Jerry D. Estenson
This Delta autobiography is a collection of
thoughts by a former Recon Lieutenant whose memory has been adjusted by
time and whose story has just recently been shared with fellow special
operations folks. The story is not about personal achievement or behavior
but a story of jointness before it worked its way into the military’s
vocabulary and of professionalism, leadership and caring for a brother
when they were not popular concepts in American culture.
The story starts when some "powers to be” came up with the idea that
Special Forces Reconnaissance teams would benefit from the leadership
provided by Special Forces Lieutenants. While many, including the author,
viewed the decision as flawed it was to be field tested. The author
tracked this decision back to retired General Jack Singlaub who said he
was receiving pressure from Regular Army folks to make it happen. He
decided the risk was relatively low and used Project Delta as the test
The experiment became personal when Estenson reported into 5th Group
Headquarters shortly after New Years Day in 1967. He was told by an NCO
friend in personnel that he had the ideal job for him. If he would
volunteer to go to Project Delta and lead a Recon team for six months he
could then pick almost any assignment he wanted in 5th Group. Since
Estenson had been pulled out of Training Group shortly before finishing by
General Stillwell to go to OCS he knew a bit about volunteering and being
volunteered. As a young, dumb, all speed and no direction former E-5, he
felt he would get along fine in the NCO culture of the Project.
He reported in and found that he was part of a wind dummy group of Lts.
who would be put through a modified selection program and if they passed
would lead a Recon Team. The selection started with a group (possible 10
or 12) who were sent to Recondo School to get the basics. During that week
at Recondo it became obvious who was serious and who was looking to get a
box checked. A vivid memory is the first speed hike with a ruck sack
loaded with rocks. During the hike some of the Lts. saw this exercise as
beneath them and unloaded some or all of the rocks and generally screwed
off during the hike. When the hike ended and it was time to climb the
rappelling tower with a loaded ruck, their behavior was spotted by the NCO
supervising the exercise. To this day I am embarrassed by their behavior.
Our Recondo training continued with some of the officers still maintaining
a fairly casual attitude and what they were being taught.
Once Recondo phase was done, we came back to Delta for follow up training.
What made this training unique was its speed. Rappelling was handled by
Sergeant Stamper who told us to get our butts on the repelling towers and
before we had time to think, we were off the tower and out in the flats
repelling out the helicopters provided by the 281st. We then moved to
playing superman on McGuire rigs. All the time we were being watched to
see how we responded to the various challenges.
After the evaluation cycle some officers were advised that other parts of
Delta would better match their skills and they left the Recon section.
Those who remained were assigned to a team lead by a Senior NCO who would
take them on short mission into the mountains outside Nha Trang.
Estenson’s supervising NCO was Joe Markham. His patience and concern while
helping Estenson develop field skills will always be remembered. On that
first mission Estenson froze as soon as he hit the ground. His brain knew
what to do but his legs would not move. In his mind he stood frozen for
about an hour. Joe told him he was only looking like a deer in the head
lights for about 2 seconds. The training mission continued with Joe
continually providing feedback and correction. Thanks to Joe’s skill as a
teacher, once the mission concluded Estenson was assigned a team. It was
Joe’s steady leadership style that provided a model for this young Lt. to
use to guide his behavior in the field and still being called upon when
exemplary leadership behaviors are called for.
His first time in the hole was with Sergeants Brewer and Graves. The
mission was at the North end of the An Loa Valley. During that mission,
Graves was bitten by a snake and thanks to the quick action of Sergeant
Brewer a tourniquet was applied and Graves was kept quiet until an
extraction could take place. On that mission, Estenson was taught the
value of team work and jointness. The team not only carried a PRC-25 but a
Morse Code sending unit (exact name not remembered). Because the team was
out of FM radio contact the short wave system was used to send a Morse
Code message which was picked up by Air Force units who relayed it to the
right Army folks. (Delta was a Team Lesson One - Without the Communication
folks keeping the equipment in top shape no communication could have taken
place). Al Groth, the Air Force FAC assigned to Delta was on station
talking to Estenson until the C & C ship arrived (Jointness Lesson One -
the Air Force will be there to help you when they are motivated by a
skilled FAC or one of their own).
Once the C & C ship arrived, a robust conversation between Estenson and
the C & C ship resulted in the decision to pull the team out (Leadership
Lesson One - regardless of rank the Team Leader on the ground makes the
final call and is accountable for the decision). The extraction site was
in a narrow valley with a small river running through the middle. A sand
bar in the middle of the river was the chosen LZ. The 281st pilot that
inserted the team came in a pulled them out of a very tight spot (Lesson
two in jointness - even though the Project was about putting Recon teams
on the ground it could not be done with the superb flying of the 281st
pilots who regularly risks their lives to put teams on the ground and get
them out. This was done even with some Recon team members being arrogant
Estenson’s seven months taught him life long lessons. These lessons came
from watching the behavior of professional NCOs who trained numb-nutted
Lieutenants to do a job they knew they were far better at than a Lt. ever
could be. These lessons helped me appreciate the permanent bond between
men that do hard things in hard places. The result of this experience is
the privilege of having a chance to share a life-long pride in being part
of group of men who put duty, love for their brothers, and professionalism
far beyond self. The price to learn those lessons may have been high but
the reward is extraordinary.
Jerry D. Estenson
Former Captain, Infantry, United States Army
Project Delta, Det. B-52, 5th SFG Abn RVN
January 1967 – August 1967
Estenson Photo Collection