Essay on the Central America War

In the words of the VFW – “Americans have lost their lives in some 85 wars and assorted military actions in the past 234 years. Most of the casualties occurred in a dozen or so major wars. But that does not lessen the sacrifice of those killed in the numerous and mostly forgotten minor expeditions in the far-flung corners of the globe. Whenever any American in uniform is killed by hostile enemy action it is meaningful, and that loss must be remembered and forever recognized.” (VFW Magazine, June 2009 p.21)

How can you help? Support VFW Res. 419 -Honduras

Please help us advocate for recognition as Veterans of this Low-Intensity Conflict by sending a letter to your U.S. Congress or Senate representative in support of our mission by asking Congress to issue an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal to all U.S. troops who served in Honduras from 1981 to 1992.  This will help the families of the killed and wounded and those veterans attempting to receive proper combat honors and recognition for their sacrifices during the decade that ended Soviet communism.

AFEM's compared

 HONDURAS – AFEM, NDSM & CACM  (1981 – 1992)

At least seventy U.S. military members were killed in Honduras or were based in Honduras during the Central America War from 1981 to 1992, which is more than all U.S. troops killed during the Panama Invasion, the Grenada Rescue and the El Salvadoran civil war combined and all of these operations are recognized as combat; except Honduras.  More than 300 military members were killed during the Central America War total.  Of the twenty-two listed in the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) as killed in El Salvador during the Central America War period, at least twelve were actually based in Honduras conducting combat missions into El Salvador proving the combat nature of these deployments to Honduras.

The Honduran deployments during the Central America War collectively remain the only U.S. operations during the conflicts of the ‘Decade That Ended Soviet Communism’ where U.S. troops have not received a Campaign or Expeditionary Medal, or other combat honors and recognition.

The first U.S. casualties in Honduras occurred on September 23, 1981 in Tegucigalpa when two U.S. military advisers were wounded by terrorists with automatic weapons, while the Central America War officially ended in January, 1992 when hostilities ended in El Salvador.  Analyzing all conflicts that occurred in Central America from 1979 to 1992 as one overall related war is important to establishing the magnitude of the conflict and to help counteract the ‘piecemeal’ approach of disseminating information to the public related to the Central America War.

President Reagan declared a National State of Emergency against Nicaragua beginning in May 1985 which lasted until March 1990 and remains today the only such declaration against a foreign nation not covered by a Campaign or Expeditionary Medal for the U.S. troops sent into harms way to quell that emergency where those forces went into action and were killed and wounded.  Honduras, with thousands of U.S. troops stationed in country as a ‘protective shield’ is directly north of Nicaragua and acted as a buffer between the threat and homeland USA.

The Executive Branch and Pentagon maintain the Honduran deployments of American forces were safe for training and war games; and that Honduras was a noncombat area.


U.S. TROOPS FIGHT IN CENTRAL AMERICA WAR should have been the headline of every media outlet in the U.S. in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. President Reagan; maybe the most popular American President ever, in fact, many would argue that he was one of the greatest world leaders ever-but its also important to give some credit to those who helped him end Soviet communism. Reagan sent thousands of U.S. combat troops to Honduras into imminent danger and many engaged in gun battles and were targeted by Nicaraguan government troops, El Salvadoran leftists guerrillas and numerous terrorist groups-this was a low-intensity conflict!  Yet, where are the War Powers Resolution and Arms Export Control Act notifications to Congress authorizing this? Where are the conflict medals and honors for these troops, which directly translate into benefits and care for the veterans and their families?  Of course the Executive Branch and the Pentagon knew the extent of Nicaraguan Government troop, El Salvadoran leftist guerrilla and leftists terrorist attacks inside Honduras while American troops were armed for combat protecting U.S. assets and interests.  One important question that must be answered: Did U.S. military forces engage in combat inside Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador during the Central America War?

The purpose of this essay is to ensure those U.S. troops who were killed or wounded and served during the Central American War receive the combat recognitions they deserve.

