Air Force “Ranger” Training Provokes Personal Moral Issues

March 1, 2007

1st Lieutenant S. Brian Willson, standing in front of members of his fire teams in Section 6, 823rd Combat Security Police Squadron, Phan Rang AB, Viet Nam, June 1969. USAF Photo

Introductory Note: This essay, in its earlier version, received harsh critiques from former members of “Operation Safeside,” the Air Force’s code name for its brief attempt to create a ranger-type unit during the years the United States was at war with Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. There were four squadrons that comprised “Operation Safeside”: the prototype 1041st, and the subsequent 821st, the 822nd, and the 823rd. The program was disbanded in 1970. The originator of the USAF ranger idea was a highly touted former member of an elite ranger unit in World War II, a USAF Lt. Colonel.

An officer who served in his prototype 1041st squadron conveyed to me how determined this Lt. Colonel was to make the “Safeside” ranger units a successful addition to security of USAF missions around the world. One of the most important factors was to develop a highly motivated leadership cadre. He knew that for such unit in the Air Force to be successful, just as a ranger unit in the Army, it required highly motivated members, especially among the commissioned and noncommissioned officers. However, those who enlist in the US Air Force do so knowing more or less what they are enlisting for, ranger functions not normally being one of the options considered. Of course, special assignments are frequently created but they only function well with those who are obviously motivated to perform the new missions.

The first three squadrons, I have been told, were comprised of all volunteers, or nearly all. The fourth, the 823rd, of which I was part, was comprised of a large number of airmen who clearly were not volunteers. In fact, one of the 823rd officers with access to squadron personnel records characterized a number of the noncoms and officers as misfits. I don’t know if I was one of those, but I certainly was not a volunteer for the 823rd.

Most of those who angrily contacted me were members of the first three squadrons, i.e., those who were more or less gung ho volunteers. Some call me an out and out liar, some describe my accounts as “fiction,” some have accused me of being shameless and clueless, some state unequivocally that it is impossible for me to have been a graduate of the USAF combat security police training school, others that I could not have been a member of the particular unit I describe, some say I could not have been in Viet Nam at all. Some accuse me of being an “asshole wannabe,” others have issued various threats including that I should be the target of a stray bullet. One admitted honestly that “it is hard to believe that someone who went through SAFESIDE training could be so anti-American.”

These ex-military men (in this case) continue to believe as I once believed, but cannot fathom a changed perspective critical of the “Safeside” concept, the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people and nation, and critical of U.S. policies described as consistently imperial. They seem to experience my critiques as personal attacks. They are not intended to be personal.

In an effort to be as accurate and fair as possible in my accounts, I have had conversations with former members of my 823rd squadron, including its Operations Officer and one of its intelligence officers, and have again examined my personal notes and re-read various historical reports related to “Operation Safeside” and to the conditions I was exposed to and functions which I was performing in the Binh Thuy/Can Tho area of the Mekong Delta in South Viet Nam in 1969.

I have made no knowingly inaccurate statements. If information is the product of a rumor I will so state. I have removed all names of individuals in my direct chain of command. In earlier versions I recalled two events where there was physical contact between a superior and myself resulting in my falling to the ground, not hurt, but stunned. In my anger, and emotional state at the time, I characterized those actions as intentional. I have removed the idea they were intentional (not knowing whether they were or not), simply stating that physical contact was made during mutually agitated moments, but focusing on what was going on inside my own mind and emotional nature at the time, and how it gradually created a more critically thought out assessment of the military, the war, myself, and my society.

Essentially everything I have written in this essay remains true according to my memory and historical records, but with more sensitivity given to the language I use in describing acrimonial interchanges with superiors.

It is likely that persons who have been outraged at my comments have not been exposed to “dissenters,” either in the military or out, and likely do not genuinely believe in free speech, only speech that is in harmony with their own views. This is too common a trait in rhetorical “America.” There is rhetoric, and then there is reality. Most of us, myself included, were conditioned into a rhetorical fantasy about the “American” civilization that cannot stand up in the face of honest history and genuine critique.] BW   

“You should be ashamed of the way you are conducting yourself.” These are the words that U.S. military commanders and chaplains have used repeatedly in response to military personnel who are experiencing moral dilemmas relating to their military service. It never occurred to me when I entered the United States Air Force that one day those words would be directed at me personally.

