Category Archives: SF History and Lore

Jon Cavaiani at the LD

We write with great regret that Jon Cavaiani MOH, one of the 18 or so SF MOH recipients from the Vietnam unpleasantness, is waiting with Barb by his side to cross over sometime soon.

If you didn’t know Jon, you truly missed something, and not just because of this:

He ordered the remaining platoon members to attempt to escape while he provided them with cover fire. With one last courageous exertion, S/Sgt. Cavaiani recovered a machine gun, stood up, completely exposing himself to the heavy enemy fire directed at him, and began firing the machine gun in a sweeping motion along the two ranks of advancing enemy soldiers. Through S/Sgt. Cavaiani’s valiant efforts with complete disregard for his safety, the majority of the remaining platoon members were able to escape. While inflicting severe losses on the advancing enemy force, S/Sgt. Cavaiani was wounded numerous times. S/Sgt. Cavaiani’s conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.

He has fought the rare cancer, and the ravages of time, with the same bold spirit he brought to the fight against the North Vietnamese Army and the battle to imbue that spirit in following generations of Special Forces soldiers, which is where we came to know him.

Here’s a 2011 interview with the man:

(The reference to South Vietnam in the video is what the

His Medal of Honor award was initially posthumous, because the last American off the site saw him go down hard under a barrage of mortar rounds, and it was only after the award was written and approved that intelligence learned from monitoring DRVN communications that he had survived into captivity. As he was captured in Laos, the DRV did not report him captured, but the US insisted on his return with the other POWs and he and eight or so other named POWs whose cases were raised by Kissinger himself were transferred from DRV captivity in Laos.

While in captivity, he infiltrated a collaborators’ group, the Peace Committee, under command of the camp Senior Ranking Officer, and conducted psychological operations to disrupt their collaboration. He would have been a key witness in the court-martials of the collaborators, had Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird not gotten cold feet about prosecuting the traitors after one disloyal Marine killed himself.

He had a long recovery from his combat wounds (which were never treated by his North Vietnamese captors) and the privations of two years of Vietnamese captivity. As a guest of the North Vietnamese he lost literally most of his body weight, over 100 pounds. As the guest of the Army Medical Activity, he not only returned to Special Forces fitness but he also met and married the love of his life, an Army nurse, thereby causing chaos in rank-conscious Army protocol — where do you seat the sergeant whose wife is a captain (and they became a sergeant-major married to an, IIRC, lieutenant colonel)? The answer is, when the sergeant received the MOH, you find a way to make it work.

Jon never drew attention to his medal, and was uncomfortable with hero worship. He always insisted that he wore the medal on behalf the real heroes — the ones whose deeds went unseen, unrecorded and unrewarded, and who never came home.

After the war he served as the quietest of professionals, and commanders came to know him as a guy who could be depended on to accomplish any task with silent efficiency. His name did come in for cursing at one point, though: circa 1980, 10th Special Forces Group commander Colonel Paris D. Davis assigned Cavaiani a special project: to find a 12-mile rucksack route that ended on at least a mile of up hill. Jon did just that, through a process that can only be described as walking-in-search-of-misery and later received a gag gift from the CO: a pair of battered combat boots, bronzed like baby shoes and mounted to a plaque. Later, many a young troop would slog up the long hill towards the end point at the TASC building, grumbling that he’d like to get his hands on the guy that laid out the course. And some older sergeant would grumble back, “Good luck with that, Nguyen already gave it his best shot.”

One of the high points of Jon’s career was his service as Command Sergeant Major of the 1st SF Operational Detachment — Delta. Originally, he was rejected for the position in the low-profile unit, not because he was in any way unsuitable, but because his MOH raised his profile too much. He forcefully made the point that he was the antithesis of a glory seeker, and the unit commander reconsidered. During that period, no one heard a peep out of Cavaiani, except the other guys in the unit with him, and no one noted his absence (if they did, they assumed he’d retired). When he did retire, he pursued learning, and teaching, and finally spoke about his Medal — always to make the point that he was standing here as a substitute for the real heroes who rest in quiet graves in Arlington, or in places unknown in far jungles and mountains.

Now this remarkable life is drawing to a close, ended by a disease that couldn’t be defeated with all the spirit that beat down everyone from the North Vietnamese Army to a Delta commander who feared an MOH recipient in his ranks would be something like the circus coming to town. He had a team, as always, at the end: his wife Barb, brilliant physicians from Stanford, many old SF guys who did what they could. (Shout out, particularly, to Dick James, who acted as a shock absorber between Jon and Barb and the concerned SF community at large).

You may not have known Jon Cavaiani, but when that bright spirit transitions sometime in the next days, you may rest assured that the sun is a bit dimmer, the stars a light-year further, the very equator a mile shorter for his absence.

Ave atque vale.

 

On Jon Cavaiani:

PBS’s American Valor.

 

UPDATE

SFA and SOA contacts inform us that Jon passed on at 0600 PDT today. SOA sent the following bio (not sure its source, but it quotes SOA’s “Tilt” Meyer, a former RT one-zero):

SGM Jon R. Cavaiani (US Army – Retired) (MOH) died today, July 29, 2014 in Stanford, CA after a prolonged illness. By his side was his wife, Barbara.
Born in England, Cavaiani came to the United States with his parents in 1947 at age four. Though initially classified 4F, due in part to a severe allergy to bee stings, Cavaiani eventually joined the Army from Fresno, California, shortly before becoming a naturalized citizen in 1968.
He went to Vietnam in 1970 with the US Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) and by June 4, 1971, he was serving as a Staff Sergeant in Task Force 1 Advisory Element, USARV Training Advisory Group. This “advisory group” was formerly an element of the top secret and clandestine unit, MACV-SOG. On that day, near Khe Sanh, his outpost came under intense enemy attack. Cavaiani organized the unit’s defense and, when evacuation by helicopter became necessary, he voluntarily stayed on the ground and directed the aircraft, which successfully evacuated most of the platoon. Cavaiani and a small group were left behind. During a major enemy attack the next morning, he ordered the remaining men to escape while he stayed and provided suppressive fire to cover their retreat. He was captured and spent the next two years as a prisoner of war.
Jon R. Cavaiani was released by the Provisional Government of Vietnam on April 27, 1973.
President Gerald Ford presented Cavaiani with the Medal of Honor during a ceremony on December 12, 1974. Cavaiani later reached the rank of Sergeant Major before retiring from the Army in 1996.
According to John “Tilt” Meyer, president of the Special Operations Association and former member of MACV SOG’s RT Idaho, “Jon remained very active in the Medal of Honor Society and the Special Operations Association and continued throughout his life to serve his nation and his community.” Meyer continued, “Jon was an integral part of both the Medal of Honor Society and the Special Operations Association. His friends, family and brothers in arms will miss his broad smile and quick wit, but mostly we will miss his ever present willingness to help others.”
The City of Philadelphia is planning a memorial and arrangements and further information will be posted as they become available.

