Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Green Beret's Personal Perspective on Vietnam

Greetings LIFEers! Today we had the special privilege of hearing the stories of a Green Beret and Vietnam veteran, Gordon Rottman. He brought many pictures of his service in Vietnam, and had the somewhat unusual perspective of an overall positive experience during the war.

When he was 10 years old, Gordon read the book "Story of the Paratroopers", and wanted to be a paratrooper ever since. He joined the ROTC in high school, and enlisted in the army upon graduation. Although the Vietnam war had already started, and there was strong resistance to it (draft dodging and protests) Gordon was determined to follow his path.

The Special Forces (SF) began in 1952 as the Green Berets. If the Soviets invaded, the Green Berets were the troops sent in to get behind enemy lines and train the locals how to fight back. The US had a need for such soldiers in Vietnam to help the locals fight the guerrillas, and the Special Forces were called into action again because, well, they were guerrilla fighters themselves.

During Basic Training, Gordon was pre-screened before being invited to a recruitment camp (had to have no criminal record and the IQ of an officer). Once there, the Sargent spoke simply. "I am Special Forces. I have no quota. I don't care if you all walk out." He then asked a series of questions that slowly weeded-out the class.

- Are you willing to jump out of a perfectly good plane?
- If you were drafted, are you willing to work one year beyond your draft? (Draftees worked two years, enlisted men worked for three).
- If you joined to get trained on special skills, it won't happen in the SF.
- Would you do anything the government asked you to and go anywhere it asked you to?

After being one of a dozen or so left in the room, Gordon joined the SF and departed for infantry training at Fort Bragg. All in all, about 6-10 men out of 100 succeeded in Special Forces training. Reminds you of the Ballad of the Green Beret;

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
One hundred men we'll test today
But only three win the Green Beret

SF training did have lots of physical demands, but most of the time was spent in the classroom learning how to teach your skills to others, since that is what they would do when shipped out. Their very first class was a basic math review. In late 1968 he got his 60 day notice that he was about to ship out, and left for Vietnam in early 1969.

SF camps were scattered all over the country. Gordon's camp was Chi-Linh, about 70 miles north of Saigon near the Cambodian border. The camps typically had a one A-Team (12 SFs), and 500 "local" soldiers and their families. Their purpose was to protect the local villages and scout the local trails for the Viet Kong. The local soldiers were usually Vietnamese, but some were Cambodian, ethnic Chinese, even Mexican-Americans. Because the soldiers' families were present, the camp felt more like a small town with a school, clinic, pool, and snack bar. But the residents never forgot this was a military installation; it was surrounded by 18 machine guns, layers of barbed wire hidden in the brush. All told it looked more like a prison.

Gordon did not speak much on the action he saw, and who blames him. He focused his talk on the time spent with the people and families in the camp. He remembers when Martha Raye visited the camp (she's in the middle of the group image on slide 8). Martha was an Army Reserve Nurse before becoming an actress, and is the only woman to be made an honorary Green Beret for her many unpublicised trips to visit the SF in Vietnam, where she saw action. Gordon also remembers his interpreter "Ringo" (see slide 11) who loved western movies and would often respond "I know whatcha mean, pardner." He remembered lots of walking in the heat and humidity through brush that resembled Texas' Big Thicket national preserve.

To this day, Gordon says that joining the SF was "the best thing I ever did". The experience gave him a broader appreciation for life and the many types of peoples on the earth. He wishes he could go back to Vietnam, although most of what he remembers has likely changed by now. We thank you for service Gordon, and for taking the time to share your memories with us.

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