Honduras, a country roughly the size of Virginia or Louisiana, was home base for the United States’ orchestration of two and a half civil wars in Central America (CA) during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In Honduras, more than 300,000 U.S. troops participated in massive military building projects; protected, constructed and expanded military bases and roads, patrolled the airways and waters, operated and guarded radar facilities and built at least ten military purposed airfields. Other U.S. Service Members (SM) conducted necessary security missions for all U.S. interests in the region, while other troops where sent to Honduras for large-scale “use-of-force” Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises (EDRE)-which most Americans remember as the reason the Executive Branch and the Pentagon sent U.S. troops to Honduras. It was not public knowledge in the 1980’s that combat equipped U.S. troops with ammunition were deployed to Honduras to protect U.S. assets, interests and conduct other operations. Many were subjected to hostile fire, explosions, returned fire and were killed or wounded.  All were in an Imminent Danger area.

Within the borders of Honduras, Special Operation Groups conducted training of Honduran and anti-Nicaraguan government (Contra) forces to fight the Cuban/Soviet Bloc supported Sandinista Government of Nicaragua. El Salvadoran forces were trained by CIA and the U.S. military inside Honduras to aid against leftist guerrillas attempting to overthrow that country’s unstable government and they even participated in U.S. and Honduran exercises inside Honduras. Congress must approve any training done by U.S. forces to foreign military forces overseas. U.S. Military Police (MP) units, primarily from bases in Panama, provided the security needed to help accomplish President Reagan’s overall ‘Doctrine’ of ending Soviet communist aggression and expansionism into Central America. U.S. security forces guarded radar stations, airfields, and large military installations while conducting convoy escorts of supplies, VIP’s and were occasionally dispatched on rescue missions around Honduras while equipped for combat. Navy ships patrolled the water ways around CA.  Congress authorized very little, if any of this.  U.S. military ‘security’ members were authorized to carry live ammunition during patrols and contingency operations under a U.S. Southern Command directive.

Since Infantry units were not publicly allowed in any significant numbers (other than during highly public Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises) to be seen in Central America (which did not include Panama), armed MP units were utilized in a combat manner.  Infantry units such as Ranger Battalions, Special Forces and Navy SEAL’s were, for the most part, secretly deployed.  The media had knowledge of Special Forces units training Honduran and El Salvadoran units at the Regional Military Training Center in northern Honduras and operating during counterterrorism ‘exercises’ throughout Honduras, however, it was not widely known, especially during the early years of the conflict, that combat infantry units were present throughout Honduras.  For example, the ultra secret SEASPRAY units operating inside Nicaragua or Delta Forces patrolling inside Honduras on hit-and-run operations.  The not-as-secret  Task Force 160 conducted covert operations while playing the dual role as the ‘deflection’ unit for SEASPRAY clandestine operations throughout CA.

In addition to the secret combat infantry special operations units conducting covert and clandestine operations, helicopter battalions, signal and human intelligence units, Marine Expeditionary Forces, Military Police and Security platoons, Psychological Operations units, and many others, all fulfilled combat roles from Honduras throughout C.A., since large infantry units were not permitted.  This was the creation of the new military ideology to become known as Low-Intensity Conflict.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and American Civilian Military Assistance (CMA) groups operating in unison, coordinated intelligence gathering and other vital functions needed to help win both civil wars from bases in Honduras. CIA, CMA and other groups trained, coordinated, acted in defensive postures and participated in offensive operations against Nicaraguan Sandinista government military units, El Salvadoran guerrilla forces and terrorist organizations throughout CA.

Honduras also played host to numerous Contra (anti-Nicaragua Sandinista government) bases along the southern border in Honduras where most attacks against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government originated.  Conversely, Nicaraguan government troops from Nicaragua and leftist guerrillas from El Salvador launched attacks into Honduras against Contra, Honduran and U.S. forces and strategic interests.  Because Honduras played host to both the U.S. buildup and allowed the expatriate Nicaraguan Contra bases to operate along the Nicaraguan border inside Honduras, it became a fighting participant, as did American troops, in the Contra War against Nicaragua.  This has never been publicly acknowledged by the USG.

