COLUMBIA, S.C. — John Rollinson of Camden said he did the things that no one else wanted to do. He did it for his country, for the men on his left and on his right.
Mike Mika of Cayce fought three tours in Vietnam to help free the oppressed, words he believed and willed his life to.
Newberry’s Johnnie Graham went into hotly contested areas of conflict around the world, sometimes by himself.
Each learned the language and the culture of the country where he was deployed. They wore the local clothing and moved among the local people, in small combat groups or by themselves. But they also were trained in the advanced unconventional warfare of the elite Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets - with all the mystique and respect that designation brings.
“It is one of the things that you never forget,” said Rollinson, now 68. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s an inner feeling that no one can take. It’s a part of your soul.”
An illustrious history
This week, Green Berets from across the country will meet in Columbia for the 50th annual convention of the National Special Forces Association.
The Special Forces’ history is a long and illustrious one, said Mika, who’s 72.
They can trace their lineage to the Revolutionary War and South Carolina’s own Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox.” Marion’s tactics in guerrilla warfare against the British sparked a long line of men trained in the art of unconventional warfare.
The modern Special Forces originated during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services, also known as the OSS.
“The Devil’s Brigade” was tasked with going behind enemy lines in Europe and elsewhere to gather intelligence and organize armed resistance groups.
In 1952, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was formed in conjunction with the Psychological Warfare School at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. It and the 77th Special Forces Group (now the 7th) specialized in reconnaissance, counter-terrorism and organizing and working with foreign troops.
The Green Berets gained their famed moniker during the Vietnam War. President John F. Kennedy met with Gen. William Yarborough at Fort Bragg in 1961 and said that the Green Beret is “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”
The name stuck and so did the headgear that has become the identity of the group.
Graham, 47, served as a Green Beret for 13 years. He said that it was one of the most rewarding jobs of his 23-year military career.
“It takes heart and dedication to wear that distinction of the Green Beret,” Graham said. “I get to be around those guys like Mike (Mika) and John (Rollinson) and, as a younger person, know that these guys are the lineage of the Special Forces. It is humbling.”
Stabilizing the area
The Green Berets became a pop-culture mainstay after the 1966 flattering radio hit sung to a folk tune, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” and John Wayne’s 1968 film, “The Green Berets.”
But unlike Hollywood’s evanescent spotlight, the combat force will remain one of the upper echelon forces the United States deploys in battle.
“Our job is to go in and work with the local populace, and as we gather the support of the locals, we provide medical support, put wells in, develop defensive positions and anything else we need to do to stabilize an area,” Mika said.
Assigned to stay long-term in an area of conflict, Green Berets are considered force multipliers: They organize a segment of the local population as an armed resistance.
During the Vietnam War, Mika said, no more than 3,000 Green Berets fielded an army of 75,000 locals, including the indigenous Dega people and some local Vietnamese forces called the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. This small army carried out guerrilla-type attacks on Vietcong forces throughout the war.
Green Berets also would see duty in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Graham was among the first of the Green Berets on the ground in Afghanistan, working a security detail for Special Operations commanders.
“We went in and and dealt with the indigenous forces, trained and equipped them to fight against the Taliban,” Graham said. “For the most part they were happy that we were there and helping them get their country back.”
In Afghanistan, many of the soldiers grew beards and wore schemaghs to blend in with the indigenous forces they were training.
Training the ‘Silent Professionals’
Matthew Van Laan, 23, of Lexington recently graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in economics. He received a few job offers as a financial adviser but felt a greater calling for his life.
“I understand what I am getting into,” Van Laan said. “The unknown gives me a little bit of fear, but I know guys who have gone through the training. The trainers are not there to hurt you, they are there to make you better.”
Van Laan will leave June 23 for 18X, the program designed to turn civilians into Green Berets. After he graduates, he’ll continue to the five phases of becoming a Green Beret at Fort Bragg. Candidates train for 62 weeks and morph into highly specialized soldiers.
Lt. Col. Steve Hayden at Fort Bragg says that for every 2.25 candidates that go through the training process, one Green Beret comes out the other side.
“It takes a special person to do this training,” Hayden said. “There are no others who are able to conduct UW (unconventional warfare) like we do.”
Sgt. 1st Class Brian Lewis, who works in Army recruitment in Greenville, said becoming a Green Beret is not something that is simply a given.
“It’s not one of those things for a soldier want-to-be,” Lewis said. “They are put in special situations where a normal soldier wouldn’t be put in. They are the ‘Silent Professionals.’”
Graham remembers Green Beret training and simulating the rescue of a downed helicopter pilot. After retrieving the pilot, Graham and his 10-man team had to trek 8 miles while carrying a 210-pound pilot made of sand bags.
“The biggest thing for us is the guy standing next to you who has a green beret on,” Graham said. “He has gone through the same thing you have, and you can rely on him nine times out of 10. The other one time, you have to rely on yourself.”