On 19 September, 1994, U.S. forces were deployed to the Caribbean island of Haiti to remove an illegitimate military junta installed by coup d’état, and return President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group’s mission was to support the Multinational Force-Haiti in establishing and maintaining a stable and secure environment in order to facilitate the transition of the new government.
That may sound simple, but the “government” of Haiti had little control, and the Green Berets walked into a morass of former Ton Ton Macoutes secret police, street thugs with AK-47s, and the FRAPH—the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, a terror group suddenly declared legitimate political party by the State Department. The morning of September 23 began as another lazy day in Jacmel, Haiti. The military junta’s police were on the main road into town collecting “taxes” at gunpoint from farmers coming to sell produce in the market. While the police worked the roads, paramilitary thugs, known as attaches, extorted money from local vendors for protection from other paramilitary thugs. Tony Soprano would have fit right in here.
Everything changed when UH-60 helicopters brought in 50 Green Berets. Dropping into criminal chaos, the 2nd Battalion was assigned to work with existing government workers (most appointed by coup leaders) and create law and order by any means necessary.
After three years of being run by organized crime, Jacmel needed a hero. The Green Berets were happy to oblige. Sergeant First Class Sam Makanani was to became the subject of local adoration. Known as “the Cowboy” by the locals and American newspapers, he became a symbol of law and order right out of a Western movie.
The Green Berets arrested all the bandits and bad men in town, including Corporal Hughes Seraphin, the ranking Haitian soldier in Jacmel. He was taken by helicopter to a Port-au-Prince military detention center. In a move familiar to every veteran of Afghanistan, Seraphin was released a few days later. He came straight back to Jacmel, undermining the confidence of the locals in their Green Berets. They feared that things would revert to chaos.
Rather than feeling lucky and backing off, Seraphin got liquored up and announced that he was going to “Kill all the Americans.” Sam Makanani and his team were chosen to take out the trash. Everyone in town knew about Seraphin’s threat, and the crowd was watching to see what was going to happen. It was high noon in Jacmel.
Makanani and his team drove up a hill to Seraphin’s house. In the rush to get to the front door, Makanani forgot to set the parking brake on his Humvee and he had to run back and apply the breaks as it started rolling down hill. This made him seem even more superhuman to the cheering crowd. Makanani arrested Seraphin again, in front of the whole town, and perp-walked him to a waiting helicopter. Seraphin was to remain in the Port-au-Prince detention center for the rest of the mission.
With his Hawaiian good looks and spiky hair, Makanani became the focus of the town’s gratitude. “The Cowboy” was a poster child for everything good about Special Forces. As an island guy, he had an affinity for the people. He spoke French and some Creole, and in the evenings, he played guitar and sang songs for the children.
Rather than writing a book, he responded with modesty befitting such quiet professionals. “It’s all lies,” Makanani said about his rockstar status. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s my hair.” When locals composed songs about him and U.S. newspapers covered him, he just played along.
Everybody needs a hero. When thrust into the limelight, Sam Makanani played the role of hero and used his fame to enhance the perception of order and legitimacy among the people in his town. The chain of command supported this because it furthered the mission. No one took it seriously, because they all knew two things: Sam was a real-life action hero, and so was everyone else on his team.
Be a cowboy like Sam. During your 15 minutes of fame, advance the team mission and don’t take yourself or your press too seriously. The stories your buddies will tell about you are more valuable than a thousand newspaper articles.