A look at the many “firsts” in Veterans health history
Today’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) embodies the spirit of the many Black men and women who broke history and continue to inspire us today.
National home for disabled volunteer soldiers, the first to provide domiciliary and medical care to Black veterans
VHA’s first hospitals opened under its predecessor, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. The hospitals were racially integrated from the very beginning. The first African American Veterans, who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, were admitted to the Central Branch (now Dayton VAMC) in Ohio in March 1867.
Dr. Howard Kenney, 1962
It was the first government-civilian institution to admit the nation’s first African American Veterans of the Union Army.
First racially segregated veterans hospital
After the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case decision, the practice of “separate, but equal” accommodations based on race took hold in American society. When the National Home opened its new Mountain Branch in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1903, the staff segregated Veterans by race.
A Veterans hospital established exclusively for African American Veterans opened in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1923, for those who served in World War I, caring for more than 300,000 Black Veterans
Pictured above is Dr. Henry Ward and staff at Tuskegee Hospital, 1924.
First African American hospital director
Dr. Joseph H. Ward, of Indianapolis, became the first director of the Tuskegee Veteran’s hospital in 1923. Dr. Ward served in that capacity at Tuskegee until 1936.
Racial segregation ends at VA
On July 29, 1954, VA announced that segregation of the races had officially ended at all hospitals.
First African American director to integrate VA hospitals
Dr. Howard Kenney was the first director to integrate the VA hospital system. On July 20, 1962, he became the first African American VA hospital director for the East Orange, NJ, facility.Long Description
Viola Johnson, director, Battle Creek VAMC, 1984
First African American VA regional medical director
After integrating executive leadership at VA hospitals in 1962, Dr. Howard Kenney went on to become the first African American appointed as a VA Regional Medical Director in 1969.
First African American nursing director
Vernice Ferguson was the first African American nurse appointed as VA’s Director of Nursing in 1980, and she held that position for 12 years, retiring in 1992.
First African American woman hospital director
Viola Johnson became the first African American woman to lead a VAMC in 1984 when she assumed direction of the Battle Creek Michigan facility.
First VA hospital named for African American veteran
The first VA facility named after an African American was named after Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient PFC Ralph H. Johnson (Marines) in 1990.
First African American VA Secretary
Jesse Brown was the first African American VA Secretary. He served from 1993 to 1997.
The September 11, 2001, attacks saw numerous acts of bravery and courage from Americans from many walks of life — be they ordinary citizens, emergency services personnel or members of the military.
Of special note was the sacrifice this National Guard fighter pilot and her comrades were willing to make when their fighters were sent up without any armament to protect the nation’s capital soon after word of the attacks spread.
Among the many fighter pilots sent to the skies in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York was Heather “Lucky” Penney, a fighter pilot with the District of Columbia Air National Guard. At the time a 1st lieutenant with the 121st Fighter Squadron, Lucky was the only female in her fighter training class, and the only female pilot serving with the squadron.
When air traffic controllers in Cleveland, Ohio, saw a potential hijacking aboard a United Airlines flight, Penney and her flight lead, Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville, were called into action.
Launching from Andrews AFB near Washington, D.C., at 10:42 local time, the pair saw smoke billowing out from Arlington, Virginia, the site of the Pentagon. A second pair of fighters piloted by Brandon Rasmussen and Daniel Caine – also of the DCANG – were sent up as well.
The Secret Service and defense sector controllers responsible for watching over the airspace surrounding the capital requested an aerial presence to ward away or destroy any other hijacked airliners, lest they attack juicier targets like the White House or the Capitol, or hit crowded civilian areas.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon – the fighters these four pilots flew – is very capable in the air-to-air arena. However, in the rush to get airborne, none of the four DCANG F-16s were armed with missiles or live rounds for their cannons – not that any were immediately available.
Sasseville and Penney briefly discussed a plan of action, noting that their lack of armament would make downing a larger airliner considerably more difficult. The two agreed that the only option would be using their aircraft as rams, where Sasseville would hit the cockpit and Penney the tail.
Though, hypothetically, the two pilots could have aimed their fighters for the engines of the aircraft and ejected quickly after, they knew that the only way they could be sure of bringing down their quarry was if they stayed with their F-16s all the way through.
Word came in over their radios that an aircraft was heading at a low altitude over the Potomac River, possibly towards the White House. This ultimately proved to be a false alarm, though military and Secret Service operations officers initially concluded that the inbound aircraft was United 93, a Boeing 757 similar to the American Airlines jet which had slammed into the Pentagon earlier in the day.