UPDATE II

We didn’t realize this, but Jon was the last surviving SOG ground branch MOH recipient. Thanks to Bob Noe of SOA for the information. One USAF and two USN SEAL recipients who received their medals for actions with SOG are still with us. (Technically, Jon and the SEALs got their awards after SOG was disbanded; they were assigned to successor organizations, in Jon’s case the “Task Force 1 Advisory Element”).

Some thoughts on Military Traditions

SF Patch

For over 30 years this was all an SF man wore on his left shoulder — unless he was Ranger-Q’d. Vietnam SF soldiers did not get the SF Tab (they are eligible for its award, retroactively, but SF men of the 50s, 60s, 70s and start of the 80s didn’t get them at graduation).

Some military traditions come to endure for a very long time; they survive the rise and fall of units, complete service branches, and even nations and empires. Military units today conduct ceremonies and maintain traditions that date back at least to the Roman Empire.

Some of this is just transmitted in human experience, even through social and political revolutions. The French army today has some traditions that predate the revolution. The Russian army today, likewise has some traditions from the previous Soviet army, and some from the Tsarist army before that. And all are inheritors of some of the traditions of the Romans: unit standards or guidons, marching in ranks, saluting.

Then, there is the interesting comparison of the tradition that takes hold, and the tradition that fails to take hold. For example, when he was Chief of Staff, Rick Shinseki tried to get the US Army to celebrate an Army Birthday. He was mindful of the tradition of the Marine Corps Birthday, which has long taken hold of the Marine Corps, and is a reason (or an excuse, for those who need no reason) for Marines past and present to get together with their mates and celebrate their traditions of service. The imposed tradition of the Army Birthday never took hold; it was one more of the ideas you get when you not only invite the Good Idea Fairy into the conference room, you make him Chief of Staff.

Shinseki went on to head the VA, which is all you need to know about his traditions.

This weekend, we’re attending an event that is one of those organic traditions that has just grown, and has survived many decades, outliving some of the original instigators, even though it’s a very small tradition. It’s interesting because it’s unique, so far as we know, in the Special Forces and world Special Operations community.

The Team Dive started as an excuse for members of an Army Reserve Special Forces Team to get together on a non-drill weekend, catch up, and not incidentally do a dive for lobsters in the cold waters off the North Shore of Massachusetts. A number of dope deals were necessary to make this happen: they had to fix things with the Environmental Police, with the site of the dive, with the local authorities, and with the Revolutionary War fort that is absolutely closed to camping at all times, except when the Green Berets come, once a year. It’s all legal and all on the up and up (yes, the men have lobstering permits for that one weekend, and yes, they only take legal “bugs”). But it’s a minority group in the minority group, and many people who are not members went out of their way to make it the successful tradition it has now “always” been.

Some years the lobsters are plentiful. Some, they are scarce (and somebody takes the Drive of Shame to a fish market). The beer is always plentiful; as the old guys drink less, the young guys pick up the slack. The story telling is prodigious, and one of the things that makes old guys like us turn out is the grim knowledge that he who is not there to tell the story is certain to be the subject of discussion.

Nobody is sure when the Team Dive started; the best guess is sometime in the 1980s. There’s a 20-year anniversary, but it’s just the 20-year point of somebody finally keeping track. Since a typical military career is 20 years, and some guys were already retired when they came to the first one, there will be members from their 20s to their 80s, each eager to hear what’s up with the others, and to meet old friends and teammates that he hasn’t met yet.

What we think is unique is this event’s nature as a longitudinal event on a team scale. There are reasons a reserve team, not an active one, came up with this, but we know it took a lot of luck and survived many near-death experiences to be here for us today.

Your “outside” life doesn’t come in here, too much. We’ve had FBI agents and ex-cons sitting at the same table, carpenters and CFOs, teachers and technicians. Here, the stories are of night jumps and over-the-horizon swims, of violent injury and long recovery, of guns we liked and guns we respected, of the difficulty making commo when you knew the Russians could DF you in 10 seconds — and when they’d jam you sometimes, just to let you know they were on duty that night, too. There will be tales of Vietnam and Afghanistan and maybe Iraq, along with tales of the Last Good Deal in Oslo or Guayaquil or Spanish Town, Jamaica.

Some of the tales will be true, some will contain a germ of truth, and some, the listeners will listen politely to.

The tradition survived the retirement of the original members; it even survived the end of the Army Reserve Special Forces, the dissolution of the original team, ODA 111, A Co. 11th Special Forces Group, the erasure of their team house and the very street it was on from the map as the area was redeveloped. The men who served on the team when it was disbanded in 1994 found themselves, mostly, on the same new team in the Army National Guard, and so that team became the torchbearers of the tradition. By that time, someone had already figured out it was important to keep the old-timers in, and so team members from the 1960s to the 2010s were arriving from across the country last night.

Some will dive. Some will drink. Some will do both (in order, please. So far we have a perfect safety record and have one surface for every submersion).

If you wanted your team to have a team dive (or hunt, or whatever) you couldn’t just copy the way ODA 111 does it. You’d have to start, and let the tradition grow, and see where it wound up, which wouldn’t be where you expected. But it would be a good thing, as long as it did what traditions must do: percolated from bottom up, rather than be commanded from top down.

