Green Berets' image, money, strength are bouncing back

November 20, 1990|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Evening Sun Staff

Somewhere back in the American psyche, there's Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler standing on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show mouthing the words to his No. 1 hit, "Ballad of the Green Berets."

That was 1966, and Sadler's dirge would stand as one of the last jingoistic gasps connected with Vietnam and with the U.S. Army's Special Forces.

A decade later, their image riddled by the war, the Green Berets fell on hard times as the Army emphasized a more conventional approach to soldiering. On the nation's movie screen the stereotypical Green Beret became a killing machine.

Nowadays, though, the branch is said to be on the rebound due to a restructuring of U.S. special operations forces and better funding from Congress.

Formed in the late 1950s from a nucleus of former Eastern European freedom fighters, ex-French Foreign Legionnaires and U.S. airborne and ranger troops, Special Forces became a favorite of President John F. Kennedy, the palace guards of Camelot. It was Kennedy who officially approved the Special Forces' distinctive headgear.

Then came Vietnam. First postitioned in remote camps along the borders of Laos and Cambodia, Green Beret troops lived with and trained large groups of Montagnards, Vietnamese, Chinese and other nationals to fight a counterguerilla war.

Next there were daring, cross-border commando raids in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

But then the Green Berets were dragged into a more controversial mission known as Operation Phoenix, operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, to root out the Viet Cong infrastructure in South Vietnam. By most estimates, thousands of suspected Viet Cong were eliminated by Special Forces and Navy SEAL hit teams.

In the early '70s America had grown weary of the war and anything connected with it, especially Phoenix-type operations, and it would be years before a fuller picture of Green Beret exploits would surface.

According to military historian and author Shelby Stanton, Special Forces cross-border raids demolished convoys and jungle ammunition dumps. Green Berets even managed to insert rigged ammunition into the North Vietnamese munitions system throughout Indochina, causing enemy rifles and mortars to explode and machine guns to jam.

In the end, covert work by the Special Forces represented the most sustained campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence gathering waged on foreign soil in U.S. military history, according to Stanton.

In recent years, Congress has backed the Green Berets by establishing the U.S. Special Operations Command. It now receives its own funding, and there is an office of assistant

secretary of defense for special operations at the Pentagon.

And, unlike the rest of the conventional U.S. armed forces, the end strength of the American special operations contingent is to increase next year from 38,000 to 40,000.

As an example of recent Special Forces success, Spanish-speaking Green Berets were in Panama for Operation Just Cause last year to negotiate with Gen. Manuel Noriega's commanders.

The Green Berets called the local Panamanian commanders on the telephone to encourage them to surrender and many gave up immediately. U.S. analysts claim numerous American and Panamanian lives were spared.

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