Depending on which oversimplified media narrative you prefer, Robert Swan Mueller III is either America’s Last Best Hope Against Despotism, or he’s a Power-Drunk Deep State Conniver Hellbent On Getting The President. But before he became the polarizing “special counsel” tasked with investigating President Donald Trump’s campaign and its possible connections to Russia, and before he ran the FBI for 12 years under two presidents from different parties, Mueller was another freshly-minted looie traipsing around Vietnam’s DMZ, directing Marines to fire and maneuver around their North Vietnamese enemies.
Like most memes of our age, Mueller’s past as an officer of Marines has been bandied about in media but rarely explored in any depth. That changed this week with Wired’s publication of “The Untold Story of Robert Mueller’s Time in Combat,” a long, deep dive by national security reporter Garrett Graff that cornered Mueller and many of his former Marines for firsthand recollections of an affluent Princeton grad who chose combat duty in Vietnam and proved himself under on a bloody tour during the Tet Offensive and its aftermath, earning a Bronze Star with V and a Purple Heart.
Will it change your opinion of the job Mueller’s currently doing? Probably not. Will it complicate your opinion on the man? Very possibly. Here’s some of the stuff we learned from Graff’s reporting:
1. Mueller played hockey in prep school with future Secretary of State John Kerry.
Here’s one for all you conspiracy buffs: Before signing up to join the Corps, the well-heeled Mueller “attended St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, where the all-boys classes emphasized Episcopal ideals of virtue and manliness. He was a star on the lacrosse squad and played hockey with future US senator John Kerry on the school team.”
Depending on your point of view, Kerry and Mueller growing up together is either poetic because they’re in cahoots with partisan media in a grand Hillary-loving conspiracy to bring down Trump, or it’s poetic because they’re both combat-decorated veterans who volunteered for service, yet got swift-boated as craven crooks by partisan media.
3. He was NPQd the first time he tried to join the Marines, and he had to wait a year to try again.
“In mid-1966,” Graff writes, “Mueller underwent his military physical at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard”:
This was before the draft lottery began and before Vietnam became a divisive cultural watershed. He recalls sitting in the waiting room as another candidate, a strapping 6-foot, 280-pound lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, was ruled 4-F—medically unfit for military service. After that it was Mueller’s turn to be rejected: His years of intense athletics, including hockey and lacrosse, had left him with an injured knee. The military declared that it would need to heal before he would be allowed to deploy.”
So Mueller got married, took a master’s degree in international relations, and reapplied for a billet for OCS at Quantico, shipping out in 1967 — “just before Donald Trump received his own medical deferment for heel spurs,” Graff notes.
3. At first, everybody was pretty sure the new Lt. was just another tool.
After infantry training with the Corps and the Army, Mueller headed downrange as just another green butter-bar. He inherited a “decimated” platoon in Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, full of seasoned survivors of a grueling campaign at Dai Do, near the DMZ. “They might have had a college education, but they sure as hell didn’t have common sense,” Colin Campbell, a mortarman in the company, told Graff. Mueller initially seemed like no exception:
William Sparks, a private first class in Hotel Company, recalls that Mueller got off the helicopter in the middle of a rainstorm, wearing a raincoat—a telltale sign that he was new to the war. “You figured out pretty fast it didn’t help to wear a raincoat in Vietnam,” Sparks says. “The humidity just condensed under the raincoat—you were just as wet as you were without it.”
Still, the Hotel Marines — from farms in Oregon, plantations in Mississippi, and factory lines in Ohio — were intrigued by the new Princeton and Ranger School officer, who totally didn’t have to be there. “Word was out real fast — Ivy League guy from an affluent family. That set off alarms. The affluent guys didn’t go to Vietnam then—and they certainly didn’t end up in a rifle platoon,” says VJ Maranto, a corporal in H Company. “There was so much talk about ‘Why’s a guy like that out here with us?’ We weren’t Ivy Leaguers.”
Their prime fear: That he was out for glory, and willing to risk their lives to do it.
4. A month into his tour, Mueller had to lead the platoon through a hellish, costly jungle assault and quickly earned his Marines’ respect.
When called to support another company in trouble near a North Vietnamese bunker system on Mutter’s Ridge, Mueller’s Marines slogged through dense vegetation and ran down their ammo as enemy gunners swarmed. At one point in the battle, Mueller personally recovered two seriously wounded Marines and helped patch them up for evac. After a full day of fighting, the NVA pulled back. 13 Marines had been lost, but they’d killed an enemy company commander “and had virtually decimated his staff,” the Corps later reported.
Mueller, among others, was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery; his troops say it was well-earned, along with their respect. “The minute the shit hit the fan, he was there,” one said. “He performed remarkably. After that night, there were a lot of guys who would’ve walked through walls for him.”
5. Mueller passed up chances to be a typical tool of a platoon commander.
The battle for Mutter’s Ridge had jarred plenty of the surviving Marines. One of the dead, Lance Cpl. Robert Cromwell, was a popular platoon mate who had just met his newborn daughter on an R&R trip to Hawaii. A close friend of his, companymate Bill White, “took Cromwell’s death hard; overcome with grief, he stopped shaving. Mueller confronted him, telling him to refocus on the mission ahead—but ultimately provided more comfort than discipline. ‘He could’ve given me punishment hours,’ White says, ‘but he never did.’” It was the sort of thing you’d expect from a Marine J.O. who put mission orientation, and mental wellness, before garrison hygiene.
6. Oh yeah, he also got shot in a firefight and kept fighting.
April 1969 — when U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam first exceeded the total death count in the Korean War — was especially tough for Mueller’s Marines. A series of engagements culminated that month in H Company repelling an NVA ambush that was especially intense:
At one point, Mueller was engaged in a close firefight. The incoming fire was so intense—the stress of the moment so all-consuming, the adrenaline pumping so hard—that when he was shot, Mueller didn’t immediately notice. Amid the combat, he looked down and realized an AK-47 round had passed clean through his thigh.
Mueller kept fighting.
“Although seriously wounded during the firefight, he resolutely maintained his position and, ably directing the fire of his platoon, was instrumental in defeating the North Vietnamese Army force,” reads the Navy Commendation that Mueller received for his action that day.
That was Mueller’s last direct action in combat. After a few weeks recuperating, he finished his Vietnam tour on the 3rd Marine Division’s general staff.
7. A lot of the H Company Marines didn’t even know what Mueller’s been up to since Vietnam.
In a particularly striking passage, Graff writes:
The men I talked to who served alongside Mueller, men now in their seventies, mostly had strong memories of the type of leader Mueller had been. But many didn’t know, until I told them, that the man who led their platoon was now the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the election. “I had no idea,” Burgos told me. “When you’ve been in combat that long, you don’t remember names. Faces you remember,” he says.
Maranto says he only put two and two together recently, although he’d wondered for years if that guy who was the FBI director had served with him in Vietnam. “The name would ring a bell—you know that’s a familiar name—but you’re so busy with everyday life,” Maranto says…
Sparks recalls eating lunch on a July day in 2001 with the news on: “The TV was on behind me. ‘We’re going to introduce the new FBI director, Robert … Swan … Mueller.’ I slowly turned, and I looked, and I thought, ‘Golly, that’s Lieutenant Mueller.’” Sparks, who speaks with a thick Texas accent, says his first thought was the running joke he’d had with his former commander: “I’d always call him ‘Lieutenant Mew-ler,’ and he’d say, ‘That’s Mul-ler.’”