Korean War vet Ralph Puckett: 'I've got that Ranger tab tattooed on my heart'
By Chuck Williams | Columbus Ledger-Enquirer | Published: August 4, 2014
COLUMBUS, Ga. — On Nov. 25, 1950, Ralph Puckett and a Ranger company he commanded fought the Chinese against great odds on a Korean hill overlooking the Chongchon River. It was as deep as the 8th Army got into Korea during that conflict.
Fresh out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Puckett had volunteered for the fight. He was seriously injured and hospitalized for nearly a year afterward.
Today, at the age of 87, Puckett says that night on Hill 205 helped define him.
He speaks about leadership, service and sacrifice two or three times a week at Fort Benning, and he's served as honorary colonel for the 75th Ranger Regiment. He's written a book on military leadership called "Words for Warriors: A Professional Soldier's Notebook."
A Ranger leadership award bears his name. Even a stretch of road on Fort Benning has been named in his honor.
But watch him walk through the National Infantry Museum, stopping to talk to young soldiers who have just completed basic training. They have no idea they are talking to a decorated officer who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on Hill 205 almost 64 years ago.
And he doesn't tell them.
Recently, Puckett sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about Hill 205, his Army career, and his views on the Rangers and other elite soldiers of today.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
How do you end up going from Tifton, Ga., to West Point in the 1940s?
I ended up there because I was very interested in flying. I started taking flying lessons before I ever got behind of the wheel of a car. And I wanted to be an aviator, and I figured the best way to do it was to enlist.
The war was going on when I was flying — it was right at the end of the war. I enlisted in the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve one week after I was 17. The plan was to continue with the Air Corps at that time and become a military pilot.
But of course things changed with the war dwindling down and finally ending, and West Point offered a route into the Army Air Force — at that time it was still Army. I asked my dad if he could help me get an appointment to West Point and that's where I went. I went there for the sole purpose of becoming a military aviator, but I changed my mind for what I thought were very good reasons and decided to choose the Infantry branch.
What lead you to becoming an infantryman?
At West Point, they do a good job of orienting cadets on the different branches and what they do, and what their responsibilities are and what the challenges may be. Each branch put on a demonstration. ...An officer assigned to West Point who was assigned to that branch would give a lecture and then show a training film. Then you would go see a display of some of their equipment. They would be talking to some of the soldiers and non-commissioned officers about what they did.
And I remember the infantry film so well. It was about the attack in the Liri Valley (in World War II). It was showing U.S. Army infantrymen attacking through an olive orchard, and the branches and the leaves were being shot off the trees. You could see guys falling on the ground after they had been hit.
I wondered, "Do I have the guts and brains, do I have intestinal fortitude and courage to become an Infantry leader?" And that was the main thing that lead me to switch my branch. I really wanted to see if I could meet that challenge.
What did you learn at West Point that prepared you for the rest of your life?
The first thing I learned — and the best thing I learned — I learned it in the first 10 minutes. And I have never forgotten it and I've tried to live by it.
You come in there and it's a closed environment. There's no civilians there. These are the upper-class cadets who are introducing the prospective new cadet into West Point. The first thing this First Classman tells me is "You've got these answers to whatever I say to you: 'No sir,' 'Yessir,' 'Sir, I do not understand,' and 'No excuse, sir." And he had me quote those back and I remembered "No excuse, sir." It was ingrained on my thinking that I have no excuse for failure at any time I do not meet the standards that I am supposed to meet — my standards or those that are set for me by someone for whom I'm working.
How was West Point different from growing up in Tifton, Ga.?
West Point certainly was a lot more structured — if I may say that. You were thrown with a group of people, young boys, young men, and most of my class were veterans. They had been in the service and were brought into West Point as new cadets. Most of the individuals were more mature than I was, and many of them were combat veterans and had some of the hero glamour about them — to me, anyway. It was that structured environment and the expectation that I had to do the best that I could do in everything that I was challenged to do, which affected me, and I hope affected me throughout my life, always doing the best that I could.
Never be satisfied; I can always do better.
At times that's a very tough motto to live your life by, isn't it?
It is, and I've failed often.
Let's talk a little bit about your service. You obviously served in combat in two wars, Vietnam and Korea. Can you go back to 1950, the battle of Hill 205?
My being the company commander at that Ranger Company was almost a unique circumstance, if it was not unique.
