‘Cold War’ warrior returns home after fighting dictators, drug runners south of border

Sgt. Ken Drew is first out the door of a transport plane while serving with the 7th Special Forces Group Airborne based in Fort Bragg, N.C. with the jump master watching at the right side of the airplane’s door. Photo provided

Former 1st Sgt. Ken Drew was a “Cold War” warrior. He spent most of his 23 years in the Army as a Spanish-speaking, military intelligence expert who served 14 of those years fighting South and Central American dictators and drug lords. Toward the end of his service he did a hitch in Iraq during the height of “The Surge,” interrogating high profile Iraqi detainees.

The 47-year-old retired 1st  sergeant was born in Miami. He attended Florida State University in Tallahassee for 18 months until his funds ran out. Offered a $20,000 bonus to sign with the Army in June 1983 after dropping out of FSU he was sent to the Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. From there it was on to a branch of the Army’s Defense Language School in San Francisco, Calif.

Drew graduated with a fluency in Spanish, a smattering of Portuguese and a little Arabic.

“My first assignment immediately after graduating from language school was Panama. I was the only guy in the class sent overseas. The rest of the class was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C.,” he said. “At that time Manuel Noriega was about to grab power in the country. The Central American region was in turmoil. We had a guerrilla war in El Salvador. Costa Rica and Honduras were relatively stable, but the Cubans were sending in weapons to the insurgents to destabilize these countries, too.

“We weren’t doing well. We had Noriega in Panama causing trouble, Nicaragua just about had a revolution in 1979 and El Salvador, a neighboring country, was about ready to fall.

“I spent two years in Panama, from 1984 to 1986, monitoring the situation,” Drew explained.

When he came back to the States he got out of the Army for three years and returned to FSU to get a history degree. He took the $20,000 sign up bonus and used it for college.

He kept a piece of personal note paper he found in Gen. Manuel Noriega’s office in Panama City. The dictator’s business card is pasted to the bottom of the note paper. Sun photo by Don Moore

“My degree served me very well when I decided to reenlist. I was young, had a degree in history, could speak Spanish, had worked as a translator in several Latin American countries and had a cultural knowledge of the area,” Drew said. “Furthermore, I missed the Army.”

He joined the 519 Military Intelligence Battalion Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“Again I was sent to Panama three months before the Americans invaded in October 1989 to overthrow the Noriega regime. This was the end of the cycle with the U.S. Government. It had hoped diplomacy would work, but when that failed we broke out the arms and sent in the Army,” Drew said.

“My unit was sent to Panama for document exploitation. Our infantry blew the walls off Noriega’s office in Panama City. We came in and loaded up a deuce-and-a-half truck full of documents from his office that could be used against him at a trial.

“Noriega was hiding out in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City when our army caught up to him. The psychological warfare people were brought in. They set up huge speakers that blasted the embassy 24-7 with Jerry Allen’s, one hit wonder, ‘I fought the law and the law won.'”

The Pope’s people finally had enough ear-splitting rock ‘n ‘roll and turned Noriega over to the Americans.

A reproduction of an ancient map of the world produced on fabric Drew found in Noriega's office while his unit emptied the Panamanian leaders files of incriminating papers for his pending trial that put him behind bars in the U.S. for years. The map has an honored spot on the wall of Drew's Englewood home. Sun photo by Don Moore

This is a reproduction of an ancient map of the world produced on fabric Drew found in Noriega’s office while his unit emptied the Panamanian leaders files of incriminating papers for his pending trial that put him behind bars in the U.S. for years. The map has an honored spot on the wall of Drew’s Englewood home. Sun photo by Don Moore

“I was assigned to Panama again when Castro gave his countrymen who wanted to leave Cuba two weeks to get out. They were fleeing in boats, barges and any way they could. Some of the refugees were going to Panama. I became part of ‘Operation Safe Haven.’ I debriefed Cuban military folks who defected as well. We found out how bad conditions really were in Cuba during this operation.

“I worked in ‘Operation Lazar Strike’ in 1994 and 1995. We were trying to shut down narcotic traffic from South and Central America to the U.S. I was debriefing our guys when they came back from their narcotics missions. This operation involved Peru, Columbia and Ecuador.