The majority of U.S. troops deployed to Honduras for protective and security purposes were equipped for combat with pistols, automatic machine guns, ammunition, body armor, battle dress uniforms, communication equipment and the necessary supportive vehicles and machinery to perform their missions.  These combat MP units and others maintained full combat loads of ammunition at all times while in country.   Attacks by Nicaraguan Government and El Salvadoran Leftist Guerrilla military units into Honduras were a common occurrence as were attacks by other terrorist organizations that frequently targeted important Honduran military, Contra and U.S. strategic assets and personnel in Honduras.

During the 1980’s, Central America was a hotbed of military coups, civil wars, terrorism, hostility and conflict.  There was an intense civil war ravaging El Salvador, the U.S. backed Contras were at war against the Soviet/Cuban backed Nicaraguan Sandinistas government over control of Nicaragua and border conflicts erupted between other CA countries.  The U.S. invaded the Island of Grenada during a rescue mission; a move to thwart a Soviet/Cuba buildup on that strategically located island.  Late in the decade, in December 1989, the US began the ouster of Republic of Panama’s leader General Noriega under Operation Just Cause.

Terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and other deaths involving Americans began as early as 1979.  Examples include the kidnapping and eventual execution of U.S. citizen and Goodyear executive Clifford Bevens in December 1980 in Guatemala City, Guatemala.  Also in December 1980, terrorists in the streets of San Salvador, El Salvador murdered U.S. citizen and businessman Thomas Bracken.

Attacks in nearby Honduras began as early as May 29, 1979 when the Mexican Embassy in Honduras was attacked by members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in what is described as an unarmed melee.  On April 15, 1980, communist agitators with firearms and other small weapons attacked a caravan of vehicles carrying members of the National Party of Honduras.  Similar terrorist attacks against the U.S. military, U.S. citizens and property were common throughout CA beginning in the early 1980’s. On October 30, 1980 and again on April 5, 1982 assailants attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras with automatic weapons.  In Tegucigalpa, Honduras on December 18, 1980, armed assailants with automatic weapons kidnapped U.S. citizen Paul Vinelli, President of Atlantic Bank, a subsidiary of Chase Manhattan killing his bodyguard and seriously wounding his driver.

On September 23, 1981, two American troops were wounded during a ‘terrorist’ attack in Tegucigalpa, Honduras while riding in a U.S. Embassy vehicle carrying a group of U.S. Military Advisors.  This marked the first U.S. military casualties of the Contra War period in Honduras.

In 1981, the U.S. began sending Military Training Teams (MTT) to El Salvador to aid in quelling that country’s civil war.  Up to fifty-five members were authorized by Congress.  The Salvadoran civil war occurred from 1981 to 1992 for which President Clinton, in 1996, issued an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM) to U.S. troops who participated in that conflict.

In Honduras, CIA and U.S. Military units began advising Central Americans and operating in country as early as 1981.  On November 16, 1981 President Reagan was advised by his National Security Council to increase military aid and training to both El Salvador and Honduras and to support democratic forces (the Contras) in Nicaragua (National Security Decision Directive [NSDD] 17, January 04, 1982).  On January 29, 1982, President Reagan ordered the improvement of bases and construction of runways in Honduras and other CA strategic locations (NSDD 21).  On April 10, 1982, President Reagan created a national security plan to deal with managing terrorism and responding to terrorist threats and attacks (NSDD 30).  Terrorism becomes a national concern and is more prominent in CA in the 1980’s than anywhere else in the world (Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Threat Analysis Division, LETHAL TERRORIST ACTIONS AGAINST AMERICANS 1973-1985 & Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, SIGNIFICANT INCIDENTS OF POLITICAL VIOLENCE AGAINST AMERICANS 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989).

