My War Story

This latest installment in our Lessons from War project, in which Jan C. Scruggs interviews prominent Americans about their experiences during the Vietnam War.

Barry McCaffrey is president of BR McCaffrey Associates LLC. He served in the U.S. Army for 32 years and retired as a four-star general. At retirement he was the most highly decorated serving general, having been awarded three Purple Heart medals for wounds received in his four combat tours—as well as twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor. He also twice was awarded the Silver Star for valor.

For five years after leaving the military, Barry McCaffrey served as the nation’s Cabinet Officer in charge of U.S. Drug Policy. He was confirmed for this position by unanimous vote by the U.S. Senate. For this period of public service, McCaffrey received many honors including: the Department of Health and Human Service Lifetime Achievement Award for Extraordinary Achievements in the Field of Substance Abuse Prevention (2004), the U.S. Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Award, the Norman E. Zinberg Award of the Harvard Medical School, the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation’s National Service Award, and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

After leaving government service, McCaffrey served as the Bradley Distinguished Professor of International Security Studies from January 2001 to May 2005; and then as an adjunct professor of International Security Studies from May 2005 to December 2010 at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

McCaffrey graduated from West Point with a Bachelor of Science in 1964; earned a master’s degree in American Government from American University; and attended the Harvard University National Security Program as well as the Business School Executive Education Program.

Q: Why did you want to attend West Point? How do you think that education impacted your military career?

A: I wanted to be a soldier from a young age. I grew up in a family where all the men went off to fight World War II.  My dad was a career soldier who served in three wars during eight years of combat—WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He was twice awarded the Silver Star fighting in WWII and then Korea. West Point is a powerful shaping experience. Duty-Honor-Country. That is the message to a bunch of volunteers who start military service as teenagers.

Q: You received two awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and three awards of the Purple Hearts for actions during Vietnam, what do you think led you the be the kind of person/officer able to stay cool in those intense battle situations and protect your men? How much of it do you think is training, or individual character, or does a person just become very focused when such a situation demands it of you?

A: I was fortunate to have had a lot of training before I was first exposed to combat. Ranger School was the most important. My first assignment was as a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division. We deployed to combat operations in the Dominican Republic Intervention. The senior officers were mostly combat veterans…and very focused on getting us ready to fight. The NCO’s were incredibly strong and experienced leaders. I had an additional year of training before serving in the Vietnamese Airborne Division as a lieutenant and captain. Finally, I was very conscious of the responsibility I had in combat to the soldiers I served with— I did not want to let them down.

Q: How did your experience in Vietnam shape the rest of your military career?

A: Service in Vietnam—particularly as a rifle company commander in B Co 2nd Bn 7th Cavalry 1968-69 dominated my view of my personal mission for 32 years of military service. The only reality in the armed forces is what happens with the small band of confused, scared, filthy, exhausted and young soldiers who are directly facing enemy fighters. It is a brutal life.  Americans are very good in combat. Lots of initiative. Great devotion to their buddies. Incredibly brave. Maintain humor in the face of great difficulties. They are natural fighters.

Q: What do you remember most from Vietnam? What were your major take aways?

A: Have a plan. Rehearse the plan. Dig and put out OP/LP’s. Be quiet on the battlefield when moving to contact. Control artillery and attack helicopters—they allow you to move and close and not take unacceptable casualties.  Security and OPSEC is everything—do not get surprised.  Make sure soldiers get sleep during combat. Get them fed. Keep them clean and shaven when possible. Keep their equipment operational.  Lead from the front. Never forget your honor—take care of prisoners and POW’s under your control.

Q:  What does the Vietnam Veterans Memorial mean to you?

A: Thousands of brave Americans who gave everything for America. Each lost trooper is a tragedy for their family which lasts forever. All of these honored KIA are an example to those who must fight in later years.

Q: Why do you think it’s important that young people learn about the Vietnam War and that Americans don’t forget the names on The Wall or those who served but made it home?

A: If we will not fight to protect ourselves, we will disappear as a free nation. This is not some theoretical or altruistic notion—this is reality. As we look at the troops fighting in Afghanistan and those who went into Iraq after the terrible attack on America during 9/11, we should be grateful that despite 56,000 U.S. killed and wounded—young Americans will still step forward to defend us. Thank God for the U.S. Armed Forces.