SOF editors recently sat down and interviewed adventure author and Vietnam Green Beret veteran Don Bendell of Florence, Colorado. A former Special Forces captain, Don served in the top secret Phoenix Program in Vietnam. He was the executive officer and civil affairs/psychological operations officer of ODA-242 Dak Pek with the 5th SF Group in 1968 and 1969 until he was medically evacuated to Japan and eventually Fort Bragg. He also served in the 3rd, 6th, and 7th SF Groups, and is the father of two Special Forces weapons NCOs who are currently in harm’s way in the GWOT. Bendell is also a grandmaster in five martial arts and a 1995 inductee into the International Karate Hall of Fame.
AN AMERICAN COWBOY
Describing himself as “an American cowboy,” Bendell is a wilderness tracker of fugitives and missing hikers in the southwestern mountains and deserts, sometimes working as a tracker with the famed Navajo Tribal Police.
SOF: You told us you do not want to discuss your sons, but we do have to ask, were you surprised they followed in your footsteps?
BENDELL: Yes and no. They both were getting up there in their late twenties when each enlisted; they both lived in Thailand and had great careers as professional Muay Thai kick boxers. I am very proud.
BIG BAD GREEN BERETS KILL AN IGUANA AND EAT IT
SOF: You were an SF officer in four groups. How did you get into SF?
BENDELL: I went into the army as a private in 1966 with a guarantee for intelligence analyst school, but at the reception station I watched a little documentary on Special Forces, where these big bad Green Berets chased this iguana down and killed it with a machete and ate it. The whole film fascinated me, and I scored well on the ALAT [Army Language Aptitude Test] and the OCT [Officer Candidate Test], so I tore up my guarantee and volunteered for Infantry Officer Candidate School, Airborne, Ranger, Special Forces and duty in South Vietnam. I was a loser throughout my teen-age years and grew up bowhunting, Indian dancing, and in scouting, so I just felt I had arrived. I did basic at Benning, then advanced individual training (AIT) at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then was assigned to an
MP unit there and became a guard in maximum security at the Fort Dix stockade until I got orders for Infantry OCS back at Fort Benning.
SOF: Did you go through under what they called the “old program” or the “new program” in OCS?
NO CHILD’S PLAY
BENDELL (laughing): The old program, and it was a bitch. We had to put blankets over our heads at night with flashlights and spit-shine our floors to a deep gloss with Butcher’s Red Wax and Birdseye diapers. You were harassed mentally, physically, and emotionally 24/7 for almost a full six months. I do not think I ever got over four hours sleep per night for six months and went through a bout of pneumonia. OCS turned me into a man, though, and really built my lacking self-confidence.
SOF: So then where?
BENDELL: Right across the street to jump school, but I got double pneumonia and pleurisy during tower week and spent the next five weeks in Martin Army Hospital almost dying. I finally made it through and on to Fort Bragg, where I was assigned to Company C, of the 7th SF Group and did a year of training, earning my Green Beret and MOS, 31542. I went to the 5th Special Forces Group on 31 May, 1968, and got promoted to first lieutenant the next day and was assigned to Detachment A-242 Dak Pek in the northwest corner of II Corps right along the Laotian border.
SOF: Your job?
BENDELL: I was executive officer and civil affairs/psychological operations officer (CAPO). A few months later, I had to go to a classified meeting in Nha Trang with Colonel Aarons, the group commander, and was given an additional duty as district coordinator for the Dak Pek and Dak Sut districts in the top secret Phoenix Program.
SOF: You mentioned your MOS was 31542. What is that job specification?
BENDELL: (laughs) “Non-electric pop up target.” Seriously, it was “Special Forces-qualified Infantry Officer.”
As you know, there was no unconven tional warfare branch in those days, although I wrote many letters suggesting it.
THE PHOENIX PROGRAM
SOF: For our readers who do not know, the Phoenix Program was a very controversial top secret program during the Vietnam War run by the CIA where hundreds of thousands lost their lives, most through assassination.
SOF: Were you an assassin?
BENDELL:Well, that is pretty harsh. Phung Hoang, that is what the Vietnamese called Phoenix, was a program that I felt was needed but also needed level-headed people to operate it, as there could be excesses, and there were, but not by me.