United 93 never showed up in Washington. After recovering at Andrews AFB, the four DCANG pilots would learn that United 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania. Penney, Sasseville, Rasmussen and Caine would soon refuel and have their aircraft armed with weaponry before returning to the skies for their second sortie on Sept. 11.
This time, Penney and Sasseville were directed to fly as escorts for Air Force One, carrying President George W. Bush from Offutt AFB to Andrews AFB. The duo were almost engaged in combat yet again when a Learjet approached Air Force One at high speed, though the event was short-lived with the private aircraft diverted, having been on its way to finding a suitable airport to land.
Both Penney and Sasseville went on, post-9/11, to fly combat missions overseas in support of the Global War On Terror. Penney has since left the DC ANG and works with Lockheed Martin in a senior position.
“Patton’s Panthers” was one of the most effective tank battalions in World War II, fighting a continuous 183 days at the front and inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans while crews racked up accolades from their peers, including three Medal of Honor nominations in their first month of combat.
The first black armored unit was the 758th Tank Battalion which received 98 black enlisted men in 1941. The 761st followed in March 1942 as a light tank battalion but converted to medium tanks in September 1943.
It was on that day that the battalion struck a German roadblock that could spell doom. The tanks were forced to stop, making them easy targets for German guns.
Despite fierce German fire, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers rushed out of his tank and attached a cable to the roadblock before dragging it out of the way. The American tanks pushed forward through the opening and the attack was successful.
The next day, Charlie Company 1st Sgt. Samuel Turley found his company under heavy German fire with wrecked tanks. He ordered the crews to dismount and organized a resistance before climbing from a ditch to lay down cover fire. His gamble saved his men, but he was cut down by German machine gun fire.
The day after that, on Nov. 10, Sgt. Warren G.H. Crecy fought his way forward to save his men under fire until his tank was destroyed. He then commandeered another vehicle and killed his attackers with a .30-caliber machine gun before turning the weapon on German artillery observers.
On Nov. 11, Crecy was back at it. His tank was immobilized and he attempted to get it going until he saw German units attacking the nearby infantry. So he climbed onto his .50-cal. and gave them cover. Later that day, he destroyed machine gun nests and an anti-tank weapon.
Rivers was back in the spotlight Nov. 16-19. A mine shot fragments through his leg and destroyed his knee on Nov. 16. Despite the recommendation that he immediately evacuate, Rivers led the way across a brand-new bridge the next day and took on four German tanks, killing two and driving two more back.
By Nov. 18, Rivers’ leg was infected but he still refused to go home. The next day, Rivers directed fierce fire onto German anti-tank guns until two rounds pierced his own tank and went through his head, killing him instantly.
All three men, Rivers, Crecy, and Turley, were nominated for the Medal of Honor but only Rivers received it.
The next month the 761st conducted assaults aimed at breaking up the German forces at the Battle of the Bulge, slowing German resupply and taking the pressure off the units under siege despite the fact that the 761st was fighting a numerically superior enemy.
After another month and a half of fighting, the 761st threw itself against a dug in and numerically superior enemy once again while leading the armored spearhead through the Siegfried Line and fought “the fiercest of enemy resistance in the most heavily defended area of the war theater” for 72 hours according to its Presidential Unit Citation.
On May 5, 1945, the 761st linked up with Russian Forces in Steyr, Austria. Over the course of the war, the unit had lost nearly 50 percent of its starting forces and 71 tanks. It was also credited with inflicting 130,000 casualties.
When it comes to military history, the Guinness Book of World Records – like the rest of the public – only knows what it’s allowed to know. For the longest time the Guinness Book gave the award for the longest continuously submerged patrol to the HMS Warspite – one of the Royal Navy’s storied names.
While there have been longer patrols the mission of the Warspite happened at the height of the Cold War, prowling the waters around the Falkland Islands after the end of the UK’s war with Argentina.
This Warspite was the eighth vessel to carry the name.
The Warspite had a number of innovations that made it perfect for its 1983 submerged mission. It was the first Royal Navy vessel navigated entirely by gyroscope. Its nuclear-powered engines, along with air conditioning, purification systems and electrolytic gills allowed it to be submerged for weeks at a time. The longest time below the waves wasn’t even its first record. During a 6,000-mile journey in the far east, the submarine did the entire run submerged, earning the then-record for longest distance submerged. But breaking records wasn’t the Royal Navy’s mission, it was countering the Soviet Union.
No naval force on Earth was better at penetrating the USSR’s maritime boundaries than the Royal Navy. Warspite was specially suited for spy missions in the cold waters of the Arctic. Its ability to sneak into the areas undetected allowed them to watch the Soviet Navy at work and listen to their uncoded communications. But its record-breaking underwater patrol didn’t come against the USSR, it came while watching Argentina.
