Outside in the steamy summer darkness, cherry bombs and M-80 rockets boomed and whumped, exploding eerily like VC motar rounds from "Apocalypse Now," shaking the underground banquet hall where the Green Berets and their wives were attacking T-bone steaks and drinking California red wine.

Up on the dais, millionaire-industralist H. Ross Perot, 50, a drawling, gray-flanneled Texan with a yen for his own commando operations, was regaling the rapt crowd with Col. Arthur D. "Bull" Simons' war stories. Perot, the ex-IBM salesman from Texarkana, flipped the slides of his own successful Iranian rescue mission that Simons, the late Special Forces legend, had pulled off last year. That operation freed two Perot employes from a Tehran prison after attempts at bribery failed. Whump, boom, whump, went the explosions outside.

"I'd like every man who ever went in battle with Col. Simons to raise his hand," said Perot, as hands shot up in the darkness. Whump, whump. "He didn't want men who wanted to die for their country, he wanted men who wanted to live . . ." Boom, whump, boom. "Every man I asked to go to Tehran had a wife and a mortgage and small children and they all went in a second . . ." Whump, boom, whump.

The shout came from out of the darkness -- "INCOMING! VC ATTACK!" Nervous laughter rippled through the banquet room.

A modest force of 600 Green Berets invaded this starched khaki town of 123,000 over the Fourth of July weekend.

Trailing wives and children, they pitched camp at the Fayetteville motel along Bragg Boulevard -- a sweltering stretch of used-car lots, pawnshops and porno bookstores -- broke out the beer, roasted some pigs, toasted the good times and honored their fallen comrades.Most were middle-aged soliders, graying about close-cropped temples, out of uniform and out of shape for the seventh annual Special Forces Association convention. But several said it wouldn't take them long to get ready for the next war.

"We may look out of shape, but you wouldn't want to be nearby if a fight broke out in this town," grinned a pudgy master sergeant from Fayetteville who retired from the Special Forces and enrolled in college courses in environmental engineering. "We may not use our [stuff] every day, but it goes in the memory bank. You may be bigger and stronger, but I've got three times the experience with the dirty stuff. We're the greatest, the best, animals. Muhammad Ali, watch out."

"When the call comes and you hear the 'Ballad of the Green Berets,' it's time to report in," said Gerald Carta, a retired sergeant major, now a special representative with the Defense Department's contract audit agency in Chicago. "And we're ready to report."

As in the good old days, entertainer Martha Raye, 64, Army nurse, a colonel in the Army Reserves who plays on TV's "Alice," six times married and divorced, sang her heart out and boozed it up with her boys. Just as she had in Vietnam, where she had a dangerous habit of visiting remote Special Forces camps no other entertainers would go near.

Perot, who flew in from Dallas Saturday night in his Learjet, pumped the hands of soldiers who in turn praised him as a "fine American." They tried to crown him with a Green Beret but he resisted their attempts. "I never wear hats," he said.

Out at Fort Bragg, home of the Fifth and Seventh Special Forces groups and the John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, where Green Berets learn the art of guerrilla warfare, the Army put on a crack paratroop demonstration that John Wayne would have loved.

"The jump was just like I'd remembered it," said Carta. "Outstanding."

Assembled here over a five-day stretch commemorating America's War of Independence was perhaps the finest collection of Rolex watches, gold good-luck Buddhas, glorious tattoos and unsung heroes this town has seen in quite some time. Grown men who'd "seen the bear and heard the hoot owl" together under fire; as one put it, didn't shrink from bearhugging each other in full view. And they cracked up as Perot recalled the San Francisco reunion bash he'd thrown for the Son Tay raiders, the Special Forces men Bull Simons led to Hanoi in 1970 to rescue American POWs, only to find that the prisoners had been moved.

"John Wayne led the enlisted men on a night on the town, and the next morning at 6 a.m. I got a call from my staff," said Perot. "'John Wayne's in the lobby with the men and he wants steak for breakfast.'

"No problem,' I said. 'Get them steak for breakfast.'

"But you don't understand, Mr. Perot. There aren't any restaurants open.'

"'Keep me posted,' I said. Well, the phone rings again.

"'John Wayne has this sissy Swiss guy behind the front desk by the neck and he's pedaling backwards. He still wants steak for breakfast.' 'Keep me posted,' I said.