I'd graduated from West Point in 1949, and went to the Officer's General Course at Fort Riley like all new second lieutenants did. Then in January 1950, I came to Fort Benning for the Infantry Officer's Basic Course, a similar course that we have today — incidentally, it's much better today. And I graduated in June from the basic course and went right into jump school the following Monday. While I was in jump school — and I remember the event very vividly — I was sitting on my cot spit-shining my jump boots for my next day's workout with the jump school. I graduated from jump school and got my orders changed to head toward Korea.
When you got to Japan, there was a three-day time period in which you were processed and records checked, medical records checked, and all of those things checked, then you were assigned. I had been assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, which was to leave that night, but I got an announcement over the PA system that sounded all over the post, Camp Drake, Japan, and it said, "Second Lt. Ralph Puckett, report to room so-and-so in the headquarters building."
I reported and gave the best military salute to this very distinguished lieutenant colonel sitting behind a field folding desk. The first thing he said after giving me an "at ease" — and I stood at a very rigid parade rest, being in front of a lieutenant colonel and being a scared second lieutenant — "I'm selecting volunteers for an extremely dangerous mission behind enemy lines." I said, "Sir, I volunteer." He said, "Don't you want to know what the mission is?" I said, "Yessir, but I volunteer."
He went on to talk to me for a while and he found out I had absolutely no experience whatsoever — not one day of troop duty. I was a brand new second lieutenant just out the basic course and jump school. But he talked to me at length and tried to get something about what my makeup was, what sort of person I would be. He asked me about West Point. He noticed on my record that I was the captain of the boxing team there. And I found out later that he had been on the boxing team when he was a cadet, so that was a responding chord with him. He asked me about that and he talked to me about what I had done in the military, which was nothing except go to school. And he was also impressed that I had just completed jump school, which meant I was in tip-top physical condition.
He said, "Well, I'll think about this." He said, "I've already selected the lieutenants for the company. And I said, "Sir, I want to be a Ranger so badly that I volunteer to take a job as a squad leader or a rifleman if you'll take me into that Ranger company."
He said, "I'll give you my decision tomorrow." So, he told me to come back at 9 the next morning, and I was there at 8:30 to be sure I was on time. He brought me in and I gave another real snappy salute and he gave me "at ease." He said, "I've decided to take you into the Ranger company, and you're going to be the company commander."
And I said to myself, "Dear God, please don't let me get a bunch of good guys killed," because I knew I didn't know enough to be a squad leader, probably didn't know enough about being a rifleman. But I decided I would do my best, and with God's help wouldn't get a bunch of good guys killed.
How did you find yourself on Hill 205?
I found myself extremely busy. We had already set up the defensive perimeter and were being hit by the first, which later amounted to five major assaults by the Chinese that we were facing.
Behind enemy lines?
There were really no lines across there. The closest U.S. Army unit to where I had fought that battle that night was a mile and a half away. So, my company of 47 Rangers was totally alone. There was a mile and a half to the closest infantry unit — ground force unit — and we were out there alone. A lot of the units in the 8th Army that were over there were in the northwest part of North Korea, about 40 miles south of the Yalu (River), which was as far north as the 8th Army got during the war.
And we were strung out and spread pretty far apart in certain cases. Like I say, we were alone. And we had already set up our perimeter and there were no new orders I could give — we were there. And I saw that my main task was encouraging my soldiers, giving them what I call a lot of "attaboys": "You're doing a great job"; "We can do it"; "We're depending on you." I spent my time before, during and after each of the assaults — and we had five on the position that night — going around visiting the foxholes and getting into the foxholes with the guys and talking to them and just "How is everything going?" — just shooting the breeze, so to speak.
This was between the assaults we were having, trying to let them know that we were all in this together and we were each depending on each other, and we had to do our best. And they came through as I knew that they would.
Have you ever been back to that Hill?
No, that's in North Korea. I've been back to Korea twice, but it was south of the current DMZ. They used to have a major field training exercise and maneuver in Korea each year with the U.S. Army involved in it. And the Rangers from Fort Benning came over — or one of the battalions at Savannah or Fort Lewis would send a company over with a battalion command element — and I was asked to go, and I went with them two times to spend about 10 days with them. But we were always south of the DMZ, of course. But I saw some of the same hills, saw some of the cold weather that I had seen before.
What did you learn in Korea?