BENDELL:Well, if you would imagine the country of Vietnam, instead of being divided into hamlets, districts, provinces, and the like, as being divided into towns, cities, counties, states, and finally a nation. Then, for every mayor, county commissioner, governor, state senator, US senator, and so on, you had a shadow mayor, governor, et al who was a member of the mafia. So you had legitimate political figures who headed a certain population center, but behind the scenes you also had a mafia capo, or captain, maybe or even a don, or “godfather.” So Vietnam had this shadow government which was made up of the National Liberation Front or NLF. The army for the NLF was the Viet Cong, the guerrilla warriors usually described as wearing black pajamas. Additionally, you had the North
Vietnamese Army or NVA, which was a uniformed, trained, supplied, and paid military fighting force, who also fought against us. The communist party in Hanoi controlled the NVA as well as the NLF and Viet Cong. The job of the Phoenix Program operators was to identify the shadow government, the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) and National Liberation Front infrastructure (NLFI) in their area or district, or in other words area of operations (AO) and eliminate each one. In my case, it was the Dak Pek and Dak Sut districts.
TAKE OUT THE SHADOW GOVERNMENT AND GUERRILLAS!
The assignment, then, was to eliminate the shadow government and guerrilla leaders, usually through assassination. Because of that last aspect, as you can imagine, there were places around the country where there were excesses. Somebody, usually a Vietnamese counterpart, had a hard-on for some guy who did not pay graft monies or buy goods from this guy’s black-market scam, and the Phoenix operator would pop a cap on his ass, as the gang-bangers say.
SOF: What about in your AO?
BENDELL: I was fortunate. First of all, on my A-Team I had an X-Ray or counterpart, a Vietnamese Special Forces (Lac Luong Dac Biet [LLDB]) lieutenant who was a pain in the butt. Phoenix, though, was highly classified and an additional duty, and I had no counterpart. It was not handled through the chain of command. They found that a lot of guys like me who were CAPO officers or CAPO NCOs could and would get very close with the indigenous, especially Montagnards, so we could generate a lot of intelligence on the local VCI and NLFI. I was living in a valley with 8,000 Jeh Montagnards, our LLDB team, and maybe 50 to 100 Vietnamese who were relatives, pals, or hangers-on of the LLDB.
The second thing was that the Montagnards were extremely pro-American, so those who did work with or become part of the VCI were few and far between. I had two local Yard village chiefs who were local VC leaders, some of their family members, and there were others who joined for various reasons. But most often because they were intimidated or blackmailed by the local VMC or Viet–Montagnard Cong.
SOF: So these local bad guys; Did you ever, as you said, “pop a cap on their asses?”
BENDELL: I did what was required to be done in a professional manner and eliminated a few threats. This created a stir locally and discouraged recruitment in the local VC.
SOF: What happened to the two village chiefs you mentioned?
BENDELL: Their reigns as village chiefs were short-lived due to both of them expiring from untimely deaths. Next subject?
SOF: Fair enough! Did you see a lot of action?
“FUN” IN THE JUNGLES
SOF: Any memorable stories?
BENDELL: I had a number of incidents that were hilarious, if you were there watching and understood the SF mindset.
I was very, very gung ho. I do not know why. I just was, so I volunteered to take other team-mates’ turns out on operations all the time. Each of us, two at a time, on my A-team or ODA, would take turns to go out on a company-size operation for usually 10 to 15 days at a time. So we would always have two guys out in the jungle and the rest either back at Dak Pek working, on R and R, or off scrounging food or other material needed for the Yards or our team. We would trade captured weapons for food, so we ate like kings.
Captain Joe Dietrich was my team commander. He did 28 years, mainly SF, and retired a full bird. I had just come back from 15 days in the boonies, got shaved, cleaned up, laid out in the sun a few days to let it heal the nicks and scratches, leech marks, and things you get in the jungle, and Joe came up to me and asked if I wanted to volunteer to accompany him on a very dangerous company-size operation. I could not wait to get going.
Our mission was to go into the Plei Trap Valley as the point company-size element, which was Joe Dietrich, one Vietnamese LLDB, 100 Montagnards and me, for a task force with elements of the 4th Infantry Division. Our AO was the western-most unit right along the Cambodian border and each 4th ID company would combat-assault behind us, stringing eastward along the valley. There were reports that a number of US POWs were being held in bamboo cages for transport up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A branch of the HCM Trail ran right through the Plei Trap, complete with bamboo and wooden bridges constructed inches below the surface of each stream zig-zagging the valley floor. There were also concrete-reinforced bunkers spaced out along the road, and in some places they had climbed up to pull the tops of the trees together and tied them to prevent aircraft from seeing the jungle road. The road had been used to infiltrate tanks and trucks into South Vietnam from Cambodia prior to the 1968 Tet Offensive to hit areas in and around Pleiku and Kontum.
We had an exciting time in the Plei Trap. I even got to lead a patrol of nine Yards into Cambodia and captured a 2000 kilo Soviet truck, and we got gassed by NVA using CS gas. I have a photo of the truck after it was hooked out by Chinook and taken to the tarmac in Pleiku. You can even see the straps still on it.
