This is my old outfit . . . of course, I wasn't in Vietnam, and I didn't do what these guys did. They are the type of heroes who were still serving as Platoon Sergeants, First Sergeants when I was a private. When I got to Special Forces, they were the Team Sergeants, Sergeants-Major, and crusty old Warrant Officers - S.L.
by Nick Stubbs
MacDill AFB Thunderbolt
6/23/2011 - MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. - In the steamy jungles of Vietnam in 1957, nearly eight years before America began major combat operations there, members of the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) were in country, advising and training indigenous warriors.
It was all on the down-low, as were all missions until the end of the war. Secrecy is stock and trade of the Green Berets, after all.
But it was no secret in Tampa this week when some 200 veterans of the famous unit gathered for a ceremony at U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base Monday. Arriving in town over the weekend, the group of old soldiers staged at the DoubleTree Hotel at Rocky Point. It was a time to remember, laugh and shed a tear or more for those who were lost.
Formed at Camp Drake, Japan, June 24, 1957, 1st SFG served in the Pacific region and provided some of the first American military members to serve in Vietnam. It wouldn't be until 1965 when major combat operations would begin, sending many members of the 1st on very dangerous missions well behind enemy lines.
How far behind lines?
"We were the front line - sometimes 70 miles behind what they called the front line," said retired Master Sgt. David Kauhaahna, who joked that his special forces code name is "Brother K."
He arrived in country November of 1965, and served in Laos among other places. Like most others of the 1st, he operated in small units, usually just six men. Three of them might be indigenous Montagnards, or mountain people who earned a reputation as some of the toughest warriors and expert jungle guides in the country.
Being so far behind lines, and with support far away, there was always the risk of not making it through any mission.
"Lots," said Sergeant Kauhaahna of close brushes he had with death. "Lots of times."
One sticks out in his memory.
"We were surrounded by enemy, and they had set the elephant grass on fire and it was closing in on us," he recalled. "We thought that was it for us, but helicopters got there just in time to pull us out; we would have been slaughtered."
Close calls were part of the job, said retired Sgt. Major Billy Waugh, who served just shy of eight years in Vietnam, and has a Purple Heart for all eight (along with a Legion of Merit, a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars).
"A lot of what we were doing was directing air strikes (targeting and surveillance as members of the Studies and Observation Group)," said Sergeant Waugh, who recalled that the U.S. Air Force fighters and bombers evolved into being "very effective" at tactical air strikes during his years of service. "They took a little while to get the hang of it, but once they did, they did a heck of job."
When not performing SOG duties, "Our job was to kill and destroy," said Sergeant Waugh.
Members of the 1st were invaluable to downed pilots in need of rescue behind enemy lines.
"We were the only guys there, so we did the job," said Sergeant Waugh.
The memories fill volumes, and are only outnumbered by the close kinships members of the historical group share, said Sergeant Waugh, which is why the reunions are regularly held. This year's event marks the first in Tampa, and a special one in that it was in the same town as MacDill Air Force Base and SOCOM.
"We are glad we could gather here this time," Sergeant Waugh said. "It's a sort of coming together."
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