Van Buskirk Transcript

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Below is the transcript of Robert Van Buskirks remarks on the CNN program "Talk Back Live" which aired on June 8, 1998 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Van Buskirks remarks are labeled, while my commentary is in red colored text. The (ph) you find in the transcript is apparently a notation from the transcriber indicating that the preceeding word was spelled phonetically. It would appear Van Buskirk has a heavy southern accent. Some of the resulting discrepancies are funny, such as the reference to the "Foster's grenade" which is probaly supposed to be "White phosphorous grenade".

O'BRIEN: All right, Peter, on that note, let's bring one of the members of Operation Tailwind in. Robert Van Buskirk is on the line with us from Morganton, North Carolina. He's a former Green Beret. He was a part of this operation.

First of all, Mr. Van Buskirk, thanks for being with us on the program. I'm holding up a book which you wrote in 19-- I guess was '83. Is that right?


O'BRIEN: All right, it's called "Tailwind." And I was leafing through it right before the show, and one of the key points which is not -- Well, there are two key points. First of all, you make reference to the fact that gas was used on this mission, but it isn't specifically stated as nerve gas. Did you not know?

VAN BUSKIRK: I didn't know with completely certainty, Mr. O'Brien. I had an Air Force colonel just before the mission warn me to make sure I took my mask, that the stuff could kill us. My father was an Air Force colonel, was in Vietnam and served with me. He had warned me, as well as this other colonel who knew my dad. So I had some suspicions, but it really didn't matter to me. We had a mission to do. And when I wrote my book, I didn't put anything in it that I wasn't sure of.

COMMENTARY: This will be the first of many officers who are potential witnesses who could corroborate Van Buskirk's story, but they are all unnamed.

He wasn't sure it was nerve agent until Peter Arnett told him it was nerve agent, and that is why he did not mention nerve agent in his tell-almost-all book.

My book is really a Christian testimony, and it's, you know, been put into prisons. Where I am today, I'm speaking to you from a prison where we're completing a prison program, a youth prison in Morganton. So, you know, this book wasn't really for the public. Ward Books (ph) published it, sold a few copies. But we distribute hundreds and thousands of copies for free to men because it is a testimony. And it really wasn't to expose or anything. It was just to tell the men in prison and the women how I got to where I am.

And so when I wrote it in '83, one of the reporters went to the Pentagon and asked about it, and they said it never happened; there was no such thing as Tailwind, and that it was a lie. I didn't care. I didn't write it to fuss with the Pentagon. I wrote it to tell the story of how God can change a young man's life.

COMMENTARY: This seems to be a rather tortured way of saying "I wrote a book and it didn't sell well, so I decided to donate the remaining copies to a tax-deductble cause and make a few bucks." In fact, the book is not listed in the databases of, or Barnes & Noble. I tried to obtain a copy and had no success. Perhaps this episode will encourage the publisher to reprint the book, and the resultant sales will provide income for Robert and his ministry.

It also appears to be a rather convoluted way of saying "Yeah, I know I never made any of these accusations in my book, but don't hold that against me because I'm a Christian now."

O'BRIEN: All right, the other aspect about it, and this perhaps explains it. What you just said explains it. You did mention the fact that there were potential defectors as part of your targets there. To this day, at this day, do you feel confident that there might have been defectors in that village?

VAN BUSKIRK: Well, it's not a matter of might have been. I saw two Americans, as I said on the show. One was going into a spider hole, which is where they hide in the camp. I saw him only waist up 'cause he was going down. And I saw another one running across the camp. He had his boots. He wasn't shackled. He was healthy. My rug sack (ph) had been shot off me. You know, my legs were full of grenade fragments, but I could run, and I literally tried to catch him.

COMMENTARY: The "rug sack" reference is almost certainly "ruck sack". He is explaining that he was able to run because his approximately 75-pound backpack had been "shot off". It's interesting that he thought he had to explain that bit of minutia. In any event, I don't know how a ruck sack could get "shot off". They did have quick-release tabs so you could drop them fast when a firefight broke out. Why he needed to embellish this is part of the mystery here.

