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The Green Beret affair

Monday, June 4, 2012

Steve Berry, second from left, with five Green Berets, from left, Crew, Brumley, Marusco, Rheault, Berry and Williams.
(Courtesy photo)
Each year the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival brings interesting, highly talented storytellers and musicians to McCook.

This year is no different, with speakers who will tell stories covering a wide spectrum of interests. One of this year's speakers is Steve Berry, who presently practices law in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It is hoped that Steve will tell about "the resident ghost," who resides in his office building in Northeast Lincoln. But Steve participates in a number of areas in addition to his law practice, from the Sherlockian Society, the Bakers Street Irregulars, to appearances in Lincoln theatrical productions, to uncovering interesting historical Nebraska law cases. Steve is an entertaining speaker, regardless the area he visits. McCook is in for a treat.

Steve practiced law in McCook for a time in the 1960s, with his uncle, the late Wade Stevens. With the coming of the war in Vietnam, Steve volunteered for service in the Army's Legal Corps.

As Judge Advocate General, Capt. John Stevens Berry led the team that provided the defense for eight men of the Green Beret. Steve subsequently wrote about the incident, and the subsequent trial in the highly acclaimed book, "Those Gallant Men ... "

Upon arriving in Vietnam, Steve acted as an itinerant lawyer and found his legal business in the field and spent most of his time defending Army individuals in locations far away from the city. The Army was determined to dispense justice wherever it was needed, so Army personnel, prosecutors, judge, and defense team, all military men, tried their cases in store fronts, or native huts, whatever was available. The facilities were not great, but everyone went to great lengths to see that the individuals being tried for the offense got a fair trial and competent representation.

In 1969, through a series of unpredictable events, Steve became a key player in one of the Army's most controversial and widely covered trials of the Vietnam War.

World War II had shown the U.S. Army that some sort of Special unit was needed for collecting intelligence on the enemy, and the unconventional resistance units that had given the Nazis and Japanese Armies such fits dictated that these units be outside the regular Army channels. This all led to the Army Special Forces, whose ranks were filled with a good many non-conformists, but extremely dedicated soldiers. These Special Forces were the most like the French Foreign Legion that the Army had to offer. The units were made up of small 12-man teams, skilled in weapons, engineering, demolition, medicine, communication, operations, and intelligence. They were extremely mobile (Airborne), and were willing and able to perform missions behind enemy lines, or even across national boundaries if necessary (ie: Cambodia). These units often defied convention and discipline, incurring the wrath of regular Army Generals. A Chief of Staff, venting his exasperation, referred to the Special Forces as "refugees from responsibility, non-conformists, who can't quite get along in a straight military system."

President Kennedy was a great champion of the Special Forces. Much to the chagrin of the Army's top brass, Kennedy was the one who approved the wearing of the (up to then, unauthorized) Green Beret by the SF units, calling it "a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom."

In 1969, the Vietnam War was at its highest pitch, 530,000 American ground troops, the Navy's 7th Fleet, in the Tonkin Gulf, and Air Force strategic bombers providing support for American and some 62,000 SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) ground troops, fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnam Communist forces. Unproductive Peace talks droned on.

By 1967, the U.S. had gained superiority in gathering intelligence about the enemy, with the Special Forces providing 65-75 percent of this information, which was duly passed on to the CIA, which also operated in Vietnam, in a close, but unofficial partnership with the Special Forces. One reporter, commenting on the relationship called it "an incestuous marriage between the sneaky Petes and the spooks". For security reasons, this intelligence was withheld from the South Vietnamese Army. But by 1969, sources the SF used for information about the Viet Cong had begun to disappear. Clearly, the Army had a problem -- a security breach.

The source of the trouble for the Army's intelligence problems was eventually traced to a spy, working for the Special Forces, one Thai Kkac Chuyen, who was suspected of passing military secrets to the Viet Cong (a double agent), and also to the South Vietnamese Army (triple agent). Mr. Chuyen was caught on film talking with an agent of the Viet Cong, and was given a series of lie detector tests, some with the aid of sodium pentathol (truth serum). These tests indicated that he had lied about passing on secrets to the enemy, endangering American lives.

Trouble occurred for the Green Berets when they were charged with "taking care of the problem," which they did by dispatching Mr. Chuyen and burying him in the shark-infested waters of the South China Sea. Their official report to their superiors was that Mr. Chuyen had been sent on a secret mission, from which he never returned.

Capt. Steve Berry was selected to be the lead attorney for the eight Special Forces soldiers accused of murdering Mr. Chuyen. The eight defendants were Col. Robert Reault, Capt. Bob Marasco, Maj. David Crew, Capt. Leland Brumley, Capt. Budge Williams, Major Tom Middleton, WO Eddie Boyle, and Sgt. Alvin Smith.

Steve Berry was soon convinced that the eight Green Beret soldiers were to be sacrificed, serving as scapegoats to help the Army escape a public relations black eye in the newspapers, and for the first time, television newscasts around the world -- another unwanted consequence of America's presence in an increasingly controversial and unpopular war.

Berry and the other members of his defense team were determined that either the men go free, or they should be tried in an open court, in which case they would bring out all the extenuating circumstances surrounding this case. They were passionate about the 6th Amendment to the Constitution, "In criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial ... " Berry's argument, "The government has a choice. It may bring forth everything ... and try my client, in which case we will gladly go to court, or it can drop the charges against my client. The government may not do both, sir."

To get all the information about the case, from the Army and the CIA, Berry made it known that he would go all the way to the president of the United States to make sure officials of the CIA and Commanding General would testify before the court. The CIA officials declined to appear in any court proceedings, as did Gen. Abrams. Relentless questioning by the defense team would certainly compromise military operations for years to come.

As the case ground on, the world's press began to take real notice of the proceedings. Folks all over the world were outraged that soldiers were being persecuted "for doing their job."

In September 1969, Secretary of the Army, Stanley Risor announced that it had become impossible for the men to receive a fair trial -- charges against them were being dismissed.

Berry, the members of his defense team, and the eight Green Beret soldiers were happy with the outcome, of course, but in reality there were no winners -- all were victims of a new kind of war that no one really understood. Gen. Abrams, Patton's protégé during World War II, and one of the most respected generals of the Army, but of the old school, had to back down. Col. Rheault, on a clear path to become a General, never was again promoted, and all of the other members of that little group soon left the Army, their careers effectively over.

Source: "Those Gallant Men", by Steve Berry, "The Green Beret Affair" Military History online.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By