"Then I get another call from my staff. 'You're not going to believe this, but the restaurant is open and they're eating steaks for breakfast.' Well, by this time I'm up and curious so I want to know who's doing the cooking. Would you believe it? John Wayne has the little sissy Swiss guy back there cooking the steaks."

But many of the war stories were bittersweet, and grew thicker and more tangled than the triple-canopy jungles of Vietnam. Ambushed

Nov. 8, 1963. On a routine patrol to ferret out Viet Cong rice fields in the central highlands, Sgt. Billy Smith, a Special Forces medic, walked right into a trap. It was 1313 hours when Smith, Sgt. Joe Everhart, a Vietnamese officer and their Montagnard mercenaries started chasing three peasant women who were running across the rice paddy.

The Americans didn't stand a chance as they followed the decoys straight into the ambush. Everhart, a close friend, caught the first round in the check and died instantly. Seconds later, Smith was shot in the head. He passed out, then regained consciousness, crawled four yards to his buddy, dressed his wounds, bandaged himself, pulled the pin on his grenade to booby trap his own body, shouted for the VC to come get him and passed out.

Neurosurgeons cut off the shrapnel and part of his brain and predicted that Smith would lose all memory and never walk again. For a time they were wrong on both counts. Now Smith's left lung is failing fast and doctors are predicting the worst again.

His father, Billy J. Smith, 60, a retired Dallas union representative, and his wife, Eupa, packed Smith and his wheelchair into their 27-foot motor home and drove him to the convention. He had been among the first to send in $356 for his ticket. "When they asked Billy what happened that day, do you know what he said?" asked his father. "He said, 'I just didn't duck fast enough.'" Smith has come close to dying three times, said his father. "He should be dead now. But if God would let him live, I'd carry him on my back the rest of my life to show my gratitude. That's why we're here. He's a testimony to the courage of everyone here." The father apologized for his tears.

Smith, a tall strapping lad in his pictures, slumped in his wheelchair, his angular face cocked to one side, his right leg strapped in, a floppy green jungle hat on his head. A brother handed him a plate of potato salad, and Smith struggled to eat a barbecue sandwich.

Asked how he felt about the Vietnam War now, his father said, "I have no regrets against the war, no personal grudge against anyone, nothing but love for this country. Right now I'd get down on my knees and kiss this soil to prove it, and give you 30 minutes to call a crowd of witnesses."

Added Billy, as the soldiers and their families surrounded his wheelchair to shake his hand, "I'd go back to Vietnam and fight tomorrow if I had the chance." The 'Black Box' Mission

Green Beret Glory Story II: When the American U-2 spy plane crashed northwest of Saigon just across the Cambodian border in December 1966, the anguished, top-secret word came down from the White House: Find it and retrieve the "black box." The tiny device, a treasure chest of American intelligence secrets, had failed to self-destruct.

Should the box, full of crucial codes, fall into the hands of the North Vietnamese, it would surely be dispatched to Moscow and deciphered, threatening future reconnaissance flights and perhaps the security of the entire Western world, the generals feared.The Air force collared Gen. William Westmoreland, head of the American forces in Vietnam. Military analysts narrowed the crash site to a 25-square-mile area of dense, triple-canopy jungle, infested with poisonous snakes, leeches, gargantuan mosquitoes, tigers and deadly Viet Cong. Westmoreland ordered Col. Francis J. "Blackjack" Kelly, the gruff, go-for-it commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group in Vietnam, to pull out all the stops.

The "Mission Impossible" fell to James G. "Bo" Gritz, a daring young Special Forces captain who had just thrown together the first mobile guerrilla strike force of 12 Americans and 250 Cambodian mercenaries, or "Bodies." Asked then what he thought of such missions behind enemy lines, Gritz said, "It's suicide, but if you want to try it, I should be the one."

The choppers beat low over the jungle and dropped the strike force at the border. Griz and his Bodes fanned out on foot, making a painfully slow six kilometers a day. They snaked along elephant trails, whispering jokes about any confrontation with a herd of elephants, picking their way through prickly, "wait-a-minute" vines, setting booby traps to protect their rear, ambushing and getting ambushed.

"It was a running gun battle from the word go," recalls Gritz.