But we had been briefed all through our missions into Laos that if we could ever find a defector, that they were also an enemy, and that they were very valuable, and that they should be disposed of, because they were killing us. They were causing casualties with their own tactics. And so there was no doubt in my mind what they were.

COMMENTARY: He seems to have read or heard the similar comments made by retired General Singlaub because this is the first time he has articulated this explanation. Whoever told Van Busride that the defectors were killing us with our own tactics must have been putting him on. The enemy was killing us with his own tactics.

But when I did my after action (ph) report, I only saw -- You know, I only told what I did and what I saw. People heard me on the radio. The pilots heard me. Two of my squad leaders heard me. Because I had no choice and I threw a white Foster's (ph) grenade into the tunnel, into the spider hole, and that, of course, killed him. And any good soldier, I did my after action report, and my colonel in Saigon sat me down and said, "Son, there's Russians in this war. They speak flawless English. These were more than likely Russians. We're not supposed to be in Laos and we're not supposed to be killing Russians. The best thing you can do is forget it."

COMMENTARY: He says he fasified his after-action report because this unnamed Colonel told him to. Why he seems convinced that he most definately killed the defector when he tossed in the "white Foster's grenade" (i.e. White phosphorous) is beyond me. As a highly trained Green Beret Officer, he should be aware of just how carefully the NVA constructed tunnels to eliminate the effects of blast weapons thrown into them. They deliberately constructed tunnels with right-angles to prevent shrapnel from moving along the length of a tunnel.

I was a 26-year-old Green Beret officer, a career officer, and I followed my orders. And I did literally forget it. And it wasn't until April Oliver and Mike Marriott (ph) and his wife, Midge (ph), and other people on the team, Jack Smith, began to question me that this came out. And I think they heard some of my squad leaders remember that I said it on the radio: "I just had to kill two round eyes." That was our code name for Caucasians.

COMMENTARY: In fact, the codeword for defectors was "longshadow". The term was coined after photo analysts noticed people in recon photos whose shadows where longer than those of other people in the photos. This led to the conclusion that they were taller, and possibly Caucasian. The term roundeye was used throughout Vietnam by Americans to refer to other Americans.

Again Van Busride is telling us that he had no reason to believe that nerve agent was used, or that the mission of Tailwind was defector-killing, until others told him. At that point, apparently warming up to the attention and adulation offered by Oliver and Arnett, he suddenly "remembered" this incident. I am surprised he has not raised the "Twinkie Defense".

O'BRIEN: All right, Doug has a question, because those of us who remember Vietnam know that there were a lot of people who were, to say the least, ambivalent about the war and might have walked away from the war but not necessarily have been defectors. Go ahead, Doug.

DOUG: Yes, sir. I was just wondering, is it certain that the Americans in the camp were defectors rather than deserters or perhaps prisoners?

VAN BUSKIRK: Well, that's a good question, Doug. Understand this camp was a military base camp. We had attacked it at first light. Our LZ (ph) was on the other side. We were almost beat before this. We were all wounded. We were just about out of ammunition. And we'd come into the camp quite by accident. My sergeant and I had seen two dogs, and we decided to follow the dogs, kill their owners, and then go to the LZ. The dogs took us to the camp. Had we gone to the LZ, we would have been wiped out, because there was an ambush waiting for us. We didn't even realize it. So once we got in the camp, the only way out was right through the middle. We did what we were trained to do. And Doug, we were sworn by our oath to defend our Constitution and our nation against all enemies foreign and domestic. And I think all of us had made up our minds, you know, what we would do in this situation.

COMMENTARY: He starts out this response by saying "Understand this camp was a military base camp." Arnett/CNN keep refering to it as a "village", or a "town". He also says "And we'd come into the camp quite by accident". Wait a minute, earlier he said this was the "objective", the place where a SOG recon team had reported "longshadows". The clear implication was that they were sent to this camp-village-town to kill defectors.

