CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Desert Storm / Panama Invasion Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps Force Recon
Date: February 19, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, Dean Medina
Summarizer: Dean Medina
Today we are entertained by all kinds of movies — drama, action, comedy, and, of course, war. Young boys grow up watching explosions, and the excitement of good guys triumphing over evil – the booms and bangs of war. Films like “Blackhawk Down” and “Lone Survivor” give a glimpse (at least in Hollywood’s vision) into the world of the clandestine US Special Forces. As exciting and intriguing as “Spec Ops” are, few actually ever get to know what they are truly like. The interview of Mark Otto, United States Marine Corps Force Recon veteran of the Panama operation and the First Gulf War, provides such an insight into the world of Surveillance Operators.
Corporal Mark Otto was born in November 1969 to a suburban family in Westfield, New Jersey. His father was American and his mother Vietnamese. Mark’s father was a three-tour veteran of the Vietnam War who met and married Mark’s mother while on his second tour. In an almost stranger-than-fiction series of events the senior Otto was separated from his wife during the chaos of the Tet Offensive in 1968. His tour ended during the offensive, and he was sent home. He reenlisted and volunteered to return, to find her. Despite suffering wounds during a vehicle bombing, Mark’s father eventually found his wife in the same marketplace in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) where they had first met. After surmounting many bureaucratic visa and immigration obstacles, Mark’s mother and her entire family made their way to live in the United States.
Mark Otto and his father were not the only family members to serve in the US military. His uncle is also a veteran of the Vietnam War, and his grandfather and granduncle were both veterans of World War II; so, it was not surprising that from an early age, Mark Otto wanted to serve his country in the military. After graduation from high school, he decided that he wanted to something more than become a “rank and file grunt” and sought to enlist in a special operations unit. Although his family members served in the army, Otto ended up in the Marine Corps. He researched special operations forces and discovered that the army Green Berets and the secretive “Delta Force” all required field experience, and a minimum rank of sergeant before entry. Otto did, however, discover that the Marine Corps’ Force Reconnaissance or “Force Recon,” did not require a lengthy experience record or certain rank to join, and he made that unit his choice.
After six weeks of basic training at Parris Island, (an experience that Otto described as “losing track of time”) he was allowed to apply for screening for Force Recon. He had been told by various officers and friends that his talents would be best suited to being a medic or a communications man. Since the Marines used Navy medics, Otto opted for a military career in communications.
In order to qualify for Force Recon, Otto had to undergo a physical test and an interview with an officer. He passed the fitness test easily, as even before coming to Parris Island he was an excellent athlete, but was quite nervous during the interview; he jokingly remarked that he was asked to spell “reconnaissance” something that, he said in retrospect, was more challenging than it seemed. Nonetheless, Otto passed his screening and was admitted to 2nd Force Recon as a communications specialist. After a few months with the Company, he received orders to join Intelligence Company, 2d Surveillance Reconnaissance and Intelligence Group (2nd SRI), where he received specialized training in maintaining and deploying various sensor types, radio operation, and radio code signals. As a Surveillance Operator, Mark was also trained in first aid, sharpshooting, maps, and explosives, making him a well-rounded elite soldier. In 1989, Otto was deployed to Central America to assist in the U.S Invasion of Panama, a result of the breakdown of relations between Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the United States.
Otto’s platoon commander, Chief Warrant Officer David “Duke” Colvin came from a background of Special Operations Training Group and Joint Special Operations. When Colvin took command of 2d SRI Group he recruited Staff NCOs from 2nd Force Recon. He and his Cadre of seasoned Force Recon Operators conducted unit training, and the warrant officer leveraged his connections to get his men to Jump School, Special Forces SERE School and High Risk Personnel Training. Otto remarked that Duke rewrote the book on Surveillance Sensor Operations. Instead of having units like 2d Force Recon or Snipers implementing sensor strings, Colvin trained his men to be the operators. They worked in five man teams, the smallest size groups that most Special Ops units work in.
