The “Tales from Nick’s FARRP” series are a fictionalized version of real events and are dedicated to the memory of friends and classmates from the Class of 1969.
“So, Tony, tell me what you have done in the Army.”
* * * * * *
I was talking with a tall Army guy on a barstool across from me in Fayetteville, North Carolina, that I knew was called Major Tony Williams. I inherited this bar, called Nick’s FARRP, when my Uncle Nick died of cancers he got from some chemical in Vietnam during three tours as a combat helicopter pilot. My name, by the way, is Gil Edwards. Since I know nothing about the Army, I am always asking questions of the guys here in the bar.
* * * * * *
“Well, Gil, as you know, I am a proud Texas Aggie. I graduated from the Texas A&M ROTC program in 1965 as an Infantry Second Lieutenant. After my initial infantry training at Fort Benning, I was assigned to a mechanized infantry battalion in the Panama Canal Zone. Maybe the fact that I took three years of Spanish at A&M had something to do with them sending me to Panama.
“Panama was a lot of fun in the sixties. In addition to my mech battalion, the US Army Southern Command, called USARSO, also had a leg infantry battalion and an airborne battalion, plus the 8th Special Forces Group, who ran the Army’s Jungle Warfare School and a school for Latin American officers which included a jump school.
“As a mech platoon leader I got to train my troops in jungle operations. I had the weapons platoon of C Company, 4-20th Infantry, which meant my guys had the company’s mortars and heavy anti-tank guns. When training was slow, I got to go through Jungle Warfare School, earning what the Army called ‘the coveted Jungle Expert badge.’ I also got to go through the jump school down there, earning my airborne wings.”
“Yeah, Tony,” interrupted the guy sitting next to Major Tony. He was another of the regulars here at the FARRP I knew as Captain Kenny Wayne. “You didn’t go through the real jump school at Fort Benning. You might as well have gotten your jump wings out of a Cracker Jack box.”
“All right, smart ass master blaster,” replied Major Tony. “I made five parachute jumps and was awarded the very same jump wings you got. And I got ‘silver wings upon my chest’ over a year before you did. In fact, I was a ‘flash-qualified Green Beret’ before your cadet ass got to Benning the first time.”
“Hey, Peggy, would you bring us over a couple more beers?” Captain Kenny said. Miss Peggy was my bar manager and guardian angel.
“Nice way to change the subject, Kenny,” replied Major Tony. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Going through all the training down in Panama, I really got to know some of the Special Forces guys, and decided I wanted to become a Green Beret like them. Infantry branch officer assignments approved my request, but they held me in Panama several months for the next Special Forces Officer Course opening at Fort Bragg.
“This was late 1966, and all the Infantry lieutenants in the Army were getting sent to Vietnam. All of a sudden, I was the senior lieutenant in the battalion. While I was waiting for orders to the SFOC at Fort Bragg, better known as the ‘Q Course,’ they made me Commanding Officer of Charlie Mech. With only 18 months in the Army, dang if USARSO didn’t pin captain’s bars on me, too. I had my company command ticket punched before I even got to Vietnam.
“Thank you very much, Peggy. After graduation from the Q Course, I served in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group, most of that time commanding an Operational Detachment Alpha, commonly known as an A Team. We were way the hell back in the boonies, amidst the Montagnards. They are an indigenous people who live in the mountains of central Indochina. The Vietnamese look down on them as barbarians, but they were very effective fighters against the Viet Cong infiltrators, whom they despised.
“My specialties in Special Forces were intelligence and weapons. A couple of months into my tour in Vietnam, 5th Special Forces Group was beginning to stand down. So, the Army sent me back to Benning for the Infantry Officer Advanced Course. While in the Advanced Course, I applied for flight school, since they were still sending aviators to Vietnam. I got accepted and completed flight school in 1971. I got in a full year tour back in Vietnam flying Hueys.
“I was at Fort Bragg during 1970,” interrupted Captain Kenny. “That was when the post started filling up with 5th Special Forces Group guys coming back to civilization. After years and y ears of combat in the boonies, some of them had a hard time fitting into ‘the world.’
“I remember one day a newly-arrived senior SF NCO was bopping his way through the officers’ housing area coming back from the PX. As he passed in front of a colonel’s house, a little tiny dog behind the picket fence started yapping at him. Without even thinking, the Green Beret reached across the fence, picked up the little dog and impaled him on the picket fence, and kept on walking.
“The colonel’s wife was looking out her front window and saw what happened. Hysterical, she called the Military Police. The NCO was a couple of blocks down the street when two MP cars descended on him. He put three Military Policemen in the hospital before reinforcements arrived and subdued him. The guy never understood why everyone was upset.”
“Yeah, Kenny, I know that’s a true story,” replied Major Tony. “Unfortunately, some of the most effective guys in a combat zone couldn’t adapt to life back in the civilized world. Maybe the country needs some place to warehouse these super warriors in between wars, so they don’t disrupt society while they are being kept on standby for the next conflict.”
“I thought that’s what Fort Bragg is for,” interrupted an older Army guy sitting at the bar, with a huge grin. Chief Rod, I knew, was one of the regulars in the FARRP. Actually, his real name is Chief Warrant Officer Rod Jordan, a master Army aviator. Chief Rod had been best buddies with my Uncle Nick and Miss Peggy’s late husband Miguel.