I gave the soldier that I almost caught, I gave him every opportunity to surrender. I bent down at the spider hole. I broke orders. I said, "My name is Lieutenant Van Buskirk, special forces. I'll take you home." And I would have.

O'BRIEN: And that was against the orders. That's interesting.

VAN BUSKIRK: That was against the orders because I had no dog tags, no ID card. I had nothing to identify me with the United States. My tiger stripe uniforms were made not in the United States. Everything about me was sterile in the sense nothing to link me with my nation. And this was the rules of the game. But in a sense of fair play and as a man of character, I gave him the opportunity to surrender because he was not armed. But he was no shackled, he was not handcuffed. He was healthy. He could run fast and strong. He outran me. I was in the prime of my life, and he was running for his life. But when I asked him, he said in perfect English with no accent -- and I'm a linguist. I can find an accent if it's there usually -- he said, "`F' you." But he said the whole word.

COMMENTARY: "...and I'm a linguist. I can find an accent if it's there usually". Yep, that sounds absolutely kosher to me, I'm sure he's a linguist. He seems to have a fairly decent grasp of English, although his grammar, vocabulary, and syntax seem a might strained at times.

He is in effect saying that he violated orders by identifying himself as a Green Beret just in case the Caucasian he chased down the hole was an American POW who was so stupid (an enlisted man obviously) that he could not put two and two together and come up with RESCUE MISSION.

He is also saying that SOG operations were conducted in such a way as to provide "plausible deniabilty" in the event that any team members were killed and their bodies were recovered by the NVA. If they were captured alive of course, all bets were off. The NVA were not stupid. They would not believe that Van Buskirk was a Dutch Tea trader who got lost on his way to Ceylon for Darjeeling. The reference to his uniform not being manufactured in the U.S. was part of the "sterile" nature of these missions. What is funny however is that they carried radios, strobe lights, and all manner of gear that was clearly made in the U.S.A.

And at the same time, my radio man caught up with me in FAP, Ford (ph) Air Patrol overhead, was demanding I mark the middle of the camp, because they could hear all the fighting, and they wanted to know where the center was, where we were so they could work the outside. And he said, "Mark the center of the camp." And I was right at the hole, and I said, "No. `F' you. I'm going to count to three and mark it." And I did. And I dropped the Foster's grenade in the hole so that the white smoke would go up through this canopy and the FAP's and the (INAUDIBLE) moving, the fast movers could see where we were and then work the perimeter.

COMMENTARY: The "Foster's grenade" reference is almost certainly "phosphorous grenade". The "FAP Ford Air Patrol" reference is probably "FAC, Forward Air Controller". "Fast Movers" was the radio code for fighter-bombers.

He is explaining that he killed two birds with one Willy-Pete grenade. The FAC wanted him to mark the location of the friendlies with white smoke, and since he had to kill the defector anyway, he might as well accomplish both tasks with the one White phosphorous (or WP, aka Willy-Peter, Willy-Pete) grenade since it makes a voluminous amount of white smoke. It also disgorges chunks of white phosphorous burning at approximately 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. These chunks burn right through bone. The only way to extinguish the burning chemical is to prevent oxygen from reaching it by smothering the wound with mud. Immersion in water will not work since it can extract oxygen from liquid water. Only a thick paste of mud will work. This weapon produces ghastly burns and most U.S. troops did not like carrying any WP munition. It is odd that Van Buskirk seems disturbed by nerve agent use (which causes a quick and relatively painless death), but sees no horror in his use of the Willy-Pete grenade.

O'BRIEN: All right, Robert, we need to take a break here right now.

VAN BUSKIRK: Yes, sir.

COMMENTARY: I need to take a break too. I need to roll up my pantlegs. It is getting deep.

Ask yourself this question: if this guy was a coworker, and he told you this story while standing around the coffee machine, would you think that just maybe this guy was a liar?

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Creation Date: Tuesday, June 16, 1998
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 16, 1998
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1998