On May 28, 1982 President Reagan ordered additional funding for DOD and CIA to make further improvements to interdiction programs and increase intelligence gathering and operations throughout all democratic states in CA (NSDD # 37A).  Furthermore, on September 24, 1982, during a National Security Planning Group meeting, President Reagan was advised to continue current CA policies and later reaffirms NSDD’s # 17, 21 and 37 as sound U.S. foreign policy and calls attention to the “possibilities of escalation of the conflict in the region” adding his own label to the regional crisis and lays out a plan for repelling a possible invasion of Honduras by Cuban/Soviet backed Nicaraguan forces (NSDD # 59, October 05, 1982).

The New York Times published an OP/ED article titled “NOT-SO-SECRET WAR in HONDURAS” on November 5, 1982 further referencing a New Republic article on the covert operations in Honduras titled “Bay of Pigs II” and “America’s Secret War” was the headline on the cover of Newsweek.  The Times article acknowledged the USG policy of supplying arms to Contra insurgents in Honduras in 1982.

To better understand the climate of the time and region, NSDD 82 needs special attention. President Reagan specifically directs his administration and DOD to ensure “The U.S. military presence in El Salvador will be sufficiently augmented to permit the U.S. to better influence the prosecution of the war.”  By February of 1983, President Reagan was receiving daily Situation Reports from his full-time Central America Working Group located at the State Department (NSDD 82, February 24, 1983).

On July 28, 1983 President Reagan orders the strengthening of diplomatic and security efforts in CA to deal with the threat to U.S. national interests in the region.  Reagan orders a plan to prevent the furtherance of aggression by detailing the following:

“The consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua, committed to the export of violence and totalitarianism, poses a significant risk to the stability of Central America. Our ability to support democratic states in the region, and those on the path to democracy, must be visibly demonstrated by our military forces. We must likewise enhance current efforts to provide a democratic alternative to the peoples of the region who are subjected to repression and totalitarianism. Adequate U.S. support must also be provided to the democratic resistance forces within Nicaragua in an effort to ensure that Nicaragua ceases to be a Soviet/Cuban base and that the government adheres to the principles that it agreed to in July 1979.

The democratic states of Central America must be assisted to the maximum degree possible in defending themselves against externally supported subversive or hostile neighbors. U.S. military activities in the region must be significantly increased to demonstrate our willingness to defend our allies and to deter further Cuban and Soviet Bloc intervention.”

During three weeks in late January and early February 1983, Reagan ordered DOD to create an exercise, or show of force, called Ahuas Tara (Big Pine) that involved a small U.S. contingency of about 1,600 troops and roughly 4,000 Honduran troops.  In NSDD #100, Reagan orders DOD to commence with exercise Ahuas Tara II on or about August 1, 1983.  Ahuas Tara II, which actually began on August 3, was a much larger and longer lasting ‘show of force’ involving a total of 12,000 U.S. troops and ended on February 8, 1984 (Comptroller General of the United States, Decision B-213137 dated June 22, 1984, Appendix I, BACKGROUND Heading, Page 1 and Footnote 1).  Coincidentally, the Comptroller General and the General Accountability Office (GAO) determined that President Reagan “improperly” charged funds used for Ahuas Tara II to Operation & Maintenance appropriations and that he authorized the training of Honduran armed forces by U.S. forces, which Congress, by law, must authorized.  Naval activities in the waters off the coast of CA were included in these operations on a major scale (Comptroller B-213137 June 22, 1984).

On October 25, 1983, the rescue of American citizens and reinstallation of a pro-democratic government on the Island of Grenada commenced under Operation Urgent Fury.  The October 13th coup, deaths of the Prime Minister and several Cabinet members and, possibly more important, halting the subsequent Soviet/Cuban involvement on the island and in the vicinity was a top motivation for President Reagan (NSDD # 110, October 21, 1983).  Documents seized on Grenada detailing the creation of a Soviet/Cuban third world proxy in Central America was of particular interest to Reagan.  He directed controlled analysis, precise disclosure and dissemination of intelligence collected during the operation to further his justification against Soviet/Cuban influence and activities in CA (NSDD # 112, November 15, 1983).

