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The Privileges of War? A Green Beret's Story of American Service in Vietnam

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 18, 2024 3:00 am

The Privileges of War? A Green Beret's Story of American Service in Vietnam

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 18, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in 1968, Tom Ross was the intelligence and operations officer of a unique Special Forces “A” Detachment in the Republic of South Vietnam—the elite unit also known as the “Green Berets.” Today, Tom Ross is the President and CEO of his own successful custom design jewelry firm, The Ross Jewelry Company, in Atlanta, Georgia, and is the author of Privileges of War: A Good Story of American Service in Vietnam.

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Including your stories. Send them to OurAmericanStories.com. They're some of our favorites. In 1968 Tom Ross was the intelligence and operations officer of a unique special forces A detachment in the Republic of South Vietnam. The elite unit also known as the Green Berets. In 2004 Tom brought a unique perspective to the view of American service during the Vietnam War with his book.

Privileges of War. A good story of American service in Vietnam. Today Tom is the president and CEO of his own successful custom design jewelry firm.

The Ross Jewelry Company in Atlanta, Georgia. Here's Tom with his Vietnam story. My name is Tom Ross and the American story you're about to hear is one of courage and selflessness.

Traits that Americans demonstrate with great ease when others are in danger or in need of help. I'm almost 75 years old now and the events I'm about to share with you took place more than 50 years ago. But I remember them as if it were yesterday. I'm always pleased to know that women, family members and friends of a veteran might be in the audience. This is because in many cases those closest to our veterans have absolutely no idea what they may have done or experienced. And that's simply because veterans often don't talk about their experiences. Well, I'm here to tell you about a few of them and what they did. And to all the female listeners, what you'll hear aren't war stories. While they occurred during a war, they're stories that I hope will touch you. They're not what you typically hear about those who served in Vietnam. So, welcome to everyone.

I'll start with a bit of background. I was raised in Pensacola, Florida, home of the Navy's flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels. I used to watch them train out over the Gulf of Mexico while I fished from the Pensacola beach pier.

They were magnificent and inspiring. So it was easy for me to grow up a patriot. And my parents had certainly done their part by getting me started in scouting. I'd been a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout where I earned the rank of Eagle Scout. My parents also made sure I was in church every Sunday where I served as an altar boy and a choir boy. So I've always thought of myself as having been an all-American kid.

No one special, but someone who loved the country where he was growing up. I volunteered for service in 1966 after watching a news report one evening while waiting to have dinner at my mom and dad's home in Pensacola. As with many news reports in the 60s, the evening news often began with a report on action in Vietnam. I watched as two young American Marines struggled to drag another wounded Marine out of the line of fire. You could hear bullets pinging all around them. As I watched, something very strange happened to me that evening.

I was suddenly struck as if hit by a bolt of lightning or drenched by a bucket of ice water. Maybe it was just a feeling of guilt. Whatever it was, I was immediately embarrassed that I wasn't fighting alongside the young men I was watching. And all I could do was watch.

I couldn't do a thing to help. Only an evening or two before, I'd been at a fraternity sorority party, laughing and dancing without a care in the world. But watching the struggle before me and without fully understanding why, I suddenly felt compelled to join the service and go to Vietnam. So, skipping my college classes the next morning, I was standing at the door when the U.S. Army recruiter arrived at his office. After enlisting, I applied for officer candidate school and was accepted. Just before graduating from OCS as a second lieutenant, I applied to the U.S. Army Special Forces, the elite unit also known as the Green Berets. I thought that if I were going to Vietnam, I should probably get myself as well trained as I could if I were going to survive the experience. Then, after more than a year of intense unconventional warfare training at the home of Special Forces in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I finally received orders sending me to Vietnam. I arrived in country during the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968. During New Year's truce, the North Vietnamese Army in Viet Cong launched a surprise attack on nearly every major city in South Vietnam.