On the fourth day out, his men stumbled upon the crashed U-2. But the black box was gone. VC sandal tracks, led off into the bush. Gritz took 10 men and prepared an ambush, instructing them to kill every man except the first two. Gritz and another American Green Beret sergeant would take care of them hand to hand, with "zappers," CIA-issue spring-steel billy clubs. They would have to take a prisoner and persuade him to lead them to the black box.

The enemy patrol came into view and the men raked them with withering automatic fire. A calm leader with piercing blue eyes and a black belt in karate, Gritz jumped from the bush, but hit his man too hard, accidentally killing him. The sergeant's quarry lived -- and there was a bonus, a wounded VC recruit.

The first prisoner was defiant and had to the be shot. Gritz concentrated on the recruit. "You're going to die unless we treat you, and we're short of medicine," he said through an interpreter, holding up a mirror to reflect a chunk of grenade embedded in the boy's scalp . . . "Where did they take the equipment from the crashed plane?"

The VC recruit promised to show him. The medic bandaged his wounds and Gritz tied a det cord, a powerful plastic explosive, about his neck like a leash, attaching it to a blasting cap. Off they marched.

At dusk, the strike force shot its way into the VC camp, scattered the enemy, snatched the black box from the headquarters bunker and retreated through the thick jungle into the night. It was Christmas Eve. Gritz and his men dodged a midnight mortar barrage and, their VC mascot still in tow, raced for the pick-up site. "Got it," radioed Gritz who had pulled off the mission without losing a man.

"War is like a giant Parker game, only the Big Guy in the sky is rolling the dice," relfects Gritz, 41, a rock-hard retired Special Forces soldier.

As a reward for "black box," the Air Force sent Gritz $150 to throw a party for his men. "Hell, a couple of my men blew that much at the bar in one night," he laughs.

Epilogue: The counter guerrilla operation was a successful Gritz and his loyal Bodes went back into the bush, raiding 53 VC base camps in 60 days and losing only one man. "We came out of the jungle feeling like Daniel Boone," he says. The Era of the Guerrilla

Gritz flew into Fayetteville with his wife, Carol, also a black belt. They met in a karate studio in Arlington when Gritz worked as a Pentagon staffer before leaving Special Forces to take a job with Hughes Aircraft in overseas operation based in California.

"This is the era of the guerrilla," says Gritz, who bemoans the cutbacks in Special Forces ability to accomplish missions through unorthodox methods." iAnd the best way to out-guerrilla the guerrilla is with a counter guerrilla who is a guerrilla himself.

"The Soviets are very keen on this, One element of the KGB is devoted exclusively to clandestine warfare. The North Koreans have one of the largest unconventional warfare forces in the world: 40,000 Special Forces men trained to infiltrate behind enemy lines and disrupt communications. You can cite one example after another -- Angola, Cambodia, Laos -- where Special Forces soldiers could have quietly staved off collapse, if politicians had so ordered. Any country in Latin America that has fallen to subversive elements could have been effectively countered if a Special Forces A-team of 12 men had been deployed to advise and bolster the resolve of the governments."

That was a theme that ran through the sultry, 100-proof weekend full of old-timers like James "War Daddy" Newsome, 54, a retired master sergeant who flipped burgers at the picnic, reliving his days as a charter member of 1,000 men was thrown together in the early 1950s, descendants from the OSS. They were molded after the French Maquis to carry out sabotage and organize rebellions behind enemy lines in countries like Czechoslovakia, should the Soviets overrun Europe.

But it was not until the era of President John F. Kennedy that the special Forces' anti-guerrilla missions became a diplomatic tool in dealing with communist "wars of liberation." JFK ordered that the Special Forces be allowed to wear the green beret, a symbol of their special skills. By then, Gritz had become a member of the elite group, a Special Forces officer.

The son of a bomber pilot who died in World War II, Gritz had yearned to be a soldier, attended four years of Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, turned down an appointment to West Point, and one day in 1957, walked into an Army recruiting office, spied a poster of a Green Beret soldier on the wall and inquired, "What do they do?"

"They go out into the woods, live off bark and lizards, snoop around, blow up bridges and garrote people," said the recruiter.

"That's for me," said Gritz, who has taken courses in safecracking and lock-picking as part of his training. "We'd probably be in jail if we weren't specially trained heroes," laughs Gritz, who can also jump out of a plane at 20,000 feet, free fall almost four miles, pop open his chute 700 feet above ground and land on a dime.