Both the National Bipartisan Commission on C.A. (NBCCA) and the National Security Planning Group agreed, in early 1984 that “vital U.S. interests are jeopardized by the continuing crisis in Central America.”  As a result, Reagan determines that with continued Soviet/Cuban Bloc support of the Sandinistas, for ongoing and increasing exporting of subversion and insurgency throughout the region, four goals must be achieved; 1) support for democracy,  2) support for economic growth throughout the region, 3) the end to regional disputes and conflicts through negotiation, and 4) “Provision for sufficient security assistance to ensure that democratic institutions, social reforms, and economic improvements are not threatened by communist subversion and guerrilla warfare” (NSDD # 124, February 7, 1984).

The report titled, Where Next in Central America details the NBCCA’s policy related to implementing the above stated goals by each CA country.  President Reagan directs the development of what he called Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises (E.D.R.E.) describing operations such as Ahuas Tara I, II and III, Grenadero, Bigger Focus and others.  Other directives spelled out include new exercises in Honduras and naval activities off the coast of CA.  Maintaining high levels of regional security assistance teams and the Special Operations group’s Regional Military Training Center (CREM) in northern Honduras to ensure the continued training and improvement of U.S. alias in CA.  President Reagan specifically details two separate U.S. military uses in the area, 1) Exercises and 2) U.S. military activities (NSDD # 124, February 7, 1984).

In conclusion, more than 200 ‘documented’ terrorist attacks occurred against Honduran and U.S. personnel and assets in Honduras from 1979 to 1992 during the Central America War while U.S. troops were building, expanding, protecting, directing, rescuing and patrolling the entire country-many armed for combat with ammunition.  Many more attacks went unreported.


PANAMA* 148 (22)
EL SALVADOR 22 (at least 7 based in Honduras)



Source: The National Archives, Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS)

*Thousands of U.S. troops were stationed permanently in Panama to guard the Canal.  Of the 148 killed during the war, 22 were killed in action during Operation Just Cause in December, 1989.

**Of the 18 killed on Grenada, four Navy members were killed in action on October 23, 1983 in an apparent drowning two days before the operation officially commenced.  Grenada’s Operation Urgent Fury’s data is included because of the direct correlation between the island and Cuba/Soviet ties, and the documentation acquired on the island with there impact on President Reagan’s foreign policy towards Central America.  President Reagan believed the Grenada Operation was directly linked to Central America and the Marxist-Leninist expansion onto the mainland of the Western Hemisphere.

The Central America War in Honduras from 1981 to 1992, with the second most U.S. casualties in Central America, is the only conflict with no Campaign or Expeditionary Medal awarded.  There were more U.S. Troops killed in Honduras during the Central America War then the Panama Invasion, the Grenada rescue and the El Salvadoran conflicts combined-all of which have Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals awarded to troops who served in those conflicts.


The War Powers Resolution –
50 U.S.C. 1541 (c)
Presidential executive power as Commander-in-Chief; limitation.  The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

50 U.S.C. 1542
The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations.

50 U.S.C. 1543
(a) Written report; time of submission; circumstances necessitating submission; information reported.
In the absence of a declaration of war, in any case in which United States Armed Forces are introduced—
(1) into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances;
(2) into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which relate solely to supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces; or
(3) in numbers which substantially enlarge United States Armed Forces equipped for combat already located in a foreign nation;
the President shall submit within 48 hours to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and to the President pro tempore of the Senate a report, in writing, setting forth—
(A) the circumstances necessitating the introduction of United States Armed Forces;
(B) the constitutional and legislative authority under which such introduction took place; and
(C) the estimated scope and duration of the hostilities or involvement.