Nha Trang, where I was arriving, happened to be one of them. So, my tour of duty began with a bang and it never got dull. I'd just been picked up at the helipad by a driver who was to take me to the 5th Special Forces Group headquarters to draw my orders and equipment. The driver was winding his way through city streets where one of the recent battles had occurred. Suddenly and out of nowhere, the street in front of us erupted in gunfire and explosions. The driver slammed on the brakes and we slid to an abrupt sideways stop. Dust boiled up around us and we both jumped out of the jeep and took cover on the far side.

Here, I will remind you that we were on our way to draw my equipment. So, at that moment, I was unarmed and without a weapon. When I peeked up over the jeep to see what was happening in the street ahead, a troop truck was stopped in the center of the street and South Vietnamese soldiers were firing into a burned-out building where enemy soldiers had been hiding. As bullets impacted around us, I thought, this is crazy. I hadn't been here 15 minutes and I was not quite ready to be shot.

I was still looking over the jeep when through a cloud of dust and smoke I saw something else. A young American woman standing alone right in the middle of the action. And you're listening to Tom Ross, a Vietnam Special Forces vet, on the privileges of war, more of his story here on Our American Stories. Music Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

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Add life to cart. And we continue here on Our American Stories with Tom Ross's story. Let's pick up where we last left off. I was still looking over the Jeep when through a cloud of dust and smoke I saw something else. A young American woman standing alone right in the middle of the action. She was behind the truck and she held a long lens camera. As gunfire ricocheted around her, she would occasionally lean out and snap pictures. As I watched her move around, I was amazed by her boldness and tenacity. But my thought was, she's going to get herself killed. Suddenly there was an explosion after South Vietnamese fired a grenade into the building.

Shortly, two enemy soldiers appeared in windows with their hands raised. With the battle ended, I walked over to the young woman to check on her and the driver followed me in the Jeep. You okay, I asked.

Yes, just fine, she said confidently. Need a ride out of here, I asked. What? No, I'm working. I'm a war correspondent. This is my job, she snapped. She was obviously a little annoyed with my question.

Okay, okay then, I said. We'll be on our way. Take care of yourself, I said. Over her shoulder as she walked away. Always do, she answered. But she hadn't gone far when she stopped and turned around to face me. She smiled and said, thanks for stopping. Then she turned and rushed away to begin documenting the capture of the enemy soldiers. Let's go, I told the driver.

She certainly doesn't need us. When I was finally dropped off at 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters, I collected my equipment and orders. Our Special Forces medics were very well trained.

If necessary, they could perform an appendectomy. I watched one day as our senior medic performed a very complicated surgery that saved our cook's life. And while they were also trained to use virtually every weapon on the battlefield, what our medics enjoyed most was going out into the local village to treat sick children. I always knew when they were going because they came around collecting goodies from back home to give the kids they treated. Those men were a very special breed. Amidst all the war action in Vietnam, it might be surprising, but there were also warm, even tender moments in Vietnam. And many of those were provided by young, dedicated women who served in the American Red Cross.

Many called them the Donut Dollies. I'd been in Vietnam for about three months and hadn't seen the face of an American woman in all that time until this particular day. I was preparing a map for a mission the next day. I began pouring a glass of iced tea and didn't turn around when I heard someone say, we'll seat you next to Lieutenant Ross. But then I smelled perfume, so I turned to see who or what had been seated next to me.

My teammates weren't above playing pranks, but when I turned and saw who had been seated, my brain just quit working. Seated next to me was a very pretty, young American woman. For a moment, I honestly thought it was a hallucination. She was so out of context, but then the hallucination spoke. She said, it's full. Not understanding what she was saying, I said, excuse me? To which she replied, your tea glass, it's full. Well, it was more than full. It had overflowed, and tea was now running all over the table. I was immediately embarrassed, but my guest smiled, giggled, and said, it's okay, Lieutenant.

This happens a lot. She helped me clean up my mess, and we finished lunch together. Then I took her on a tour of camp. I introduced her to members of the team, and as I did, their faces lit up like a child on Christmas morning.

