The story of Green Beret Gary Michael Rose’s heroism is an epic of classified warfare and a stinging media scandal, but it might soon end with a Medal of Honor.
In 1970, Rose was the lone medic for a company of Special Forces soldiers and indigenous Vietnamese fighters during a risky, four-day assault deep into Laos. The badly injured Rose helped bring all the soldiers back alive and received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military honor, during a ceremony at the time in Vietnam.
“He is not a gung-ho person, he is very thoughtful, but he was a hell of a medic and I trusted him with my life,” said Keith Plancich, 66, who was a Special Forces squad leader on the mission.
But Rose and the other men were wrongly accused of taking part in war crimes in 1998 after the mission, called Operation Tailwind, was declassified and unearthed for the first time by CNN and its partner Time magazine.
Stunning claims that Rose and the Green Berets were sent to Laos to kill American defectors and that the military used sarin gas during the mission were fully discredited. CNN and Time retracted the story, which was co-written and presented by famed journalist Peter Arnett, but it cast a shadow over the mission that still remains.
The highest recognition of heroism is close for Rose and the Green Berets. The soft-spoken former medic might be the next Vietnam veteran to receive the Medal of Honor, after President Barack Obama presents the medal to retired Army pilot Lt. Col. Charles Kettles on Monday.
‘Create such havoc’
In September 1970, Rose and 15 Green Berets along with more than 100 Vietnamese tribal fighters called Montagnards were dropped into the Laotian jungle by CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters.
The elite soldiers were with the Army’s opaquely named Studies and Observations Group based in southern Vietnam. Far from studying intelligence, the Special Forces unit was leading groups of the indigenous fighters on classified raider missions into Laos, where the United States was waging a covert war against North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“They were going to create such havoc,” said retired Maj. John Plaster, a former Special Forces sniper and military historian who also served with Rose in the SOG.
Rose declined interview requests for this story.
The Green Berets and their company of indigenous fighters were tapped to take pressure off the CIA, which was running operations in the Laotian highlands, by drawing the attention of at least two North Vietnamese Army regiments in the area, Plaster said.
‘Gary kept them moving’
Once off the helicopters, the company almost immediately heard telephones ringing in the jungle. It found and overtook a 500-yard-long string of bunkers stocked with enemy rockets, according to a history of Operation Tailwind written by Plaster, who said he interviewed many of the troops involved.
The soldiers wired the bunkers with demolition charges. As they pushed on, 30 bunker explosions – and the rockets that continued to cook off through the night – went up like a challenge to the North Vietnamese.
Rose and the unit, backed by constant U.S. air power, almost never stopped moving for the next four days while taking small arms, mortar and rocket fire. They had firefights with platoon- and company-size enemy units, then called in air strikes before moving deeper into Laos.
By the first dawn, about half of the Green Berets were wounded. Many more of the Montagnards had injuries. The company continued attacking by calling in an air strike on 12 trucks and a group of infantry troops it discovered moving along a highway.
“The key was not to be overrun by the North Vietnamese,” Plaster said. “Gary kept them moving, it was emergency medicine on the go. Think of how many people could have put up with that much stress and stay organized and cool and treat all of those people.”
‘He just kept walking’
As the casualties mounted, the company called for medevac flights. Rose attempted to hand up Montagnards to two hovering helicopters amid heavy enemy fire but both aircraft were shot down.
“God knows how many times he risked his life to make sure as many guys as possible came out alive,” Plaster said.
The bloodied and worn-out soldiers dug into a hillside the second night. But Rose, who was wounded twice, worked through the night attending to the injured as NVA rockets exploded in the surrounding jungle.
“Gary was actually covering the wounded with his own body,” Plaster said.
While helping so many, Rose was suffering through his own injuries including a badly wounded foot, Plancich said.
“Every once in a while he would get wounded but we would keep going on, and he just kept walking on that foot and I know it must have been horribly painful because it was mangled,” he said.
‘Every American was wounded’
Rose was also caring for the Montagnards, who were famously recruited into the war by the Green Berets and known as fierce fighters. Plancich said he was helping Rose with one of the wounded fighters when a tank round exploded nearby.
“It peppered me and Rose, and tore open the Montagnard. It split him right open to the bone,” he said.
Rose wrapped the fighter’s leg in banana leaves after adding maggots, and by the time the Montagnard reached a hospital there were “10 pounds of maggots” on the wound, ensuring a full recovery, Plancich said.
“The last time I saw him he was playing basketball,” he said.
Over four days, the Green Berets and Montagnards moved 15 miles through the jungle and spent about 30 percent of that time engaged with NVA forces, according to Plaster.
“Every single American was wounded and some of them twice,” Plaster said.
Rose was wounded multiple times and had treated about 60 injured troops. The Marines had lost three Sea Stallions. But all of the soldiers had survived.
As helicopters lifted the last Green Berets out of Laos, the NVA forces were closing in around them and they had a cache of hundreds of pounds of documents seized from an enemy command center, which ended up being one of the biggest intelligence hauls of the Vietnam War.
‘I was disgusted’
The story of Operation Tailwind remained locked away for a quarter-century before it was declassified. In June 1998, Mike Hagan, his mother and members of his family were tuned into a CNN program called NewsStand.
Hagan, a Green Beret who fought with the SOG in Vietnam, had been interviewed by the network and assumed the debut episode would be about veteran benefits, according to a video interview published online in 2009.
