by: john harrison
On a recent Saturday morning I was to be the referee at my son’s Montgomery County Swim League swim meet. One of the principal jobs of the referee is to blow his, or her, whistle at appropriate times during the meet to move things along. This happens regularly during these meets.
I keep my whistle and my badge of office as a certified official on a lanyard by the back door of our home. When I was ready to leave on that Saturday morning, the lanyard and the badge were right there where they were supposed to be, but the whistle was missing.
It is impossible to be a referee without a whistle and it soon became clear I was not going to find mine. However, because of Tom Gaffney I knew where I had a spare whistle. It was about 45 years before when he had given me an olive drab green, plastic whistle, with a black cord attached, and I still had it. Technically I guess I stole it when I left the Army years ago.
When I was 19 or 20 years old I had been commissioned as an Infantry second lieutenant in the United States Army and Tom Gaffney was my first company commander. When Tom was a teenager, he had been drafted into the Korean War. He did so well in Korea that he was given a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. At the end of the Korean War, the Army, as usual after a war, went through a Reduction in Force or RIF. What that meant as far as Tom Gaffney was concerned, was that, if he wanted to stay in the military, his only choice was to revert from being a commissioned officer to the rank of buck sergeant. He could still be a commissioned officer in the reserves but not in active service.
Tom was the Alpha Company commander in the states and took the rifle company he had trained there to Vietnam. He remained as company commander throughout the Tet ’68 Offensive. After that he became S-3 Air on the battalion staff.
Tom chose to stay in the Army. He remained in the Army for 20 years and was about to retire at its highest enlisted rank, Command Sergeant Major, when the Army made him an offer he did not refuse. The Army offered to reinstate his commissioned officer rank and to promote him to captain if he would agree to stay in the Army for only one more year.
The catch was that he would have to go back to Viet Nam, a place he had already been as a Green Beret A-Team member twice before. At the time such an offer was much more attractive that it sounds today. Even a relatively junior officer could expect to spend at most 6 months in the field and the rest of his 12-month tour in a relatively secure rear area. In addition, Tom was only 38 years old and this one additional year in the Army would significantly increase his monthly retirement income.
On the debit side, the war was clearly heating up in 1966, but in the prior 8 years of warfare a total of less than 6,000 Americans had been killed in action. Tom did not know, could not know, that the 12 months we would spend together “in country” would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War and that far more than double the number that had been killed in the prior eight years would be killed during the time we were there. In fact, of the 58,000 Americans that died in 8 years of a hot war in Viet Nam, almost 1/3 died during the 12 incredibly violent months that we were “in country” together.
This was taken somewhere in the Cambodian Highlands before Tet ’68 and gives you an idea of the terrain we operated in during our tour in Vietnam. That is Tom walking toward the camera.
Tom was always practical, so he accepted the Army’s offer. He has the face of a man who takes nothing for granted and he knew far better than most what he was getting himself into.
Tom had his own rules in addition to the Army’s for his platoon leaders. Some of the little rules were that: an officer should always have a pen and something to write on in case he had to write something. An officer should carry a whistle in case he needed to get someone’s attention in the middle of loud situation, like a firefight. An officer never ordered anyone to do something that he would not do himself and finally, that an officer never passed the buck. The orders were always his.
Tom also said that after the Korean War a number of officers had bragged that they had to “throw the book away” to fight that war. It was Tom’s view that these officers had never read the book, and that they had learned the art of war at the cost of the lives of their men. Tom thought that this price was too high. He insisted that an officer should know his job before he started giving orders.
Tom was never cautious about expressing his opinions. He was always demanding. However, he was also a realist and he taught that uncertainty would always be part of leadership, as would loss.
When the war he had volunteered to go back to turned ever more violently ugly, he did not complain. He just continued to do his job as well as he could, and we brought a lot of young men home alive because of that.
And so, for more than 48 years I have always carried a pad and a pen. When I needed a whistle, I knew where one was. I never hid behind my boss. If I had tough orders to give, I gave them in my name, no matter where they had originated.
You do not forget someone like Tom Gaffney, or as he sometimes liked to phrase it, “Mrs. Gaffney’s little boy Tom.” He is an original, an American original and a good one. He and three of his four platoon leaders are still alive 48 years after we first went to war. Given what we saw and what we did, that is simply incredible and a fitting testament to his leadership.
Currahee, Tom Gaffney.