His every move cloaked in spy novel secrecy, he was among the last of "Charging Charlie" Beckwith's 90 Delta Team commandos to trickle home in recent days to the neon drab of this military town, nicknamed "Fatalburg," and ease back into his lay-low lifestyle of camouflage fatigues.
He is a large man, about 30 years old, who loves custom vans and dirt bikes, country music and his job as one of the nation's trained hit men. He earns about $1,000 a month, including the $55 extra he gets for jumping out of planes. He wants nothing more out of life than to be called upon to settle America's grudge with terrorists when diplomacy fails.
"All I know is that you have a job, you do it," he says over the telephone in a late-night conversation arranged through an intermediary. "I don't want any medals -- I've got plenty from the last war. Besides, heroes and ods will get you killed every time. I'm content to live and breathe, drink whiskey and chase wild women."
He is deadly with his hands and with a .45 -- one of the dozens of weapons, from knives to garrotes to mortars, he is trained to use.
Among the gritty breed of Delta commandos, he represents one of America's contemporary version of the Dirty Dozen. A Green Beret with several Vietnam combat tours, he joined Delta for the adventure and to be able to practice his skills. He can booby trap a door, hot wire a car, pick a lock, crack a safe, work a radio transmitter, speak several languaes and stitch up a fallen comrade.
He is trained to jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet, free-fall five miles, pop open his chute at 1,000 feet and slip onto foreign soil undetected. Should he be landed in the ocean, he would strap on scuba gear and swim miles underwater to accomplish the mission.
He is prepared to kill, having killed before in Vietnam, an act he performs with dispassion. He believes a soldier can kill another soldier and avoid retribution from the gods. He believes in reincarnation. He looks upon his present life with amusement and some detachment, like "a snowflake on a hot stove," a friend explained.
To blend in with the soldier population a Fort Bragg, he was given a room in one of the concrete modules dotting the dreary moonscape of Smoke Bomb Hill. But he keeps an apartment off base, sticks to a closed circle of Special forces buddies and remains suspicious of strangers.
He is one of those Delta commandos who were on the ground at Desert One last month. And he would agree to speak only if he would not be identified, for his own safety and his job's.
To an outsider, he may appear to live in a world of myth, as hokey and romantic as the fictional James Bond. But one man's fiction is another's reality. This Delta commando views his life as the real thing, an adrenaline junkie living on the edge of challenge, doing something that matters, maybe someday changing the course of history.
"None of 'em want to die, but they're willing to die for a reason, as long as it's not a bull. . .reason. They'd never charge a machine gun to become heroes. That wouldn't make sense. But they'd lie, cheat and steal to take it their own way. And you can believe they would take it."
Some commandos drive their kids to school, cut the grass, coach Little League baseball, go to Sunday school, love their wives and cook out or backyard patios. "Some are nondrinkers and church-goers, family men," says a friend of many. "Others are atheists and total drunks. You can't generalize. But they all have one thing in common: they all depend on themselves and have total confidence in themselves."
Like most of the 90 Delta Team commandos, he was confused and frustrated at having the American hostage rescue mission suddenly aborted on a starry desert night, just 200 miles from Tehran. After all, he'd spent the last two years honing his body and his mind -- all his warrior's skills to a razor's sharpness, in anticipation of just such an opportunity.
But the commando refused to talk about any aspect of the mission.
The commando mystique permeates this starched khaki town of 123,000 where the sprawling Army base at Fort Bragg accounts for almost half the local residents including paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne and Green Berets from the 5th and 7th Special Forces Group. In the bars and NCO clubs on base and in the airconditioned darkness of the private lounges outside, the handpicked commandos of Delta are referred to in hushed tones of secrecy and reverence. Their esteem as hell-bent, "Mission Impossible" professionals, has not been diminished by the failed mission in Iran.
On the other hand, you could shop next to a Delta commando at the Piggly Wiggly and never know it. Their names are classified. Indeed the Army has yet to acknowledge that there is such a Fort Bragg-based antiterrorist hit team called Delta, whose members are encouraged to grow their hair long -- beards and mustaches, too -- so they might blend with civilian styles, should they be odered to infiltrate a foreign country incognito.
You won't find them, day or night cruising up and down the neon strip of Bragg Boulevard outside Fort Bragg, where billboards exhort America to "Hang In There" and soldies ogle "Dreamland" mobile homes and raise cash at Uncle Sam's Pawn Shop. The boulevard is a bleary jangle of pinball bars, where they aim at Ayatollah dart boards and cur redneck dogs yap gleefully after Yankee strangers.
The commandos keep to themselves, perhaps drinking with comrades inside the Green Beret Parachute Club on base or in the dim lamp glow of private lounges.
There are only 200 to 300 Delta men in all, picked from 42,000 soldiers who received hand-addressed invitations to try out. Most are in their late 20s or early 30s, already standouts in their military specialty. They are a mix of regular Army grunts, Navy SEALs, Air Force Pathfinders, Marine Force Reconnaissance men and the Special Forces' Green Berets.
But the majority are the cream of the Special Forces: John Wayne types who stole through the jungles of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as Peace Corpsmen with guns. They built schools and dug wells and trained native forces in antiguerrilla warfare, surviving leeches and punji spikes, dodging bullets and piling up the experience that allowed them to be selected as America's terrorist stalkers, special men even by Special Forces standards.
"When you don't have a war, it's awfully hard to keep these men gainfully employed," says former Lt. Col. James Gritz, 41, Beckwith's former intelligence officer in Vietnam. Gritz led Delta types on hazardous "special operations" through the jungles of Southeast Asis before he retired from Special Forces to work or Hughs Aircraft.