The now-decommissioned HMS Warspite.
The ship had just completed a complete, three-year refit after a massive fire nearly caused the captain to scuttle the ship. It was finished just in time for the United Kingdom to go to war with Argentina over the latter country’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. In a rush to get into the action, the crew of the Warspite shrugged off the six-month trial period and dashed for the war.
She didn’t see much action in the war, but its patrol afterward was the stuff of legend at the time. The ship and its crew spent more than 112 days aboard ship and underwater, keeping the Argentine Navy at bay.
While everyone likes to talk about how scary the Spartans or Romans could be, it was the Mongols who pioneered new warfare tactics, used them to win battle after battle, and survived on a diet of horse blood and liquor to ride across whatever terrain they needed to in order to murder you.
The Mongols, made most famous by Genghis Khan after he established an empire in 1206, were centered in the steppes of central Asia. The empire would eventually cover over 9 million square miles, making it the largest land empire in world history.
Mongol success was due to a number of factors. They could be ruthless, allowing them to press the attack when most would back off. They had a good division of labor, with women taking on many camp and political duties while the men did the bulk of the fighting with few distractions. And their societal ties to horses made them highly mobile. So highly mobile that, in battle, they were some of the pioneers of “localized superiority of numbers,” a force concentration strategy where a smaller force could dominate a larger one by outnumbering the larger force at key points.
Basically, it doesn’t matter if you have three times the forces in the region if I have three times the forces at the objective — my team’s horses allow us to quickly hit objective after objective while your marching brethren are still plodding along the roads.
In one case in 1223, two of Genghis Khan’s lieutenants were riding with 20,000 men against 80,000 Russian troops. The horsemen conducted a controlled withdrawal, and the Russians pursued sloppily, allowing their column to get stretched out. After a week, the Russians were split up and the horsemen turned around, slamming their 20,000 troops against a couple thousands Russians at a time. The Mongols won handily, using bows and lances to kill Russian after Russian.
But as the Mongol Empire went to expand, the terrain began to limit them. Horse armies are perfect for traversing grasslands covered in animals, and are even good for mountains and forests, but trying to cross the most sparse parts of Asia was near impossible. The horde could face days of hard riding with barely enough food to sustain a few horsemen, let alone the 20,000 or more in the horde.
For instance, the 1223 attack against Russian forces required that the Mongols cross miles and miles of grasslands for days. They carried dried horse milk, dried meat, dried curds. Sure, it doesn’t sound appealing, but it could keep you going on the march.
But that would only buy the Mongols a few days. Since they also liked getting drunk, they usually carried horse liquor, which packed a lot of calories for relatively little weight. So, yeah, when the Mongol Horde rode out of the mists to slaughter you, they were drunk on horse when they did it.
But for even longer rides, famed explorer Marco Polo said things took a turn for the darker. See, the horsemen would get almost no sustenance from eating grass. It passes through the human digestion system while leaving almost no calories or nutrients behind.
But horses can eat grass just fine; it’s one of their primary foods. And so, in a pinch, the Mongols would cut a vein in their horse’s necks at the end of every day, taking a few swallows of blood that the horse could easily replace. It wasn’t much, but it allowed them to cross the grasses to the west and hit Russia and additional empires.
On the even darker side, they also allegedly ate human flesh when necessary. Even killing the attached human if horses and already-dead people were in short supply. So, you know, the Mongols were the monsters you heard about in history. But they were also tactical masterminds who embraced technology and strategy.
Just 60 years ago, there were no man-made objects above the planet Earth. Now, there are nearly 500,000 objects circling over Earth in various orbits. These include debris, inactive, and active satellites.
The tiny Sputnik, which means “satellite” or “fellow traveler” in Russian, was the first man-made satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, and it changed the course of human history.
The 58cm diameter, 83.6kg metallic orb, with four antennae that transmitted radio pulses, that was launched by the Soviet Union heralded the space race between the USSR and the US – ushering in an era of scientific advances, not only in military, but also in communications and navigation technologies.
There are approximately 1,500 active satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Modern society is heavily dependent on satellite technology, which is used for television and radio broadcasting, telephone calls, GPS navigation, mapping, weather forecasting, and other functions.
Class of satellite orbit
Low Earth Orbit
80km – 1,700km
Communications, Earth observation, development (International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope)
Medium Earth Orbit
1,700km – 35,700km
2 – 24 hrs
Navigation (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo)
Communications (Sirius Satellite Radio)
The US share of satellites
US government and private entities own over 40 percent of all satellites currently in orbit. Most operational satellites currently in orbit are for used for communications, Earth observation, technology development, navigation, and space science.