In the very earliest stages of the short war, Otto was deployed with 2d SRI to Panama City as part of a small undercover team of Force Recon operators, replacing an existing reconnaissance team that had been monitoring the city. In this interview, he reflected that the fighting in the first 36 hours of the invasion was some of the most intense he witnessed during his military service. When the fighting was over, Otto was redeployed to serve on perimeter control, monitoring along and inside the fringes of the Panamanian jungle. He spent days in the field, monitoring sensors to detect potential enemy movement, ensuring that the enemy had not sent scouts to observe the Marines, or that they had tried to breach the perimeter through the jungle.
In the field, Otto and his team had very few luxuries, often sleeping in makeshift “graves” and carrying only essential gear, favoring mobility over comfort. He was also detailed on jungle patrol occasionally, and always remained cautious and alert for any possible ambush. Otto commented that patrolling the jungle was an unnerving experience, not only because of the possibility of encountering enemy combatants, but also pumas, pythons, howler monkeys, and a multitude of insects. The experience was made more dangerous by the fact that he and his team only operated at night, lowering visibility and increasing the tensions and chance for ambush.
After his grueling tour in Panama, Otto spent his R&R at Rodman Naval Station, a navy fuel base in the Caribbean, his de facto home base for the Panama Conflict. On one specific night, he fondly remembered being at the bar with Navy SEALs. One might expect them to not be the best of buddies due to inter-service rivalry; but, they shared a love of country and respect for those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. That night Otto can remember singing “I’m Proud to be an American” alongside the SEALs, in memoriam of the fallen, and toasting the United States.
At the conclusion of the Panama conflict, Otto returned to Camp Lejeune, and he remained there until the American response to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush crafted a coalition of NATO allies and forces from countries in the region, to initially defend Saudi Arabia from possible invasion by Saddam, and then to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. And so Otto found himself once again in a war.
Otto’s unit deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, the initial defensive operation, which morphed into Desert Storm, the offensive to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The Marine Corps force in Saudi Arabia was assigned to deceive the Iraqis as to the location of the ultimate attack, by creating an illusion that the Marines would land in southern Kuwait. The assault never materialized, however, and its preparations served as a valuable diversion for the subsequent land invasion of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.
Otto was attached to “Task Force Troy.” His unit conducted reconnaissance operations, sensor monitoring, and diversions along the Saudi/Kuwaiti border. He spent days in the field as part of a small five-man team, which performed reconnaissance on Iraqi forces and positions, as well as monitored sensor grids. Otto recalled that one of the most interesting aspects of his tour in the Gulf was the deceptive tactics the Marines used. His unit set up fake bases containing fictitious armored forces, created false Humvee trails and simulated the sound of tanks moving across the desert, with aircraft flying overhead, as well as dropped bombing warning leaflets on areas not designated to be hit. Otto’s unit was an integral part of the grand sham intended to fool the Iraqis into thinking an attack would be coming from one direction, when it was actually coming from another.
After the successful end of the Gulf War, Otto and other 2nd SRI veterans were deployed along the U.S/Mexico border at Presidio, Texas to participate in joint Federal-Military Anti-Narcotics operations. Mark’s unit was among first to be deployed in these operations. He had become an expert in monitoring sensor beacons, and he did so on the border as Team Leader, then Advisor. The exact details of Otto’s time along the border remain classified, but he did say that whatever he was doing, he was successful.
In the years following his military service, Mark Otto became a volunteer and organizer for veterans and veteran support groups. He noted that although he may have stopped serving in the field, he has never stopped serving his country nor his brothers and sisters in arms. Otto went to work at the New York Stock Exchange and became a prominent member of his firm’s Veteran Committee. While working at the Exchange, he met a woman who became his wife. Otto was at work at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but he was able to evacuate the area and New York City with his spouse. He commented that when he witnessed the attacks, his military training kicked in, and his instinct told him to “get away from the target areas ASAP.” His swift reaction to the situation was, he feels, the result of his military training and experience. Former corporal Mark Otto continues to be an honored man, who not only served his country in the field, but on the home front as well.
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