So back to the story. As usual, our tactical air support up north got socked in by monsoons, so over our loud protests, the 4th ID delayed the start of the operation. We knew this would give the Vietnamese involved, who were VC, time to warn the commies we were coming. So our unit and all these 4th ID units bivouacked outside my sister A-Camp, Polei Kleng. Joe had gone to the Polei Kleng teamhouse for a joint task force briefing. I started shooting at low-flying birds flying over our company, along with all our Montagnards, just for their entertainment; plus I wanted to motivate them. They were depressed over the delayed start of the operation and morale was a little low.
CAMOUFLAGE COWBOY HAT
Now bear in mind, in SF, in the field on operations we never wore our Green Berets. We wore camouflage tiger suits, jungle boots, and boonie hats, or in my case a camouflage cowboy hat. On operations, we never wore any rank, name tags, or patches of any sort. Also, bear in mind I was a senior first lieutenant at the time, about six months from making captain.
SOF: Why should we feel we are about to get a real SF story here?
BENDELL: (laughs) This roofless 4th ID quarter-ton comes flying around the corner driven by a Spec 4 and a red-faced second lieutenant was riding shotgun. The jeep slid to a stop and the second balloon jumped out, apparently furious, and started screaming at the top of his lungs, “Ceasefire! Ceasefire!”
And my Yards totally ignored him and kept shooting at the circling lowflying birds, giggling and having fun. I started laughing, as this young officer got more comical in his fury.
He stormed up to me and yelled, “Order them to ceasefire, Soldier!”
I chuckled, puffing on a Lucky Strike, and said, “Aye-aye, Sir.”
I looked at the closest Yard platoon leader and my interpreter and friend Nhual and said, “Dei ei bang,” which was Jeh Montagnard for “Stop shooting.”
The word or even eye contact quickly spread through the ranks of the very-aware warriors and the shooting stopped in seconds. This lieutenant looked at me and screamed, pointing at a ridge covered with triple-canopy jungle about 1,000 yards away across the valley, “Your men having been shooting up my LRRPs on that mountain, Soldier. And lock those heels when I am talking to you! What rank are you? What is your name, Soldier?”
PERMISSION TO SHOOT? IS THIS A JOKE?
I laughed and said, “None of your stinking business, Leftenant. There is no way my men’s bullets have had any affect on your LRRPs.”
He kind of vibrated and screamed, “You have no right to shoot anyway without permission.”
I started laughing actually having fun with his idiocy, and I noticed the “speedy four” in his jeep was loving this.
I said, “What?”
Veins almost bursting in his neck, he said, “Yesterday I had to get a grid clearance to shoot a rabid dog!”
I really started laughing now and said, “No wonder the press says we are losing this cluster [mess] they call a war.”
This lieutenant says, “I want to know who your commanding officer is, Soldier.”
Then Joe Dietrich was walking up and heard part of what we were saying, and he yelled, “Me, Lieutenant! Captain Joseph Dietrich, commanding officer of Detachment A-242, Company B, 5th Special Forces Group. Why?”
This lieutenant had to be fresh out of OCS by a few weeks. He snaps to attention and salutes Joe, and Joe screamed, “Get your hand down idiot! You don’t salute me in a combat zone. Why don’t you just hang a target on me?”
The second balloon dropped his hand and apologized and then he pointed at me and said, “This soldier was very insubordinate.” Joe interrupted him and said, “This soldier is a senior first lieutenant who would eat you for breakfast, Lieutenant, and if you are smart you will get the hell out of here.”
You would have thought the kid’s butt was on fire. Joe and I laughed our heads off over that one.
SOF: You were stationed at Dak Pek in the northwest corner of II Corps, but you took some company-size operations not only to the Plei Trap Valley but also to Dak Seang, Ben Het, and Dak To, we understand. Any war stories?
DEAD, DYING, AND RESCUED
BENDELL: Dak To was not a company-size operation. I wrote about some in my Vietnam books, but I think they are probably boring.
SOF: Anything stand out on any of those operations?
BENDELL: Well, I got wounded on the operation west of Dak Seang, lost some really great Yards who were KIA
and WIA, but I am very proud we recovered a downed Dust-off helicopter, and its pilot’s body who was mortally wounded and taken prisoner near death or already dead. The NVA carried him on his own stretcher and put an AK round through his forehead and smashed all his joints, probably post-mortem. His name was WO1 James Zeimet.
SOF: Now what are the stories we have heard about you being the Dak Pek lieutenant that went native? What is that about?
BENDELL: I had a Montagnard lover named Ning, and she was beautiful, mainly Jeh and part French. Because of her French blood, she was a little taller. We were having some problems with NVA or the local Yard VC coming up outside Yard villages right outside our camp at night, and they would yell things or even broadcast with a bullhorn sometimes. The Yard villages were each located on top of a small hill, had a solid wooden wall around them and one door and hundreds of thousands of bamboo punji stakes facing outward all around them in each wall. I sighted in a Starlight scope on an M16 and wanted to go to the next village north of Dak Pek, called Dak Jel Luk, because it was having the most trouble.