I learned this from my Ranger company, both in the training, and let me say a little bit about the training. If there was ever a unit that was destined to fail, I would say it was the 8th Army Ranger Company. The TOE (Table of Organization & Equipment) called for 74 enlisted men and three officers — one captain, two lieutenants — and two rifle platoons, two Ranger platoons. We started the training with 73 enlisted men and ended with 63. We lost 10 that didn't measure up. Those soldiers were service troops. They were good soldiers, but they were adjutant general corps, transportation ordinance, engineer ordinance. Good soldiers, but we couldn't take any infantrymen from the Infantry Division because they were too short.
One of the divisions went to Korea 7,000 soldiers short, besides being short a lot of their equipment, a lot of training and a lot of other things. We were desperately unprepared for fighting a war in Korea or any other place at that time. But by this hard training and then seeing them in action and what they were doing, I'd already had this belief, and it was supported in my belief that you can take good men and by combat-focused, realistic, high-standard training turn them into combat infantrymen — effective soldiers, Rangers — and it can be done to just about anybody who has the motivation and who goes through the training program, a training program that demands the best. Just like they do over in the 75th, and all around with the 75th Ranger Regiment. If I want to be in that regiment, I have to qualify.
If I'm enlisted, I go through an eight-week course. I enlist for it and I come in here and I'm assigned to the regiment, but I'm really not accepted. I have to prove myself, that I'm good enough to be in the regiment. And if I pass it, I go into the regiment and after a while I'm sent to the Ranger Training Brigade to earn my Ranger tab. The officers — the lieutenants — do the same thing. They have to go through that course to prove that they are good enough to be in the regiment. If I've been in the regiment for a while, and say I'm a staff sergeant and I want to be a platoon sergeant in the regiment — sergeant first class — they send me back through a similar course, shorter but with higher standards. I have to prove that I'm good enough to be a platoon sergeant. They don't take me just because I've been in the regiment and did a good job, say, as a squad leader. I have to prove I'm good enough.
So, that's the sort of thing that I think we need to do in our total Army, is increase or raise the standards. I talk to a lot of OCS (Officer Candidate School) candidates and some of the new soldiers. While they may not like me saying this... when I ask an OCS candidate, "What would you do to do a better job at OCS?" and they would think a while and say, "Sir, I'd raise the standard; I'd make it more challenging." Here's a guy who has just gone through probably one of the toughest things in his life and he says it ought to be tougher. That's me talking, that's not official, but that's what I believe.
You are an 87-year-old soldier, an infantryman, an officer. When you look at these guys today that are in a Ranger regiment with eight, 10, 12 deployments, what do you see?
I see some of the greatest people on earth. I said, "Thank God we've got young men like that who are willing to do that." And I try to tell as many of them that I can how much I appreciate what they're doing for this country. And I say, "If my wife and my children and grandchildren were talking to you, they'd say 'thank you' for what you're doing. So, I say 'thank you.'"
And that's what I try to get across: "I'm proud of you and I appreciate what you're doing. You're doing it for our country and you're doing it for me and my family." And I know that, and I know that throughout history but for those people who were their predecessors, I owe them everything. I live free — you live free — because of those soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors, Coast Guard, who came before us.
What's the difference in the Special Forces guys and the ones that you served with in Korea?
When we use Special Forces in the way that you are using it, I believe you are talking about special operations.
I'm talking about elite soldiers — you're talking about the Delta Force, you're talking about the Rangers, you're talking about Special Forces, the Night Stalkers. What they have today is they have more of a recent heritage. They have more experienced leaders than we had coming along. They have more emphasis on training than the ordinary Army had back then, and still has. They have to volunteer for it, so that puts a greater responsibility on them.
They have seen what special operations forces have done, are doing and can do — Seal Team 6, a Navy force, Osama bin Laden — what they have done. That's an inspiration to every American, I would say, and certainly an inspiration to the soldiers in Special Operations forces. We have to earn the reputation that they built for us, that they earned for us.
Do the people in the civilian community in this country, in Columbus in particular, understand who these Rangers and who these elite soldiers are? Do they understand what they are doing?
They do not. They do not understand what the soldier in the big Army is doing. The people in Columbus and the people I've seen are very supportive — much more supportive than Vietnam by a long shot, much more supportive than Korea. Korea was the forgotten war; nobody knew who we were fighting.
But the people that I meet are very appreciative of what the soldiers are doing. Unless they have served, they have practically no understanding of what it is to be a ground soldier — a grunt, an infantryman — who gets out there when the temperature is 100 degrees with a pack on his back and trains. They don't understand what it is for a soldier that's out there in the snow — not too much snow here — in the sleet, and cold, and is shivering. He's still training. They don't understand what it's like to be in a downpour and still train.
