Delta Force’s James Nelson Sudderth – Conan the Barbarian

Prologue:There a two men who I credit, or blame, for bringing me to the Delta Force from my state of uncertainty and lack of self-confidence: James Nelson Sudderth and Matthew Loren Rierson. Both are departed. Both deliberately approached me and asked me to come to Delta Force.

First it was Matt who asked me ‘when I was coming’, coaxing the gears in my head to turn and engage. From that I felt a distinct lean forward that I merely nursed for about a year. Then came James, who TOLD me with a knife hand to my chest to come. That’s how James conveyed messages of all sort, with knife hand to chest. The lean forward became a jog ahead, and then a run. I ran right into the Delta Force, never looking back, no longer just Jenny on the block.

Forward:
I’m an SOF Combat Diver by trade, or at least I fancy myself one. I was assigned to the Combat Dive Academy as a Senior Instructor/Writer from 1989 to 1991. One of the courses we offered to the SOF community in the day was titled the Waterborne Infiltration Course (WIC). I attended the very first pilot course of WIC as a student. It was quickly and unaffectionately nicked: ’Ranger School on Water’.

WIC was six weeks of, grueling, finning, Zodiac-driving, Klepper kayak-paddling, over-the-horizon navigating, ass-whipping training on every tactical aspect of SOF waterborne operations, with the exception of underwater events! Underwater operations were a completely different animal, and required a specially select man to perform them.

Special Forces in the WIC course; long range navigation and infiltration with a Zodiac F-470 Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC)

WIC only ran for several iterations, and then it was dropped from the Key West curriculum for ‘lack of support by the Special Forces Groups’. That is a polite way of saying guys didn’t want to come to the WIC because it was just plain TOO HARD!

I could go on about how much harder the pilot WIC I attended was, as it was executed to find out how much was too much for us mere mortals… but this essay is not about me; it is about a man that I only ever imagined I was as good as.

Helocast operations; Special Forces troops cast from the back of a CH-47 helicopter as it flies ~10 MPH, and ~10ft above the surface of the water.

Meet James Sudderth:
WIC students occupied the tarmac adjacent to the dive academy equipped with hoses and brushes, vigorously washing and rinsing salt water from Zodiac F-470 Combat Rubber Raiding Craft, and other personal and team equipment. These men had been dropped by CH-47 helos some 16 nautical miles from the shore of key west the night before.

At that distance you are ‘beyond the splash line’ or Over the Horizon (OTH); that is, you have traveled so far from shore that you can no longer see land due to the curvature of the Earth’s round service. With no visual reference, these men had to perform instrument approach back to shore using compass, and route calculations that they had done in prior mission planning, to defeat Mama Nature’s tides, waves, and ocean currents.

The men worked brilliantly on their post mission stand down. Some shirts off, some on, some in shorts, some combat fatigues, some sandals, mostly barefoot. I looked down at the bare foot of one senior student, who I recognized very early on as being an irresistible leader, and powerhouse participant in all aspects of the training. His foot had a big toe, a little toe, but was missing his middle toes; it looked like it was rendering a perpetual Vulcan salute—live long and prosper.

“Sergeant First Class…” I barked, and the student looked up at me: “Yes Sergeant?”

“You appear to be out of uniform, Sergeant.”

“How so, Sergeant?”

“Your foot…” I continued: “You are missing several of your digits; you are of course aware that you are required to report to training daily with ALL of your equipment?” I joked.

The student grin an obligatory grin, one that is frankly forced, but offered as a gesture of respect, though he was sick of hearing jokes about his missing toes. I was immediately regretted my pallid attempt at humor, but the damage was done. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking of that one, dumbass!

Another Instructor who happened to be in earshot, Chuck “Chuckles” S., sidestepped and leaned in to say: “Hey, that Delta’s James Sudderth, lost his toes in a chopper crash rescuing Kurt Muse from Modelo Prison in Panama. If you want to go ahead and just open your mouth a little wider, I’ll shove your foot in for ya.”