They have lifetimes ranging from months to 30-plus years after launch.
In a U.S. territory half a world removed from the continental United States, what does it mean to be American? To find out, Meals Ready To Eat host August Dannehl shipped off to the far reaches of Pacific Micronesia, to Guam.
Guam is a tiny island with a full dance card of seemingly competing cultural histories. Its indigenous people, the Chamorro, called it home for 4000 years, but after the island was “discovered” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, it experienced several centuries of European colonization, capture, and rule that heaped Spanish, Catholic, American, and Japanese cultural influence atop the foundations of its identity.
But where other territories with similar fraught histories stumble through the modern era in crisis and without a firm sense of collective “self,” Guamanians wove themselves into the fabric of democratic and multicultural America. They celebrate their 21st century hybridity with exuberance, with fervent patriotism and military service, and with a food culture so funky and delicious, people travel from all over the globe to get in on it.
Why choose? (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)
In Guam, you find patriotism in its purest form, animated by gratitude for life. Guamanians have earned a deep understanding of how precarious human existence can be, whether it’s an island in the middle of the ocean or an oasis in the heart of the desert or a small, blue planet in the void of space.
Guamanians don’t just feel gratitude, they act on its behalf. As a people, they serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any of the 50 states.
When the Americans came and liberated us, they became family. That patriotism from our ancestors or those even living today, it continues on. And that’s an honor to be part of a nation that gives freedom, to be part of something greater than this tiny island…that’s what makes us American. —Sgt. Joleen Castro, U.S. Air Force
Their service reflects their dedication to the American ideal, yes, but it’s also an expression of inafa’maolek, or interdependence, the core value of the Chamorro people. Guamanians, at the deepest level of their tradition, celebrate collective prosperity, unity and togetherness. They celebrate the good.
Unsurprisingly, they throw incredible parties. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)
The United Nations General Assembly has designated Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day honors the memories of the 6 million Jewish victims and millions of others whose lives were impacted during the Holocaust. International Holocaust Remembrance Day also provides educational programs to prevent future genocides.
Many who survived the atrocities of the Holocaust persevered despite the trauma they endured, and several even served with distinction in the US military. Here are three of their stories.
SIDNEY SHACHNOW, ARMY SPECIAL FORCES
Sidney Shachnow compartmentalized the horrors he experienced while imprisoned in a Jewish ghetto during World War II. He authored a book in 2004 called Hope and Honor: A Memoir of a Soldier’s Courage and Survival. It was within these pages he broke his code of silence. “I found it painful and I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me,” he wrote in the preface.
Born Schaja Shachnowski in 1934 in Kaunas, Lithuania, Shachnow’s entire family and 40,000 of the Jewish population of Kaunas lived in a fenced-off ghetto called Concentration Camp No. 4, Kovno.
“There was no infrastructure, no water pipes, no sewage system, and no access to running water,” Shachnow wrote. “Not only the brutality of the Gestapo, but the threat of disease was an ever-present terror to the population.” He and his family lived in constant fear for three years before the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania.
He survived the Holocaust and went on to have a historic career in the US Army. “I have been involved or played a part in some of the most significant times in history from the beginning of Special Forces, the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive, to the fall of the Berlin Wall while living in the former home of the Treasurer of the Third Reich as Commander of US Forces,” he wrote. “The irony of circumstance has always been exceptional in my life, from being enemies with the Germans, friends with the Soviets as they rescued me and my family from Kovno, and later enemies of the Russians during the Cold War and protecting West Germany.”
When he became a US citizen in 1958, he changed his name to Sidney Shachnow. He went to Vietnam both as a Green Beret and as an infantry officer and was twice awarded the Silver Star for actions in combat, as well as two Purple Hearts. He later served as the commander of Detachment A, a covert Army Special Forces unit based in Berlin that conducted some of the most sensitive operations of the Cold War from 1956 to 1984. He retired from the US Army as a major general in 1994 with almost 40 years of active-duty military service. Shachnow died in 2018.
JACK TAYLOR, OSS MARITIME UNIT
Lt. Jack Taylor was a US Navy sailor recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II. He served with the OSS Maritime Unit — one of the several predecessors of Navy SEALs — and had 18 months of operational experience in the Balkans. In October 1944 he became the first Allied officer to drop into Austria. After a mission to infiltrate Vienna and set up a resistance network code-named Operation Dupont went sideways, Taylor was captured by the Gestapo.
He was held in a Vienna prison for four months. When the Russians neared Vienna, he was transferred to Mauthausen concentration camp — a horrible place in Germany where people were sent to be exterminated.
