by Jim Tolbert
Behind the bar hung this painting of a beautiful
woman, done up in velvet. You know the kind, you've seen them lined up on
the ground at busy intersections on the weekends, poor likenesses of
Elvis, and flying horses with horns. This painting was different though,
not because the woman was completely nude but something about it kept
drawing your eyes right back to her. This was a quality work. She was
hanging next to the cross bow and the sign that read, "The VC have no PX,
and no R&R".
I was in one of three main clubs at the 5th Special Forces Group compound
in Nha Trang, killing time while I waited for my next assignment. And this
beautiful girl, who smiled with her eyes, smiled at me from the wall
behind the bar. The bartender was busy cleaning glasses, and mama sanh was
cleaning up the floor. I was the only customer this early in the morning,
and here I was, having a love affair with a little brown girl in a
painting, a velvet one at that. "I need R&R, not a new assignment".
While I slowly moved my finger around the rim of my salty dog, removing
the excess salt and trying to make the glass sing, I thought about the
unit and the reason I was leaving. "Get rid of that SOB", the new
Commander had said, "What this war don't need is another guitar picker".
At least, that's the message I got from Crash at the time. I remember DOC
Simpson said that to me once. He was waiting to load body bags on the
slick I came in on. I helped him load the bodies, and he bitched the whole
time about strap hangers and shoe clerks. That was DOC Simpson, on his way
to DA Nang after just losing three good men. I never saw DOC after the
war, I often wondered if he still had the K-BAR I gave him.
I mulled over the events which brought me to Group looking for an
assignment. Two years in Project Delta was more than enough, maybe I
shouldn't have tried to give them a third. I pulled hard on the salty dog,
and mumbled to myself, "who the hell said, third time's a charm?"
Someone said he was a Cavalry Officer, put there by General Abrams to
undermine Special Forces. Someone else said he was spying on the troops
for that purpose but was too stupid to do it covertly. Then someone else
said, "No, he's just an asshole". Never the less, we were gun shy of the
new Project commander. And not knowing anything about him, didn't care to
get his attention. The operation had been relatively successful, and we
could only hope the stand down would go as well.
Special Project Delta, Detachment B-52, was on stand down from the first
TROJAN HORSE operation (FOB Mai Loc). And most everyone was at the Delta
Club letting it all hang out, something that routinely happened after
every operation. What I recall that wasn't routine, was the new Delta
Project commander, LTC Moore, spending the whole evening with the troops
instead of being at the Officer's club. It also seemed strange, that
everywhere the commander went, there was Paul Hill. Paul was the club
manager. Crash moved him to the club from the Ranger Section, someone said
he had too much time in the field. As I remember, he spent a lot of time
with Moore that evening, and that caused an unsettling quiet with the
troops at my table. When either came around, they just shut up.
I was at one of the large round tables with Stick Evans, in the front
section of the Club, close to the bar. All the seats were occupied and
needless to say, I had my guitar and was entertaining myself, and anyone
else who would listen. I remember Moore coming by the table that evening.
He stood there long enough to hear me sing, "That Burning Barrel of Shit"
to the tune of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". He listened and when the song
was finished, just turned and walked off without a word. My Burning Barrel
of Shit didn't impress Moore, maybe he just didn't like my singing. Hell,
sometimes, even I don't like my singing, but there was more to my leaving
than just war songs.
The following morning after breakfast, I was sitting on the steps of the
barracks feeding scraps to a small stray dog that had wandered into the
compound. And like some of the old mossey backs assigned to Delta, he had
found a home there. Before he could eat all the bacon, Diaz hollered
across the street for me to come over, the Sergeant Major wanted to see
me. I no sooner walked into the CP, when Crash told me to pack my shit,
and hit the road. No fanfare, and not even a kiss my ass goodbye. The only
reason he gave, "There were more Radio Operators assigned to the Project
than authorized". And then he added, "The old man said anyone with more
than one tour in country, git rid of him".
Crash Whalen was not a big man. He stood less than six foot, and wouldn't
weigh 140 pounds soaking wet. But he was all man, and all soldier, and I
had great respect for him. He had come to Special Forces, like so many
others, from a conventional Airborne Unit, and had that salt and pepper
hair which told his age. I had only known him a short time but counted him
a true friend. I also knew the difficulty he was having sending me on my
way, and how uncomfortable it made him feel.
Over his shoulder, LTC Moore watched every move, while pretending to be
busy. Diaz shuffled papers, and pretended not to notice what was taking
place. I didn't press for any more reasons, I had seen a dozen firings in
SF before, and this was the way it was usually done. It was most always,
Pack your shit and hit the road. There was nothing subtle in a Special
As I started walking out of the compound that day, I noticed the dog
chasing one of the ducks which had gotten loose. I had not said goodbye to
anyone, I never liked goodbyes. And then too, only the head shed knew I
was leaving. I passed the revetment where Coffey had been sitting two
years earlier, and thought about Ahn Hoa, and Coffey's memorial service,
where too little was said about a fine soldier.
I walked through the Delta gate, returned the gate guard's salute, and
thought, "What will that asshole do next"? The new commander was turning
Delta Project into something I didn't recognize. The gate guards were now
wearing Class A's, and looking like conventional Cavalry troops, with
painted helmets, and spit shined boots.
As I moved the duffel bag to my other shoulder, it occurred to me that you
can never re-capture what once was. I had liked my first two tours with
Delta and had signed up again, but this third time was no charm. I walked
on toward the 5th Group compound, and didn't look back.
To my knowledge, (Sweet Peter) Perkins was the first, and I was the second
person, to be fired from Delta Project in it's six years of existence. But
we were not the last. Before this non-Special Forces asshole left B-52, he
fired 27 old Special Forces operatives who were as good as, if not the
best the Army had to offer. Most of the 27 who were transferred remained
with SF, some ended up in conventional units, and several never returned
to the Forces. Shortly after I left, Diaz, who was the S1 clerk, was
fired. Sergeant Major Crash Whalen went on to pull two full tours with
Delta. I found another home with Command and Control Central at Kontum.
The Velvet Painting I liked so much came into the possession of Bill (Bata
Boot) Bennett when 5th Group closed down. He later gave it to the Special
Forces Association, and it may still be hanging on the wall behind the
team house bar, just off Doc Bennett road in Fayetteville. Since these
events, Bata Boot Bennett, Doc Simpson, Stick Evans, Crash Whalen, and
Sweet Peter Perkins have all reported to the big First Sergeant upstairs.
And someone said later, Stanfield's Nungs ate the dog.