Little Bird Helicopter

The MH-6 Little Bird helo wreckage that took James’s toes

Have you ever been walking along in public and suddenly tripped over your own feet, and tried to do that cool-guy recovery? You look back behind you at the imaginary thing that ‘made’ you trip, with a pissed-off and pensive glare? You do that not for yourself, rather for those that saw you, so they will understand that you actually had a Fred-Astaire-kind-of cool going on… but then some villain piece of unconscionable shit made you trip in front of all these nice people.

Well I didn’t do any of that. I kicked off my shoes and grabbed a hose and starting squirting down UDT Vests, paddles, and whatever.

“Hey, James… sorry that that last remark; sometimes it’s like my mouth is falling down the stairs.”

“Heh-heh… yeah, don’t worry about it.” And so it went.

Over the years it had been suggested to me time and again: “You should try out for Delta; you need to go to Delta…” Perhaps, but I wasn’t by far guilty of any pretense. I wasn’t fraught with typical excuses: “Well, I’ve got a bone in my leg, I just don’t want to live in Fayetteville, this trick knee of mine, allergy to sloped hills, my wife, my ankle, my toe… MY ASS!” I did not go, for my one lone survivor reason: I did not believe that I could make it.

At the end of every course at the academy, the students and instructors get together and treat themselves to an end-of-course party. Everyone migrates back to Sergeants’ and officers’ status, and just have a jolly ol’ time for a few hours over a cookout and brew-ha-has.

Invitation to try out for Delta Force Selection
“James Nelson Sudderth is headed my way with a beer in his hand, coming right at me so I’ll step aside. Da-fuq, he intentionally turned and is still coming right at me. There is going to be a collision if he does not alter his course! And with James, well, you can bet there are going to be some knife-hand pointing to the chest.

“Sergeant Hand I need to talk to you.” Just call me George, and sure.” James nudged me to walk about to the other side of the building where there was privacy.

“It’s that shit I said about his foot… aw man, I knew it!! He’s going to twist me like Chubby Checker!”

And so James began: “George, you need to try out for Delta. Now, listen to me…” and he wiped the beer from his mouth, walked a quick two steps away to set his beer down on the academy building’s front porch, and then closed back with me. I totally got it, he was distancing the beer from the conversations in a it’s-not-the-beer-talking gesture, demonstrating his attempt at honesty.

“I tried to follow the Unit’s published train up guide lines, and I am not capable of carrying the loads over the distances and times it indicates, James.”

“George forget about that paper; you really, you just have to go and try out.”

“How can I when I can’t pass the entry-level standards??”

“You can do it George, if you just go and try. Trust me, it is an-out-of body experience; your body won’t be able to do it, but your mind will.”

I was nodding my head and pursing my lips, and thinking about how I met Delta’s Matthew Rierson, with whom I attended the basic dive CDQC with years ago. “When are you coming over, George?” Matt matter of factly asked me, and expected and answer, but never got one.

Still nodding I finally: “I’m going to do it. But just one question…”

“Send it.” James challenged

“At the end of selection, do we really have to live lift a 200 pound caldron of red-hot coals with just our forearms branding them with a lion and a dragon?”

“James flash a genuine grin, and kept his face pointed toward me so I could keep seeing his grin as he retrieved his beer. “Yes, yes you do, mother fucker, but you WILL do it!”

Kung Fu's Challenge

We walked back about the building to join the brothers in the throes of rejoice for their accomplished six weeks of smoke on the water. James walked with his arm over my shoulder, like a big brother. James was three months younger than I was.

I trained for selection my fist time, grossly over doing it, and wrecked myself; I had to wave off West “BY GOD” Virginia for the time. I regrouped and refit, and trained my second time for selection, and by God I made it through the course my first time around, flaming cauldron, scary tattoos and all… ok, no Kwai Chang Caine test of manhood. But it was definitely time for me to leave the temple and hang my hat down the spine.

Geo sends

TEAM 1985

James Nelson Sudderth (far right) hunting drug cartel kingpins in South America