“So, Tony, why is your hat different from everyone else in here?”
* * * * * *
I was talking with a guy I knew as Major Tony Williams, who was sitting at my bar with a bunch of other Army guys. My late uncle had left me this drinking establishment, Nick’s FAARP, in Fayetteville, NC, when he passed away several months ago. We were located just off post from Fort Bragg, and a lot of Army guys hung out here. Since I know nothing about the Army, it seems I am always pestering these guys with questions. My name, by the way, is Gil Edwards.
* * * * * *
“Well, Gil,” Tony replied, “surely you have heard of the Army’s Green Berets. That is another name for the Special Forces, the guys I served with on my first tour in Vietnam. This precious head cover I am holding is in fact none other than an example of the famous Green Beret.”
“How come I have never seen you wear it before?” I inquired.
“That’s because I have just come from a job interview at the JFK Special Warfare Center. Since the JFK job as Special Warfare Center staff aviation officer calls for a flash-qualified field-grade aviator, they wanted me to show up dressed as one.”
“I thought you already had a job. Wasn’t it psychology, or something like that?”
“Close, Gil. I have been working in the Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group, better known as “the PSYOP.”
Our headquarters mess hall is known far and wide as having the best chow in the entire Army. No offense to you, Miss Peggy,” he added, nodding to my bar manager, known for serving up a pretty good cheeseburger with fries, and a few other things on our short menu.
“So, what is PSYOP? And what is ‘flash-qualified?’” I peppered him with more questions.
“Gil,” interrupted Chief Rod, sitting beside Major Tony. “PSYOP is those wimpy guys with their leaflets and loudspeakers, trying to persuade the bad guys to quit fighting and come over to our side.” Rod Jordan was a very senior Army helicopter pilot, or as I found out they like to be called, an aviator. He had also been best friends with my late Uncle Nick, ever since they had gone through Army Flight School in the early 1960s along with Miss Peggy’s late husband Mike.
“Rod, you know that’s an oversimplification,” Tony responded. “PSYOP really encompasses everything you could think of that might help persuade an enemy to lose his willingness to risk his life by continuing to fight. It can involve some things that are highly classified, too Top Secret for your simple aviator ears.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Military Intelligence Hot Dog,” Rod replied with a grin. “Peggy, would you mind bringing another beer for this poor simple aviator?”
“Wait, Tony.” I interrupted with my earlier question. “What does ‘flash-qualified mean?’”
Captain Kenny spoke up from the other side of Chief Rod. “Gil, anyone can buy one of those green berets at the PX, but only fully qualified Special Forces soldiers are allowed to wear it.
You can tell that they are true Green Berets by that shield shape on the front, called a flash. The colors of the flash tell which Special Forces unit the soldier belongs to.”
“So then, Tony, I see the yellow diagonal slash with three red stripes inside. What is that supposed to tell me?” Another of my endless questions.
“Gil, yellow with three red stripes indicates the colors of the flag of South Vietnam, which you will see often on ribbons worn by the guys who served over there. This is the flash of the 5th Special Forces Group, the guys I served with during my first combat tour in Vietnam. If I am selected for the staff aviation job, I will wear the JFK flash, which is black over white and gray. When you see the solid red flash in here, that indicates 7th Special Forces Group, the guys assigned here at Fort Bragg.”
“Yeah,” said Chief Rod. “Those are the guys who every so often put on ‘The Green Beret’ show at the Gabriel Demonstration Area on Smoke Bomb Hill.”
Puzzled, I had to ask, “I’ve heard of Smoke Bomb Hill. What is that?”
“That, New Guy,” [I recognized the affectionate term Chief Rod had for me], “is the part of Fort Bragg where the Special Forces and other special operations units are located.”
Kenny jumped in here, with a grin on his face. “Those green beanies really keep to themselves over there. One Friday afternoon early in my first tour here at Fort Bragg, I needed some cash for the weekend. I was still a naïve airborne cav Second Lieutenant at the time. On my way home, I passed the little Smoke Bomb Hill annex of the Officers’ Club, where I knew I could cash a $25 check. It was Happy Hour at the tiny hut, right in the center of the Green Beret units at Fort Bragg.
“As I entered their small O-Club and my eyes were adjusting to the darkness inside, I heard a bell start to ring. Ding, ding, ding, ding. Curious, I asked what that meant. One of the guys at the bar said, ‘Lieutenant, anyone who wears his hat in the club has to buy a round of drinks for everyone present.’’’