"Until you have almost lost your life, you don't know how to appreciate it," he says, attempting to explain the magnet of danger that draws special men to Special Forces. "A general once told me, 'I won't send any Americans, but I'll send Special Forces.' But virtue of our missions, we walk the periphery of life. It's not so much what does happen to you, what can happen to you. Sure, we'd come back from jungle and shoot up the bars and ride the whores to the beach in our choppers, even swing them up and down the beach on ropes.

"We enjoy life. We're able to taste the sweetness of the grape because we've seen how perilous life can be."

After Vietnam, Gritz took leave, sent his wife on to Hawaii, and for three weeks, retired along to the mountains of Mexico, to meditate and practice his karate."I had to come to grips with the question, 'Do I have to relive my life or somehow make up for all the destruction in Vietnam?' The answer I came away with was that as long as it's not done selfishly, as long as there's no personal gain involved, killing is justifiable. I didn't kill for selfish reasons; it was my job as a soldier."

Since Vietnam, Gritz has given up hunting. "I don't shoot anything that can't shoot back," he says. "I wouldn't take anybody's life if I didn't have to."

Combat is another matter. And Gritz has always "tried to figure out how some of us keep on living and others get killed." One might call the philosophy he has carved out the Zen of Violence, the path that a Special Forces soldier must take to attain a warrior's realization. "A Special Forces soldier has to look at life like a snowflake on a hot stove," said Gritz. "He's got to treat life as no big deal. Given a choice between the road to life and the road to death, you survive by choosing the road to death. That way, if you meet the enemy and he's preoccupied with the desire to live, you'll be able to kill him. That's the secret for some of us; others are just damned lucky."

He has two sons. Jay, 19, a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne whom his father describes as a "quiet dark horse," lives on base at fort Bragg. Jim Jr., 22, is working his way through Special Forces school here, following his father's path as an American Samurai. He lives in a trailer outside of town with his wife Vicki, and Gritz' 14-month-old grandson, James III.

"It's about time to get him a tattoo," said Bo Gritz, who dropped by the the trailer for a visit last weekend. "But he'd better not turn out to be a long-haired commie faggot pinko, or he can change his name." 'Stress Knows No Rank'

Fred Zabitosky, 38 the first Special Forces enlisted man to win the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam, leaned against a tree, smoking a cigarette and tugging at an icy can of Strohs. A tall, lanky man with a likeness to actor Chuck Connors, he gazed out at the children playing volleyball and chasing fat mallards about the pond and breathed in the smell of barbecue that mingled with the sweet yellow pine. A T-shirt paraded past: "Special Forces Visit Exotic Places, Meet Interesting People and Kill Them." Another "Participant Southeast Asia War Games, 1961-75, Second Place."

"There I was," recalls Zabitosky, the son of a Trenton, N.J., barber who chucked 18 years in the Army to take a job with the Veterans Administration in Winston Salem, N.C. For four hours in 1968 Zabitosky and eight men on a special operation held off 750 North Vietnamese soldiers. It was right after the Test Offensive, when a helicopter accidentally dropped his reconnaissance team into Laos -- smack in the middle of a 2,000-man enemy division.

He radioed for help and sent three Chinese irregulars out on the first chopper. He jumped on the second chopper with the others, only to have it blown out of the sky. Thrown out at 75 feet, he crushed his back and ribs, took second- and third-degree burns on his face, arm and legs but managed to drag out the pilot. Back he went for the co-pilot. He dragged him to safety, too, all the while returning enemy fire. The helicopter exploded. He tried to go back for the others, but passed out, the only survivor, his ammunition spent. The rescue chopper loaded him aboard and counted 128 enemy dead on the landing zone.

"We done a fairly decent job," says Zabitosky, who like many other Vietnam combat veterans has found the postwar civilian years full of difficulty. He tried to make a go of it, he says, but his 15-year marriage broke up. He blames it on delayed-stress syndrome, similar to the combat fatigue of World War II. Zabitosky came home a hero to a country some feel honored its heroes at best by ignoring them, at worst by deriding them as "baby killers."

His high decoration alienated him even further from some Arymy friends who felt that he must be too good for them now, even though he hadn't changed, he says. Then there were the others who kept their distance because he carried the Special Forces reputation of a do-anything, howl-at-the-moon wildman. "I got a lot of friends who won't speak to me," he says. "They stereotype you. They say, "This guy's a drunk, this one's a crook, this one lost his guts.'