Why SOG RTs Ran Without Medics

SF_CrestIn our review of Gentle Propositions by JS Economos, we mentioned in passing that one of the myriad details Economos got right was, “why not many medics ran recon.” This stirred a little discussion in the comments, with Medic 09 (a former IDF medic) asking:

[Y]ou piqued my curiosity to ask for a spoiler (as a once-recon-medic from elsewhere): why don’t (didn’t) many medics do recon? I suspect today things are different?

Vietnam SF vet Tom Schultz replied:

In response to Medico 09 can only remark on my unit at my time. (VN68) Medics in too short supply and bluntly had skills and training too valuable to be risked on a recon team. Nothing to complete a successful recon requires any medical training. We had no shortage of a medics volunteering to do so but they ere always turned down. When the shit hit the fan, though they were the first on the ‘go get ‘em’ chopper.

That was more or less what Economos had said, and we elaborated (some typos corrected):

As Tom has already noted, medics were in short supply in SF in Vietnam, including in SOG. Medics were needed in several critical missions, including in the dispensary at the FOB (generating healthy teams to launch on recon was the main mission of the FOBs), as “chase medic” on helicopters (having an SF medic on the bird saved many a life), or sometimes standing “bright light” alert (although this last was often done by Recon Teams without medics).

SF Medics were not only in short supply in SOG, but in every time period in SF history. The reason is the medic course (once 91BxS, now 18Dx) is the longest and hardest MOS course in Group, not excepting the officer course (actually one of the easier MOS phases) or the operations and intelligence course (now the 18F intel course) which has usually been reserved for soldiers who already have a base SF MOS. The medic course is ~18 months long (and always was) and is demanding in terms of intellect required, effort required, and ability to master specific skills. SF guys are all special (it says so right on their uniform shoulders now!) but the docs are really special.

Now under the Joint SOF Medic Training schema all SOF medics get trauma medicine equivalent to the SF medic’s. But the SF guy also gets communicable disease, epidemiology, and many other specialties that are required in the UW environment and not in direct ground combat. Most every medic will treat a combat wound, but the SF guy also has to diagnose and treat cholera!

Secret CommandosAgain, that’s based not so much on what Economos wrote but on what we’ve heard from scores of guys who were there running recon, and that’s why it impressed us that Economos, who as far as we know is not an SF, let alone SOG, vet, knew that.

But we happened to get even more corroboration, from someone who should know: LTC (Ret). Fred S. Lindsey. Lindset has written a remarkably thorough book, one of the life’s work variety, about CCS, called Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia. Here’s what Lindsey (whom we don’t know personally) says about medics and RTs, after introducing the CCS Medical Section and its duties to care for the roughly 1,000 men of the FOB and the indigenous men’s family members:

We are fortunate to have SGT. Don McIver’s fine memory to describe the details of the medical staff and the facilities. He notes the following upon his arrival in late July 69. “Changes in the mission and responsibilities of the medics had changed in recent months. Two medics were KIA on recon missions, at least one of which involved the medic serving on a recon team. It was SFC Jerry Shriver’s team that was wiped out in Cambodia on 24 April and medic SGT Ernest C. Jamison was KIA on that mission. Only three weeks later on 23 May, another medic, SGT Howard S. Hill, was KIA on another mission. Word came down from the Tactical Operations Center (TOC): no more medics on Recon; they are too valuable and too few. In a sense this was correct. Medical Specialist training lasted 42 weeks with tactics and techniques phase 1 and phase 2 adding another four weeks onto each end of the training cycle. Weapons, Communications, Operations and Intelligence, Engineers: each of these MOS-specific courses lasted 16 to 18 weeks plus the T&T’s tacked on. Less than a third of medics who started the course finished including those who may have been “recycled” to begin a particular course of study again and to graduate with the next class. It was estimated in 1968 that it cost $130,000 to training SF medic! In my experience, I was in the Army for 18 months before finally completing my training – Basic through the Q Course – before being assigned to the 7th Group.” ….

“With only nine medics and the prohibition against medics going on Recon missions, medical supervisor SFC [Jerry L.]Prentner begin reorganizing the medical clinic, commonly called the dispensary, and medic duties…. Schedules were made to allow medics to serve in three equal capacities: (1) Dispensary duty including sick call, emergencies, and patient treatment and ward supervision; (2) ground operations with the two company-sized Hatchet Forces (one with Montagnard troops, the other with Cambodians); (three) flying Chase Medic for either the MLSN or MLSS [Mission Launch Site North/South -Ed.]. The Chase Medic rode in the first evacuation helicopter or Slick, because that helicopter usually picked up the wounded. Those assigned North typically flew out of BMT [Ban Me Thuot --Ed.]. Those assigned South would stay at the MLSS at Quan Loi for periods of the week to a month or more. That’s where we earned our “air miles” for Air Medals (if we were counting!), inserted and pulled out Recon teams on “hot” and “cold” extractions, and got our “emergency medical treatment” experience treating the wounded. No lack of excitement for the medics!”

Lindsey notes that the Chase Medics on the helicopters often deserved, but seldom received, valor awards. Here’s his explanation:

Our medics were unbelievably heroic and professionally qualified. I would not have hesitated to have them remove my appendix, if the case warranted. Their heroics in the field, especially in the Chase Medic role, were very impressive. Unfortunately and shamefully, our medics did not get nearly the valor award recognition that they deserve. CCS was very poor in this regard, including when I was the CO. We were just so damn busy fighting the war over a 200+ mile border frontage. Always a fire to put out or crash to recover. Part of that problem was that the aviators seldom knew who the SF guy was riding along with them. They wrote up all the crewmembers for tons of awards that were well deserved, but very seldom a recommendation for the Chase Medic. That was most often done by the Launch Officer who was on the forward support site (FSS) duty that day, who rode along in the C&C ship. Likewise, the medic seldom knew who the pilots and gunners were in their chopper. Everyone rotated. Though belated and insufficient, we hope that our book will help give them proper recognition.

As you might surmise, we find Lindsey’s book a treasure trove of valuable information. There is a great deal of errata to the book posted at http://www.ccs-sog.org/, also.

