The Army's Special Forces command came down to one man during the Vietnam War. His job performance earned him the nod from screenwriter John Milius, who turned retired Army Colonel Robert Rheault's legacy into something more enduring than he ever imagined. He was immortalized forever by actor Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.
Unlike Col. Kurtz, however, there was nothing insane or dark about Col. Rheault.
Robert Rheault grew up in a privileged New England family, went to West Point and later studied in Paris, at the Sorbonne. The young Army officer picked up a Silver Star for service in Korea, but it was his time in Vietnam that would change his career forever, devastating the man who only ever wanted the Army life.
In Vietnam, Col. Rheault commanded all of the United States Special Forces. Taking command of the 5th Special Forces Group in July, 1969, it was only three weeks before the darkest incident of his career would put him in the middle of one of the war's most controversial events – the "Green Beret Case."
The United States had been in Vietnam in force since 1965. By 1969, there were more than a half million U.S. troops in theater. Special Forces A-Teams were operating in 80 or more isolated areas throughout Vietnam. Given their mission and skills sets, the intelligence gathered by Special Forces soldiers was the most solid in the entire war, and the U.S. military estimated that SF components were able to identify, track, and eliminate entire Viet Cong units in their area of responsibility.
At the time, Special Forces operators were in the middle of a project called GAMMA, a similar intelligence-gathering operation targeting the North Vietnamese in Cambodia – and the project was the biggest secret of the war until that point. After SF troops identified NVA or VC units in "neutral" Cambodia, B-52 bombers would illegally hit those Communist targets in defiance of UN conventions.
Rheault commanded a force of Green Berets and South Vietnamese commandos who would lead raids into the neighboring countries to gather intelligence and take out key Communist infiltration, transportation, or storage sites – whatever would cause the most harm to the enemy. Sites they couldn't take care of themselves were left to the CIA and the U.S. Air Force. The Colonel oversaw five of these "collection teams" and its 98 codenamed agents. It was the most successful intelligence net of the war.
But something kept happening to the Special Forces' most valuable intelligence assets. They kept ending up dead or disappearing entirely. They began to suspect a double agent in their midst. That's when a Special Forces team raided a Communist camp in Cambodia. Among the intel they picked up was a roll of film that included a photo of a South Vietnamese GAMMA agent, Thai Khac Chuyen.
He was not long for this world.
After ten days of interrogations and lie detector tests, Chuyen was found to have lied about compromising the GAMMA program. To make matters worse, the double agent might also have been working for the South Vietnamese government. This meant that if the triple agent was released to them, he could possibly walk free, a prospect unacceptable to the Americans. After conferring with the CIA, they decided to handle Chuyen in the way that most double- or triple-agents meet their end. He disappeared.
Chuyen's American handler, Sgt. Alvin Smith, was not a member of Special Forces, but rather an Army intelligence specialist assigned to the project. It turns out that Smith did not follow protocol when onboarding Chuyen. Smith failed to administer a polygraph test that might have revealed why Chuyen spoke such fluent English, that the agent was from North Vietnam and had family there, and had worked for many other U.S. outfits and left them all in incredible turmoil.
Smith began to fear for his own safety, having failed the Special Forces and compromising one of the best intelligence networks of the entire war. So he fled, taking refuge with the CIA office in the area and spilling the beans about what really happened to the triple-agent Chuyen. Rheault and seven other officers were arrested for premeditated murder and jailed at Long Binh.
Rheault actually knew about it and lied about the cover story (that Chuyen was sent on a mission and disappeared) to protect the men who served under him. But Rheault took no part in the planning or execution of Chuyen's murder. Still, he lied to Gen. Creighton Abrams who already had a distaste for the Special Forces. So, when the officers' courts-martial began, the Army was looking to throw the book at all of them.
Abrams was well-known for hating paratroopers and Special Forces.
The event made national news and soldiers under Rheault's command were flabbergasted. The colonel had done nothing wrong, and they knew it. Moreover, there was no one more qualified for his position in the entire country, as he was one of very few officers qualified to wear the coveted green beret. But the CIA wouldn't testify against the soldiers, and by September, 1969, it wouldn't matter. The Secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor, dropped the charges against the men after succumbing to pressure from President Nixon and American public opinion.
By then, the damage was done. All eight of the officers' careers were ruined, and Rheault accepted an early retirement. The fallout didn't stop there. The publicity associated with what became known as the "Green Beret Case" prompted RAND Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg to leak the "Pentagon Papers" to the American Press.