"People say, 'Zab is wild.' Sure I was once. So what? I'm not ashamed of ever being drunk. I've always said the most important thing is you've got to be able to live with yourself. And I can live with myself."

The nature of his clandestine duty -- "special projects," the pseudonym often used to refer to highly classified assignments associated with the secretive, lethal side of Vietnam's "shadow war" -- compounded the anguish he felt. It was impossible for him to discuss what happened -- even if someone would listen. "I couldn't tell my friends what really happened even if I wanted to," he said.

Zabitosky remains bitter at the Army. "You got back and they said, 'Oh, it's no different than any other war. Go get a haircut. Draw a clean uniform and go back to work.' The Army refused to believe many of us still had problems. They didn't take care of their own. If you were in a combat zone, you had stress. Stress knows no rank."

Marlon Brando's brooding performance in "Apocalypse Now" made an indelible impression on Zabitosky, though his non-Speical Forces friends can't understand why. "People say, 'Brando didn't do anything in the movie,'" says Zabitosky. "But they don't understand his actual struggle, the struggle with the bureaucracy, the Congress, the hate back home.

"I understand Marlon Brando. He done the right thing not coming back. He was saying, 'You sent us over there, let's do the damn job. Whatever you want done, we'll do it, but we'll do it our own way.'

"If I went back to Vietnam, I'd get my own tribe just like Brando and do the job right." A Special Breed of Woman

It was past midnight Friday, and suite 310 was stocked with Canadian Club, Smirnoff, Cheetos and good cheer as soldiers banged on the door and crowded about entertainer Martha Raye for one more autograph, one more kiss.Born Maggie O'Reed of Butte, Mont., Martha Raye receives 3,000 Christmas cards every year from her Special Forces boys; her heart is always open. For her work entertaining, servicemen in Vietnam, Bob Hope handed her the 1968 Humanitarian Oscar.

But her politics made it hard for her to find work in Hollywood. "The parts stopped about 1964," says Raye, nursing a vodka and tonic. "All of a sudden the door slammed. No one had to tell me why. I knew.

"They said, 'She's a warmonger, she's a hawk.' Well, to me, a hawk is a bird.Now if they mean that hawk is the same thing as being an American, I'm goddamned proud of it.

"Nobody wants a war. But you've got to do what you can. Jane Fonda might be a good actress, but she's a lousy American. If she'd pulled what she did in Vietnam during World War II, she'd have been tried for treason and shot. And rightfully so."

A plate of salami was passed about. "I've eaten snake in the boonies," says Raye. "You just chop it up with a knife and heat it with your Zippo. Tasted a little like chicken.

Once, at an A-team outpost at Soctrang, she interrupted her show to help unload 14 helicopters full of wounded GIs. A registered nurse, she rolled up her sleeves, scrubbed and helped out. "They had gotten the hell shot out of them," she recalls. And she also has won their admiration by jumping out of an airplane.

"Yeah, tht was 1965, Fort Campbell, Kentucky," she said. I had two and a half weeks of training and then I jumped out of a C-147 at 1,250 feet. Followed my peers all the way down. I wouldn't jump again unless the aircraft was on fire."

"What was in your path when you got to the ground?" chuckled Sgt. William Coombs 44, nibbling a Cheeto.

"S --," cackled Maggie.

Gracie "Tex" Talamine, the widow of a legendary Special Forces soldier, sashayed into the room with a broad smile and a white T-shirt that instructed in red letters, "In Case of Rape, This Side Up."

"These ladies are hard-core," says Raye. "To be a Special Forces wife she's got to be a [tough] lady. These men aren't easy to be with because Special Forces comes first. I'll salute these ladies any time because I know what they go through."

"It takes a special breed of woman to live with them," agreed Talamine, a former Fort Bragg cocktail waitress. "But they picked up, so that makes us special, too. They give us strength and, we give it back.

"These guys aren't animals. They have class with their animal act. If some new guy came into the bar and hit me on the a--, another would grab him and say, "That's a no-no.' It'd never happen again."

Many wives wear their bruises as proudly as their husbands do their medals. "Maggie, do you remember the convention when I had my black eye?" grins Talamine.

"I had a broken collarbone once," offers up another Special Forces wife.