So anyhow, the camp of Dak Pek was located on a series of small treeless hills in the middle of the Dak Poko River valley and surrounded by tall steep, triple-canopy jungle-covered mountains on all four sides. They were the tallest and steepest mountains in all of Vietnam. The jungle was defoliated away from the camp in all directions, and Ning was tall because of her French ancestry. Reasoning that VC or NVA out on those ridges spotted us at a distance, we figured we might be mistaken for a Montagnard couple. Ning carried a basket on her back containing my rifle, scope, tiger suit, and jungle boots. She was barebreasted with just the normal black wraparound “atok” Yard women wore. I wore a Yard loincloth and nothing else but Jeh bracelets and necklaces, my big Jeh knife, and I carried a spear. Once inside the village, I changed clothes and waited for the NVA to come in. This worked well, so I did it several times.
The next thing I heard was that rumors were going around Group that some goofy SF lieutenant at Dak Pek had “gone native” and was always operating in Montagnard loincloth and nothing else.
MODERN DAY DELTA FORCE
SOF: Let’s talk about your new trilogy. It is about Delta Force?
BENDELL: Yes, modern day Delta. The first book, Detachment Delta, is due out in January. Soldier of Fortune was given the first galley off the press to read and review. It is about a top secret operation in Iran. Then it will be followed in 2009 and 2010 with the second and third books.
SOF: Are the books novels or nonfiction?
BENDELL: They are novels, partially predicated on some real events, some things camouflaged because we are at war. But no writer, reporter, or other outsider gets into the Delta Force compound, period. Our enemies do not need to get excited and think they will be getting any intelligence. I hope the readers enjoy the books. My current series, the Criminal Investigation Detachment trilogy, is about an SF and former Delta operator who becomes the head of a top secret CID unit that specializes in special operations undercover work in the GWOT.
SOF: So how on target are this novel and your other trilogy?
BENDELL: Well, for one thing I do use a lot of state-of-the-art military technology, which is real and may seem James Bondish, but I do not make up weapons or systems but use actual ones that function, such as “Smart Dust.” It may make a few jihadists squirm wondering what we have and that is totally cool to me.
SOF: Is that limited to just weapons and technology? What about in the story line?
BENDELL: I take real groups, things, and places and weave them into the stories and use a lot of actual anecdotes, some from my own life, to dramatize them a little.
One thing that happened that I loved was when I had the two protagonists, a man and woman working together, who may fall in love in the book. I don’t want to tell. Anyway, they are reading an area study on Iran and in it are real quotes from the CIA Factbook on Iran. I included a big part in there about the main villain—the antagonist—and gave him a lengthy bio. The editor editing the script sent me a note saying I had copied too much text from actual CIA documents, and they could not publish that much copyrighted text. I cracked up and explained, “I wrote all that and created that character.”
SOF: How about ending this with one of your masterly quotes?
THE COWBOY, A DYING BREED
BENDELL:Well, since I am a real cowboy with a real ranch, I did write my own Code of the West:
• Cowboys should treat women like ladies, period.
• Cowboys fight fair, and only when they have to, and when they do have to fight, they win, period.
• You know exactly where you stand with a cowboy. There are no gray areas, only black and white, but not when it comes to skin color.
• A cowboy is only as good as his word.
• A cowboy protects his family, spread, and community.
• A cowboy will fight for, and take care of orphans, widows, and those who are oppressed.
• A cowboy will go out of his way to avoid a fight and is always willing to share his grub, campfire, and water with ya.’
• And finally; A cowboy believes in his God, and he believes in America and will fight and die to protect either.
SOF: Thank you very much. I’m sure our readers are looking forward to the book.
BENDELL: Thank you for mentioning it, and for all you all do at SOF. Troi phu ho.
SOF: What’s that?
BENDELL: That’s Vietnamese for “God bless you.”
Bendell is the author of the brand new novel Detachment Delta (Berkley Publishing Group: January 2009), the first in a trilogy about modern day Delta Force operating in the Global War on Terror. He has also written the Criminal Investigation Detachment trilogy, also for Berkley, and the non-fiction Special Forces in Vietnam books Crossbow (Berkley); The B-52 Overture (Dell); Valley of Tears (Dell); Snake-Eater (Dell), the Tracker series of adventure novels under the pen name of Ron Stillman for Diamond–Harvest Books, and a whole series of western novels for Signet Westerns–Penguin. He has over 1,500,000 copies of his books in print. Bendell also published a series of conservative editorials in many venues. He owns karate schools in southern Colorado.