General bids farewell to arms but hello to old friends
By David A. Maurer / Daily Progress staff writer
November 5, 2006
FORT BRAGG, N.C.
On a recent October morning I watched a light rain fall on a military parade field that bears the name of a deceased friend of mine - Capt. Dick Meadows.
Minutes before I had traveled down Zabitosky Road, named for another departed friend, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War. Now, beneath a sheltering canopy, and surrounded by friends who had served with me in Vietnam, I waited for the start of the retirement ceremony for my best friend, Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell.
Eldon was sitting in front of me, flanked by his lovely wife, Marian, and their daughters, Audrey and Lauren. Also present were two of their sons - Brant, who is serving with the 10th Special Forces Group, and Logan, who is also in the Army and recently graduated from Ranger School.
Just a few stones' throws away from this field, named in honor of one of the legendary figures of the U.S. Army's Special Forces, was where Eldon and I started our friendship nearly 40 years ago.
Now, after 39 years of service, he was retiring from the Army.
On Saturday, Veterans Day, the nation will honor all those who have served our country in the military.
Few veterans in the history of this nation have taken greater personal risks than Eldon. At the time of his retirement, he was believed to be the most highly decorated soldier on active duty. His medals include the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor the country bestows.
For nearly his entire career, Eldon has worked in what is often referred to as the "dark side" of special operations. Those who work in this ultra-secret and extremely dangerous arena do so not for glory or accolades, but to ensure that the light of liberty and freedom continues to shine brightly.
Back in the early fall of 1967, Eldon and I were just beginning the difficult task of earning the right to join a brotherhood of men who proudly wear green berets. We couldn't have known then that this wasn't a thing of the heart, but of the soul.
We would learn that truth in the jungles of Southeast Asia as we conducted top secret, cross-border missions into Laos and North Vietnam. During those harrowing months and years we shared our joys and sorrows as the bond between us strengthened.
My friendship with this guy from Hoquiam, Wash., began during the first phase of our Special Forces training in 1967. One of the most difficult challenges was land navigation, where we had to find small, numbered metal tags attached to trees.
With only a compass and map to guide us, we had to cover miles of rough, wooded terrain to find a dozen or so tags, some of which were thousands of meters apart. The exercise started during the late afternoon and went on well into the night.
"I remember doing the land-nav' course with you out back of Yadkin Road," Eldon said when I asked him if he remembered how we first met. He was referring to a large wooded area that has since been replaced by buildings and a freeway.
"The course ran all over that area
and even out east of that," Eldon said. "We ran through the whole thing and finished way ahead of everybody.
"That's when we started hanging around together, because we could both do that and beat everyone else."
Although Special Forces soldiers are cross trained in a number of military skills, such as weapons and demolitions, each man also has a primary skill. The specialty training Eldon and I received was in communications, which required us to learn Morse code.
"I remember the bad things, like the eight hours a day of Morse code training that went on for weeks in that old World War II barracks," Eldon said with a smile. "The code room was on the second floor and it was probably 95 degrees up there every day, and we'd be trying to learn this stuff with sweat running off our faces.
"I thought, 'Man, this is terrible.' And then the two-week field exercise up in Pisgah National Forest in the cold and snow. We were trying to make [communications] and sticking wires up and all that, and nothing would work and the instructors weren't all that happy with us.
"But you know, I still remember Morse code. We set up some radios in the desert in Jordan back in 1985. We were communicating back to Fort Bragg with Morse code, and I could still copy it. Just for the hell of it, I sent a message back to Bragg in the clear, and I could still tap it out."
Eldon's last duty assignment was as deputy chief of staff for operations in Iraq. When he was making his retirement plans, he thought he would make it easy on his family and have the ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., which is near his new home in Eufaula, Ala.
It would have been an impersonal affair, because he doesn't know anybody at that post. When Lt. Gen. Robert W. Wagner, commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, and Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, commanding general 18th Airborne Corps, got wind of Eldon's plans, they quickly decided that wouldn't do.
The generals insisted that Eldon return to Fort Bragg, the home of Special Forces, to complete the circle of his military career. Eldon was grateful that they did, because he and his family spent 17 years at Fort Bragg.
Within the special operations community, Eldon is revered for both his skills as a warrior and for his uncompromising principles. Even within an elite unit like Army Special Forces there are different strata, and Eldon operated at the very peak of those.
"I do not think it's an exaggeration to say that he is one of the legendary figures," said Brig. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr., former commanding general of Special Forces Command.
