In 1963, Forrest stood guard, his 6-foot, 3-inch frame ramrod straight, at the casket of President John F. Kennedy in the Capitol Rotunda. Later, after his second tour in Vietnam, Forrest performed similar duties at the state funerals of former President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Being black, and an Army officer, was not easy in the tumultuous 1960s.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Forrest was on standby for possible "civil disturbances" in Washington.
"It was almost surreal," Forrest said. "Here I was an Army officer sworn to do my duty and we were positioned to move in if trouble broke out in the streets. What I didn't know at the time was that my parents were marching with Dr. King."
In the valley of death
Forrest went to Fort Benning, Ga., to join up with the 1st Cavalry Division in early 1965 and was in Vietnam's Central Highlands by late August, an infantry captain with about 110 troops, nearly half of them draftees and some just weeks away from going home.
By then, the top commanders of the People's Army of Vietnam had been sending thousands of infantry down the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. In a bid to cut the country in half, the North Vietnamese nearly overran the Special Forces camp at Plei Me and retreated to the Chu Pong Massif - overlooking the sprawling Ia Drang Valley - to plot their next moves.
Alerted by enemy radio transmissions, Gen. William C. Westmoreland dispatched the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry - Gen. George Armstrong Custer's old unit - and elements of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry into the valley to engage the enemy.
On the morning of Nov. 14, the Americans landed nearly in the laps of the North Vietnamese, at a place designated Landing Zone X-Ray.
About 450 men of the 1st Cavalry were shuttled in on Huey helicopters, with the first landing shortly before 11 a.m. In a few hours, the outnumbered American unit was nearly surrounded and fighting for its life. About 80 U.S. soldiers were killed, 124 wounded, in the first two days of the fight.
One infantry company began the day of Nov. 14 with 110 men. By the next morning, only eight were left standing, said Joseph L. Galloway, a United Press International reporter with the unit who later wrote We Were Soldiers Once.
While the surviving combatants from Landing Zone X-Ray were airlifted out, Forrest's unit and other reinforcements marched into the valley Nov. 16. There was scattered sniping from the North Vietnamese troops, but the situation was relatively quiet.
While Forrest, and other company leaders, were summoned forward by a battalion commander, Don Adams, Forrest's executive officer, was left in charge of the unit. No one had slept for at least 36 hours.
Then the North Vietnamese sprang an ambush.
"Thankfully, before we were hit, George got the company to flare out in a perimeter defensive position," said Adams, now retired from the military in Stone Mountain, Ga. "Some of the other units in the column did not."
`Capable and caring'
Adams was badly wounded and evacuated that night but he never forgot his commanding officer.
"He taught me how to command, be an effective leader, and it wasn't any more complicated than being capable and caring about your soldiers. If my family was in trouble and I couldn't be there, I'd want George with them."
Under extreme conditions, Adams said, Forrest was "cool and calm on the outside while he might have been dying inside."
Indeed, Forrest was hurting badly, a deep pain that would ride him for decades.
"I blamed myself for all those soldiers in my company who were killed in just a matter of minutes," Forrest said. "Perhaps one of the toughest things about that battle was sitting down to write letters to 17 parents. The army had a form you could follow, but I expressed to those families in my own words exactly how wonderful their sons were and how I loved every one of them."
Ia Drang was part of a monthlong operation called the Pleiku Campaign, which marked the dawn of helicopter warfare and would claim more than 300 American lives; about 2,000 North Vietnamese were killed or unaccounted for. Most of them fell during the six-day battle in the Ia Drang Valley.
`Too exhausted to cry'
The wounded U.S. soldiers were flown by helicopter to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon. The surgeons and nurses there would hardly sleep for weeks.
"One young wounded soldier from Ia Drang looked up in amazement at me and said, `Ma'am, I'm the only one who survived in my platoon,'" said former Army nurse Judy Dennis, now living in Colorado. "I was too exhausted to cry."
Another nurse who worked on the Ia Drang wounded, Elizabeth Lemieux of Arizona, remembers a black private first class from Chicago whose right arm was blown off by a mortar explosion.