The effect of the presence of these young women was amazing. They risked their lives visiting forward bases that could be fired upon by the enemy at any time. Their work of visiting and entertaining American servicemen was meaningful, and they accomplished a great deal by simply being there, maybe more than they even know. I didn't volunteer to go to Vietnam to kill anyone. I simply believed that I was there to help a country in its fight for freedom.

For me, it was as simple as that. In fact, the day before I left home from Vietnam, I told my mom and dad that I hoped I could accomplish something good, something meaningful. In a war, I wasn't quite sure what that might be or if doing something good was even possible.

As time passed, the idea of doing something good had all but faded, because I had also been exposed to the horrors of war. But then, August the 2nd of 1968 dawned. What began to happen on that day quickly turned into a very complicated situation. At about 11 o'clock in the morning on August the 2nd, I received a radio call from one of our outposts. It was Melok Outpost, and they had called me to tell me that three enemy soldiers had turned themselves in. The senior advisor asked me to come as soon as possible.

This was an unusual event. Having arrived in Vietnam in January, by August I had become a seasoned advisor. So when I arrived at the outpost and saw the men, I immediately recognized that they weren't enemy soldiers at all. Rather, they were Montagnard tribesmen, peaceful mountain dwellers who stayed pretty much to themselves and harmed no one. When I asked questions through my Montagnard interpreter, Ah Aht, the man who seemed to be the leader of the three, told stories of terrible abuse by the enemy who had enslaved them. Mung Kwang was the man's name, and he said that the villagers were used as crop growers and pack animals to carry military supplies.

He also told sickening stories about the abuse of women and children, and he said that it had gone on for years. After some time, and now with tears in his eyes, Mung Kwang reached out and took one of my hands with both of his. Then, in his native language, as Ah Aht translated, he begged for help for his village.

There is no way I can adequately express to you how his pleas and the desperation in his voice made me feel. I could only think of my own family in a situation like the one he had just described. And, as if what he had told me wasn't bad enough, through Ah Aht, but looking directly into my eyes as he spoke, Mung Kwang told me that if he didn't return to the village with help, by the next day, his wife and two young children would be killed.

One of the other Montagnard men confirmed what Mung Kwang had said by saying the enemy had done that before. Based on what I'd already learned, the village was located deep within enemy territory, and attempting a rescue meant placing the lives of a rescue team at risk under unknown conditions. I also had to consider that this could be some type of elaborate trap. At the time I was pondering what I had just been asked to do, I was 22 years old. Still considering my response, I looked at the handful of American advisors who manned the outpost. I looked at the Special Forces patch on the shoulder of one, and I looked at the Special Forces crest on the green beret of another.

The crest read, Diopresso Liber, Latin for Free the Oppressed. And you're listening to Tom Ross, a Vietnam Special Forces vet, on the privileges of war. When we come back, more of Tom Ross's story here on Our American Stories. Hi, I'm Martine Hackett, and I'm hosting the second season of Untold Stories, Life with a Severe Autoimmune Condition, a production from Ruby Studio in partnership with Argenix. Sharing real stories of MG, CIDP, and other autoimmune conditions, we hope to share inspiration and educate the larger community about these severe and often overlooked conditions. I can't fix this, I can't cure this, and you know, I'll take my treatment day by day, but I want to try to be engaged, be involved, or be as helpful as I feel I can with the limitations I have of working full time to children. So I participate in like market research to provide information to hopefully benefit others, because it's a small margin of people that have the myasthenia. But then to get pregnant, it's an even more narrow margin. And you can never have too much information as an epidemiologist. Yeah, exactly right.

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At Navy Federal Credit Union, our members are the mission, insured by NCUA. And we continue here on Our American Stories with Tom Ross's story. He's a Vietnam Special Forces vet, and he's telling us the story of his life there.

Let's pick up where we last left off. I looked at the Special Forces patch on the shoulder of one, and I looked at the Special Forces crest on the green beret of another. The crest read, De Oppresso Liber, Latin for Free the Oppressed. That was the Special Forces motto. As I thought, it occurred to me this was a real chance for our team to actually live the motto, and it was an opportunity for me to do the something good I had hoped to do. Ultimately, what every veteran listening would likely tell you is that if you're wearing the uniform of an American serviceman or woman, and you're asked for help, there really isn't a lot to consider.