"You train them to a razor's edge and like a heavyweight, they just want to go out and slug somebody. That's natural after what they go through. After Vietnam was over, I had to tell the men, 'You're ready. I'm just sorry I don't have a war for you.'"
"Delta Team is our Dirty Dozen," said one Special Forces officer who is familiar with their elaborate training in dirty-work specialties.
The Secret Service, whose agents guard presidential and foreign dignitaries from assassins, trains Delta Team commandos in the art of assassination at their Beltsville, Md., training center.
"If it weren't for the Special Forces, most of us would be in jail," laughs Gritz, a 6th degree black belt in karate whose Green Beret A Team once slipped across the Vietnam border into diplomatic no-man's land and hunted down a Vietcong unit that had made off with "black box" from a downed U.S. U2 spy plane.
"Our image is that of criminals and crooks, Blutos and high school dropouts, but there are many in SF with college and masters degrees and IQs in the 140-150 range," Renaissance men with guns.
In the peacetime years following Vietnam, many felt frustrated and cast about or meaning in their work. In 1977, after President Carter signed Delta Team's antiterrorist project into existence at Fort Bragg, and Beckwith took control of the elite unit -- "Charlie's Angels," some outsiders called it -- many Green Berets climbed aboard, sweating aging bodies into shape in search of freedom and adventure
Delta has had the benefit of the best antiterrorist teachers in the world: Israeli commandos who pulled off the lighting Entebbe raid, Germany's GS-G9 squad which rescued an Arab-hijacked Lufthansa airliner in Mogadishu and Britain's cool, professional 22nd Regiment, Special Air Service (SAS) which killed several terrorists at the Iranian Embassy in London and freed the hostages. Beckwith once did a stint with the SAS, the most glamorous and controversial unit in the British Army, and the most self-effacing. Sources say he took much inspiration for his commando's rites of passage and subsequent training exercises from the SAS. Their motto: "Who dares wins."
So tough is the training to join the British SAS Regiment that four soldiers have died on endurance tests in the past 15 months. None has met similar fates with Delta since a $1.5 million stockade on base here was made their headquarters. But several commandos have been wounded training with live ammunition that sources say is necessary to duplicate the real-life terrorist situations they are likely to encounter.
One source familiar with Delta training at their super-secret Fort Bragg hideaway on Mott Lake says that a senior NCO was wounded with shrapnel in his leg when he threw a grenade into a room during a terrorist simulation exercise and forgot to withdraw his foot from the doorway.
Says the source: "Better he be hit there than on a mission; at least you can patch him back up and get him ready for the real thing."
Before the commandos hit the woods for exercise, they must be chosen. Few details are known, but the testing appears to be similar, at least in its intent to "weed out the weakwilled," as one source put it to the six-phase, two-year-long rigors of the British SAS, which pushes aspirants to the limits of human endurance.
The Delta shakedown march is shorter -- 30 miles with a 55-pound rucksack in 12 hours over the mountains of West Virginia -- but the U.S. men are also kept in the dark about the distance to be covered. Candidates are told, at various points along the route, to give up, that they will never make it, that they are so far behind schedule they have already been dropped. One recent aspirant threw in the towel a half mile before the end.
"To a conventional soldier, it's a horrible ordeal," says one source familiar with the training. "But it's a (training) trick older than the hills. Fatigue makes a coward of anyone."
Out of the last 126-man class of Delta Team candidates at Camp Dawson, 25 miles southeast of Morgantown, only two were dropped for failure to finish the cross-country trek. "Word has gotten around, 'If you gut it out, you can make it,'" the source said.
Not necessarily. Out of that class, only four men made the final cut and became Delta Team commandos.
At the tiny office at Fort Bragg, a major reportedly promises Delta applicants: 'No fame, just a medal, a free funeral and plenty of hard work." They must demonstrate a minimum IQ of 110, be able to rappel and parachute and have the military specialty Delta needs. Only then are they dispatched to Camp Dawson and the 21-day regimen.
Each week, they must pass the PT test designed for an 18-year-old Army recruit, regardless of their age: an allfours 40-yard run in 24 seconds some call the "perverted crawl," the run-dodge-and-jump dash through log gates and over a six-foot pit, 32 situps in a minute, a two-mile run in boots in 19 minutes, a swing down a 36-rung horizontal ladder in 60 seconds, and a 100-yard swim in full uniform.
"You want a man who can get used to asking no questions outside of what he is told," says the source. "In the Army, the basic thrust is teamwork, to operate as part of a body. In Delta, it's the opposite. It's oriented to the individual who is able to be alert for his particular pat of the mission You don't ask a friend what he's doing. You're trained to keep your mouth shut, to respond and react all on your own."
Delta's final psychological tests at the end of the 21-day ordeal is designed to measure composure under streets, the ability to think on one's feet. Commandos who have "seen the bear and hers the hoot owl," as one source put it, describe a mock assignments to he candidate, followed by rapid-fire questions in an attempt to fluster him. One example: take two commandos to California and assasinate Malcolm X (the late Black Muslim leader).
Question: "What's the first thing you would do?" "Get rid of the two commandos and do it alone, sir."
In this secretive, individualistic world, there is a certain amount of paranoia and hostility toward outsiders, asking questions. In the wake of they Fayetteville Observer tried to interview a commando's wife about her husband's mysterious absence, a van of men, who identified themselves as Delta Team brothers, corralled him in a parking lot, the reporter recounted, and threatened to "poke my eyeballs out and squish them up between their fingers.
"I got the impression," he said, "they meant business."