It was the kind of convention that John Wayne would have hated to miss. There were mine detectors and special rubber shoes that leave barefoot tracks in the jungle. And there were lean soldiers with muscles of steel and hearts that they said were pure.
More than 200 Green Berets, some wearing khaki, some with ribbons of valor on polyester, gathered this week at the Key Bridge Marriott in Rosslyn to discuss a world where right and wrong, black and white still exist without all those mashy-headed grays.
They reminisced about good wars past -- about the clear-cut battles that John Wayne fought in "The Green Berets," the Vietnam War movie that painted U.S. involement in Southeast Asia as a confrontation between good guys and bad guys.
"We feel that our service in Vietnam was very honorable," said Gen. Jack V. Mackmull, who trains the Green Berets in North Carolina. "We'er not spooky or clandestine. We'er straightforward military guys."
The men the Army officially calls Special Forces paid their own way to Rosslyn to share the camaraderie that grows out of training in the swamp and believing in the Cause. They gathered to tell each other that what they've done and what they will do is good.
"Sure, we did our share of fighting said Joe Dietrich, president of Chapter XI of the Special Forces Association and host of the convention "But our real mission was teaching not killing. We'er a military Peace Corps in a way."
Unlike the years of the Vietnam war, when long-haired college students publicly excoriated the Special Forces as silent killers in an obscene struggle, there were no dissenters last week in Rosslyn when the Green Berets preached about their mission aiding "indigenous populations" that are too weak to help themselves.
Elitism. The Green Berets like this word. They see themselves as professional soliders in an Army in which professionalism has been knocked aside. Much of the convention was dedicated to discussing how special the Special Forces really are. Underlying the elitism is a barely disguished contempt for the all-volunteer Army.
"I came in [to the Army] with the intent of going into Special Forces," said 21-year-old Mark Johnson.
"If I have to go [into combat], I'll be confident I'll come back. Half the people in the Army will be heading for the Canadian border," Johnson said.
When war does come, however, the soldiers here said they worry whether there will be Green Berets left to fight in it. The pentagon last October told the 1,000-strong 7th Group of the Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C., to expect a troop reduction of 700 men.
Gen, Mackmull, speaking of the Special Forces' future, told the soldiers in Rosslyn: "We'er good soldiers and we'er going to step out on our left foot.
"We are not nearly as large as we used to be and part of our efforts must be directed at how we can be of use to the U.S. Army."
But with all the Special Forces units in the Army [a total of 5,000 troops] turning away applicants, the soldier at the convention said it was hard for them to understand why they are facing a force reduction.
Particularly since they say the world around them is going to hell.
"We don't have a strategic foreign policy," said Joe Dietrich. "Look at Angola. We gave them $45 million before they went down the drain.
"To use a hackneyed phrase, we'd do well to win the hearts and minds of the people of Latin American. And that goes for the Middle East, Africa and Asia."
Earlier this week, the Berets went to John F. Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. On the grave, they placed a wreath that was shaped like a beret.
"For some guys, it's the John Wayne thing," said Earle Prior, a reservist from Baltimore. "But most of us have a soft place in our hearts for Kennedy and what he did for us. He's the man who gave us the beret. He gave us the go-ahead when the regular Amry would have sequelched it."
At the Sixth Annual Green Berets Convention, there were soldiers who were 16 years old when the Vietnam War ended. For them, Kennedy and the war are history, not memories.
"Gee, I watched most of that stuff on TV", said one soldier.
The reservists and those who did fight in Vietnam said they are weary of America's revisionist condemnation of the Vietnam involvement.
"The problem we'er getting as far as Vietam goes is that the American people want us to apologize," said Richard Dioguardi, a former Green Beret who was paid for giving technical advice to the makers of "The Deerhunter," another Vietnam film. "We didn't handle is wrong . . . we were handled wrong."
The Army handled the war wrong the Green Berets conventioneers said this week, because it didn't try to win the war. The media compounded the problem, the soldiers argued, because they were preoccupied with storybook war.
"The papers were full of silent killers, combat, commandos. Our real mission was civic action -- sanitation, building bridges, draining swamps, giving medical care, overcoming witch doctors," said Dietrich, the convention host.
Jerry Gleason, who's been a Green Beret for 18 of his 41 years, has been a medic in Thailand, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama. He said his job is to "get down to the personal level.
"I call us the chameleons -- we blend right in. Yes, we are welcome wherever we go."
To that end, six Green Berets demonstrated their chameleon training this week. Each soldier marched in combat boots into the Georgetown Room of the Marriott, turned foresquare with the audience and barked his name, rank and military occupational speciality. They did it in German, Thai Vietnamese or Spanish. English translation followed.
Their audience, made up of older comrades-in-arms, loved it.
"That language training is not voluntary," said Gen. Mackmull, commandant of the JFK Center for Millitary Assitance at Fort Bragg. "We teach them enough to know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are."
Many Green Berets said this week they cannot understand why so many citizens and politicians in the country doubt the military's ability to know right from wrong. tr add seven
"Whenever this country commits military forces, we've got to win! We are taught to do this from Little League on. Then we were in a situation which we could'nt win," said Dietrich.
He said that when the green Berets came home from Vietnam they were "treated as if we were animals in the zoo."
At the end of one day's meeting this week, a squad of soldiers dressed in green camouflage fatigues and berets headed for an elevator and a cocktail party. They were boisterous and happy Before the elevator doors closed, a small hotel employe slipped into the elevator with them.
The employe looked up and a strange expression crossed his face. "Vietnamese?" a woman asked. The man nodded. The Green Berets did not notice. CAPTION: Picture 1, Special Forces Capt. Douglas Hartline, Sgt. James Talbot and Sgt. Paul Chunn prepare for demonstration. By Fred Sweets -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Ex-Beret who identified himself as Peter T. Kisses the hand of B.J. Cullop while "Luke the Drifter," right, and Capt. Douglas Hartline watch at convention. By fred Sweets -- The Washington Post.