But the investigative expose, which was titled “Valley of Death” and hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, instead made a series of hard-hitting allegations about the mission all those years ago in Laos.
CNN claimed that Rose, Plancich, Hagan and the other Special Forces soldiers were sent in to kill American military defectors, and during the mission they destroyed a village, killed women and children, and dropped deadly sarin gas, a chemical weapon banned under international law, according to a detailed examination of the reporting by the Defense Department.
The same claims were published by CNN’s partner Time magazine in a story written by Arnett and April Oliver, who was a CNN producer.
“I was disgusted. All of a sudden, now instead of helping with my benefits I’m a goddamn baby killer,” Hagan said in the earlier interview.
‘It wasn’t a village’
The claims threw the Pentagon into action.
The defense secretary at the time, William Cohen, ordered the leaders of the Army, Air Force and Navy as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct their own full-scale investigation, which included interviewing witnesses and digging into military records and historical archives.
Rose and Lt. Col. Eugene McCarley, the officer who led the Green Berets on the ground during Operation Tailwind, were among those called to the Pentagon in late June 1998 for interviews about the CNN allegations. The Vietnam veterans flatly refuted claims of killing women and children in a village as well as the use of chemical weapons.
“It wasn’t a village we went into, as CNN said. It was a compound,” Rose told Pentagon officials. “I came up after the fight was over. I only saw two bodies, both dead from small arms fire, and I’ve seen enough dead people from small arms fire to know what that looks like.”
McCarley said the military had decided to drop tear gas – a common crowd control substance – around the landing zone as the Green Berets attempted to board the helicopters at the end of the mission. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
“We were almost out of ammo. We were exhausted. He could see that once we got to the extraction zone, we would be overrun,” McCarley said during his interview at the Pentagon. The forward air controller “called for the gas. I never requested it.”
‘That made us war criminals’
The Pentagon investigation shot down the other claims in “Valley of Death” as well. CNN and Time conducted an internal review and after the findings were reported, they retracted the story.
“The report concludes that NewsStand’s broadcast on Operation Tailwind cannot be supported. There is insufficient evidence that sarin or any other deadly gas was used,” the network said in a statement. “Furthermore, CNN cannot confirm that American defectors were targeted or at the camp as NewsStand reported.”
The incident became one of the biggest media scandals of the late 1990s and triggered a flurry of lawsuits by Plancich, Hagan and others against CNN.
Arnett, famed for his dispatches from the Vietnam War and Desert Storm, was reprimanded and later pushed out of CNN with his reputation damaged. It caused him to leave the TV news business and search out a job in other media, he told the Washington Post in 1999.
“I realized last year that because of the notoriety I got from Tailwind, it seemed unlikely the networks would be interested,” said Arnett, who did not return Stars and Stripes requests for comment left at his home in California.
Oliver was fired from the network after the story was retracted. When reached by phone, she said she would not comment.
The retraction never erased the allegations in the view of soldiers who conducted Operation Tailwind.
In his interview a decade later, Hagan angrily remembered a woman hitting him with a purse and calling him a baby killer in an airport after the CNN report aired.
McCarley, whom Plaster described as built like a stevedore with a friendly small-town demeanor, said in a video interview also posted online in 2009 that the “Valley of Death” story painted the Special Forces unit in the worst possible light.
“We were accused of killing civilians and possibly killing some of our own people who were POWs,” McCarley said. “That concerned me because that made us war criminals.”
‘Should have got it way back when’
Earlier this month, Congress began hammering out a final version its annual defense policy bill. Tucked away inside the current proposal is legislation that clears the way for Rose to receive the Medal of Honor.
Lawmakers remain deeply divided on many defense and veteran issues, but there is agreement that the Green Beret medic should have his Distinguished Service Cross upgraded.
The House and Senate passed initial versions of the National Defense Authorization Act that include a waiver, allowing the White House to award Rose even though his combat heroism on Operation Tailwind happened too long ago to make the five-year cutoff for eligibility.
Congress passed the same waiver last year for Kettles, 86, a helicopter pilot who rescued ambushed soldiers during the Vietnam War and will be awarded the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony Monday.
The Defense Department has backed Rose for the medal upgrade and the defense secretary sent the recommendation to the president, according to the House staff members. Department spokeswoman Lt. Col. Gabrielle M. Hermes declined to confirm the recommendation or to comment.
The White House also declined to comment.
If lawmakers do approve the Rose legislation later this year, the next president could be set to make a final decision on the medal early in 2017.
The Medal of Honor could be a final vindication for the elite soldiers who pushed through Laos 46 years ago and remain bitter over the controversy and pall CNN’s “Valley of Death” cast over one of their greatest military achievements.
In the wake of the scandal, the SOG received a presidential unit citation in 2001 for heroism in Vietnam from 1964-1972, which is equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross for all Green Berets who served during its existence.
But Rose’s lifesaving actions on the battlefield will become the new face of Operation Tailwind and turn a national media spotlight on the mission if he receives the medal.
Some of the soldiers, including Plancich, still believe that Rose was shorted in 1970 when the U.S. commander in Vietnam, Gen. Creighton Abrams, pinned him with the Distinguished Service Cross instead of the nation’s highest military honor.
“He should have got it way back when,” Plancich said. “It is very hard to get the medal in Special Forces because as far as they are concerned, you are just doing your job. But Rose certainly deserves the Medal of Honor.”
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