Book Recommendation: Gentle Propositions by J.S. Economos

Economos_gentle_propositionsWhile the title sounds like it ought to be The Great Lost Austen Masterpiece, the book is a masterpiece of a different kind. This is not a full review — we’re not through with the book yet — but at the halfway or so point, it’s so good that we wanted to share it with you.

Gentle Propositions is a tale of SOG recon in Vietnam, and what sets it apart from many such novels is the author’s attention to accurate detail while not losing sight of the purpose of any novel, to engage and entertain the reader. It has done that well; it’s been a rollicking ride through all phases of a recon man’s life, especially the operational ones: mission prep, training, mission execution, recon, reporting, chance contact and immediate action, routine exfiltration and the much hairier worst-case of withdrawal under fire.

He also doesn’t neglect the non-operational: camp life, getting to know the Montagnards, stand-downs, being weathered out, meeting other teams at the pad (and being met by other teams when you came out), losing friends, getting drunk. True details of weapons and patrolling SOPs come alive just as the SOG Recon Teams used them back in 1969-70, and true details of Montagnard village life and the cross-cultural bonds of Straw Hat (American) and Yards are just as alive.

It’s all here: The Lottery, the target area no one wanted; what happens when you land on an NVA base area in the immediate aftermath of an Arc Light; what a Covey Rider did and what SPAF stood for; why not many medics ran recon. He does not shy away from the thorny problem of what happened when a guy served to his limit, wherever it was, and his luck or courage were all used up. He does not tell you how it feels to lose friends “across the fence,” never to be recovered: he shows you.

Economos is not an SF vet, but there’s something interesting about this book: the blurbs on the cover are all, or almost all, Vietnam-era SOG recon soldiers. They like it and they’re a hard bunch to please. He nails little details that he only could have done if he met these men or interviewed many who had, details like Bob Howard’s smile.

Like Howard, real men of CCC recon appear in the book, always in character and appropriately, the only fictional bit is their actual interactions with Economos’s fictional characters. We postdate the Vietnam War by quite a bit but there were still many bit players, extras if you will, whom we served with later on, and it was a thrill to see them and to see that they were handled appropriately and respectfully.

Most people who read this book, if it’s half as successful as it ought to be, won’t know a couple dozen of the old SF guys namechecked in here, but it doesn’t matter, as Economos’s accuracy doesn’t detract from his plot or character development: it’s a book you can, and should, read for the thrill of the story, and just note to yourself before you dive in that it is a more accurate depiction of life in SOG recon than many books that sell as non-fiction.

It’s available on Amazon as Kindle or paperback. We read the paperback.

Quoth McRaven: If you want to change the world…

Admiral William McRaven, who should need no introduction to this audience, spoke at the commencement ceremony for the University of Texas this year; he himself was a Longhorn and was commissioned from the NROTC program there in 1977, so, like us, he had the grim experience of the Carter era tempered by the positive experience of Vietnam-vet mentorship. He spoke to over 8,000 graduates (we knew they did things big in the Lone Star State, but we had no idea, given our history with a bunch of little colleges nobody famous ever came from).

Personally, we’ve seen him speak extemporaneously, and he’s more powerful and effective than he is with this prepared speech. It’s about 20 minutes long; we have his ten lessons from SEAL training for those who want to change the world after the video, but they’ll be kind of cryptic without the context in the speech.

  1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
  2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
  3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
  4. If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
  5. If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
  6. If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
  7. If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
  8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
  9. If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
  10. If you want to change the world don’t ever ring the bell.

The freshly-graduated Longhorns seem bemused by some of these points.

(We’ve put this in the “SF History and Lore” category, because even though McRaven is a frogman, and their selection and training is just as specialized as their maritime missions and unique history, the essential take-away is the same simple, but hard commitment that will get you through SFAS/SFQC just like BUD/S: don’t quit).

No, SOF Guys are not Psychopaths

crazy-guyLook, some guys will do anything to sell a book. Case in point, from the Telegraph:

Behaving like a psychopath could help you in your career and love life. It’s counterintuitive – who, after all, would hire Hannibal Lecter or want to date Norman Bates – but that’s the idea behind The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, part popular science book, part self-help guide from Andy McNab and Oxford psychology professor Kevin Dutton.

“I wanted to debunk the myth that all psychopaths are bad,” says Dutton, who has explored this subject before. “I’d done research with the special forces, with surgeons, with top hedge fund managers and barristers. Almost all of them had psychopathic traits, but they’d harnessed them in ways to make them better at what they do.”

It was through this research that he met retired SAS sergeant and bestselling author McNab, who in tests exhibited many of these psychopathic traits, including ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, reduced empathy, developed self-confidence and lack of remorse.

via Why psychopaths are more successful – Telegraph.

Yes, if you are an airhead like Dutton, who thinks that normal manly traits at normal, if perhaps on the elevated side, healthy levels are psychopathic, you think this nonsense. And if you’re a guy who’s ego is its own brand, like McNab, a guy who depends on selling books to feed his family, you’re well advised to get psycopathic about self-promotion.

But we probably know more SOF guys (and their families) than we know non-SOF guys. Psychopaths? Great googly moogly, some people watch too much TV.

The Medicine that Sickened

All you have to lose is your mind.

All you have to lose is your mind. Other than that, this is great stuff.

Malaria is a scourge. Today, thanks largely to the world DDT ban, it devastates Africa, killing two million or more every year, mostly children. (Thank you, Rachel Carson). But it is not only a devastator of populations, it’s a neutralizer of armies, too. History recounts how it has sunk one army after another. In the Seminole War in the early 19th Century, it thinned the ranks of invading white man and defending Indian alike; in World War II it killed Allied POWs and their Japanese guards with cruel neutrality.

The US Army first defeated malaria, along with yellow fever, while building the Panama Canal a century ago. This was one of the great public health victories in world history. (Those diseases, especially yellow fever, had defeated an earlier French attempt to canalize the isthmus). There was no inoculation or prophylactic — in Panama, they drained standing water and sprayed DDT to kill the mosquitos. Even after the victory of Panama, malaria was still a bitter enemy everywhere soldiers and Marines went: Phillipines, Haiti, even the southeastern US mainland.