That's what infantry, particularly, and special operations forces do. Somebody asks every now and then, "Why do you train in the heat?" Because that's when we fight. Why do you train in the wintertime? Because we fight in the wintertime.
What is your opinion of the appointment of Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, Special Operations, Delta Force guy, to be commanding general at Fort Benning?
First of all, he's a great soldier. Great soldiers can do a job anywhere. I have no information whatsoever. I know he has a great reputation just like those prior to him. Just like Gen. (H.R.) McMaster who just left — a great soldier, great moral and great physical courage. Gen. Miller, the same way.
My guess — and I keep repeating, I don't have any inside track — my guess is many reasons he was selected for this job is perhaps to align or increase the cooperation and capabilities of our so-called regular forces and special operations forces by working their doctrine together, by working more of the training together. No one has ever told me that — that's just my guess. Here's one of the best special operations soldiers, leaders, we've ever had. One of the most experienced we've ever had, and they bring him to the Maneuver Center of Excellence for Infantry and Armor. So my guess is it had something to do with his background. But that was a significant factor. He's going to do great. He doesn't need me to say that.
You still come on post a good bit. How are you treated by the soldiers of today?
A lot better than I deserve. They treat me with great deference. They are very nice to me. They look after me physically and everything. They keep thanking me for being here and for all I'm doing. And I keep trying to get it across to them: "I'm the one that's thanking you. You're the one that's in the fight today. You're the hero today. You're the one who keeps going back again and again and again, and fighting that battle over and over. You're the one whose son or daughter has missed you at birthdays, Christmas and graduation time after time after time." Some of us missed that with our kids but not as many times.
I try to get it across to them how important they are, how much I personally, my family and how much the country appreciates what they are doing. And I try to get it across you can always do better.
We have been in war now for 12 years. That's a long time.
That's a long time. It's 13 years.
How do you maintain a first-class army when you've been in multiple fights for 13 years?
I think you do it by using several things. First of all, you have to see to it that the soldier who has been in there for 12-13 years is rewarded, that he is looked after, that his family is looked after. That he knows if something happens to me the government is going to look after my family, they are going to be taken care of. You have to give him some rest. You have to rotate him out of that. While many of the Rangers, just like that young sergeant I told you about, feel duty-bound and something in them says, "I'm going every time... I have the opportunity to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, or wherever."
I think you have to stop some of them. They won't like this, but give them some sort of rest assignment. Not one where he doesn't have to work. Put him in a training position or put him in a headquarters position. He will hate me for saying that, but he needs some rest.
Talk about the direction our country is headed right now. What do you see?
I'm very concerned.
I'm concerned for a lot of reasons. I look at the national level, the government, and I'm not enamored with either the Democrats or the Republicans, or the administration or the previous administrations. I think they have failed miserably. It seems like the government today, all they can do is argue. They can't seem to decide on anything. So, our government is in bad shape. Those are the politicians and money that comes in to influence those people. I have a very unhealthy feeling toward them.
I think that we have or are getting to have a society that's more and more separated than the military and the civilian. Just like I was talking about, we have support here, but people don't really know anything about the Army. They don't really have a feel for what soldiers and the others — the Air Force, Marines — go through because they don't have a dog in the fight. They don't have a member of their family who is undergoing training for that or who has been in combat, who has suffered, who may have been killed. They don't have that feeling. They don't have a dog in the fight.
In our country today there are about 300-plus million people. Less than 1 percent of that population serves. That less-than-1-percent includes all ages, but that's a very few. In our country, there are about 32 million people in the cohort 17 to 24 years old. And that's the age group from which we get most of our soldiers, our military. There are 32 million of them. If all of those 32 million walked into an Army recruiting store and said, "I volunteer for the Army," only one out of four would be accepted.
Three out of four — 24 million people in our country, which should be the best qualified physically, mentally — are unqualified. They are unqualified because they are obese, because they are physically unfit, because they've got emotional problems, because they've got drug problems, because they lack education, because they've had trouble with the law, they have psychological and emotional problems. So, three out of four of our young people aren't fit to serve, so that is a major concern of mine. I read often in the newspaper how the obesity rate is increasing steadily in our country — over 50 percent of adults are obese. Well, that's not very healthy. But the thing that bothers me is those 17-24 year olds are in such terrible condition that we wouldn't take them into the Army. That's sad. So that bothers me.
Do you think there should be a mandatory service, whether it be military or teaching in an underprivileged school?