The US Army’s 11th Armored Division liberated the camp on May 3, 1945. Taylor later spoke about his experiences in front of a film crew from within the camp. One of the liberators asked how many ways people in the camp were executed, and Taylor answered honestly. “Five or six ways: by gas; by shooting; by beating, beating with clubs; by exposure, that is standing outside naked for 48 hours and having cold water thrown on them in the middle of winter; dogs; and pushing over a 100-foot cliff.”
Taylor’s path differed from the others on this list as he was already serving his country before he was imprisoned. He recovered 13 “death books” kept by prisoners who acted as camp secretaries at Mauthausen. These recorded the “official” deaths, but unbeknownst to their German captors, the records had a secret code to mark deaths by lethal injection and by the gas chamber. This evidence was later presented during the Nuremberg Trials and was called “some of the best war crimes evidence” produced.
In May 1946, Taylor was called as a star witness for the prosecution at the Mauthausen-Gusen Camp Trials held at the Dachau concentration camp. He was later awarded the Navy Cross for his service during World War II and suffered from severe post-traumatic stress in his life as a civilian.
TIBOR RUBIN, MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT AND POW
Tibor Rubin was only 13 years old when he was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp. “When we get into the camp the German commander said right away, ‘You Jews, none of you are going to get out alive,’” Rubin remembered. “It was a terrible life. Their aim was to kill you. Nothing to look forward, just when am I going to be next.”
His turn never came. The US Army liberated the camp. He was separated from his family but alive. Rubin later discovered his parents and sister were murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. He vowed to one day become like one of the liberators who saved his life.
“I have a debt to pay,” he said. “So I made a promise. If Lord help me if I ever go to America, I’m gonna become a GI Joe.”
He became more than an average soldier. He joined the US Army and deployed to Korea in 1950. Alone on a hilltop at 4 a.m. Rubin single-handedly repelled a force of more than 100 enemy troops during a 24-hour gun battle. “I figured I was a goner,” Rubin later recalled. “But I ran from one foxhole to the next, throwing hand grenades so the North Koreans would think they were fighting more than one person. I couldn’t think straight — a situation, like that, you become hysterical trying to save your life.”
He was recommended for the Medal of Honor but was denied due to discrimination against his Jewish heritage by senior leadership. One of them, a sergeant, even sent Rubin on one-way suicide missions expecting him not to make it back alive — but he always did.
On the night before Halloween, Rubin’s position was overrun by Chinese forces and he became a prisoner of war. While in the camp he would sneak out at night and steal food from the guards. He made soup for the sick, acted as a doctor for his wounded friends, and was a therapist for those who had given up hope.
From April 20 to May 3, 1953, the Chinese forces conducted a POW exchange of the sick and wounded. He was personally responsible for saving the lives of 35 to 40 soldiers who otherwise would have succumbed to their injuries. When Rubin returned to the US he devoted 20,000 hours to helping veterans in Long Beach, California. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Rubin the Medal of Honor, which he’d been recommended for on four separate occasions.
When you think about Grumman fighters, the Wildcat, the Panther, and the Tomcat all spring to mind. And for good reason — these planes are all classics. But there is one Grumman fighter that didn’t quite get a chance to shine in World War II, but it did see some action in Southeast Asia.
Grumman F8F Bearcats line up on the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (CV 45)
During World War II, the Navy was deploying the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair was operated by the Marine Corps. The Hellcat was a very tame plane, but the Corsair — known as the “Ensign Eliminator” and foisted on the Marines — simply had higher performance. The Navy wanted the best of both planes. They wanted the F8F Bearcat.
French F8F Bearcats prepare to take off to carry out a napalm strike in Southeast Asia.
At the heart of the Bearcat was the Pratt and Whitney R-2800. This was the powerplant used by both the Corsair and Hellcat, but the Bearcat was much lighter, which gave it extreme performance. The Bearcat also packed a significant punch — to the tune of four M2 .50-caliber machine guns. If that wasn’t enough, the Bearcat was also able to haul five-inch rockets or a 1,000-pound bomb.
The Bearcat’s primary mission was to intercept enemy planes. The plane had a “bubble” canopy (pretty much a standard feature on today’s fighters) to improve the situational awareness of pilots. The Bearcat had a top speed of 421 miles per hour and a maximum range of 1,105 miles. It stuck around long enough to see some upgrades, but was quickly replaced by the onset of fighter jets, like the F9F Panther.
These days, when things go south while in a fighter, pilots are trained to reach for the loops that trigger their ejection seats. You just give it a yank and the ejection seat takes it from there, launching you from the stricken plane and setting you up for a safe(ish) landing on the ground (hopefully far from people you’ve just bombed or strafed).