It was during this period he debriefed the commander of the 7th Special Forces Group who was coming back from a tour in Columbia. The colonel offered Drew a job with his outfit and the sergeant took him up on his offer.

“I made the move and ended up in the 7th Special Forces Group, an airborne outfit,” he said. “I became the counter-intelligence sergeant for the group. I went with them on drug enforcement missions to Costa Rica, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Panama and Puerto Rico. We were training their soldiers to do drug interdictions.”

After 14 years working in South and Central America, Drew was given a chance to put his Spanish and what he learned militarily south of the border to work. He was reassigned to Monterrey, Calif. as a Spanish language instructor at the Defense Language Institute.

“Then one day I got a call from a Green Beret major who ran something called the Securities System Training Management Organization. It was a small administrative unit that picked people to do special jobs. Because I was in the 7th Special Forces Group they wanted me to work with the U.S. Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. My job was to see that the request the country’s made to the U.S. for military equipment in their drug war fight was justified. ”

Iraq came next for Drew who had just been promoted to 1st sergeant.

“I was in charge of the first unit of human intelligence personnel in the U.S. Army’s history. We were the 201st Military Intelligence Brigade out of Fort Sam Houston, Tex.,” he said. “I had 178 handlers in my unit. We set up shop at Camp Cropper, a new prison just outside Baghdad. We interrogated all the high level bad guys in Iraq 24-7.”

The former 1st sergeant in the Army is pictured with a table full of commendations and medals he received during his more than two decade-long career in the service. His red beret is rolled up at the front of the table and his dress sword divides the table in half. Sun photo by Don Moore

The former 1st sergeant in the Army is pictured with a table full of commendations and medals he received during his more than two decade-long career in the service. His red beret is rolled up at the front of the table and his dress sword divides the table in half. Sun photo by Don Moore

Two assignments Drew is particularly proud of he was involved with while serving two years in Iraq.

“One of our missions while over there was to keep working on the cases of those missing in action. Staff Sgt. Matt Maupin had been missing a couple of years and was presumed dead.

“He was captured and murdered by the enemy. His hands had been tied behind his back, he was forced to squat down and he was shot in he head at close range,” Drew explained. We were 99 percent sure he was dead, but we hadn’t been able to recover his remains.

“We had weekly phone conferences with Maupin’s parents to keep them informed about what we were doing to find their son. We finally got information on him that lead us to his body buried in a soccer field. We retrieved and brought his remains back home for burial.”

The second accomplishment Drew was part of in Iraq was “The Surge,” the massive increase of U.S. military forces to overpower the enemy.

“With ‘The Surge’ our military put in another 40,000 or so troops over there. We were out and about all over the place with our soldiers and that made a big difference,” he said. “We gave the center of power in Iraq back to the center of power in that country, rather than having people running down the street and cutting each others heads off.

“I was in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 during ‘The Surge.’ It was a great time to be there, because we gave the people of Iraq an opportunity to build a democratic nation.”

“When the United States Army says it’s going to do something and it has the resources, it’s gonna get done,” Drew observed. “I have no doubt in my mind about it.”

After 23 years in the Army he retired from the service on 1 Jan. 2009 and moved to Englewood.

“I came home to Florida where I grew up. I’m a proud FSU graduate and I think during my military service I represented the state pretty well,” 1st. Sgt. Ken Drew, USA Retired observed.


Drew’s File

Name: Kenneth Davis Drew
D.O.B:  14 October 1963
Hometown:  Miami, Fla.
Current:  Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service:  1 June 1983
Discharged: 1 Jan. 2009
Rank:  1st Sergeant
Unit: 7th Special Forces Group Airborne
Commendations:   Two Awards National Defense Service Medals, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, Iraqi Campaign Medal, Campaign Star, Three Awards Non-commissioned Officers Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Four Awards Overseas Service Ribbons, Parachute Badge
Battles/Campaigns:  Operation Just Cause (Panama), Operation Iraqi Freedom


This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 and  is republished with permission.

Click here to view Drew’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

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Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.

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