By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006
The two-star Army general leading the main inquiry into the killings of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha is a decorated Delta Force operative known among his peers for integrity and uncanny judgment in combat.
Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell rose from a Special Forces staff sergeant in Vietnam to commander of the secretive Delta Force, earning a reputation as an unusually skilled fighter who bluntly confronted superiors to get what he needed for his men. He is one of the Army's most highly decorated soldiers on active duty.
Bargewell's intimate familiarity with combat -- he was wounded seven times -- gives him credibility as the chief investigator into allegations of some of the worst war crimes committed by the U.S. military in Iraq, according to active-duty and retired Special Forces officers who know him.
"Key to the investigation will be to ask the right questions, and he knows exactly what to ask," said one officer who has served overseas with Bargewell. He, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the record.
His investigation is one of two probes into what happened in Haditha and how commanders reacted. On Nov. 19, 2005, a Marine convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, and in the aftermath, the Marines killed unarmed civilians, including women and children, in their homes. A criminal inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is underway. Bargewell's report, submitted to senior commanders in Iraq this month, examines whether Marines tried to cover up the shootings and whether commanders were negligent in failing to investigate the deaths.
The 59-year-old general is seen as unlikely to bend to pressure to sway his conclusions, both by virtue of his character and because he plans to retire this year after nearly four decades in the Army. "He has unimpeachable integrity," said retired Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Lambert, a Special Forces officer who has known Bargewell for decades. "He has no constituency that could influence findings. Bargewell is his own man."
Bargewell is considered so unflinchingly candid that another officer suggested that military leaders "may be sorry they chose him" to lead the probe.
Bargewell grew up in Hoquiam, Wash., where his father was an elementary-school principal, and graduated from Hoquiam High School in 1965. He attended a local college on a football scholarship before suffering a knee injury, according to a newspaper profile that Bargewell provided to The Washington Post.
In 1967, he enlisted in the Army and volunteered for the Special Forces, or Green Berets, an elite force that specializes in working with indigenous fighters.
During two tours in Vietnam, he led a team of three American and six Vietnamese Montagnard soldiers as part of a secret unit conducting strike and surveillance missions in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam and in the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. The unit, MACV Special Operations and Augmentation OP-35, "was considered a highly classified and hidden unit based on our mission area," according to Bargewell, who speaks French and Spanish.
Bargewell saw heavy combat in Vietnam, where he was awarded four Purple Hearts for battle wounds and won the Distinguished Service Cross, which is second among military decorations only to the Medal of Honor.
According to the citation, on Sept. 27, 1971, Bargewell and his team were on a long-range reconnaissance mission deep in enemy territory when they came under attack from 75 to 100 fighters. Bargewell was seriously wounded by a B-40 rocket but managed to fire back a torrent of machine-gun rounds, inflicting enough casualties to twice break enemy assaults that threatened to overrun his small group. His "extraordinary heroism" under fire allowed the team to be extracted, the citation said.
"His judgment in combat was almost supernatural," Lambert said. "He was not only absolutely fearless, he could do everything. He had 20/10 vision. His sniping was off the scale. He had perfect eye-hand coordination."
Bargewell also was known for his toughness, a trait he continued to exhibit after he left the enlisted ranks and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1973. Bargewell stayed primarily with the Rangers until 1981, when as a major he began a 17-year stint with the Special Forces Operational Detachment -- Delta, also known as Delta Force, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
During training for the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, Bargewell badly injured his back in a Black Hawk helicopter crash. But doctors patched him up, and he led a Delta squadron in Operation Just Cause in Panama, conducting dozens of missions, including the rescue of U.S. citizen Kurt Muse from a prison, according to Bargewell and officers who know him. In 1991, he led a Delta task force in northern Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.
In 1998, he took command of Special Operations Forces in Europe, overseeing activities in Kosovo and Bosnia as a brigadier general. At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he was operations chief for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa and later served with NATO. Bargewell took his current post, as operations chief for the U.S. military in Iraq, in April 2005.
Inside the small -- and in the eyes of some, incestuous -- world of Delta Force, Bargewell has enjoyed support from another veteran commander, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, the officers said. Both men are pragmatic, with Schoomaker grasping the big picture and Bargewell excelling at the nuts and bolts of military operations. If Bargewell has a weakness, some said, it is that he can become too tactically focused.
Bargewell, known as fiercely loyal and "so down to earth it hurts," as one officer said, has two sons in the military and plans to retire to Alabama.
Bargewell's fondness for sleek cars -- he owns a Corvette -- contrasts with his introverted personality. "In a roomful of officers at a social, he'd be the one over in the corner with a beer -- even as a two-star general," said one Army acquaintance. "But the rewards of drawing him out are great."