Easy as pie — but it’s still something you don’t wanna do.
But in World War II, the process was very different. Today’s ejection seats use technology that didn’t exist in that era, so much of the process had to be handled manually, which was extremely hazardous.
When future president George H. W. Bush’s Grumman TBF Avenger was hit by enemy over Chichijima, the other two men on board were immediately killed and he had to bail out. In the chaos, Bush ejected improperly and collided with the plane’s tail — luckily, his injuries were minor compared to what could’ve happened. He drifted to the ocean below tethered to a parachute and was eventually rescued.
The method of properly ejecting from a World War II-era fighter varied depending on the plane. What worked for a P-38 Lightning wouldn’t work for a F4U Corsair. But, in general, the procedure was to slow the plane down as much as possible and manually open up the canopy. That’s when things got real tricky.
A pilot’s natural instinct is to use their foot to jump from the side of the cockpit, but that would expose him or her to the slipstream — and that means a collision with the tail. Instead, pilots must use their hands on the side of the cockpit and roll over the “wall.” Then, the pilot waits to clear the plane (usually with a ten count) before pulling the ripcord, deploying a parachute.
These days, Richard Marcinko is a business instructor, author, and motivational speaker. In his earlier years, “Demo Dick” was the United States’ premier counterterrorism operator. Marcinko enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1958 and eventually worked his way up to the rank of commander, graduated with degrees in international relations and political science, and earned 34 medals and citations, including a Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, and four Bronze Stars. But that’s just his military resume.
Even among the ranks of American special operators, Marcinko, his record, and his reputation are all exceptional — and it’s easy to see why. At 77, he is still training business executives as well as U.S. and foreign hostage rescue teams. He even worked as a consultant on the FOX television show 24. His memoir, Rogue Warrior, is a New York Times bestseller.
“I’m good at war,” Marcinko once told People Magazine. “Even in Vietnam, the system kept me from hunting and killing as many of the enemy as I would have liked.”
1. North Vietnam had a bounty on his head
As a platoon leader in Vietnam, Marcinko and his SEALs were so successful, the North Vietnamese Army took notice. His assault on Ilo Ilo Island was called the most successful SEAL operation in the Mekong Delta. During his second tour, Marcinko and SEAL Team Two teamed up with Army Special Forces during the Tet Offensive at Chau Doc. The SEALs rescued hospital personnel caught in the crossfire as an all-out urban brawl raged around them.
Because of Marcinko’s daring and success, the NVA placed a 50,000 piastre bounty on his head, payable to anyone who could prove they killed the SEAL leader. Obviously, they never paid out that bounty.
2. He was rejected by the Marine Corps
Marcinko joined the military at 18 but, surprisingly (to some), he didn’t first opt to join the Navy. His first stop was the Marine Corps, who rejected him outright because he did not graduate from high school. So Marcinko, who would leave as a Commander, enlisted in the Navy. He later became an officer after graduating from the Navy’s postgraduate school, earning his commission in 1965.
3. He designed the Navy’s counterterrorism operation
You know you’ve made it when they make a video game about your life story.
After the tragic failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the U.S. attempt to free hostages being held by students in Iran, the U.S. Navy and its special operations structure decided that they needed an overhaul. Marcinko was one of those who helped design the new system. His answer was the creation of SEAL Team Six.
4. He numbered his SEAL Team “Six” to fool the Russians
When he was creating the newest SEAL Team, the United States and Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War — and spies were everywhere. Not trusting that anyone would keep the creation of his new unit a secret, he numbered it SEAL Team Six in order fool the KGB into believing there were three more SEAL Teams they didn’t know about.
5. His job was to infiltrate bases — American bases
The Navy needed to know where their operational sensitivities were — where they were weakest. Even in the areas where security was thought tightest, the Navy was desperate to know if they could be infiltrated. So, Vice Admiral James Lyons tasked Marcinko to create another unit.
Marcinko created Naval Security Coordination Team OP-06D, also known as Red Cell, a unit of 13 men. Twelve came from SEAL Team Six and the other from Marine Force Recon. They were to break into secure areas, nuclear submarines, Navy ships, and even Air Force One. Red Cell was able to infiltrate and leave without any notice. The reason? Military personnel on duty were replaced by civilian contractor security guards.
Just like the A-Team, except real. And Marcinko is in command. And he’s the only one. And he killed a lot more people.
