The rucksack alone exceeded 100 pounds, overcrowded with equipment he knew would be absolutely necessary. Aside that, he had M16 magazines full with 5.56. Kevlar, water, flashlight. Load bearing equipment. A reserve chute weighing down the whole assembly. Then there was the T-10 main.
Back, chest, legs, shoulders: everything encumbered by instruments of combat.
Justin Brace, paratrooper, father of three, Army staff sergeant, sat listless, leaking nervous energy. The anticipation outweighed his physical burdens. Like the others packed on either side of him, he was carried by adrenaline, dreams of glory and a sense of purpose.
Two hours remained on the flight.
A valorous mission, a lifetime of stories and a gold star in the middle of his airborne wings lay ahead.
Brace grew up reading about World War II paratroopers. In two hours he would participate in the largest airborne operation since Market Garden. In two hours he and his airborne buddies would become part of All-American lore. In two hours he would join his Airborne forebears by jumping into combat.
Two hours was as close as he would get.
On the evening of Sept. 18, 1994, nearly 3,000 All-American paratroopers, including Brace, in more than 60 C-130s were en route to Haiti to form the initial assault force for an operation intended to remove that country’s dictator.
The mission, Operation Restore Democracy, was one for which the 82nd Airborne Division had been training for more than a year.
All of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, along with 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, were to jump into the Port Au Prince International Airport and establish a lodgment for the 10th Mountain Division and Marines to conduct peacekeeping operations. All-American paratroopers would then move into the Haitian countryside to fight local military forces. A platoon of M-551 Sheridan armored fighting vehicles were to be dropped in the first wave to provide fire support for the assault element.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Brace and the men on the aircraft, a delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter and retired Gen. Colin Powell met with Gen. Joseph Raoul Cédras, the de facto ruler of Haiti.
Powell showed Cédras video of the 82nd Abn. Div. loading aircraft for the mission. Cédras relented, agreeing to step down and allow for democratic elections. The aircraft were turned around and returned to Pope.
Many of the paratroopers were heartbroken. They had updated their will and life insurance policies, applied camouflage paint, loaded ammunition, and rigged their equipment, excited that the entire 82nd Abn. Div. would once again be at the tip of the spear for the nation.
Paratroopers involved, including Brace, describe a tremendous emotional letdown once the mission was cancelled. On the long flight back to Pope Air Force Base, dreams of glory withered away. In the words of David Hackworth, they “must have felt like matadors whose bullfight was cancelled.”
Brace and his airborne buddies are legends nonetheless. They get no combat star, but they are remembered by the 82nd Abn. Div. during its celebration of a Century of Service.