"He has been in virtually every one of our conflicts since Vietnam. He is the consummate combat professional and leader, and he is recognized as such by all who have either worked with him, around him or know of him.
"As a battalion commander worried about training soldiers for special reconnaissance missions, he was the guy I went to to ask, 'What do I do to train my guys so they can go into combat, do the mission and survive?'
"I think that's an example of the regard that people well beyond me have for his impact and his recognized expertise in the world of special operations."
Eldon and I first entered the world of the dark side in 1968 when we joined a top secret unit known as Studies and Observations Group - SOG. We were assigned to Command and Control North, based outside Da Nang, South Vietnam.
Our job was to lead small teams of indigenous mercenaries on special missions into the enemy's sanctuaries in Laos and North Vietnam. During its history, SOG suffered more than 60 percent casualties and was the most highly decorated unit of the Vietnam War.
After decades of being classified, the exploits of the men within this unit were finally acknowledged and recognized during a ceremony at Fort Bragg on April 4, 2001. During the event our old unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for "extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy."
Eldon and I both attended the ceremony, and on that day the weather was clear but unseasonably cool. As I watched my friend approach the podium under a gun-metal gray sky to deliver his retirement remarks, I thought how fitting this wet and blustery weather was for this occasion.
We had often been cold and wet during our training. But it was here at Fort Bragg where experienced Special Forces instructors had taught us to survive in adverse conditions and how to get dry and warm after being soaked and cold.
But even more significant than that, the weather set a tone that fit the solemnity of the moment. As Eldon began to speak I could feel the spirits of our fallen brothers.
"When I started thinking about what I was going to say today, knowing that it would be my last chance to say anything really publicly as an active duty officer, my inner thoughts kept pulling me back to the defining periods of my career," Eldon said as his green beret darkened with each raindrop.
"It's a bit maudlin, I guess, and a bit regressive, but I will admit that the most defining period of my life was my time in Vietnam. It was a horrific place to be, not knowing whether you would ever see the sun again the next morning, and all you did was pray to God that one more day would happen and you would see the light the next morning.
"But during that period of time I learned to be a soldier. I learned what life and death meant. I learned what it meant to be a good leader and a bad leader. As I stand here today my thoughts drift to those whose names are on the memorial wall to your right rear.
"The men whose names appear on that wall are the real heroes of my life. Some of them were as close to me as family."
Eldon was referring to the Memorial Wall that lists the hundreds of Special Forces soldiers who were killed in combat. The memorial is outside the Special Operations Command building.
"Not a day goes by when I don't think of some of them," Eldon said. "Today, I feel their presence here with me. I know they're here. I know they're right up there looking down at me.
"I know some of them are shaking their heads in disbelief, because I'm standing here today as a major general in the United States Army, when I really wasn't the best sergeant in our company in Vietnam. I know they're here I feel them and I see them and I talk to them sometimes.
"I've been in some really tough situations, and they have motivated me to come out of it alive with my men and not fail. These Special Forces soldiers gave all they had in conducting operations in the most dangerous areas, and I would like to mention some of their names.
"I want their names to be said out loud, because these guys were very close to me."
As Eldon read the names, many of whom were our mutual friends, I could picture them in my mind's eye as well.
Gunther Wald, who, during a particularly harrowing mission into North Vietnam, whispered to me that he wished he had done better in college so he wouldn't be in his present situation.
The sincerity in his voice struck me as incredibly funny, but with the enemy all around us I didn't dare laugh out loud. For the longest time I kept my mouth pressed against my arm and shook as waves of laughter tried to escape.
Just when I thought I was under control I'd open my eyes and there would be Gunther looking at me. It would start all over again, and it wasn't until it got dark that I got some semblance of control over myself.
When Eldon voiced "Ronnie Ray," I remembered how he had appeared to me in a vision the morning after I learned that we were pulling out of Vietnam. He hadn't spoken a word, and when I reached out to touch him he indicated that I mustn't.
When I heard Gary LaBohn's name I had to look down for a moment. Even after all these years I can't think of our dear friend without feeling a painful stab of loss.
Later that evening, when it was just Eldon and his Vietnam buddies sitting around a table in Iron Mike's Brew Pub next to the Officer's Club, he talked about reading the names and hometowns of our departed friends.
"I felt it was important to say their names so they would go, you know? ," Eldon said as he made an undulating upward motion with his arm that ended with him pointing a finger toward heaven.