"Nothing good comes easy," says Raye. Phobias of the POW

Maj. Nick Rowe, 42, a Special Forces soldier turned novelist, spent much of the weekend autographing his book, "Five Years to Freedom," a moving chronicle of his five years as a prisoner of war: the isolation and the beatings, the rotten fish and the rice, the hepatitis and berberi, the courage of one man's resistance to psychological torture and his daring escape.

It was Dec. 31, 1968, and the Viet Cong were leading Rowe off to be excuted. They're learned that he's been masquerading as an American engineer when in fact, he as a prize catch -- a Special Forces officer. He'd made fools out of them and now they were going to get their revenge. Suddenly he heard American choppers hovering over the thick jungle, tore off a tree branch, knocked down his VC guard, ran towards a clearing and waved madly at the helicopters.

An American machine gunner trained his weapon on the bearded Rowe, but held his fire, Vietnamese didn't have beards.

Rowe and Danny Pitzer, the medic of his Delta Region A-team, spent hours talking at the picnic grounds Friday afternoon and sat together at the banquet Saturday night. Pitzer, a retired Special Forces master sergeant, was captured the same day as Rowe, Oct. 29, 1963.

"Danny was eating a bowl of Post Toasties the night before. I said, 'How about taking a walk in the morning?'" recalled Rowe. "He said, 'Fine,' and I signed him up for five years."

After Pitzer was released, he worked with the Navy helping other POWs readjust, then struggled to get his own life straight. Rowe, who was single at the time, seems to have had an easier time readjusting. He purged his trauma at the typewriter.

At times, as he hunched over the story of his escape and his first novel, "The Judas Squad," another Vietnam story, he had frequent nightmare and often ran into the bathroom to get sick. His wife, Jane, helped pull him through, he said. "With Jane and Jack Daniel's, I pulled out of it," he said. "The books were my catharsis."

At the same time he struggled to purge the phobias that his Viet Cong captors had created. By pinning him to the floor of sampans with 50-pound sacks of rice as they transported him from one tiny prison cage to another, they instilled a powerful case of claustrophobia. He spent two out of the five years in total isolation. They threw him into an air-raid bunker flooded with water. He had to crane his neck against the celing, sucking from a four-inch pocket of air.

After he came home to McAllen, Texas, and rejoiced at finding his parents alive, he spent days at the bottom of a swimming pool with an aqualung, flooding his mask with water and confronting the fear until he shook it.

"They made you feel like a bug in a bio lab," said Rowe. "They watched how you reacted every time they poked you with a pin. They probed for a weakness, a phobia. And if you didn't have now, they created one."

Rowe kept a diary, using a piece of bamboo that he jabbed into blood-bloated mosquitoes for red ink when nothing else was available. He hid his writing from the VC, who gave him paper to chronicle his political reawakening, said Rowe. By day he wrote what they wanted, by night he wrote it the way it was, all the while memorizing his work in case it should be discovered.

From the military evidence he has studied, Rowe, an Army Reserve major who writes and raises horses on his Middleburg farm, feels certain there are American POWs still alive in North Vietnam. "The communists haven't given them back because they realize how Americans tend to forget," he said. With the POWs, "they have a chance to study us, to learn how deeply we believe, to test the strength of our spirit." Passing the Acid Test

When he reenlisted in the Special Forces, Harry Meyer was a bored postman in Brownfield, Texas, with a wife, three kids and a growing conviction that the worst job in the world is one where you have to deal with the public. "People in general are rotten," he says. "People used to come on like they owned you because you worked for the government. Sure it was a good secure job, but it wasn't enough. One day a friend I'd served with on active duty in Special Forces told me, 'Harry, we need to go back to Vietnam and get the s -- scared out of us. That will get this dissatisfaction out of our system.'"

Off he went. "It did scare the s -- out of me, But I realized that's where I wanted to be. I love the Army with all its fault."

The fear. Every man who goes to war has to confront it, get down in the mud and crawl for his red badge of courage. "The only fear I had was that the first time I got into action I'd be too afraid to do my job," said Meyer, a Special Forces sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg. He got his chance as one of six Americans who led 40 Vietnamese irregular troops into a VC camp in the Delta region of South Vietnam. He called in the helicopter gunships which made passes with rockets and 40-mm grenades, then attacked and tossed grenades into the bunkers.