6. He spent 15 months in jail
Toward the end of his career, he was embroiled in what the Navy termed a “kickback scandal,” alleging that Marcinko conspired with an Arizona arms dealer to receive 0,000 for securing a government contract for hand grenades. Marcinko maintained that this charge was the result of a witch hunt, blowback for exposing so many vulnerabilities and embarrassing the Navy’s highest ranking officers. He served 15 months of a 21-month sentence.
After relieving the 1st Marine Division and securing the defeat of the Japanese at Guadalcanal, the 2nd Marine Division prepared for the first major assault of the Pacific island-hopping campaign. Their target was a small coral atoll called Tarawa.
The Japanese garrison on Betio, an island of the Tarawa atoll, stood in the way of communications lines between Hawaii and other objectives in the Central Pacific.
The operation, codenamed Galvanic, combined an assault by the 27th Infantry Division on Makin Island and a later landing on Apamama would clear the Gilbert Islands and, according to Admiral Nimitz, “[knock] down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”
Unfortunately for the Marines, their earlier diversionary raid against Makin Island had alerted the Japanese to the importance of the Gilbert Islands. They had fortified Betio accordingly.
The island was small, only about three miles long and no wider than 800 meters, but within that confined space the Japanese had constructed some 500 pillboxes, four eight-inch gun turrets, and numerous artillery and machine gun emplacements. A coral and log seawall ringed most of the island and 13mm dual-purpose anti-boat/antiaircraft machine guns protected the most likely approaches.
The Marines were bringing one division. Leading the way would be the 2nd Marine Regiment under Col. David Shoup. Aimed at Red Beach 1 and leading the charge for the regiment were the men of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. To their left, hitting Red Beaches 2 and 3, were their sister battalion 2/2 Marines, and 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.
On the morning of Nov. 20, 1943, after a scant three-hour naval bombardment, the Marines headed for shore.
Immediately issues began to develop. First, the naval gun fire ceased at approximately 0900 while the Marines in their Landing Vehicles, Tracked (LVT) were still 4,000 yards off shore. Second, an unexpected neap tide had failed to cover a reef in the lagoon. The LVTs could easily crawl over it, but the Higgins boats carrying later waves would not have sufficient depth to clear the reef.
As the Marines approached the shore, they realized the naval bombardment had been rather ineffective. They started taking heavy fire from the Japanese as they made their way across the lagoon. One Marine recalled a Japanese officer holding a pistol and defiantly waving the Americans ashore.
The Marines of the Amphibious Tractor Battalion battled back, blasting over 10,000 rounds at the Japanese from their .50 caliber machine guns. But the exposed gunners paid a heavy price.
Finally, at 0910, LVT 4-9 carried the first Marines from 3/2 onto the beaches of Betio. The driver slammed it into the seawall in hopes of scaling it but stalled out.
A Marine sergeant jumped up to lead his men into the fray and was immediately cut down by gunfire. The remaining Marines jumped out and assaulted several Japanese positions before they all became casualties.
As the successive waves of the 3rd Battalion landed they fared even worse. Fully alerted to the incoming Americans, Japanese gunners now targeted the approaching LVTs. The unarmored vehicles offered little protection and many were sunk or damaged beyond repair.
The initial assault companies, K and L, suffered over 50 percent casualties in the first two hours of the assault. The following waves were in even more trouble. Embarked in landing craft, they had no choice but to unload at the reef due to the neap tide. This meant wading ashore some 500 yards under heavy fire.
This was how the men of L company under Major Mike Ryan made it ashore. Rather than leading his men directly into the carnage of Red Beach 1, Ryan followed a lone Marine he had seen breach the seawall at the edge of Red Beach 1 and Green Beach, the designated landing area that comprised the western end of the island.
Ryan’s landing point caught the eye of other Marines coming ashore who diverted towards his position.
As more Marines from successive waves and other survivors worked their way to the west end of the island Ryan took command and began to form a composite battalion from the troops he had. These men would come to be known as “Ryan’s orphans.”
Adding to the chaos for 3/2 was the fact that their commanding officer had still not landed. Seeing his assault forces shattered on the beach and following waves cut down in the water he radioed Shoup for guidance. When Shoup directed him to land at Red 2 and work west he simply replied, “We have nothing left to land.”
On the beach, the Marines of 3/2 continued to fight for their lives. After managing to wrangle two anti-tank guns onto the beach they realized they were too short to fire over the seawall. As Japanese tanks approached their positions cries went up to “lift them over!” Men raced to get the guns atop the seawall just in time for the gunners to drive off the Japanese tanks.
Meanwhile Maj. Ryan’s composite battalion of 3/2 Marines and others had acquired a pair of Sherman tanks. Learning on the fly, the Marines coordinated assaults on pillboxes with infantry and tank fire. This gave the Marines on Betio their most significant advance of the day as Ryan’s orphans were able to penetrate 500 meters inland.