“Fort Bragg is a place no one else in the country wants,” Chief Rod continued, “so they gave it to the Army. All the animals in the Army seem to be assigned here. You got the airborne and the Special Forces, and over in the old Post Stockade there’s a bunch of gorillas that nobody knows what to do with.”
“That bunch of gorillas,” replied Major Tony, “happens to be a supposedly ultra-secret unit known as SF Operational Detachment Delta. They call themselves OD Delta, or Delta for short. They got formed up just over a year ago to be the nation’s anti-terrorism strike force. With all the acts of international terrorism in the news these days, the Army was tasked to form a unit specializing in counter-terrorism operations. And these really are the kind of guys who don’t have any other place in a peace-time Army. But they sure are good at what they do. Someday, the country will call on them, and they plan to be ready.”
“Your Special Forces guys must have really made rank fast in Vietnam,” said Captain Kenny. “In the spring of 1970, my armored cav squadron in the 82nd got a new Command Sergeant Major, just back from 5th Group in Vietnam. He had gone over in 1962 as a brand-new Spec 4, not even a sergeant yet. In less than eight years he was back as the highest enlisted rank in the Army.”
“Yeah, Kenny, that could happen,” replied Major Tony, “but a lot of that advancement was the result of combat vacancies. Fifth Group took a lot of casualties over the years.”
“So, Tony,” I said. “Keep telling me about what you did in the Army.”
“Right, you go, young civilian,” Major Tony continued. “By 1972 the Army had concluded that I probably didn’t show much promise as a conventional infantry officer, so they decided to let me stay in special operations. Because of my Special Forces experience and language aptitude, they selected me to enter the Army’s Foreign Area Officer specialty track. By this time, I had three strikes against me in the eyes of my Infantry branch. First, I was a Special Forces officer, which they considered some sort of an anti-social cult. Then, I was an aviator, which was even worse. And finally, I chose to be a Foreign Area Officer, which guaranteed I would never see another infantry promotion.
“The Army sent me to graduate school for a master’s degree in Latin American Studies. So, my graduate work was in Latin American political science, geography and history. Plus, for the degree, besides Spanish, I had to complete university freshman and sophomore Portuguese language, for no graduate credit. Having seen the handwriting on the wall that I had no Army future as an infantry officer, during my time in grad school I applied for a branch transfer out of infantry into Military Intelligence.
“While in grad school, the Army inadvertently promoted me to major, and dang if I wasn’t accidentally selected to attend the Command and General Staff Course at Fort Leavenworth. That is a year-long finishing school for officers they plan on keeping around for a while.
“Some insecure officers in C&GSC freak out over the course work. Guys were known to barricade themselves in their studies for nine-months, leaving healthy wives climbing the walls. In my class of over a thousand new majors, we had almost two hundred divorces during the year. Surprisingly, there were actually several dozen cross-marriages of new divorcees.
“Graduating from Leavenworth in 1976, I was assigned as a US exchange officer to attend the Mexican National War College, followed by travels throughout Latin America. Then the Army sent me back here to Fort Bragg to be chief of Latin American strategic studies in the 1st Psyop Battalion of the 4th Psyop Brigade. And here I am.
“And I am hoping now to be selected as the JFK Special Warfare Center staff aviation officer. If that happens, I will get to wear my Green Beret on duty again, this time with a JFKSWC flash, in a Lieutenant Colonel slot.”
“Well, Tony,” replied Captain Kenny with a sarcastic grin. “You seem to have salvaged a ‘three strikes’ infantry career OK. Who knows, the Army might accidentally promote you again to Lieutenant Colonel.”
In memory of Bill and Terry and Eddie and Jerry
Pete Grimm says
Cool way to describe some of the very real ways OPO looked at officers and their various assignments in the 1960s and 1970s. You certainly chose a different path!
Keep the stories coming, Guy!
Diana Hastings says
I loved this story! It made me laugh out loud! My perspective is very much from the outside in. . . I worked with some 5th SF NCOs in Okinawa, circa 1966-67. They taught me to SCUBA dive and jump out of a tower. I never made an actual jump as the 1st Sergeant was very annoyed I had been in the training area at all! Later, after I married one of your classmates, Chuck Hastings, I was stationed at Ft. Bragg. I could have but never did finish the process and get my Jump wings . . missed opportunities. I HATED to run and in those days, you had to run! During my 12 years in the Army I had a number of SF combat vets who needed a little TLC to get through the normal process of living and working outside of an SF unit. I never thought about PTSD; that terminology and concept were still a ways out. I just knew they deserved some support as they tried to make sense out of “the world” after Vietnam. Thanks for sharing – Oh, and about Aviators – oh my gosh – they were all crazy! Sorry, but just crazy and brave and persistent.
guy miller says
As was discussed at the FARRP in Episode Three, there were three groups of Army personnel who were obviously insane:
Any one singly would be bad enough, but some were two, and a rare few of us were all three. The Army called that “three strikes.”
Thanks for your comments.
Ray Dupere says
Guy, I love your stories. Each one is better than the last. BTW, did you know I was actually a Q-Course qualified Green Beret? My last active duty assignment was at Bragg where I attended SF School and was an A-Team leader and Co XO.