The Army gained new experience of malaria in World War II in the Pacific and did not like it one bit. The crude quinines and synthetics of the era, like atabrine, were only marginally effective in preventing the parasite-borne disease. The fabled Merrill’s Marauders, the 5307th Composite Group (Provisional), had a single five-month (Feb-Jun 1944) combat mission, and at mission’s end, only two men were neither wounded nor sick; 66% of the unit (not the casualties) were casualties due to illness; the unit was disbanded, but that only brought the paperwork in line with what malaria (and malnutrition, thanks to dependence on the inadequate K Ration) had already done.

So at the outbreak of the Global War On Tourism, the US Army insisted on malaria prophylaxis for its troops deployed to Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Because the Army doesn’t do subtlety, they required all the deployed troops to take the drugs — even those living at 10,000 feet, well above the service ceiling of malaria’s mosquito vectors. The two drugs then used were the approved antibiotic doxycycline, which was restricted to aviators because of its cost, and the cheaper mefloquine, which had never been able to win approval because of its side effects. The hazards were certainly known in 2001; that year, a team of Army physician/researchers wrote that:

During the Vietnam War, mefloquine was developed by the US Army to counter chloroquine resistance in falciparum malaria, but its more general use by the traveling population revealed potentially serious neuropsychiatric adverse events.

While the Medical Corps knew the deal, the institutional Army’s answer to the side effects was to deny them. But mefloquine definitely messed with one’s Brain Housing Group. One common, and relatively mild, side effect was violent, bloodthirsty and disturbing dreams.

Federal drug officials have issued a strong new warning about a controversial anti-malaria medication once routinely given to U.S. troops, some of whom say it damaged them permanently.

The Food and Drug Administration ordered manufacturers of mefloquine hydrochloride to give the medicine a black box label, the agency’s strongest warning, reserved for drugs with significant risks of serious side effects. The FDA said that some neurological and psychiatric side effects can last for months or years after a patient stops taking the drug.

But the drug has long carried warnings tying it to dizziness, seizures, insomnia, anxiety, depression and strange dreams. One clinical trial found that 29% of travelers who took mefloquine experienced at least one of those side effects. There is also evidence suggesting a link to violent behavior, including suicide.

We can’t speak for suicide, obviously, but we had the dreams. Axe murderer dreams. We we were the axe murderer. The blogger for the American Legion’s Burn Pit, who goes by the historically literate term Mothax, has even more chilling memories.

I don’t know about the study, but anecdotally I can tell you I stopped taking mine and just risked the Malaria because the stuff messed me up so bad.  The first time my battle-buddy took it he was awake for 3 straight days, mostly watching CSI episodes the entire time.  I just had horrible nightmares, felt sick the whole time, and started hearing voices.

Again, that’s just anecdotal, but I heard a gazillion stories of a similiar like, so this honestly doesn’t surprise me at all.

via Feds issue warning about Lariam/Mefloquine | The American Legion’s BurnPit.

The bad dreams were extremely disturbing. To see that and raise it to “hearing voices” — boy howdy. We were told to stay on the stuff for six months after RTB (despite none of use having ever seen a living mosquito or any flying insect in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan or Pakistan) and we thing we speak for the whole unit in saying that we all destroyed the stuff one way or another as soon as we were away from the mandatory “Mefloquine Mondays” our medics led.

Merrill's MaraudersThis is not to reject the idea of malaria prophylaxis. Here’s are a couple of papers to read about the Marauders. (Merrill, by the way, fell early on, to heart attack and malaria, and the unit was led by Colonel Charles Hunter for most of the campaign, whose name you’ve never heard. “Merrill’s Marauders” was a name bestowed by journalists; the men knew it by its code name, Galahad, which is the title of Hunter’s memoir of the operation).

The two papers are from the mid-seventies and are not the last word on this subject, but they’re both worth reading:

Thompson, Robert J. Jr. Commander’s impact on preventing disease during military conflicts. This covers disease in general, but includes a case study on the 5307th. Thompson writes:

Disease was the major factor contributing to the demise of the Marauders. Before the campaign started U.S. planners recognized the severe medical threat posed by the Marauders’ area of operations. General Stillwell’s staff estimated that 85 percent of the Marauders would be lost before it finished its mission, with 35 percent killed and wounded and 50 percent evacuated with disease. Actual casualty statistics indicate that the Marauders lost only 14 percent killed and wounded but 66 percent to disease.

Gaither, John B. Galahad redux: an assessment of the disintegration of Merrill’s Marauders.

Gaither notes that malaria, which was pandemic in Burma at the time, attacked the unit on arrival. The 5307th had three battalions, originally, and about 2800 men. (One battalion came from volunteers from the Southwest Pacific theater of war, one of volunteers from the 33rd Infantry Regiment in the Caribbean, and one from volunteers from the Zone of the Interior, the Continental US.

Another omen that materialized durIng the training phase concerned the malaria rate in the newly arrived unit. While generally bad, the situation in the 3rd Battalion (the Pacific volunteers) was abysmal. Medical estimates projected a 12.8%. evacuation rate in the battallion, If three relapses were established as the crIteria for hospitalization.

The rate would actually be higher than that.

This long digression into Marauder history is simply to reinforce the idea we’re not blind to the military impact of unchecked malaria. But a medicine the inoculates you against malaria, but distorts, degrades and generally messes with your mind? That was always a bad idea.

What’s an “Operator”?

Looks like a veritable phalanx of operators.

Looks like a veritable phalanx of operators. Switchboard type…

Science-Fiction Author Brad Torgersen (who’s also an Army reserve warrant officer) mused on this, way back in the Permian Period (ok, way back in mid-March, but we just read the post).

The root question is: who gets to be an “Operator?”

Explanation: for those who don’t walk in U.S. military circles, the word “Operator” seems to be one of those internal U.S. military phrases that migrated from a very specific sector of the U.S. military, out into the popular American culture via technothriller fiction and video games, then back into the U.S. military as a whole. Its general usage now connotes “pointy end” experience and/or skillsets. Ergo, the “Operator” goes where the shooting happens, to do some shooting himself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Only, no, because this is not an MOS nor is it a skill badge. It’s a slang title being adopted (both officially and unofficially) by an increasing number of people who are all too eager (to my eyes) for the credibility they believe this word will lend them — even if they may not precisely be a “pointy end” person by trade.