3rd Battalion was badly mauled in the initial assault on Betio. Surrounded by strong Japanese fortifications the survivors on Red Beach 1 would fight for their lives for the remainder of the battle.
Ryan’s orphans made a significant contribution to the battle in opening up Green Beach so men of the 6th Marine Regiment could come ashore to reinforce the battered survivors.
Now reformed, 3/2 would take part in one of the final assaults to secure the island helping to reduce the dedicated Japanese fortification at the confluence of Red Beaches 1 and 2. The island was declared 76 hours after the first Marines had landed.
The Marines suffered over 1,000 men killed and over 2,000 wounded.
Col. David Shoup summed up the experience, “with God and the U.S. Navy in direct support of the 2d Marine Division there was never any doubt we would get Betio. For several hours, however, there was considerable haggling over the exact price we were to pay for it.”
In 2001, Lt. Col. Jason Amerine was one of the first U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to avenge the 9/11 attacks. He is a Green Beret, the U.S. Army’s elite special forces with five primary missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counterterrorism. Amerine helped tribal leader and future Afghan President Hamid Karzai launch a guerilla war against the Taliban with U.S. help and was instrumental in the capture of Kandahar.
Amerine was injured by friendly fire that killed three other special operators. He received a Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart for his actions. In 2002, he was a special guest a President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address. The Army made him a “Real Hero” in the video game “America’s Army.” They even made him into an action figure.
In 2014, Amerine presented a plan to California Congressman Duncan Hunter to help with legislation concerning how the United States recovers hostages. Members of Congress have security clearances and are constitutionally charged with oversight. Amerine did not go to the media, put documents on the internet, or violate laws.
But he did hurt the FBI’s feelings.
The Army did not take kindly to Amerine’s disclosure to Congress and initiated what seemed to be a retaliatory investigation into his actions. It turned out the FBI complained to the Army about Amerine’s criticism of the Bureau’s efforts to recover Warren Weinstein, a captured aid worker who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, Caitlan Coleman, an American who was captured in Afghanistan while pregnant in 2012. Throughout the investigation, the Army prevented Amerine from retiring and even stopped paying him, unlike its treatment of alleged deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who were paid throughout their trials. He was under investigation for almost a year.
“The investigation undermines the right of servicemembers to petition the government, and appears to violate the statutory protections for military whistleblowers,” Hunter said in a letter co-written by California Congresswoman Jackie Speier.
A spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division said of Amerine’s case, “We reject any notion that Army CID initiates felony criminal investigations for any other purpose than to fairly and impartially investigate credible criminal allegations that have been discovered or brought forward.”
A staffer of Representative Hunter’s said a plan was developed in the Pentagon to secure the release of Weinstein. The FBI would have released Haji Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban member in prison in the U.S. for drug trafficking, in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Berghdal, who was released by the time of the investigation into Amerine. Coleman, a U.S. citizen, and her husband, Canadian Joshua Boyle, held by the Taliban, and Dr. Shakil Afridi, a spy for the CIA in Pakistan, held by Pakistan as well as Weinstein. This deal did not take place and Bergdahl was released through a different deal.
CNN reported the key issues with current American strategy as of 2014 was lack of communication by the U.S. government to families of hostages and a lack of coordination about how to free them. If there were more coordination, the FBI could have told the CIA not to strike the house where Weinstein was being held. For the families, the government wouldn’t communicate because they don’t hold security clearances.
President Obama ordered a review of hostage procedures after three Americans, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, were beheaded by ISIS. Representative Hunter’s bill proposed a “Hostage Czar,” a pointman who would coordinate hostage releases with necessary agencies.
Amerine’s West Point colleagues banded together to create a White House “We the People” petition, where 100,000 signatures would oblige the White House to respond to the petition that it provide whistleblower protection and end the investigation.
Rep. Hunter, long a dogged supporter of the military and veterans (himself a former Marine officer and Iraq and Afghanistan veteran), announced Amerine’s retirement with full pay and benefits as a Lt. Col. Amerine was cleared of any wrongdoing and received the Legion of Merit.
“What’s most frustrating is that the FBI refused to work with Jason,” Hunter wrote on his Congressional website. “It’s my firm belief that failures to safely recover Americans held captive in hostile areas is a direct result of that refusal. What’s also frustrating is that some senior Army leaders—including General Mary Legere—refused to give Jason the respect and opportunity to explain what we all knew was true: the FBI wanted Jason out of the way. The easiest thing to do was whisper an allegation to the Army, and the Army took the bait, investigating Jason for reasons that were unsupported by any of the facts.