If you have the means, you provide the help. So I told Ah to tell Mon Quang that we would give him the help for which he had come. Yes, yes, was echoed multiple times around the inside of the bunker as my enthusiastic teammates voiced their feelings about my decision, and I was glad to hear that they felt as I did. Something listeners should know, as an American advisor, I didn't command Thầt Đạn Nạc's Vietnamese troops. I and the other advisors simply did just that.

We advised them. So if I were to lead this mission, I would not only need Thầt Đạn's troops, I would also need his permission. So as soon as we got back to Trung Dung, I went looking for Thầt Đạn. When I found him, it was about two in the afternoon, and he was eating a late lunch in his quarters. He motioned me in when he saw me at the door and invited me to have lunch with him, but I told him I would be missing lunch that day. There is something I do need, Thầt Đạn said.

I need about two companies of your best soldiers. Then I told him about the mountain yards and what I wanted to do for them. When I finished, his only question was, Is this mission important to you, Trung Hui? I assured him that it was, and I told him that it would give meaning to my service in his country. Thầt Đạn paused, and there was a brief silence as he seemed to give some thought to my request.

He put his chopsticks down across his rice bowl, wiped his mouth with a cloth, and dropped it on the table. Then he turned to face me. Trung Hui, he said, you can have whatever you need. Then he asked, Will you command this mission? When I said, Yes, I will, he surprised me by saying that he would come with me. With troops committed, the next thing I needed was a way to get them to the village. So, as I had many times before, I went to my radio and called the 281st. When I told the 281st duty officer, Lieutenant John Weir, that the mission was going to be a rescue effort to free families, rightly, he asked to know more. I told him everything I knew, and I was bluntly honest with him. I told him how little I knew about the area and how very dangerous the mission could become. There was a brief pause, and then he said, Just tell me where you need us and at what time.

We'll be there. To alert the villagers what was happening, I had arranged for an Air Force speaker plane flown by Major Ken Moses to broadcast a pre-recorded tape of Meng Huang in his own voice. The tape instructed the villagers to gather where our troops had landed.

The message blared loud as Major Moses made pass after pass over the jungle at treetop level. And with the circling gunships, I feel reasonably certain that the Viet Cong soldiers guarding the village were more than a bit confused and intimidated. After all, they were in the middle of nowhere and had never been bothered as they used and abused the villagers.

At the end of the day, when we assembled back at base camp, we had 82 men, women, and children. There were smiles on the faces of the villagers as well as the troops, pilots, and crews who had rescued them. However, the mood quickly changed when Meng Huang went through the crowd looking for his wife and children and discovered they weren't there.

Because the villagers had been kept separated for years and many taken away, not even Meng Huang knew how many were still in the area. All he was sure of was his family wasn't there. He collapsed at my feet, sobbing. Emotionally moved by Meng Huang's obvious grief, I made a promise that I wasn't sure I could keep.

I knelt beside him and told Ah to translate. We're going back, I said. We'll go back in the morning and we'll find your family.

The next morning, the rescue team reassembled and we launched our second effort. After an explosive encounter with a small enemy unit, we made our way to a small cluster of huts where Meng Huang expected to find his family. Sadly, they weren't there and of course he feared the worst.

He was sure they had been killed. But as I was trying to decide where we would look next, I received a radio call from the team leader at our original landing zone. He told me that more villagers had arrived as the message broadcast from the speaker plane had instructed. I couldn't believe it and couldn't wait to tell Meng Huang. I reached out and took Meng by the arm and told Ah to tell him what I'd just been told. Then I told him to tell Meng that I felt sure his family must be there. I can't tell you how excited he became.

I just hope that I wasn't wrong. It was a little after midday when we popped out of the jungle and onto the cornfield that has served as our landing zone the day before. I immediately began scanning the crowd looking for a family that might be missing a father. I didn't see one until the crowd parted slightly. Then there on a large rock at the top of the cornfield sat a woman and two children. Again I reached out and pulled Meng Huang to my side and pointed through the crowd to the rock and asked, Meng Huangs?

