could have easily been overrun by Iraq because, at that time, the Saudis didn’t have a big military, and they don’t have a large population,” Ralph said.
“You think in your head that you swore an oath that you would protect against all enemies foreign and domestic, so at that point and time you realize … you’ve got a job to do; just do your job,” Ralph said. “Do what you’re trained to do. … After seeing what they did in Panama, I was like, ‘This is going to be a no-brainer here.’ ”
Seven months later, Ralph returned home to his family — just in time to celebrate his son’s 3rd birthday.
A Hero’s Welcome
Ralph doesn’t call himself a hero. He doesn’t like to talk about himself in anything other than the most humble of terms. In fact, his wife, Laurie, said he would hate this next part of the story.
But that’s OK. It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.
And since Ralph won’t brag on himself, it’s up to other people to talk about what his service means to them — people like his kids, who see him as a hero, even if he won’t say it himself.
“The thing that impresses me most about my dad is that he is completely self-made,” Ralph’s daughter, Ashley, said. “His mom died when he was a teenager, and his dad worked all the time and was rarely home. Neither of his parents were educated, and they did not have much money. Dad took ownership of his life and joined the Army (where) he acquired bachelors and masters degrees and had a full, 30-year career in the Army, retiring as a colonel. He was given almost nothing, and from it created the life he wanted for himself and his family. That is what impresses me the most.”
Son Anthony, who was a newborn when Ralph left for Honduras, credits his dad for teaching him about life and love.
“He’s my hero because he taught me how to work hard, be patient, and how to be a loving husband,” Anthony said.
Then there’s Bryan, who wasn’t yet born during any of those deployments.
“One of the things that I admire most about my dad is his self-determination, a character trait he has modeled for us beautifully,” Bryan said. “I’ve never seen him abandon his work without giving it his best shot, and the task at hand always has his full focus. He has always been determined to help his children grow into capable adults. He has worked long hours and many years in order to ensure that none of us were ever hurting financially. He also devoted countless Saturday mornings into teaching us all life skills we would otherwise have never learned, helping us become as self-sufficient as we can be, and I have rarely felt that I lack the knowledge to take care of my home. Under his care, I was afforded the freedom to explore my interests. And despite his wishes for me to pursue a financially reliable career, he trusted me enough to let me enter into a highly specialized field. I can only hope that I’ve inherited a fraction of his work ethic; if I have, everything will work out just fine.”
As for the woman who has stood by Ralph’s side since she was 18? Laurie regularly brags on Ralph but rarely gets the chance to express how truly thankful she is for him.
“We’ve been together for more than 40 years,” Laurie said. “And in those years, Ralph has never failed to show me what unconditional love really looks like. He is loyal, committed, devoted to our family, and dedicated to our country and the soldiers who protect it. During some of the most unsettling times in my own life, Ralph was always the one still standing by my side when the dust settled. He makes me feel safe, and I trust no other human being more. And after all of these years together, that man can still make me laugh!”
Even though Ralph’s resume is impressive, it’s the memories and life lessons his family will remember.
For the rest of us, it’s the freedom we enjoy every day that we thank him for.
We tell Ralph’s story to honor all of our country’s veterans. From the bottom of our hearts we, at Shattered Media, thank you, our veterans, for your service.