In consideration here, the following question must be answered with respect, reason and objectivity: Why was El Salvador designated a Hostile Fire pay area by the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Military Personnel & Policy in 1982 and Service Members who were assigned to El Salvador awarded a Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal in 1996 by President Clinton while U.S. troops who served in Honduras have not?  After detailed comparisons of the data contained within the Defense Casualty Analysis System for each CA country involved in the Central American Wars of the 1980’s, the following conclusions should be made.  During the C War, 22 SM’s were killed in El Salvador and 63 in Honduras.  Of the 22 killed in El Salvador, six were by terrorist acts while of the 63 killed in Honduras, one is currently listed as killed by a terrorist act.  However, two SM’s in El Salvador were killed by homicide, whereas, in Honduras, three were killed by homicide and two died due to illnesses.  One of the SM’s killed by homicide in Honduras was an MP shot while patrolling the perimeter fence at Palmerola Air Base in Honduras.  Another, was a Special Forces soldier stabbed to death while on duty by a Honduran Army soldier.  The third known American soldier killed by homicide in Honduras was shot in the head by a Honduran.  The two killed in El Salvador by homicide were LTC David Pickett and SP4 Earnest Dawson who were executed POW’s permanently stationed in Honduras on a short day trip to El Salvador operating in a direct combat support role from Honduras.

In contrast, U.S. troops serving in Panama before 2000, for example, operated under the authority of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, establishing the Panama Canal Zone and the 1970’s treaties that allowed for U.S. control and protection of our enormous investment in Panama.  U.S. troops in Panama were not subjected to hostile fire and when Operation Just Cause commenced in 1989, earned Hostile Fire status and Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals.  The same goes for Germany, Korea and many other locations around the globe.  Troops in these countries were not subjected to hostile fire, imminent danger, awarded Purple Hearts and POW Medals nor were they involved in two civil wars and stationed in a country under frequent attacks by government forces of a neighboring country and another country’s leftist guerrilla’s.  U.S. troops who served in Honduras were subjected to hostile fire on countless occasions, killed by terrorist acts and murdered while involved in two Civil Wars.  Honduras was the base of operations utilized by the U.S. where two Civil Wars were orchestrated and was being attacked by the Nicaraguan government, terrorists and El Salvadoran leftist guerrillas during the war.  U.S. troops were stationed and patrolled throughout Honduras during the Central American Wars of the 1980’s.  All of this occurred in a country roughly the size of Virginia.

In the words of the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

“Americans have lost their lives in some 85 wars and assorted military actions in the past 234 years. Most of the casualties occurred in a dozen or so major wars. But that does not lessen the sacrifice of those killed in the numerous and mostly forgotten minor expeditions in the far-flung corners of the globe. Whenever any American in uniform is killed by hostile enemy action it is meaningful, and that loss must be remembered and forever recognized.” (VFW Magazine, June 2009 p.21)

Please consider this essay as evidence in support of awarding an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and other combat recognitions to all authorized U.S. military members who were assigned to Honduras from 1981 to 1992 and their unit commands by helping us campaign and advocate to the U.S. Government by telling our story.  In the name of the 300,000 U.S. troops who served in Honduras during the Central America War period, help us honor those U.S. troops who were killed and wounded during the war so we can help provide the veterans and their families with the honors and recognition earned.


Richard Grell
U.S. Army Veteran

How can you help?

Please help CA War Veterans advocate for recognition as Veterans of this Low-Intensity Conflict by sending a letter to your U.S. Congress or Senate representative in support of our mission by asking Congress to issue an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal and Central America Campaign Medal to all U.S. troops who served in Honduras from 1981 to 1992.  This will help the families of the killed, wounded and those veterans attempting to receive proper combat honors and recognition for their sacrifices during the decade that ended Soviet communism.

Copyright 2015 – 2024  All material compiled here is copyright protected by

Central America War (1979 – 1992)