One of U.S. Special Forces' most legendary figures died suddenly and tragically on April 29, 2019. Eldon Bargewell, a 72-year-old retired Major General, was killed after his lawnmower rolled over an embankment near his Alabama home. His 40-year military career saw him serve everywhere from Vietnam to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably every hotspot in between.
Bargewell as an enlisted recon troop in Vietnam.
He first joined the military in 1967, going to Vietnam for a year, going home, and then volunteering to return to Vietnam – in the same recon outfit he left a couple of years earlier. He was working areas outside of Vietnam, technically in Laos, monitoring NVA supply routes.
In an action for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross, he was hit by an AK-47 round in the side of his face but still managed to carry on the fight. Deep inside enemy territory, his unit was hit with two RPG rounds as a hail of enemy bullets overcame them. In minutes the entire recon team was wounded. Bargewell, carrying a Russian-made RPD machine gun (because he wanted to ensure he killed the enemies he shot), broke up an onslaught of charging NVA soldiers, numbering anywhere from 75-100 men.
"Very few people come through the path Eldon Bargewell did," said Maj. Gen. William Garrison, commander of the Special Forces effort to capture a Somali warlord in 1993. "Starting out as a private, working his way as a non-commissioned officer, and then getting to the highest levels of leadership. Very few people can do that. He is the type of man, soldier, leader that we all want to be like."
Major General Eldon Bargewell, U.S. Army.
The NVA sent wave after wave of men toward the Army Special Forces' perimeter, and each was gunned down in turn by Bargewell and his 7.62 RPD. With the dead and wounded piling up, including Bargewell himself, the Americans needed to get out of the area in a hurry. They anxiously awaited the helicopters that would lift them to safety. When they finally arrived, Bargewell refused to be evacuated.
"He wouldn't go up," said Billy Waugh, Bargewell's then-Sergeant Major. "He had the weapons that was saving the day... he was the last out and that's what saved that team." And it really was. Bargewell went through half of his 1000 rounds protecting the perimeter and defending his fellow soldiers as they boarded the helicopter. That's when 60 more NVA bum-rushed him.
Bargewell went up with the next helicopter.
"His selfless sacrifice touched so many," said Lt. Gen. Lawson MacGruder III, one of the Army Rangers' first commanders and a Ranger Hall of Famer. "In just about every conflict since Vietnam."
After returning from Vietnam, he went to infantry officer candidate school, earning his commission. From there he commanded special operations teams in Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, the Middle East, El Salvador, Panama, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and Afghanistan. In his last deployment, he was the director of special operations at Headquarters Multi-National Force-Iraq in Baghdad. He retired in 2006, the most decorated active duty soldier at the time.