In the fall of 1968, after serving nearly two years at Headquarters Air Force (AF) Systems Command in Washington, D.C. as an Installation Security Police staff officer, I received orders to report to the 823rd Combat Security Police Squadron headquartered at an airbase in central Louisiana. The several hundred members of that squadron were to be trained, in turn, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in a 12-week Air Force version of the U.S. Army’s Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

I had never heard of this unit, code-named “Operation Safeside,” and certainly had no voluntary interest in such Air Force “ranger” assignment. I was still waiting for orders to serve in the AF correctional program that had been all but promised when I enlisted. I subsequently learned that shortly after TET 1968, on February 18, as airbases were being hit hard, Seventh Air Force in Vietnam had requested deployment of a newly created “Operation Safeside” comprised of combat security teams to fortify protection of airbases.

Upon hearing of my assignment, a Major in my Washington office informed me that he had been a Captain in the original Safeside prototype squadron, the 1041st, and knew its originator and the importance of its members being gung-ho volunteers. Knowing that I was not a career officer, and had no interest in a USAF ranger program, he was concerned. That made me even more anxious.

Our training began on December 16, 1968. I immediately possessed anxiety about being in a combat-oriented Air Force mission, and shared those concerns with our 823rd Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel. I asked if it was possible to seek a different assignment. He informed me that he knew a young officer who had seriously sought placement in the 823rd, and that it was a shame that I, not the desirous officer, was in the squadron. I asked whether it was too late to make a personnel change. The Commander angrily dismissed the idea as impossible at that late date. I stressed that an Air Force assignment of this type was likely to be workable only for those who desired it and volunteered for such combat-oriented duty. He gave the traditional retort — “You’re in the military and you will do as ordered.” However, I soon learned that the three Air Force combat security police squadrons preceding the 823rd were made up of virtually all volunteers, unlike our squadron, comprised of a certain number such as myself who, if we had a choice, would not volunteer for such Air Force assignment.

I also wondered if there might be command-and-control issues when Safeside teams were deployed to augment long-standing regular security police squadrons led by experienced commanders overseeing already well-armed and trained units. The Commander quickly disregarded such questions, coming from a “loser” like me. So much for my striving to be a conscientious officer.

It seemed an unusual assignment for the Air Force. As a first lieutenant I was designated one of several leaders of “sections” (cp. Army platoon) comprised of fire teams and mortar units, part of a new worldwide mobile security force to protect U.S. air bases in hostile areas. There were four sections to a Flight, and four Flights to a Squadron, three of which were combat trained plus a fourth support Flight. It seemed like I was in the U.S. Army but I had taken an oath in the Air Force. Damn! Though we knew we were being readied for Vietnam, our trainers insisted we also be prepared for other humid/tropical areas such as Guatemala, or cold climates such as Korea. I didn’t have a clue at the time what was going on in Guatemala.

The School Commandant for our training program was a Lieutenant Colonel who had been a young Army Ranger during World War II. Some claimed he had been a member of Darby’s Rangers, but truth is that he was a member of a sister ranger unit to Darby’s group. He was promoting issuance of blue berets and Australian bush hats, which excited those men who were pleased to be in “Operation Safeside.” Unfortunately for them, Air Force higher ups later de-authorized those headgear uniform additions. However, I was relieved.

During one of our training briefings intended to psyche us up for our mission, the Commandant used the word “gook” when referring to Vietnamese and Koreans. Though this was not such an unusual racist term to hear uttered, I thought it unbecoming of our School Commandant. I hesitatingly expressed my concern about his use of the word “gook,” and tried to explain to him that I felt it a derogatory characterization directed at supposed allies. He quickly admonished me to mind my own business, which he reminded me was learning the art of defending U.S. air bases located in hostile areas around the world.

Along with hundreds of other Air Force rangers-to-be, I endured the 12-week training at dismal Fort Campbell, an hour at a time. Though I had successfully completed all the early firearms training — shooting at targets with M-16 machine guns, firing mortars and grenade launchers — I had been gritting my teeth to get through it. In early January, however, my sense of unfitness came to a head. During bayonet training I felt reviled that I would have to scream Kill! Kill! a hundred times while plunging a bayonet into a dummy. My body did not want to do it though my brain was saying, “Come on, just do it!” I paused as I was trying to muster up the determination. Seeing my hesitation the training sergeant walked over to be right next to me, very angry, and in an agitated effort to shout in my ear — I doubt if it was intentional — there was physical contact with the back of my legs and my knees buckled. I went down, and at that moment my brain caught up with my body. I knew I was not going to do this exercise, and that I shouldn’t be in this assignment at all.

