Green Berets honor John F. Kennedy in Arlington ceremony
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: October 26, 2017
ARLINGTON, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Fifty-six years ago, President John F. Kennedy came to Fort Bragg, the home of Special Forces, and forever linked the elite soldiers to their distinctive green berets.
For that, Kennedy has a revered place in the lore of the U.S. Army’s foremost experts in unconventional warfare.
On Wednesday, as they have most years since Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Special Forces soldiers from Fort Bragg traveled to Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects to one of their biggest champions.
In a ceremony that included the leaders of Fort Bragg’s 1st Special Forces Command and members of the Kennedy family, officials commemorated the 35th president of the United States and placed a wreath at the gravesite.
Maj. Gen. Fran Beaudette, commanding general of the 1st Special Forces Command, and Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Rarey, the senior noncommissioned officer of the command, led the contingent of soldiers who were joined in Arlington by Congressman Joe Kennedy and Dr. William Kennedy Smith. Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, better known as The Old Guard, also participated in the ceremony.
"We lay a wreath on President John F. Kennedy's grave to pay tribute to his vision of building a dedicated counterinsurgency force," said Col. Richard Angle, deputy commanding officer of the 1st Special Forces Command, "a vision that helped build the Green Berets into the elite force we have become since our birth in 1952."
Kennedy visited Fort Bragg on Oct. 12, 1961, during his first year as president.
At the time, the green beret was unofficial headgear on a still-fledgling force, frowned upon by the Army hierarchy, but already a strong part of the Special Forces esprit-de-corps.
Soldiers were not allowed to wear the berets as part of their Army uniform. Instead, soldiers wore them “when they were far into the hinterlands plying their trade of stealth and clandestine movement,” according to Fayetteville Observer reports from the early 1960s.
Despite its unofficial status, then- Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough — commanding general of the Special Warfare Center that would later be renamed in Kennedy’s honor — had his men wear their green berets during the presidential visit.
After reviewing soldiers wearing the “illegal” headgear, Kennedy called the beret a “mark of distinction,” endorsing the beret’s permanent place in U.S. military lore.
On Fort Bragg, the visit is memorialized in a statue outside the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
In a letter to Yarborough after the visit, the president said he gained a new appreciation for Special Forces and the unique skills its soldiers offered the nation.
“I know that you and your men not only serve as good instructors, but as an inspiration to the allied officers who attend your school,” Kennedy wrote to Yarborough. “Please convey my congratulations and my appreciation to all of the men who took part. The challenge of this old but new form of operations is a real one and I know that you and the members of your command will carry on for us and the free world in a manner which is both worthy and inspiring.”
By the time of Kennedy’s assassination, Special Forces had doubled in size as its talents were put to use amid the Cold War and on the front lines of Vietnam. The first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, specifically requested the so-called Green Berets serve in her husband’s honor guard.
According to reports, nearly two dozen Special Forces soldiers were chosen to take turns standing guard over the president’s casket. They escorted Kennedy to his gravesite and remained on guard even after the Kennedy family had left.
In the years that followed, Special Forces soldiers have returned to honor the fallen president in annual visits.
The tradition stopped briefly at the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Special Forces soldiers in high demand. But officials renewed the visits in 2011.
The latest visit came as the U.S. government prepared to make public once-secret files related to Kennedy’s assassination. The files, which include more than 3,100 documents comprising hundreds of thousands of pages, were scheduled to be released Thursday by the National Archives, which planned to post them on its website at archives.gov/research/jfk.
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at email@example.com