In other words, “Operator” has become one of those familiar U.S. military butt-sniff words used by people to distinguish “real” military personnel from “POGs” — the latter being the post-9/11 variant of REMF, which was a Vietnam-era acronym for rear-echelon mother fucker; someone decidedly not on the “pointy end” of things. General infantry are using the word “Operator” now. As are F-16 pilots, did you know that? MPs and Combat Engineers? Explosives Ordnance Disposal? Armor too? And so on, and so forth….

We tried to post a comment on his blog, but as our email address was used years ago to set up a long-defunct WordPress.com account, we can’t do it. That’s retarded, but that’s WordPress for you. Or maybe it’s our level of tech savvy.  Anyway, here is the comment we meant to leave on Brad’s blog, edited into a post suitable for this blog.

We can shed some light on the genesis of the term, “operator.” It was an old (as in 1960s old, maybe 1950s old) term of approbation in Special Forces for a guy who was skilled in clandestine warfare. Clandestine means something specific in special operations: it means operations that happen and leave no sign they ever occurred, with the enemy none the wiser. This is characteristic of underground and spy operations, and Special Forces’ involvement in these operations was inspired by OSS and SOE operations in WWII. Preparation for such a behind-the-lines and even stay-behind war was a constant throughout the Cold War.

This is what Detachment A, Berlin Brigade (a real unit that was classified for years) did. So, in this usage of the word, which was very old and restricted to very old colonels and sergeants in our SF spratling days, meant a guy who had tradecraft and not just fieldcraft. Rangers have good fieldcraft (or had then, anyway). SEALs had okay fieldcraft then, and got a lot better at it later. But tradecraft was the milieu of the spooks and of Special Forces. Still is.

When a special-purpose special operations unit was stood up in the late 1970s, with a view to a worldwide counterterrorist mission, it did not have any special badges. But after a candidate passed selection and assessment, he was then brought up to speed in what was called the Operator Training Course. We believe but are not positive that we know who was the vector for the term getting a new lease on life. (It wasn’t the unit commander, we think, but the intelligence officer, originally a warrant officer and later commissioned).

Completing OTC does give a man a small mark on his full-length Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) code. But the word “operator” has fallen into disuse there (and in similar units), so we’re told. The fate of all euphemisms is to be inflated into meaninglessness, and when anybody can print sheets of new “operators” it was inevitable. But officially, around the time we retired these men were still the only Operators in the US Army whose Operator-tude isn’t tied to a specific piece of equipment like a road grader.

The Marine term for a fully-qualified MARSOC Marine is Critical Skills Operator.

We’re not those kinds of O-fficial “Operators”, just a retired 18 Series, although back in the 70s through the oughts we aspired to be the kind of can-pick-a-lock-and-service-a-dead-drop small-o “operators.”

And we find Brad’s diminution of his military significance unnecessary. As the Truths tell us,  “SOF Operations generally require extensive non-SOF support.” So the guys who replaced us appreciate the fact that guys like Torgerson are there. (Maybe not all the young ones, but they’ll learn. We did).

Trouble in MARSOC land?

Hmmm. This article at OAFNation is drawing a lot of attention this week. It has a number of interesting points, and here are a couple of them:

Unfortunately the healthy, expected, productive growing pains experienced by MARSOC are accompanied by a multitude of other significant, more toxic institutional failures, ones that compromise the very livelihood of the unit and its future success. Problems that, if left unchecked, will present a stifling obstacle to the evolution of the organization, and ultimately threaten to deteriorate the progress already made. The majority of these issues can be generally attributed to major systemic failures in staffing and leadership at the regimental level and above. To thoroughly understand the context of this problem and what caused it, we must observe the organizational culture of the Marine Corps as whole, and comprehend how it applies to the existing structure of MARSOC. I’ll expand:

That’s part of the extended introduction; here’s a little bit of the meat:

In the case of MARSOC, this has unfortunately led to a systemic plague of the organization, its highest echelons having been infected by senior enlisted leadership with zero operational experience, credibility, or comprehension of SOF and its mission, its capabilities, and its role within DoD. The current regimental sergeant major of MARSOC, for example, is a 27-year motor transport Marine, whose previous assignment was – you guessed it – battalion sergeant major of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, MCRD San Diego. I’ll say that again; the regimental sergeant major of MARSOC holds the MOS of Motor Transport Mechanic. This is the guy sitting on the selection board at the end of A&S deciding who’s fit to become an operator. This is the guy attending joint staff briefings, senior SOF leadership symposiums, liaising with key personnel within SOCCENT, JSOC, etc, sitting across the table from Army E-9s with decades of ODA time, NSW master chiefs, etc. Making policy. Influencing critical decisions. Representing MARSOC. It sounds ridiculous as I sit here writing it, yet it’s a very sad and sobering truth. The operator base is 95 percent enlisted men, and this is our senior enlisted representative. Just to construct a frame of reference for the uninformed, and in the interest of beating a horse well beyond death, a command master chief with NSW – anywhere within the command – is a SEAL. A command sergeant major of an Army special forces group – hell, the command sergeant major of USASOC – is a Green Beret. But the glorious USMC, in its infinite wisdom, perpetuates this ridiculous mantra of “A Marine’s a Marine’s a Marine! We’re all the same, you’re not special, hell, we’re all special because we’re Marines!”, effectively sabotaging the very fundamentals of SOF and its institutional imperatives. The detrimental effects of this dynamic will become increasingly evident as MARSOC’s mission continues to evolve in conjunction with the transition away from GWOT; for example, consider the limitations it presents for the component’s ability to fill key roles and command positions in joint SOF task units or centralized commands without homegrown higher echelon leadership.

….

This doesn’t even dive into the manner in which field grade officers are arbitrarily thrown into critical positions of authority at the regimental level and above at MARSOC. To even begin to explain the incongruity with which this process occurs would take another post by itself, one that I think I’d rather suck-start a .45 than write. For every halfway competent career officer at MSOR there are a dozen who can’t find their way to the chowhall. You can’t swing a dead cat inside component headquarters without hitting six lieutenant colonels, and most of them act like they’re in some kind of purgatory while awaiting orders to their battalion commander billet (which to be honest, many of them are). The whirlwind of helter-skelter whipping through the halls of the death star is enough to make your head spin.