I don’t know whether the training sergeant reported my “insubordination,” but I didn’t wait to find out. I decided to formally make known my concerns of unfitness, even revulsion, through the chain of command. I started with my immediate superior, “B” Flight Commander, a Captain, who arranged a meeting with the 823rd Operations Officer, a Major, who, in turn, arranged a meeting with our 823rd Commander.

Quickly responding to my continued “negative” attitude and the fear I might refuse further orders, the Colonel/Commander had warned me that with this kind of behavior you are looking at a place called Leavenworth for about 20 years. Subsequently during the meeting in the Lt. Colonel’s barrack’s office with the Major present, the fact that I had not completed the bayonet exercise had raised questions about whether I was a “traitor.”

My Commander was livid, furious with my attempts to describe a troubling sense of unfitness for the assignment. His voice was agitated as he declared, “shame, shame, shame on you. It’s like you’re working with the enemy VC,” or something to that effect. And the Major, reading from the UCMJ, informed me of the severe prison punishment I was facing for failure to obey lawful training and deployment orders — 5 years at hard labor. The Major, apparently knowing of my personal history with university professor and mentor, Howard B. Gill, suddenly asked, What would Howard Gill would think of you?” That question surprised me but did not allay my concerns.

As the Commander raised his voice further he scolded, “As a ‘regular’ officer you are a traitor to America.” [In fact I was a “reserve” officer.] He was increasingly losing his physical and mental composure. Accompanying his angry voice, his arms were thrusting back and forth, up and down, in a very animated fashion. I was in a very emotional state as I stood witnessing and reeling from his raving antics. At one point there was physical contact made, intentionally or not, and I found myself falling off balance to the floor where I even feared I might be kicked. The Commander himself, overweight and not in great physical shape, also had almost lost his balance after I fell. Stunned but not physically hurt, in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds I was quickly on my feet again facing a recovering Colonel. He seemed startled himself at what had just happened and, for a moment, seemed pensive, realizing that he had lost his composure.

Then the Major made a statement that worried me, saying something to the effect that, “Nothing out of the ordinary has occurred here.” My fragile emotional state at the time internally interpreted those words to mean that if I were to complain about the physical and verbal abuse, it would be my word as a First Lieutenant against the words of a Major and a Lt. Colonel. Perhaps the Major was sincere, suggesting that he and our Commander were engaged in what they perceived as “constructive counseling” of a disgruntled officer. Perhaps it was more routine than I was aware, and therefore was ordinary from their perspective. Whatever the intent, I was stunned, experiencing emotional, even potentially physical terror. I had never been in a situation like this.

Later the Major admitted that the commander’s “royal chewing out” of me was based partially on a belief they both held that I was exhibiting traitorous “cowardice.” He also later acknowledged that my anti-war feelings, openly expressed in uniform, posed a real problem, and that the bayonet incident got around to the noncoms and officers, creating “morale problems” for the 823rd.

The Lt. Colonel/Commander, though more calm than previously, ironically but seriously accused me of being “a very disturbed man!” to which the Major seemed to assent. Then my Commander ordered that I undergo “morals” counseling with a chaplain. I did not know our squadron had a chaplain but soon I was in a Chaplain/Major’s office, only to experience another acrimonial moment at which he repeated similar angry words of our 823rd Commander, “Shame, shame, shame on you…The Vietnamese are being slaughtered by the VC and you have a duty to be part of stopping that,” showing me photographs of bodies, ostensibly of Vietnamese killed by other Vietnamese. Of course, I was very scared and anxious as this scolding continued, nearly in tears.

Baptist like me, the Chaplain expressed no sympathy. He did not want to hear my version of what had happened. The thought of being a “failure” was still part of my thinking, remnants of an old conditioned expectation to comply with orders and keep pace with the performance of my peers. I was simply seeking, apparently in vain, to express my sense that I seemed unfit for this particular assignment and wanted genuine counseling. It only seemed good military policy that when an officer (or any solider/airman) is feeling repulsed and unable to perform a particular duty that the military would not be so foolish as to force such person into a critical assignment where other lives are at stake. However, the Chaplain did not want to hear anything I was saying, and he simply repeated the Lt. Colonel’s words that I was “very disturbed.” He ordered that I be seen and diagnosed by a psychiatrist. Soon I found myself in a USAF doctor’s office, a Captain who was presumably a psychiatrist, at a nearby USAF military installation in Tennessee.