Each of us at the table knew exactly what he meant, because any one of us easily could have been watching the retirement ceremony from on high. To my left sat Cletis D. "Baby-San" Sinyard, one of the best and bravest recon men to ever strap on a rucksack.
Baby-San and I had fought in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 when we had been with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). We didn't meet until we were with SOG. When we learned that we had the Ia Drang Valley in common, we just nodded an acknowledgment to each other and that was enough.
"To this day I've never talked about the Ia Drang to anybody in my family," Baby-San told me. "It was like you and me. We never talked about it. But we know. We know."
On my right was Garry Robb, who made a night parachute jump with his team into enemy territory in Laos. Because the mission was so highly classified, the four-man team never got credit for making a combat jump.
At a reception at the home of Lt. Gen. Wagner the night before the retirement ceremony, Garry talked about some of the things he admires about Eldon.
"I think what I most admire about Eldon is his dedication and loyalty to our country," Garry said. "He went above and beyond what any of the rest of us did for our country by staying in the Army as long as he has.
"He's the guy we look up to and he has done it all. He's still our peer, although he's now wearing stars. He's an inspiration for all of us."
Before guests started arriving at the reception, Lt. Gen. Wagner and I relaxed in his living room and talked about Eldon. The two generals first served together in the mid-1970s when they were with the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Wash.
"Eldon has been an absolute workhorse," said the general, who graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1970. "There are people who do the fancy things or the political things, but Eldon did the hard jobs and the hard work.
"He earned everything he got through hard work behind the scenes. He's just plain skillful, knowledgeable and fearless, but not at all boastful or a person who will exaggerate a thing.
"He is like the lead dog on a sled team that is pulling everyone else along. If you ever needed something to be done, and you needed a guy who would have the vision to help you create it, and the dedication to bring it to reality, you always knew that Eldon could do that."
After the reception some of us SOG guys slipped off to a Special Forces hangout in nearby Fayetteville called Charlie Mike, which stands for continue mission. At some point while Melvin Hill, Doug "Frenchman" LeTourneau, Don Kelly, Garry, Baby-San and I were catching up, someone noticed a painting of our old Recon Company emblem - a death's head wearing a green beret - on the ceiling above the bar.
It gave us all a good feeling to know that we had not been forgotten by the new generation of Special Forces troops. Later, back at my hotel, I tried to sleep, but it was hopeless.
Through the night I lay in the dark, my mind swirling with memories. I thought about the Special Forces men I had known in war and my new Special Forces friends I had just made.
For the countless time I marveled at how being a member of this family automatically establishes an instant rapport with other Special Forces guys. At six in the morning when tears started welling up in my eyes - not because of sadness, but because of gratitude for having had the privilege to know and serve with such men - I got up to meet the day.
Around the same time, Eldon was getting up as well. Later that day he talked about his feelings that morning.
"I think I'm still a little bit in denial, because I have not let myself feel like I'm retired," Eldon said. "I'm not sure I know how that's supposed to feel, because I haven't done anything except be in the Army since I was 19.
"I think I've pushed it into the back of my mind, just like we did with all the bad stuff that happened in Vietnam, because I know I'm going to miss it. But I've always been able to push things back in a hole.
"Because of the missions I've been on and the units I've served with, I've had to do that. I've learned to push things back in my mind and bury them, and I think I kind of did that this morning."
During the ceremony, Eldon thanked his wife for all she had endured while he was away fighting the nation's battles. Earlier she had been awarded the Civilian Service Medal, first oak leaf cluster, for her "distinguished volunteerism and selfless service to family programs."
What went unmentioned were all the times Marian held everything together back home while her husband was gone on missions "known to but a few." And left unsaid were the times when she had to steel her emotions when the telephone rang and a voice on the other end of the line would start by saying something like, "Mrs. Bargewell, he's OK, but ?"
During his career Eldon was wounded seven times, but accepted only four Purple Hearts. Like many of us, he believes Purple Hearts are only for serious, life-threatening wounds.
Shortly before Eldon and I said goodbye at the pub, Don Kelly surprised me with a special gift. He had been with us in Vietnam and, like Eldon, later served with the special mission unit.
Don said he wanted to give me a Purple Heart medallion, and asked Eldon to present it to me. My best friend transferred the medallion to me with a shake of our hands.
Just before each of us left for our homes in different parts of the country, Garry made an observation.
"You know, this thing we share being Special Forces guys is like a religion," Garry said.
Baby-San looked him straight in the eye and said, "It's more than that."
We all smiled, because we knew he was right.