This year, over the Memorial Day holiday in Chicago, I’ll be joining a small cadre of fellow U.S. Army veterans at a 50th year anniversary of sharing some little known activities in military intelligence during the Cold War.
Often jokingly called an oxymoron, military intelligence is in fact a deadly serious strategic part of the Department of Defense, spread across its various branches. It encompasses collection of foreign intelligence, analysis and protection from foreign interests doing the same to the U.S.
By late 1968, the manpower needs of the military during the Vietnam War were at their height. Draftees served two years, often as infantry riflemen. Young officer candidates were often commissioned as infantry officers. Reservists faced a longer service obligation. Young men weighed their options.
“We were a unique group of guys that came together at a unique time in our history,” said William Briggs, 72, of Morgan Hill, CA who organized the reunion. “Most all of us were already college grads who had lost our deferments from the draft. We enlisted for an extra year of service to get our choice of military occupation.” After their basic training at various posts around the country, they arrived, prequalified, at Ft. Holabird, MD, in spring 1969.
Enrolled in a course purposely vaguely called Area Studies, the group went through months of intensive training in the covert collection of intelligence outside the U.S. Much of their training and subsequent activities is still considered classified. Following this training, many of the men were assigned to overseas stations such as (then West) Germany, Korea or Panama. About half the troops spent nearly a year studying intensive Vietnamese language at Defense Language Institute in Virginia before deployment to Vietnam.
It was pretty unorthodox compared to the rest of the Army. Many of us operated as civilians. Others filled officer slots, though we were non-commissioned officers. We were asked to do things most people only read about in thrillers. We had successes and failures. We experienced both tedium and adrenalin rushes. But we served to the best of our abilities, and after discharge got on with our lives.
Most of the two dozen men have not seen each other for 50 years. At the three-day reunion we will relive our service and catch up about families and careers, as well as touring and make a group contribution to homeless veterans.