No translation was needed. When he turned to face me again, tears trickled down his cheeks, but this time they rolled over a smile that covered his face. I put my hand on his back and with a gentle push said, Go. Meng had barely crossed half the cornfield when his family saw him coming.

They all jumped down off the rock and ran toward him. When they met, I witnessed one of the most glorious reunions I've ever seen. There aren't words to fully express how I felt at that moment. It had been a great day to be an American soldier. It had been a great day to be an American soldier. Those are the words of Tom Ross, Vietnam Special Forces vet, and he's writing about the privileges of war. And you don't hear that too often, do you folks?

Nor do you hear stories like this. It's Vietnam as a win, as a loss. Did you protest? Didn't you? But what about the life there?

What about the lives changed there for better and for worse? When we come back, we continue with Tom Ross's story here on Our American Story. Hi, I'm Martine Hackett, and I'm hosting the second season of Untold Stories, Life with a Severe Autoimmune Condition, a production from Ruby Studio in partnership with Argenix. Sharing real stories of MG, CIDP and other autoimmune conditions, we hope to share inspiration and educate the larger community about these severe and often overlooked conditions. I can't fix this. I can't cure this. And, you know, I'll take my treatment day by day.

But I want to try to be engaged, be involved or be as helpful as I feel I can with the limitations I have of working full time to children. So I participate in like market research to provide information to hopefully benefit others, because it's a small margin of people that have the myasthenia, but then to get pregnant, it's an even more narrow margin. And you can never have too much information as an epidemiologist. Yeah, exactly right.

Listen to Untold Stories, Life with a Severe Autoimmune Condition on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode is brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union. It's a special thing to be a member of Navy Federal because they are a member-owned, not-for-profit credit union that invests in its members with amazing rates and low fees.

That's why members could earn and save more every year. Plus, they serve all branches of the armed forces, veterans and their families. So if you're interested in becoming a member, learn more at NavyFederal.org.

At Navy Federal Credit Union, our members are the mission, insured by NCUA. And we continue with our American stories and Tom Ross's story, a Vietnam Special Forces vet, talking about the privileges of war. Let's pick up where we last left off. A few days later, another villager came to me and said other families were still missing.

So once more, we would head back into the mountain jungle. Because word of this unusual rescue mission had begun to spread, an entourage of media went with us to cover the mission. Among them, a CBS news crew. Bad things had been happening in the U.S. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had both been assassinated.

So I suppose there were some in government who wanted to share a little good news with the American public. When we arrived back at the village, I was asked by the CBS news reporter, David Culhane, where he could say we were. After I told him in the middle of nowhere, I showed him my map and explained that we had flown off the map. Trying to come up with a location name for him, I told Mr. Culhane that I had flown observation missions in the area before and had often seen tigers. So I call it the Valley of the Tigers. I loved the name and so did he. Great, he said.

That's where I'll say we are. So when the story of the rescue aired in the states a few days later, Walter Cronkite introduced the piece as taking place in the Valley of the Tigers. I still smile when I hear him introduce that particular news segment. One of the more unusual allied operations in recent months took place a few days back in a Viet Cong area 30 miles west of Nha Trang called Valley of the Tigers. CBS news correspondent David Culhane was there.

During the third and final day of the rescue, we experienced more encounters with our Viet Cong enemy and they were becoming bolder. While all this was going on, an unarmed American woman turned up right in the middle of our landing zone. She arrived at A502 that morning with the other news folks who were all male. When I saw her, I took her aside and we had a discussion about whether or not she should go on the mission. I was concerned about her safety and felt I might be distracted by the presence of a woman in enemy territory. I told her, trying to gain some sympathy for my point of view, that I'd grown up in the south and taking care of a lady seemed second nature to me. Well, she wasn't buying my story and she assured me that she was no Scarlett O'Hara.