The Motor Transport Mechanic dude is a particularly disliked figure among the men of MARSOC, but he’s characteristic of a problem all the services have with promoting men of marginal intelligence, experience and general utility into important positions based on their ability to amass ticket punches on schedule.

There is much more meat at the article, so if you’re interested in this sort of thing, please Read The Whole Thing™. (In fact, it would entertain and inform you to read the whole site).

We would encourage the author and other young MARSOC Marines to resist throwing in the sponge, yet. From where they sit it looks like SF is going swimmingly and has never been beset with dud sergeants major or careerist, backstabbing officers. Au contraire! At times, over the 62 year history of the SF Regiment, the actual operational dudes have been bitterly at odds with their imported leadership. It took the establishment of SF as an actual Branch coequal with the old-line Infantry and Armor and what have you to enable the retention of quality officers, and to eliminate some of the problem of dilettante ticket-punchers.

In the 1980s, in one of the periodic “housecleanings” of SF ordered by conventional officers, a number of officers who either never did qualify, or had done so in their youth as dilettante ticket punchers. LeRoy Suddath is in one of these categories, we believe the former; he was brought in to “get the snake-eaters under control.” As he took over he sent minions out, yes-men colonels with a conventional infantry mindset to turn the Groups into conventional units and their ODAs into long-range Rangers; suck-up-and-stomp-down sergeants major who were at their intellectual maximum trying to measure uniform appurtenances, referee (mandatory!) wives’-club meetings, or apportion police-call areas.

Some of Suddath’s men were such disasters it was comical, except for the poor wretches in their Groups. One fellow decided that his religion would be your religion and all the officers and men in his unit were subject to inquisition inspection at no notice to ensure their issued New Testament was in their leg pocket. This was the conventional Army’s way of straightening out special operations.

At this same time certain other special operations units began to fill leadership slots more extensively from Ranger than SF backgrounds (some SF units are partly to blame for this, as they deterred their members from seeking to join these other elements). SF officers who served primarily in SF were sent to punitive assignments far from troop command. SF NCOs “who had been in SF too long” were sent to recruiting and drill sergeant duty. A number of them elected to try civilian life or other government agencies. Some stayed. Some of the ones who stayed, couldn’t tell you why they did. But they kept, if not the eternal flame of true SF brightly burning, at least the pilot light lit.

Around this time, we crossed over to the Reserve side. Over the years, we would find that any time the leadership got stupid in active-duty SF units, the Reserve (at least while they lasted) and Guard units benefited. Nobody was in the Reserve or Guard to advance his career, which eliminates one of the biggest drags on units: self-serving and -aggrandizing leaders.

But somehow the active guys muddled along. During Desert Storm, they did the long-range Ranger thing so well, that Norman Schwarzkopf (Suddath’s roommate in the Class of 56 at Hudson High, but miles ahead in class rank), a guy who started the war hating SF, came out of Desert Storm realizing that SF and other SOF hanging out in the enemy’s rear areas were his primary generators of reliable intelligence. From a detractor to a fan, in one short war. (Suddath never did get the message, but that was probably for the same reason Schwarzkopf’s high class standing never rubbed off on him, either). And by late 2001, SF, with joint service and interagency teammates, was in position to achieve US war aims in less than three months. (It’s unfortunate that the war aims then changed).

So what’s the point of all this digression, and how does it tie to the MARSOC situation? It doesn’t, directly. Right now, the USMC’s corporate immune system sees MARSOC as a foreign body — much as the Army long viewed SF — and it desires to eliminate the irritant. The way to stay in the game, the way to be known as a valuable team player and not an irritant, is to give a commander what it is he needs — even if he doesn’t know that’s what he needs yet.

The way to survive in the interim is to give commanders what they think they need. SF did that with the various Cold War strategic reconnaissance programs. Mr NATO Commander, you want us to tell you when the second strategic echelon goes through? Yep, we got it for action. And if the balloon had gone up, we’d have had teams sitting with eyes on mountain passes in Slovakia and intermodal freight yards in Poland, and Ivan wouldn’t have moved a battalion without it being toted up on that CO’s board. And he’d quickly realize what he got from friendly eyes on a target was orders of magnitude more reliable than the inferences the three-letter agencies draw from their technical means of collection.

And all the time, we were training UW and practicing FID through JCETs, and even MTTs to American units (which produced lots of friction with conventional leaders, oddly enough). Because you do what you have to do to keep the concept alive, even if it’s in suspended animation for a while. Kind of like travelers to Mars, you guys today are the keepers of the flame of MARSOC civilization while it’s passing through some light-years of bad officers and worse pinnacle NCOs.

To return to a metaphor from three paragraphs ago, Marine culture and the actions of individual Marines together will determine whether the virus that is MARSOC insinuates itself into the DNA of the Corps, or is treated as foreign matter and whacked during some round of budget cuts. Our guess is that Marine senior leadership will try to keep something called MARSOC, not because they give two farts about it, or even have a glimmer of a clue what it is and what it can do for the nation and the Corps. Nope, they’re going to want to keep it for the same reason they put the laughable SOC for Special Operations Capable in parentheses behind the nomenclature of Marine Expeditionary Battalions lo these 30 or whatever years ago — so the Marines’ lobbyists can try to get the Corps some of the money Congress thinks its appropriating for SOF.

Okay, suppose you’re a leader of a Marine SOC element and you don’t want to see your unit and capability back-burnered or worse? One thing you can do is conduct an annual or even semi-annual exercise to bond existing unit members and the new guy who just came in, whether he came in from training somewhere, has been parachuted in by the personnel wallahs from over in Motor Transport, or even is a ring-knocking major late of “supply, a much underappreciated field of endeavor.” The old ASA SODs used to do this in an exercise they unsubtly named Newby Prove, in part because they didn’t select their own personnel, always. They couldn’t always get rid of a guy right away after he choked during Newby Prove, but it didn’t matter: he had been seen to choke by all hands, and even with nothing said, he developed a burning interest in career paths that moved him quickly in a new direction. If he didn’t choke, chances were good that both he and the old-timers found something to appreciate in one another, and bonded usefully. 

