I want to thank all of you who wrote and emailed me all those uplifting emails after my Independence Day article. But I need you to understand something. While I did spend 14 years in Asia, I was not sitting around crying in my beer.
When I left the States, I flew to Okinawa, home of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). My last mission began there. I commanded six two-man teams in civilian clothes along the Thai-Laotian border. When I returned six months later, I informed the group commanding officer, Col. Robert Rheault, that I was leaving the Army.
It was a difficult decision. Rheault had become a friend in the 18 months I had been assigned there. The year before, his daughter Susie, on break from classes at Princeton, had spent the summer on Okinawa. I showed Susie around the island and escorted her to the various social activities. I quickly found out that when you join the Rheault family for social activities, you have to be in shape. One weekend it would be scuba diving; the next it might be biking or hiking. There was always something going on requiring tons of energy.
As I mustered out, Rheault was on the way to Vietnam to take command of the 5th Special Forces Group. By the time I got out and returned to Okinawa, something very strange had happened. I was picked up at the airport by a friend, still in special forces and headed for Vietnam. He informed me that Rheault was in jail in Long Binh, accused of murdering a Vietnamese civilian. My first reaction was that there was no way that could be true. Unless …
At the time, there was a top-secret operation going on in Vietnam called Phoenix. The project entailed the planned assassination of civilians. The country was rife with spies. The CIA would target the civilian and the special forces would carry out the assassination. Only this time there was a snafu. The target turned out to be a double agent.
Col. Rheault had little to do with this. He had arrived in-country just in time to be briefed on the mission. But he was the commanding officer and he signed off on it. There was another problem. Gen. Creighton Abrams was commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam. He was a “leg” (not airborne qualified) and he hated special forces. When he heard about the incident he ordered the arrest of everyone involved. All told, eight were arrested and taken to Long Binh Jail to await courts martial.
In the meantime, I got a job as country manager of Piedmont International, selling mutual funds in, where else, Vietnam. I arrived in-country while this was going on. When I tried to see Rheault in Long Binh Jail, I found out he was no longer there. As soon as President Richard Nixon found out what had happened, he hit the roof. I was not privy to the actual conversation but I heard it went something like this: “You idiots. If anybody finds out we are killing civilians over there, the sh-- will hit the fan big-time. Release those men and do it right now.”
Back in the United States, the military powers-that-be knew that all eight Green Berets had only been following orders. They offered Col. Rheault an abject apology and asked what command he wanted. He said he wanted to return to Vietnam to the 5th Special Forces. He was told that was the only command he couldn’t have. So Rheault put in his papers to retire. The Armed Forces lost a great warrior through no fault of his own.
On Nov. 14, 1969, Rheault appeared on the cover of “Life” magazine. Frank McCulloch wrote a good article, “The Green Beret Colonel,” vindicating him. I stayed in Vietnam for 10 months and departed in 1970. I stopped by Hong Kong for a few years then headed for the Philippines. I didn’t know it yet but a revolution was on the horizon and a jail cell awaited me.
Chuck McDougald headed the Veterans Coalition, first for California, then for the Western Region, when Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008. In 2010, he served as Statewide Volunteer Chair for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He is currently the Western Region director for ConcernedVeteransforAmerica.org. He lives in South San Francisco with his wife and two kids.