‘YOU WERE REALLY ON YOUR OWN’: Top secret Special Forces service bonds group of former Green Berets

Once all three men were seated around their usual outside table at Zaharias Restaurant, pints of beer in hand, Tom Waskovich started things rolling: “So, Speedy is getting out of the hospital Friday.”

 

Joined at the table by Bill Barclay and Chuck Willoughby, Waskovich was referring to George “Speedy” Gaspard, who — if not for breaking a hip recently — is usually the fourth member at the get-togethers the men enjoy every week or two. At 91 and with seven tours in Vietnam behind him, Gaspard is the eldest — and perhaps most revered — member of the crew, all of who served as Green Berets with the U.S. Army.

But their bond goes beyond the Army, the Green Berets or their ties to St. Augustine. During the Vietnam War, all four were members of a special operations unit known as Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group.

Members of MAC-SOG carried out some of the most top-secret — and dangerous — missions in the field. SOG teams were comprised of several American Green Berets were aided by indigenous mercenary troops to conduct reconnaissance missions, capture of enemy prisoners, rescue of downed pilots and clandestine operations.

When asked to rate the risk level of their activities in North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the 1960s and 1970s, Waskovich, 69, doesn’t mince words: “I’d say on a scale of 1 to 10, it was like a 21.”

But around the happy hour table all these years later, it’s all about jokes, good-natured ribbing, and catching up on how other SOG veterans — some of whom also have make their home in St. Johns County — are doing.

The men don’t celebrate Memorial Day or Veterans Day by taking part in traditional ceremonies or parades. Instead, Waskovich, Gaspard, Barclay and Willoughby prefer to get together in their usual laid-back fashion and break bread, twist off bottle caps and “shoot the [breeze]” like always. Their reluctance to march alongside fellow vets has less to do with condescension than the fact that feel like they’re a different breed with battle experiences others might not understand.

At one point during the gathering on Thursday evening, Waskovich asks his fellow comrades to raise a glass and take a moment of silence to honor three Green Berets killed in Afghanistan last month, which they do, bowing their heads in reflection.

How the four found each other in the St. Augustine area is its own story.

Several years ago, Waskovich and Barclay were both attending a national organizational meeting of special military forces in Las Vegas. They met in the airport when they realized they both had returning flights to St. Augustine.

Waskovich and Willoughby also linked up as if by chance. In traffic around town, Willoughby happened to notice a MAC-SOG decal on the back of Waskovich’s car. He rolled down his window to talk to Willoughby at a red light.

“You said, ‘I heard there were a few more of us around here in town,’” Willoughby, 74, recalls.

Though none of the four served together on missions, Barclay, 70, and Willoughby were in the same unit, just at different times. Gaspard and Waskovich met through a friend of Waskovich’s who was doing research for a book about the SOG teams.

Invariably, amidst all the laughter that transpires at their oupost at Zaharias, talk turns to battle stories; about having to wear plain-clothes uniforms with no identifiable American affiliation or U.S. tags. Or like the time Waskovich was part of a covert mission that shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail for a week. Or when all Barclay could hear was the “ping, ping” of shots being directly fired into his helicopter — “and you were glad you brought your [bulletproof] vest because you could sit on it,” he said.

“I was scared sh**less every time I went out, but you had to overcome it,” said Waskovich. “I guess you guys were, too,”

“Yep,” nodded Willoughby.

“You were really on your own,” added Barclay.

Barclay remembers a woman administrator who had to sign off on all SOG assignments as his “guardian angel.” Coming off his first tour of duty and considering reenlisting, she asked if he had siblings. When he said no, he was an only child, she suggested he sit out the next SOG mission. Barclay went on to serve more than another 20 years in the military, retiring as a master sargeant.

Only now can any of them talk about this. The unit’s activities and identities were government classified until recently, with members signing non-disclosure agreements as conditions to their service.

SOG had a little more than 1,o00 men cross border operations during the Vietnam campaign and 13 of them have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Just last month, Gary Rose, who served in the same type of mission Waskovich ran, is the most recent recipient of the national honor. Rose, an SOG medic, ran through a hail of gunfire in Laos in 1970 — in some cases, with men strapped to his back — to treat more than 50 of the wounded. He returned to the U.S. with all 16 American soldiers deployed with him still alive.

The bravery they displayed as young men, some still teenagers, has continued to be a bond that survives well more than 40 years later.

“We would have died for each other back then,” said Waskovich.

Barclay added, “Just as we would now.”

 

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