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 site.

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 unappreciative pricks).

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
Recon One-Zero
January 1967 – August 1967

Jerry Estenson Photo Collection
 

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