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Breaking: Ave atque vale, COL Robert Rheault
COL Robert B. Rheault, who was one of the most respected, and most mistreated, commanders in Special Forces history, passed away today (16 Oct 13) at 1100. He was 87 years old and leaves a wife, two daughters and a son; his first wife passed away in 2006. This obituary is written primarily from memory and may be subject to revision.
COL Rheault was a member of the Class of 1946 at the United States Military Academy, where his friends and classmates included George S. Patton III, who would also serve in Vietnam and retire as a Major General. Like Patton, Rheault came from a well-to-do family; he, too, might have worn stars, even though he had committed to Special Forces, then an infantry officer’s career-killer. Rheault held the key commands for a Special Forces officer during the Vietnam war: he led the 1st Special Forces Group on Okinawa in the 1960s, and commanded the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam briefly in 1969. He had been the Group XO from October, 1964 to May of 1965.
Soon after his change of command around Memorial Day of 1969, he was relieved by GEN Creighton Abrams (20 Jul 69), arrested and confined to quarters. Abrams, who hated Special Forces (and all paratroopers, actually… and halfbacks. We are not making this up) had overreacted to the news that several counterintelligence / HUMINT officers who were covered as members of 5th Group had identified and disposed of a double agent. This was Abrams’s chance to “get” Special Forces, and he seized it with unseemly haste.
A series of show trials ensued, which have generated at least two books, but the evidence was far too flimsy to support a charge against Rheault (the prosecution of the other officers also crashed and burned). The vindictive Abrams had to settle for destroying the officers’ careers, and Rheault left the Army. In the years to come, he led the Outward Bound school in Maine and remained fit and youthful-appearing. He enjoyed the company of other Special Forces veterans, but would not listen to questions about his relief — or hear a word of criticism against General Abrams. He showed the sort of loyalty up the chain of command that too many Vietnam-era officers, Abrams certainly chief among them, never considered showing down the chain of command.
Rheault’s relief and confinement, and the kangaroo court-martial that Abrams convened, led to the above-mentioned books (A Murder in Wartime by Jeff Stein and Those Gallant Men by John Berry) and an incredible amount of Special Forces lore, including tales of a hostage rescue mission that was mounted by officers and men of the 5th, and made it as far as rehearsals, but stood down on the explicit command of the colonel himself, smuggled out of durance vile.
It’s an unfortunate thing that the history books will record the name of Creighton Abrams when they’re documenting Vietnam, and be silent on Robert B. Rheault.
But tonight he dines in Valhalla. Where Patton père et fils are probably making Abrams fetch him his mead.