If the truck-jockey sergeant major and the warehouse-manager field grade don’t go right into offices, but have to demonstrate that they, too, can experience hardship, jump and fast rope, kick doors and elicit information by interviewing role-players, not to mention hump a real-world rucksack a dozen plus miles, they might just be on the team when they’re done.

We got ours for free. No wonder the factory’s on the skids.

SF Recruiting Poster pick it upIs there any headgear packed with more Francophile symbolism than the beret? The floppy wool hat was a shepherd’s cap, then the height of women’s fashion, and finally became a military “badge of courage, a mark of distinction”  (to quote John Kennedy). The beret went to war in World War II, thanks to the Resistance and the British Commandos. It was so fashionable, but even some Nazis wore them (the Panzer Corps). The French and other Continental armies adopted them later; most nations have different colors for different branches of service, but the French even have different styles of beret for many regiments (and the Foreign Legion clings to the pre-beret képi blanc). In the US Army, it was an illegal hat worn by Special Forces for nine years before being approved by Kennedy in 1961, to the everlasting vexation of the Army Institute of Heraldry. To this day, it is the only article of American military uniform ever approved directly by a president.

SF poster it says more about youAnd one time, the beret was worn only by elite forces in United States: red for paratroops, black for Rangers, and green for SF. Air Force SOF operators had blue and red ones. Even the SEALs flirted with a nonregulation ripstop camouflage one in Vietnam. The beret lost its cachet when struggling Army chief, Rick Shinseki (yes, the same bozo currently mismanaging the VA) awarded the Rangers’ black beret as a sort of social promotion to every generator mechanic and water purification specialist in the army. This drove the Rangers to a tan beret, But what it really did was make all the elite units more or less lose interest in berets entirely. Thanks to Shinseki, it was now, “a badge of mediocrity, a mark of nothing in particular.”

Meanwhile, after the Cold War ended, the conscript armies of Europe it, including France’s, converted into much smaller professional armies. The demand for berets collapsed faster than the politruk of the Third Shock Army’s hope for a retirement dacha on the Riviera. And it took a while, but France’s last beret manufacturer, a company recognized as an Enterprise du Patrimoine Vivant, or Enterprise of Living Patrimony, is on the ropes. The Chicago Trib:

PARIS — Laulhere, a 174-year-old beret- maker, is fighting to keep the quintessential French headgear French.

Laulhere became the country’s sole maker of traditional berets after it recently bought Blancq-Olibet, its only French competitor, which was almost 200 years old. Cheaper knockoffs from China, India and the Czech Republic made survival hard for local makers of berets, which have been as much a symbol of France as baguettes and Gauloises cigarettes.

Based in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, where the round and flat woolen hat was invented by shepherds to protect themselves from the Basque region’s damp, Laulhere has joined the frontlines of the battle for the “Made in France” label as foreign-made berets steal an increasing share of a shrinking market. On its website, Laulhere says: “To us ‘Made in France’ still means something.”

“There are berets and there are berets,” said Mark Saunders, the head of sales at Laulhere and an Irishman who has lived in France for over two decades. “If you don’t want to smell like a sock wearing a wet beret, only our traditional French beret doesn’t retain odors. Small details like that make a difference.”

The fight for survival by Laulhere — rescued in a purchase by French military-garment maker Cargo-Promodis with a 500,000 euro ($686,000) injection in late 2012 — tells the tale of President Francois Hollande’s competitiveness challenge. French companies struggling to compete and retain market share have contributed to the nation’s slumping economy, which barely grew after 2012 and left unemployment at a 16-year high.

via Last French beret maker fighting for survival – chicagotribune.com.

Say what? Euro cradle-to-grave socialism produces a slumping economy? And France’s decades of protectionism haven’t helped? Unpossible!

Laulhere…  is banking on demand from the high end of the market to revive its fortunes after its bankruptcy in 2012.

Laulhere, which had 1.7 million euros in sales last year and didn’t make a profit, expects “to break even this year,” he said.

Ah, “break even.” Dans la belle France, they call that la victoire.

The company plans to produce 200,000 hats this year, up from 160,000 in 2013. Half of its beret production goes to armies around the world. The rest goes to the fashion industry and to traditional wearers of the headgear.

Men’s berets from Laulhere can cost anywhere from 40 euros to 75 euros, while women’s are priced between 20 euros and 95 euros. Imports can cost as little as two euros.

Get outa here. They’re having a hard time selling hundred-plus-dollar berets? When the competition sells for three bucks? How could that possibly be?

Global competition has come from berets manufacturers in China, Pakistan, India and the Czech Republic, where the company Tonak a.s. produces fashion berets for women.

Until the late 1980s, France produced several million berets each year. Sales slid for decades, with cheaper products made in Asia. The nail in the coffin came in 2001 when the French military ended conscriptions, eliminating hundreds of thousands of army orders.

The end of the draft appears to have done for their captive market. Because after all, who’s more captive than a draftee? Well, prisoners, but even in France, they don’t wear, “a mark of distinction, a badge of courage.” (By the way, where do they keep the cons, now that they tore down the Bastille and Devil’s Island is gone to weeds?)

Maybe SF needs to go to the pakol to maintain its traditions?

Maybe SF needs to go to the pakol to maintain its traditions?

It’s hard to see how Laulhere — or any other European high-cost, low-automation manufacturer — survives in a global world. The executives’ plans to take the company upmarket make as much sense as anything. Luxury goods can sell on snob appeal, and luxury sellers can successfully brand and sell handcraft work. In the luxury market, overpriced goods are valued for their sheer signaling potential. They tell people you have enough money to be careless with it. So maybe they do have a chance. It would be nice to see them succeed. But there is a faint aroma of buggy-whip about the whole thing.

Would you pay a hundred bucks for a beret? Hell, the Q course is still giving them out for “free.” That’s how we got ours. Back when it still was, “a mark of distinction, a badge of courage.”