Long story short, I told her that she wasn't going. With that, I had boarded the lead chopper and we took off. When I looked back down at her, she was standing on the runway with her arms tightly folded and she didn't look very happy. Later, after the landing zone was secure, I called for the press helicopter. When it landed, I turned to shield myself from all the blowing debris.

When it took off, I turned back around and guess what? There she stood. I decided that if she had that much tenacity and courage, I'd let her stay.

But I did assign an American advisor to watch over her. Sergeant Cook's count of still missing villagers totaled approximately 45 people, so when we finally had that number on the landing zone, I called for a pickup. All the villagers and most of our troops were returned safely to camp. Lieutenant Thomas Ross was in charge of the rescue operation on the ground. How many people do you think you were able to bring out now?

Right now, up to date, we've got a total of about 165. These are all Montagnards? Right, they are Montagnards who have been in the area under VC control now for the last eight years. As the last group of helicopters that lifted off with the villagers and troops, I was down in the jungle setting up our perimeter secure until they returned. The rain became so heavy where we were that I lost all radio communication with any friendly unit. Occasionally, I'd try to reach my camp for word of extraction, unfortunately without response. When it seemed clear that darkness would fall before helicopters reached us, I gave the instruction to gather gear, pulled in our security, and we started down the mountain. As we moved, I radioed my camp in the blind with a message that we were moving into the jungle. In the blind, for those of you who don't know, simply meant that I was sending a message even though I didn't know if anyone could hear it. I waited for a response, but again, there was not.

Just static on my radio. We had gone about, I guess, 50 yards and were just about to enter the jungle when my radio began to crackle and I thought I heard my call sign, which was Bunkhouse 02. When I answered with my call sign and said we were moving down the mountain, a response came back, this time loud and clear.

02, hold your position. This is Bandit Leader and we are inbound to your location. It was Lieutenant Weir and he was coming after us with his own rescue team. When I looked out across the swirling sea of clouds before me, I couldn't imagine how this was possible. Later, I learned how it was possible.

Against regulation, three helicopters had taken off in a storm and headed west. They flew low over the Sung Kai River because they knew it would take them somewhere in the general direction of our position in the middle of nowhere. When Lieutenant Weir came back on the radio, he said they couldn't see very well and had no clue where they were and told me to look for them. So I told everyone else to start looking.

They're out there somewhere, I said. As I said, the sky was filled with gray clouds, but there were thin breaks and the last few rays of the setting sun and it illuminated small openings here and there. Everyone was straining their eyes in search of our rescue flight. Then from one of those tiny openings in the clouds came a spiraling flash of sunlight reflected from the wet windscreen of Lieutenant Weir's lead helicopter.

Hollywood couldn't duplicate the flash I saw and considering it later, I decided it was divine intervention. I immediately radioed Lieutenant Weir to turn south and in less than a minute he swooped down over us. Right behind him was another troop carrying helicopter and a gunship that flew cover for our extraction. They were army olive green, but to those of us on the ground, the helicopters looked like great green angels as they settled in to pick us up.

I watched until everyone was loaded, then jumped on board and yelled, go, and we lifted off. As we flew through the clouds back to camp, I'm not embarrassed to say that I whispered a short prayer of thanks. And I sat amazed and grateful and thought of how incredible it was that these men had risked their lives for ours. Ultimately, if Lieutenant Weir and the other men of the 281st hadn't defied regulations and come back for us, that day could have ended very differently. And there might be someone else telling you the story of the rescue in the Valley of the Tigers.

This is a rare occurrence in this war, an act designed to give life and freedom in a place and time noted mainly for death and destruction. David Cohen, CBS News in the Valley of the Tigers. A couple of days after the rescue, Mung Kwang found me. It seemed he had asked for an English lesson. When he walked up to me, he reached out and took one of my hands in both of his, just as he had the first day we met. He looked directly at me and once more with tears in his eyes, he said softly, thank you, then bowed slowly. For all we had risked and for all we had endured, for me, that was enough. I hope thank you is enough for you for having endured my American story.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-18 04:18:21 / 2024-01-18 04:34:00 / 16

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