I most certainly do and I've been preaching about that for decades. I think everybody ought to have to serve — not in the military, but I think everybody ought to have to give something back to his country.
What would be the benefit of that both for the government and for the individuals?
It would be the benefit that I see in young soldiers who had served and have talked to me about "I learned I could do a lot more than I thought I could do, sir." Or, "I learned I could keep on going when I didn't think I could." It would give him a sense of giving something to his country. It might give him the realization that he had a duty to his country to give something back to the greatest country on earth, which was earned by a lot of blood and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of dollars, so you and I can live the way that we live. He would begin to pick some of that up. It would do him a world of good in learning discipline.
I thought so often about some of my progeny that I would like to see them enlist in the Ranger Regiment and serve four years as an enlisted man over there. They would come out knowing so much more about themselves and about their responsibility. I think it would be great and I think we can move toward that. It would help eliminate some of that "I deserve all of this. I don't have to give anything to my country. I just deserve it cause I was born here."
That's the luck of the draw, a God's choice, or something. We were born here just because we were born here. We don't deserve being Americans. We are here.
You served in an Army that was male, certainly along the combat lines. Now you're starting to see more inclusion. What are your feelings about women in combat roles and combat support roles?
I didn't serve with any females. I have something that sums it up better than anything I can say, and I'll talk all day about it if you want me to. But about two years ago I saw something in the newspaper about females going to Ranger School — Ranger training is going to be open to females.
The next time I was out here, which was a couple of days later because I come out here two or three times a week, I was talking individually, not as a group, and it was just as I was passing maybe 18 to 20 senior noncommissioned officers in the Ranger Regiment, all combat veterans, all been there, done that several times. And I just asked the simple question: "What do you think about females in Ranger School?" Everyone, individually, answered, "Sir, it's OK with me if they maintain standards."
That simple: Maintain standards?
So, you're saying as long as standards aren't lowered?
That's right. If they have to do everything that Joe Soldier over there has to do, and meet the same standards, OK.
You are in the Ranger Hall of Fame.
Because of my Rangers.
The ones you served with in Korea and Vietnam?
Can we go back to the Battle of Hill 205? How many of those men are still alive?
There are very few. We started the assault with 51 Rangers. We achieved the objective with 47. We lost four rangers along the way — not killed, but wounded. The next morning after the battle, there were 21 Rangers who reported for full duty. Ten were killed on the battle, so 47 Rangers, we had 10 killed.
How many are still alive today?
I have contact with maybe a half of a dozen. In fact, we're planning another reunion in September that I will go to. There were very few that got together in our first reunion, which was probably about 20 years after the war. We had no contact until that time. They have dwindled all along, but what we are beginning to see are some of the sons and daughters of the Rangers are coming to the reunion. Their dads are no longer around. But we'll probably have about 20 at our reunion.
You said something earlier that struck me when you volunteered and that lieutenant colonel put you in charge of that company, and you said, "I don't want to get a bunch of good guy killed." What was it like when that battle was over and you did suffer casualties. What impact did that have on you then and do you think about it now?
It had a tremendous impact on me then, and I dwelled years after that on "Did I do everything that I should have done?" And I've always said, and I've said this to my Rangers who are still with me: "I could have done a better job." They always say, "You did the best you could. You did a good job. We all did the best we could."
But I still feel if maybe I did something different we wouldn't have lost that number. For a long time, and still when I think about it, I ask myself, "Why me? Why am I sitting here? Why isn't Barney Cummings, my classmate who was killed on that Hill, why isn't he sitting here?" And it's the luck of the draw or God's choice, whatever. And that often comes back to me: "Why me, why have I been so fortunate to be talking to you, to be here today? To have a wife and a lot of good friends?" I have no answer.
Why have soldiers of your generation, until the last decade or so, been so reluctant to talk about their service and their experience and their fights?
Well, I think the Vietnam veteran didn't want to talk about it because he was despised and ridiculed. Back then, if I got with Vietnam veterans that was all they would talk about. I think the fight in Desert Storm, which was a short, 100-hour battle on the ground — it was a lot longer than that. I think that the battles our soldiers — not just our Special Ops, but our soldiers who have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kosovo and some of the other places — have gotten a lot of compliments and a lot of praise from the civilian population.
And there seems to be more civilian population that ask "How are you?" "How you doing?" "What's it like?" "Tell me about you." There's a kinship between the older veterans, particularly the mamas and papas of the young veteran of today, because many of those older veterans are mamas and papas of our soldiers today.