“Oh, no, you didn’t!” groaned Tony.
“Yeah, I really did,” responded Kenny. “Ashamed, I removed my hat and said I only wanted to cash a check. The bartender said, ‘Sure, I’ll be glad to.’ I approached and laid my hat on the bar as I pulled out my checkbook. Ding, ding, ding, ding.”
“Dang, Kenny, you sure were dumb as a lieutenant, weren’t you?” said Rod.
Kenny continued. “‘What is that ringing again for?’ I asked. ‘Lieutenant, anyone who lays his hat on the bar has to buy a round of drinks for everyone present. That makes two rounds you owe us.’ So, I quickly pulled my cap off the bar and slipped it at the small of my back under my belt.
“While I was waiting for the bartender to cash my check, my curiosity got the best of me. Wondering how this magical bell kept getting rung, I bent down to look under the bar. There it was, a white cord running the length of the bar. Reaching out to test the tension on the cord, I gave it a slight tug. Ding! A cheer went up among the dozen or so Special Forces officer in the bar. Embarrassed, I asked sheepishly, ‘Now what?’ ‘Well, lieutenant, when you deliberately ring the bell, it is the signal to the bar that you are buying a round for everyone. That makes three rounds you owe us. ‘
“Seeing my obvious chagrin, a major spoke up. ‘Hey, guys, this new lieutenant obviously doesn’t know anything about Officer Club etiquette. How about we give him a break. Just one round for all of us here ought to settle up for him, don’t you think?’
“A grumbling consent emerged from the other officers in the hut, most of them probably remembering their own naïveté when they were Second Lieutenants. Since it was Happy Hour, drinks were half price, so I emerged from the hut still holding about half of my $25 cashed check. But I never set foot in that Special Forces club annex again!”
“Good story, Kenny,” said Chief Rod.
“Well,” Captain Kenny answered. “I was pretty green as a lieutenant.”
“Still are, don’t you think?” teased Major Tony. “Peggy, another beer for me and our junior companion here, if you please.”
“At least I wasn’t the dumbest lieutenant at Fort Bragg. That distinction went to none other than a brand-new Green Beret lieutenant just graduated from the Q course.”
I couldn’t help from piping up. “What’s this ‘Q’ course?”
“That, my young civilian friend,” replied Major Tony, “is the many-months-long Special Forces Qualification course, completion of which constitutes ‘flash qualification.’ All the Special Forces training happens at Camp Mackall, which is a sub-post of Fort Bragg located some 50 miles west of main post.”
“Anyhow,” continued Captain Kenny, “this brand-new flash-qualified lieutenant was part of the Special Forces capabilities show being presented for a bunch of VIPs at the Gabriel Demonstration Area on Smoke Bomb Hill. His role was to rappel from a helicopter hovering at 50’ in front of the viewing stands, to show the ‘fast rope’ assault capability of the Green Berets.
“This hot-dog lieutenant had been practicing for a week how to take the 50’ rappel in a single bound, ruining many nylon ropes in the process by melting the nylon from the heat absorbed by the metal snap link. He would push off from the 50’ rappel training tower, releasing all braking tension on the snap link, essentially in free fall. At about 40 feet down he would yank tension on the rope, turning all of the kinetic energy of his fall into heat, bringing him to a halt about two feet off the ground. Then he would just walk out of the rope, presumably to the cheers of the VIP audience in the stands.
“He practiced this repeatedly, until he could judge it perfectly. Just one problem – on the day of the Gabriel demonstration, they had installed a brand new nylon rope in the helicopter.”
“Oh, no!” groaned everyone listening at the bar.
“What?” I asked, baffled by everyone’s reaction.
“Gil,” explained Tony. “Nylon always stretches under a load. The nylon ropes used for rappelling have been used and stretched repeatedly, so you can judge how much stretch you will find at the bottom. But a brand-new nylon rope that has never been loaded will stretch a long way the first time it is used.”
“So?” I asked.
“Gil,” continued Captain Kenny. “When he braked his rappel at the 40-foot point, the new rope stretched and stretched. He slammed into the ground with most of the full force of his 50’ fall. He broke both his legs and compressed his spine and spent the next several months in a full body cast, like a potted plant.
“And thus, ended his illustrious military career.”
In memory of Bill and Terry and Eddie and Jerry