"I was scared, but I did my job," he said. "I was able to function. Afterwards I felt like I'd passed the acid test." Instamatic Memories

Robert Cole, 48, an imposing black man, retired master sergeant and Silver Star winner with a likeness to actor James Earl Jones, said he was never scared. "I had a way to control my fear." said Cole, who fought alongside Bo Gritz in Vietnam. "I kept concentrating on what to do next. I never had time to think I wasn't going to make it."

Often, he led Cambodians into battle. He still admires their courage. "They had to fight; there was no place for them to run. Before every operation they gave us cloths to wear around our neck with Buddhist prayers and when we got into a firefight, they jammed their Buddhas into their mouth. I'm not too religious, but you had to feel that something was out there. You were in Buddha country, so you talked to Buddha."

It is 2 a.m. Friday morning when Cole breaks out his Instamatic memories in his motel room, and pushes them toward a vistor. "That's Ernie Snyder, on hell of guy," said Cole offering a photograph of a soldier barbecuing steaks on the sandy white beaches of Cong Hai.

"That's Ferguson, he got killed on an operation . . . That's General Hay handing out Silver Stars . . . and this guy here was a fanatic for cameras. Once his truck hit a land mine coming from Bien Hoa with supplies for the unit. The explosion knocked over the truck. He was unconsious, but when he came to, the first thing he did was wipe the blood from his eyes and say, "Take my picture! Take my picture!'"

As stereo speakers blasted German beer songs through the tranquil pine forest Friday afternoon, Bill "Bataboot" Bennett, 45, a retired master sergeant, strutted around the picnic grounds hugging fellow soldiers, an ominous, bald-headed presence in black shirt and pants, iron cross about his neck and a monocle to his eye.

Cigar in one hand, Pabst Blue Ribbon in the other, Bennet said he was almost as happy as the day George Corley Wallace dubbed him a lieutenant colonel in the Alabama Militia. "That certificate and my green beret are the only things that mean a hoot to me," he grins.

Bennett reenlisted in 19628 went on to serve four tours in Vietnam without so much as a scratch. He earned his nickname for the rubber-soled canvas boots he loved to wear as he tromped about the jungle.

"Bataboot!" came a shout. "You still alive?"

"Yes," smiled Bennett. "The Big Ranger must have been looking over his shoulder." Lucky 13

The troops nicknamed him "Lucky 13," he said, because he "stepped in a pile of s -- and came out smelling like a rose." Jose Erickson is 37, a consultant with the North Carolina Board of Education and a former Special Forces captain who trained Lon Nol's Cambodian troops and led his own A-team into battle.

Only once was he not so sure about his luck. He was in a "very tight situation" and made a vow, '"If I ever get out of this, I'll never eat another steak in my life.' Well, I got out, and I haven't eaten one since.

Erickson was in the middle of a nasty firefight when he had a sudden realization: The Vietnamese had to "scrimp and save and carry around little balls of rice in their sock to eat, yet they were kicking our a --. And here were the Americans, eating steaks, with life at their fingertips . . .

"The Asian people taught me more about life than college. In Vietnam, I learned that you can't interrupt the rhythms of life. You have to stay flexible."

A stocky six-footer with blond hair and a matching mustache, he wore camouflage shorts and jungle boots, his "Lucky 13" ID bracelet on one wrist, a $1,500 Rolex on the other, his fingers covered with diamonds. Erickson sat on a table inside the red-and-white Special Forces Association clubhouse, deep in the Carolina forest, and studied the map of Vietnam on the wall.

"You see a lot of graying old men out here with pot guts, but every one of them has had to go through things the ordinary citizen wouldn't believe," he said. "I'm proud to be a Green Beret, but I don't feel like a superhero, or bigger than life. I just feel that I was privileged to be able to test myself in situations other men my age can't even imagine."

The son of an Army officer, he grew up in Fargo, N.D., enlisted in the Army, finished up his undergraduate degree at North Dakota State after Vietnam and earned a master's degree fro East Caroline University. He says he's been "overcompensating" ever since a crippling childhood bout with polio. His second wife, Lorraine, 24 sat on a couch across the room, brooding beneath the bolo knives and the large painting of a nude Vietnamese woman, a little jealous. He'd never told her about Vietnam, and here he was "telling a stranger everything," she confided to a newspaper photographer.

"I guess I chose the Green Berets to prove what a big he-man I as," sighed Erickson. "That seems childish now, 'but I managed to make it. If I'd failed, I'd probably be a drunk on skid row instead of a drunk at a Special Forces picnic."