If you really want to get soldiers talking, then you need to put on your steel pot and get behind the desk because the bullets start flying. In a similar situation that I think is very interesting. whenever I'm with a group of old Rangers, they seldom if ever talk about combat. They want to talk about Ranger school.
"Now, when I was in Ranger school we had to do so-and-so. You didn't have to do that." And they are so proud of having gone through that and they are respected for it. So, I think the reason that veterans are more willing to talk today is because even though the person asking them a question or the person with whom he's talking may have no idea about what the service is like, (he or she) is willing to listen and has respect for what that soldier has done. I think that's the reason.
What's more important in a soldier, mental toughness or physical toughness?
I think you've got to have both. You've got to be smart. You've got to be psychologically tough. You've got to be able — and this is hard for everybody, some harder than others — to steel yourself for the mental trauma that you're facing.
One of the best lessons I ever learned, and in the book I published in the foreword of it I made a statement: Many of the lessons I learned not in Army schools — Army schools are great, can't do without them — (but) most of the good lessons I have learned out of Army schools. I was a second lieutenant going through the Infantry Officer's Basic Course here at Fort Benning in 1950. There was no war; the Korean war hadn't started then. And I had a mentor, Lt. Col. Louis G. Mendez, who had been a battalion commander. He was a lieutenant colonel on the staff at the time and he retired as a colonel. He had been a commander of the 3rd Battalion, 508 Paratroop Infantry in World War II. One of my roommates at West Point had been in the Pathfinder Team for that battalion and adored Col. Mendez, said he was the greatest officer on earth. He said, "When you go to Fort Benning, you look him up." I did.
Col. Mendez and his wife Jean, who was a wonderful person, were having a group of us second lieutenants — about 10 or 12, didn't know any of them. I got Col. Mendez in the corner and I said: "Sir, some day I'm going to be in combat and I know I'm going to be afraid. How do I handle that?"
He looked me straight in the eye and he said, "Ralph Puckett, if you're thinking about yourself, you're not doing your job. The Army didn't pay you, they didn't train you to think about yourself. They taught you and trained you to look after your men. When the going gets tough and you get afraid, get up and go check on your men. You'll be too busy to think about yourself."
Well, I tried to remember and I'll say that it works to a degree. Sometimes, and I have to admit this, I was so afraid I thought I was going to vomit, and I had to do the job. And I think that's what you have to be able to do is do what it takes when the going gets tough. But when you have good people who are depending on you, you're depending on them, it becomes easy.
We are a team. I never accomplished anything by myself. Everything that was worthwhile that I've accomplished came about because I was supported by great people helping me along the way. And particularly in the early stages, it was those NCOs: "Sir, maybe we should do so and so." "Sir, what do you think about such and such?"
You listened to those guys, didn't you?
They knew more than I knew. I sure did. And even when I was a major in Special Forces with 10 or 12 years of combat experience on a Special Forces team, all of the guys knew more than I knew. We'd get a mission — this was training — to do something, and I would say, "Maj. Petree, what do we do now? What do you recommend?" He had done it 15 times. I wouldn't be very smart if I said, "We're going to do it my way" and I didn't ask somebody how we're going to do it. Now, I was still responsible — I'm the commander. If it goes wrong, that's my fault. But I had this wealth of knowledge. The lowest ranking people in my Special Forces team was sergeants. I listen to them. They had been doing it.
You were a boxer at West Point, right?
Not very good.
Did you ever get knocked out?
No, never was knocked down.
Have you always been a fighter?
Well, I've tried to hold my own when necessary. I've been beaten a lot of times.
What are you most proud of in your life?
I'm really proud of my wife and my kids — they're great. They've inspired me to try to be all that I could be, to never be satisfied with what I've done — and I never am. I think I could always have done a little better. I could do better in this interview than I'm doing. In my military service, I'm most proud of the fact that as a second lieutenant, with great support, I managed to train and command the 8th Army Ranger Company in combat, and they did a good job.
I'm most proud of that and what those soldiers did. It has affected me throughout my life, and my continuing contact with the Rangers continues to affect me. And I feel I have to live up to the Ranger creed today. I've been out of the Army since 1971. That's a long time. But I still feel it today that if I goof up, no matter what it has to do with, if I goof up with this interview, for example, I'm letting the Rangers down. I've got that Ranger tab tattooed on my heart, way down deep inside of me. I've got to live up to that. And I'm still trying to do it.