Already a Hero

— It's been a rough year for old heroes. So far, within the past 365 days, I've lost Ed Thomas, my old team sergeant, and Command Sergeant Major Bill Edge, who was probably the smartest man I met in the Army and a true legend in his own time. He was skydiving until six weeks before his death at 72.

But Chuck Allen's death hit me hard, harder than I'd expected, because I never thought of him as just a man, more as a force of nature -- somewhere between a Texas tornado and a Miami hurricane. Maybe it hit me so hard because I knew him when I was just a kid, a 22-year-old straightleg second lieutenant at Fort Dix, New Jersey. When I met him I was running a rifle range at a basic training center, and he was commanding what was known as Faculty Company, to which all the post-level instructors were assigned. He must have had 50 second lieutenants in his company, but he checked our classes and made all of us feel like he cared.

Later, when I joined Special Forces on Okinawa as a first lieutenant, Chuck was already there, a senior captain. He was a captain for ten years, due to a predisposition toward candor, a virtue little appreciated in the military.

Well, maybe it went a bit past candor. As a junior captain, Chuck had coldcocked the chief of staff of the 101st Airborne Division in the commanding general's office. The 101st wanted him to play football, and that wasn't what he was in the Army for. They couldn't order him to but made it clear that refusing was not a wise career move. Finally, without being dismissed, he saluted and started to leave. The chief of staff put his hand on Chuck's chest, saying, "Just a minute, Captain." Bad mistake.

Chuck was an anomaly in the Army. For one thing, he was a draftee. He was playing semi-pro football after high school when the FBI caught up with him. He wasn't trying to avoid the draft, he just hadn't gotten his mail for several weeks and missed his induction notice.

Nonetheless, he took to the Army, went to OCS, jump school, ranger school, and on to special operations in Korea, where he hunted guerrillas behind the lines. He was already a hero when I met him. He was also one of the biggest men I ever met, and without question the strongest. He was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger with a bushel basket under his belt. But he could outrun me the best day I ever saw.

When he was a senior captain and I a junior one, we took A-teams through predeployment training and mock-fought each other in the mountains of northern Okinawa. His team creamed mine, just creamed us.

Then, on my last tour and his, in Vietnam, he commanded Project Delta, and I was the public information officer. That was when the very existence of Special Forces was threatened by powerful enemies in the Pentagon. Public opinion kept us alive. I published a monthly 32-page magazine that existed primarily so one man could see it, L. Mendel Rivers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Chuck, who was a major then, wanted some good publicity for Delta and invited me to go along on one of their operations. Delta was an amazing organization, then and now. Its core was a Special Forces B Detachment, which Chuck commanded. A normal B-team controls several A-teams, which control, usually, a battalion of guerrillas. Chuck's B-team (B-52) controlled the Delta recon company (12 teams of six to ten men each, two or three Americans and the rest Vietnamese); the South Vietnamese 91st Airborne Ranger Battalion (about 500 men); a USAF forward air control team with several OV1, single-engine observation aircraft, commanded by a lieutenant colonel; the 281st Assault Helicopter company; and, briefly, a Marine major general who controlled all the Marine aircraft in the most northern Corps area of South Vietnam. Delta was that important. At one time it provided 60 percent of the tactical intelligence for U.S. forces in the entire Republic of Vietnam.

My most vivid memory of Chuck was flying with him, in his command and control ship, on a mission to lift a roadrunner team out of the jungle. The roadrunners were all-Vietnamese teams who worked in enemy uniforms and walked the trails, pretending to be North Vietnamese. His radio was connected simultaneously to the crew; the team on the ground; to his counterpart, Major Huan; to Bill Larrabee, his operations officer; and to the other choppers in the extraction team.

Chuck sat in one door with an M-60 machine gun suspended from a bungee cord in front of him. Larrabee sat in the opposite door with a similar rig. Their call signs were written in gold script on the backs of their helmets. Chuck's was "Bruiser," and Larrabee's was "Joker." The extraction was an amazing thing to watch. Three gunships circled the team on the ground, pouring machinegun and rocket fire into the jungle and into the NVA trying to kill the team. The first extraction ship eased down onto the jungle in the center of the gunships' orbit. Finally the extraction chopper lifted out of the hole with three troopers hanging from McGuire rigs at the end of 100-foot nylon ropes under the chopper, and the next extraction ship went in for the other three. They used the McGuire rigs when they couldn't find a landing zone big enough for a Huey.

All this time Chuck was talking, directing the extraction, the 60 chattering in his hands, looking -- fired by Chuck -- just like a child's toy.

After that, I went on one patrol with a Mike Force (mobile strike force) company he'd borrowed. We hit a lot of NVA and finally got away from them by setting fire to some of their ammo caches. They got in a firefight with their own exploding ammo, and we got the hell out of Dodge. After that excursion, Chuck asked me if I'd like to extend my tour and join Delta. I agreed, and still consider it one of the biggest compliments I've ever been paid.

Then I went on another operation with a company of the 91st. We got into a world of hurt, and I got shot in the arm, trying and failing to save the life of a guy I'd just met. We had six choppers down on and around the LZ (landing zone) and about 30 percent casualties. We were surrounded by at least a battalion of NVA. The next day we fought our way from that LZ to another that wasn't surrounded. Chuck had scrounged choppers from all over the Corps area to get us out.

He was at the hospital when I got there. We were pretty sure I'd lose the arm. I didn't, thanks to the great job done by Doc Taylor, Delta's chief medic. Even so, it lost a lot of motion and strength.

That was the end of my military career. Chuck retired a few years later. He started a publication called the National Vietnam Veteran's Review. I wrote him a few pieces, and he reviewed my books.

In 1983 I shattered my pelvis on a skydive in North Carolina and spent a few weeks in the Ft. Bragg hospital.

Parenthetically, Ft. Bragg probably has half the paratroopers in the U.S. Army stationed there, and I was the only parachuting injury on the orthopedic ward. Everybody else was there for motorcycle injuries.

Chuck picked me up from the hospital, literally. I was having a hard time getting out of his Mark IV Continental, and he reached in and snapped me out like a mama cat picking up a kitten. I am 6´2´´ and weighed 200 pounds at the time. He took me to his home and the next day took me to the plane back to New York, where I lived and worked at the time.

The last time I saw Chuck was at his home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, last September, for the 50th anniversary of Special Forces. His hair had turned silver, and he'd grown a goatee. He'd lost about a hundred pounds, maybe more. He'd had a foot amputated due to diabetes and was confined to a wheelchair. But he still had the same moral force, sardonic humor, his great love for life and for the world of elite fighting men that we had somehow survived. I am so glad, so very glad, that I got to see him that one more time.

Usually pieces like this end saying, "We shall not see his like again." But we will and have -- in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Something about the ideal of freedom makes courage and dedication a renewable resource. His body has gone to the ground, his soul has gone to heaven, but his spirit has gone back to Special Forces.


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