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David Hackworth: Warrior, advocate, writer

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Posted: Friday, May 13, 2005 10:00 pm | Updated: 10:48 am, Tue Jun 26, 2012.

A number of years ago, at a small reception, I met a man named David Hackworth. He had a compact build, a soft voice and alert eyes.

Later, I picked up and began reading a book Hackworth had written, "About Face," which told of his exploits in the Vietnam war.

As I devoured the book, page by page, I realized I had, through pure luck, met an amazing man. Later, as editor at the News-Sentinel, I suggested we publish Hackworth's blunt, incisive newspaper column.

Regrettably, that column has come to an end with the death of Hackworth, 74, a guerilla warrior, leader of men and intrepid journalist.

His death is an especially sad loss for military personnel. That's because Hackworth devoted his adult life to the welfare of the common soldier, the grunt.

Richard Hanner

This week I had the opportunity to discuss Hack, as he was universally known, with his good friend and comrade-in-arms, Roger Charles. A retired Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam, Charles is president of Soldiers For The Truth, a group founded by Hack to make sure soldiers get the training, equipment and leadership they deserve.

"He was a true American success story," said Charles. "He was brilliant and he was relentless. He had no hobbies. He only had a mission: To serve and protect the fighting men and women of America."

Hack's parents both died before he was 1. Raised by his grandmother in Southern California, he was a smart and ambitious but unruly youth. He worked as a shoeshine boy at a base in Santa Monica and the soldiers embraced him as a sort of mascot, even making a little uniform for him.

"At age 10," he later wrote, "I knew my destiny. Nothing would be better than to be a soldier."

At 14, he lied about his age and joined the Merchant Marine. At 15, he joined the U.S. Army and served with occupation forces in Italy. He earned a battlefield commission in Korea and served four tours of duty in Vietnam.

It was in Vietnam that his reputation for cunning and courage took shape. Assigned to a listless and ragtag regiment, he led from the front, discarded conventional approaches, and thought and fought like a guerilla. His much-quoted goal was "outgeeing the gs" -- to out-guerilla the guerillas. His soldiers soon had the Viet Cong on the run. And Hack became known as absolutely, utterly fearless. He once climbed out on the strut of a helicopter, landed on top of an enemy position and rescued men pinned down and facing certain death. Those saved by Hack later called for him to be awarded the Medal of Honor, but the Army refused. Even so, he wound up as one of the most decorated soldiers in the nation's history, with two Distinguished Service Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars eight Purple Hearts, plus his Combat Infantryman's Badge.

It has been suggested that the less-nimble of brain should be placed in the infantry, but Charles knows otherwise. In the line of fire, in the midst of lethal madness, only the smart survive.

"Hack had this ability -- whether you can train for it I am not sure -- to be in the middle of absolute bloody confusion, with bodies being blown apart, with bullets whipping around, with almost everybody else befuddled, to know quickly and instinctively what to do. Put the machine gun there, put more troops there. He could process a battlefield flawlessly."

He also had a singular style.

The novelist Dennis Foley described him this way:

"He was referred to by his radio call sign of 'Steel Six.' He was tough, demanding and boyish all at the same time, stocky with a slightly leathered complexion. His light hair and deep tan made it hard for us to tell how old he was. He wore jungle fatigue trousers, shower shoes, a green T-shirt and a Rolex watch. In the corner of his mouth was a large and foul smelling cigar. As we entered the tent, he was bent over a field table looking at a map overlay and drinking a bottle of San Miguel beer."

His Air Cavalry unit, according to the New York Times, was an inspiration for the film, "Apocalypse Now." The brigade featured pilots with Civil War campaign hats flying in helicopters with crossed swords painted on them.

He maintained morale in novel ways: He operated an unauthorized bordello and massage parlor.

Ultimately, however, the maverick officer became convinced the war was wrong and unwinnable.

In 1971, a man who had shown so much physical courage showed moral courage, too: He spoke out publicly against the war and the U.S. commanders charged with winning it.

Later, after being forced into retirement, he published, "About Face," an international bestseller.

Since retiring from the Army, Hack has written about military affairs for Newsweek, published more books, and produced the newspaper column syndicated by King Features. He has been unrestrained in attacking Pentagon brass for neglect or incompetence that could endanger those on the front lines. He roundly criticized the brass for sending troops into battle in Humvees lacking armor. One of his recent columns told of how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was using an automatic signature machine to sign letters of condolence to the families of troops killed in Iraq. After first denying Hack's account, defense bigwigs decided the secretary should in fact take the time to personally sign such letters.

Hack could be strident, but he was also inquisitive and fair. He never lost his passion for learning. Charles recalls joining Hack for an interview with a top admiral. Hack was convinced that large aircraft carriers were a poor use of defense dollars. He listened intently to the admiral for well over an hour, and walked away with a new point of view. "You know, he made sense. He has a strong case," he told Charles as they left the admiral's Pentagon office. "I think the carriers are worth it."

Driven, brilliant, gutsy. Hack was all of these things, but also quite human. His first two marriages ended in divorce. In "About Face," he admits sometimes putting his career and troops above the interests of his own family.

He died May 4 in Mexico at age 74 after a struggle with bladder cancer. His wife and collaborator, Eilhys, will work with Charles to maintain Soldiers For The Truth. The column will not be continued, Charles told me, because "Hack had an indelible voice. His voice can't be reproduced."

On Tuesday, May 31, David Haskell Hackworth, a man of monumental courage and conviction, will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel's editor. He can be contacted at (209) 369-7035 or by e-mail at richardh@lodinews.com.

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