The uniformed doctor, a kind man, conversed with me over a period of several hours. It was the first time in months that I felt safe and actually listened to. He affirmed that I was of “sound mind,” and that it would be best for all concerned if I was re-assigned. He so recommended. Once my Commander read the psychiatrist’s report and recommendation for re-assignment, he was furious ever more. He said that since I was of “sound mind,” I would be expected to follow all training and deployment orders. It was too late, he retorted, to juggle personnel while preparing to deploy to Viet Nam as TET 1969 was approaching.

I was in a Catch-22 situation! Soon after, my Commander called me once again into his barracks’ office and presented me with a document, “Officer Control Roster Action,” stating that I would be placed on such list for 180 days because of a “self-admitted failure to accept the responsibilities commensurate with your grade,…specifically….that you do not agree with certain major concepts and policies of the 82nd Combat Security Police Wing. You have further stated that you cannot, in good conscience, support the wing mission….” He informed me that this action was formally communicated to the Squadron Operations Officer, and to the full Colonel who was our overall 82nd Combat Security Police Wing Commander.

When I enlisted in the Air Force in 1966 at 25 years of age (after an Army draft notice), I was already halfway through studies in law school and an associated master’s program in criminology. My hometown recruiter virtually guaranteed me an assignment in some administrative role dealing with Air Force defendants/prisoners. There were several Air Force correctional settings in both the U.S. and in Vietnam. I was advised that to get into that program I needed to select the security police career field. But as I discovered, and many veterans will tell you, representations of military recruiters are not worth much.

Once receiving copy of the Officer Control Roster action, the Wing Commander became alarmed. He perceived a situation that could produce “unnecessary unfavorable publicity to the U.S. Air Force or to the individual,” and embarrassment to Tactical Air Command Commander General Momyer. He quickly removed me from the “Officer Control Roster,” saying “it is inappropriate to place an officer on the Control Roster while he is attending formal school.” He also arranged a visit from my wife from Washington, D.C. to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, after my Commander had refused my request for a visit. My attorney wife and I had been married less than 2 months by that time.

My 823rd Commander had declared to me that the 823rd “Operation Safeside” mission was “classified” as to time, place and date of deployment, and therefore, he could not grant even a one-day visit. That he refused a visit based on explicitly claiming a classified mission which I had not previously known of infuriated me even more.

My pleas fell on deaf ears. I was being prevented from a change in assignment no matter how much I expressed my serious personal reservations to my superiors, concerns affirmed even by an Air Force psychiatrist who had recommended a different assignment. I felt stuck. Truly conflicted, I lacked the courage to refuse orders to Vietnam with the 823rd and begrudgingly “graduated” from the 12 weeks of training without ever completing the bayonet drill.

On March 7, a C-141 flew our “B” Flight (nearly 170 men in all) to Vietnam, initially landing at Cam Ranh Bay Airbase on March 8 before taking the short flight to Phan Rang, the in-country headquarters for our Air Force Combat Security Police operations, “Operation Safeside.” There, our Commander ordered my particular section and an additional weapons unit, comprised of 32 men in all, still ten men and an NCO short of what was authorized for my section, dispatched to Binh Thuy, a small Vietnamese-controlled airbase nearly 100 miles south of then-Saigon. Binh Thuy was in the hostile Delta region northwest of Can Tho city along the Bassac River. It was considered the most vulnerable of the ten primary USAF airbases in country, nicknamed “mortar alley,” having been attacked 18 times during the 6 weeks of TET 1968, and 47 times since receiving its first attack in February 1966, far more than any other airbase. We were arriving 2 weeks after the start of the much milder (as it turned out) TET 1969. Everyone everywhere was tense and nervous. Arriving just before midnight we immediately experienced mortar explosions outside the base perimeter, a rattling introduction to Vietnam. And to add to my anxiety I soon learned that the Commander of the nearby Army Military Police Company in Can Tho had been fragged on the day of my arrival. Luckily, he survived with only minor injuries, though others were killed.

I was immediately designated the night security force commander at Binh Thuy by the Major/Commander of its regular security police squadron, the 632nd. My anxiety motivated me to study every intelligence and action report I could find. Though I worked under the illusion that the more I knew the better I could position fire teams and machine gunners, it was what I learned about overall Mekong Delta military policy that staggered me.

Later, a member of the 823rd intelligence section at Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon told me that he believed that our Commander’s fury landed me at Binh Thuy as a punishment. I started to believe he might be right. Things got more entangled, and more intriguing as the days went by.

To be continued…!


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