Behind The Uniform
The Special Forces represent America’s most courageous and patriotic men and the world’s most effective military forces. These elite forces are trained and equipped to fight behind enemy lines, many times being outnumbered and in an unknown place, in situations where the outcome is of utmost importance to the American cause. America has a long history of brave men who were willing to go far beyond the call of duty to preserve our freedom and provide that freedom to oppressed people.
The forebears of today’s elite forces were the airborne divisions created during World War II. These airborne troops were trained to jump out of planes to fight their enemy in places where they would be surrounded, outnumbered, and many times fighting with less firepower. Yet under all these circumstances, the airborne troops led the way to victory in Europe.
But sometimes too much attention is given to the military for its training and tactics, its superior technology and abundance of resources. For years I have been guilty of a common failure of many Americans in regard to those that have fought our battles. I have too often looked at the person in uniform primarily interested in their feat of arms, failing to take into account the kind of person inside the uniform before and after they put it on. What makes the airborne forces of 60 years ago up to today’s Special Forces so effective is the quality of the men that voluntarily sign up for these roles.
A few days ago I was privileged to spend some time with Don Malarkey, one of the best soldiers in one of the most storied airborne units in World War II—E Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne. The heroics of E Company were recently chronicled in a HBO series produced by Steven Spielberg based on the books “Band of Brothers” by Stephen Ambrose.
Don grew up in Astoria, Oregon, and was a freshman at the University of Oregon when the war began. He first tried to join the Marines but was rejected because of a dental problem. He then tried to join the Army Air Corps to become a fighter pilot and again was not accepted. As an early indicator to his perseverance, he volunteered for the parachute infantry. I told Don it seemed funny that while the Army wouldn’t allow him to fly their planes they were quite happy to let him jump out of them.
Don and his unit trained at Toccoa, Georgia. Every effort was made to eliminate those not tough enough physically or mentally, resulting in about half the men that volunteered being weeded out. E Company was subjected to particularly brutal physical training by their company commander, Herbert Sobol, including a 50-mile march at night with no rations and no water. Later, the entire battalion made a 120-mile march to Atlanta, in an effort to break a time and distance record supposedly set by Japanese infantry.
Even though Malarkey and the men of E Company had no confidence in Sobol as a combat leader, which lead to him being replaced, they all acknowledged that his training was a key to their success as a unit. As author Mark Bando pointed out, the 101st Airborne Division required and attracted a special kind of soldier, of whom unusual and deadly demands were made routinely, in training as well as combat.
I invited Don, who is now still healthy at 82 years of age, to speak at lunch at the Birmingham Rotary Club. As I expected, there was a substantial amount of interest from members of the club. After all, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. In fact, of the approximately 160 original members of E Company, there are only about a dozen still living today. What surprised me though was the amount of interest shown him by young people at dinner that night. With the exception of the restaurant manager, every one who came over was under 30 years old, including one young man who is a member of the Army Special Forces who had just returned from Afghanistan. In a restaurant in Birmingham the now aged Airborne warrior joined hands with his heir, now fighting another world war against terrorism.
As I thought about the meeting between Don and the young Special Forces soldier, I was struck by the power of the bond that immediately existed between them. It then occurred to me, that as tough as Malarkey had it in World War II, he may have had it easier than the young soldier that held him in such high esteem. In Don’s era the only fight he and his comrades were concerned with was against enemy troops, they did not have to worry about fighting a war against a left-wing dominated American media. In World War II the media was on our side. Today, with some exceptions such as Fox News, it seems at best that the major media is on nobody’s side, at worst they are aiding the efforts of the enemy.
Yet our forces persevere. They keep fighting and they keep winning. Not just because of their training or their superior weapons. But because we have a new generation of soldiers like Don Malarkey who are willing to put on the uniform to preserve our freedom.
July 2, 2004
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