- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000


On Nov. 2, 1968 the men of the first and second platoons of Bravo Company, 2nd of the 7th Cavalry, First Air Cavalry Division, were being chewed up by automatic weapons fire from a dug-in regiment of North Vietnamese Regulars. I was a 2nd lieutenant field artillery forward observer assigned to Bravo Company. I lay flat on my stomach in the thick elephant grass. Every movement brought sustained enemy gunfire. Two men were known killed and others wounded. Captain Bill Meara, about 20 yards from my position, stood and charged the enemy bunkers silencing one 30-caliber machine gun and allowing us to advance deeper into the jungle. As we moved forward behind our brave company commander, he was shot and killed by an enemy sniper.
The next day we held a memorial service for the men we lost. Three M-16 rifles with bayonets attached were stuck into the dark clay soil with the helmets of the dead balanced on top. Since Capt. Meara had been shot through his helmet, on behalf of our fallen leader the new company commander placed his steel pot with its black captain's bars upon a weapon. That was the day I first met then-Capt. Barry R. McCaffrey. In the next few months I had the privilege of standing side-by-side a great American soldier, later to rise to the rank of general, an experience that changed my life and made me a better person.
This was Capt. McCaffrey's second tour in Vietnam. During his first, he served as an adviser to a unit of South Vietnamese Rangers and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for leading a charge against attacking enemy forces. He also received the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in that attack. Capt. McCaffrey was always last in line. He made certain that the men were well-fed, well-supplied, well-informed and ready to carry out their mission. He was the bravest man I ever met.
On Nov. 6, 1968, just three days into his command, Charlie Company experienced the same fate as Bravo, but worse. There were many casualties, including the company commander, who had been killed, and it was growing dark. Our company was ordered into battle.
I remember hearing Capt. McCaffrey saying, "Just give me a head count when you get in there." As we descended into the firefight, I saw him pray, cross himself. The pilots of our Huey flew us directly into a stream of 30-caliber green tracers from enemy machine guns. We landed in the dust and confusion of the battlefield, and Capt. McCaffrey took charge of what was left of Charlie Company. He put me in a key location and turned over the supporting fire role, assuring me I could do well. I will never forget his firm left hand on my right shoulder as he said, "I'm depending on you. Get the F-4s with napalm in on that line of trees, and put your 105s back behind that position about 100 meters. You can do it, Mac." I didn't see him again until the sun rose the next morning, but I heard our 1st sergeant say that all 127 men in Bravo Company followed him into battle that night.
For the next four months we followed Capt. McCaffrey into many battles. He didn't cower in a bunker when the firefights were initiated. He placed himself in the front with his troops where he could see, lead and inspire. There were many times when I believed he would be killed. It all ended in February 1969 when, in a ferocious battle with a large North Vietnamese unit, he took three bullets in his left arm. The men he led so well literally dragged him from the front lines and hoisted him up through the jungle to a Medivac. We didn't know whether he would survive.
It was the last I heard of him until the Gulf War. Following that, after 30 years of dedicated service and a distinguished career when many might move into civilian life to earn money or simply retire, Gen. McCaffrey chose to continue serving our country in the role of director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a job that continues to place his life in jeopardy from drug lords or thugs.
Gen. McCaffrey was attacked in a May 22 article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine. Mr. Hersh asserts that during the Gulf War, then-Lt. Gen. McCaffrey ordered his 24th Infantry Division to respond to an enemy attack with overwhelming force two days after President Bush had ordered a cease-fire. It is alleged that the 24th destroyed many enemy tanks on their way back to Iraq. Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf defended Gen. McCaffrey and noted the incident had been thoroughly investigated by the Pentagon.
I don't know Seymour Hersh except by reputation, but I know Barry McCaffrey. Those of us who served under his command know that he would neither endanger his own troops nor wantonly kill enemy forces who failed to attack. I personally witnessed his direct intervention to preserve and protect the lives of women and children caught in a combat zone, and I saw him ensure the humane treatment of captured enemy soldiers.
As for the surviving men of Bravo Company who followed him into battle 32 years ago, we'd follow Gen. McCaffrey into a hot LZ today. This is the mark of a great soldier.

Michael K. McMahan served the U.S. Army in Vietnam under Barry McCaffrey in 1968 -69.

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