An elite stealth unit in the Vietnam War jungles
http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060713/NEWS01/607130399
2006-07-17

The attitude, well, they can't help it. They're the best, and they know it. They're LRRPs, the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, an elite stealth unit that spent most of the Vietnam War creeping through the jungle, spying on enemy positions. 60 Vietnam War-era LRRPs reunited in the biggest LRRP reunion since the 1st Cavalry Division's LRRP unit was formed in 1966. LRRP status let them get away with everything: "We got in fights, we tore up clubs, we ran around with long hair. And people left us be. Because we did the stuff others wouldn't do." Every man has a harrowing story of near-death, barely escaped, "it's a miracle that I ----ing survived."

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The men in the photo have a swagger about them.

On the right, a soldier in green Army fatigues stands with his hands on his hips, black aviator sunglasses framing his clean-edged face.

To his left, a man in tiger-striped camo and a cowboy hat is saying something to the camera, an M-16 cradled on his hip.

The attitude -- well, they can't help it. They're the best, and they know it. They're LRRPs.

For the uninitiated, it's the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols -- a long, boring name for an elite stealth unit that spent most of the Vietnam War creeping through the jungle, spying on enemy positions.

Nearly 40 years later, 60 Vietnam War-era LRRPs (pronounced lurps) reunited at a Louisville hotel earlier this week. There were bear hugs, bad jokes and long, meandering stories. Some wept, overcome by faces they hadn't seen in decades and reunions with men who had "saved their ass."

"Some of these guys, I trust more than my family," Daniel Tarver said.

It's the biggest LRRP reunion since the 1st Cavalry Division's LRRP unit was formed in 1966.

The men who gathered in Louisville are softer-bodied than the tanned, lean men in faded photos. But they're still LRRPs.

Jim Faulkner was 19 when he arrived at an assignment camp in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.

"I remember this guy coming down the road," he says, "and everyone just got outta the way. He was in these tiger-striped camos, a black beret, and he didn't walk, he more glided. He looked like John Wayne."

Faulkner asked who the guy was, and an officer told him. "He's a LRRP. Don't mess with him."

Faulkner volunteered for a LRRP unit the next day.

'More positive memories'

Fill a hotel room with ex-LRRPS and a cooler of beer, and you get a lot of storytellers. Noisy ones.

"We're all deaf!" shouts Bob Carr, a cheerful, big-bellied man with a silver mustache. "So many damn things exploded in our ears we can't hear any more!"

They are a boisterous, good-humored lot, lacking the bitterness that sometimes mars Vietnam vet gatherings.

"As a group, LRRPs tend to exhibit more positive memories of service than other Vietnam vets. They volunteered to become LRRPs; they felt what they were doing was very meaningful," says Erik Villard, a historian at the Army Center of Military History in Washington who specializes in the Vietnam War.

"I spent 21 years in the Army," says Carr, a Colorado man who served in Vietnam in 1967-68. "No unit was as rewarding as the LRRPs.

"If we were out there and we came across a Viet Cong unit heading up to one of our bases, we could radio that in and the men at the base would be ready to repel attack. We saved thousands of lives."

It wasn't all heroics.

LRRP status let them get away with everything, Faulkner says.

"We got in fights, we tore up clubs, we ran around with long hair," he says. "And people left us be. Because we did the stuff others wouldn't do."

Villard agrees.

"In another life, these guys would have been race-car drivers. They're a rebel tribe."

Every man has a harrowing story of near-death, barely escaped, "it's a miracle that I ----ing survived."

There's Larry Curtis, who has a bum knee and a glass eye because he was thrown underneath a chopper and crushed nearly to death.

"I could smell the fuel leaking out. I was pretty sure I'd blow up," Curtis recalls.

There's Daniel Tarver, who was hiding behind a rock and decided to see if the enemy was out there by sticking out his toe. They blew it off.

There's more than one encounter with unfriendly fauna: a tiger that almost attacked, 9-foot lizards that crawled over them as they slept.

Occasionally, the stories are hard to follow. "We did a recon mission, Silver Star," Curtis says. "We were inserted into the jungle, bird drops us off; we're walking along a zigzag trail; we see a stream, muddied, obviously recently used. So I start leap-frogging my team; we follow the trail all day and then we come across 10 VC. They're at ease. We have concealment but no cover and so we decide to engage. We open up on them and all of a sudden, out of the jungle, comes about 60 men. We've opened fire on a company, we realize. A firefight ensues; we call in the birds; and then we're out."

Translation: Five men get dropped in the jungle by a helicopter, stumble upon a huge amount of enemy, are nearly wiped out, and then survive (barely) after a helicopter gets them out.

A LRRP's primary job, Villard says, was "to gather info, not engage the enemy. They carried weapons but would prefer not to fire a shot."

"Bullshit," laughs Carr. "Yeah, we gathered info. But if we ran into the enemy, then our mission was to seek, destroy, strip the body and move on."

Mission checklist

When a mission was announced, the LRRPs would have 24 to 48 hours to prepare. The rules were simple and meant to maximize the chance of survival. Stop bathing: "The funkier you smell," Tarver says, "the harder you are for a Viet Cong to catch wind of."

Pack supplies: Rations, instant coffee. "Tasted like the bottom of a bird cage," says Bob Rabb, who was in Vietnam in 1968-69.

Malaria pills, morphine for injuries -- you get hurt, it's often five or six days before you can get properly treated.

Snakebite kit. "There are 33 snakes in Vietnam, and 31 of them were poisonous," Carr says, winking.

Muscle relaxants. "After a seven-hour walk, we'd stop dead. No cool-down period. You took that stuff to stop your muscles from seizing up," Carr says.

Dexedrine to shrink your appetite and keep you alert. Pills to stop up your bowels. "You learn to stop doing anything that causes noise, and that includes getting up to go in the middle of the night," Carr says.

Fix anything that might make noise. Separate dog tags -- one in a sock, one in a pocket, so they don't clink. In the jungle, LRRPs crept by Viet Cong sitting barely10 feet away. "You make a noise in the jungle," Faulkner says, "the next noise you hear's probably gonna be the safety coming off a gun, and then somebody'll shoot you."

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Vietnam War in the News