Interviewee: Captain Rhys Williams
Interviewer: Donald Gunn
Date: October 14, 1999
G: I am Donald Gunn, and I am speaking with Captain Rhys Williams. It is October
14, 1999, and we are in Gainesville, Florida. Captain Williams, briefly tell me a
little bit about where you grew up and your life up until your association with the
W: I was born in Kankakee, Illinois, and [my] folks lived between there and
Champaign-Urbana the first five years of my life, [of which] I do not remember
much. Then we moved down to Fort Lauderdale when I was five, and I
remember that very well. I would say from age five through age eighteen, high
school, I lived in Broward County, in various localities there.
G: Where did you graduate from high school?
W: South Plantation High School in Plantation. I lived there since 1976. My mother
still lives there. I guess I consider that my real home. During college summers, I
would go home there, and I worked there for a good year following college as
G: Tell me a little bit about your educational background beyond high school.
W: I was one of four people in 1983 [in Florida] to get accepted to Harvard
University, and two of us accepted [the offer], one kid from another high school,
Nova High School, and myself. So we went to Harvard [for] undergrad. I studied
government and concentrated on economics and Latin American studies.
G: Was that where you had your first exposure to the military, while you were in
W: Yes. Actually, that is an interesting story. I got what I call the Owen Williams
Scholarship, which is a deal that my father worked out with me. I was fortunate
enough to have been accepted at West Point as well as Harvard and some other
schools, and my father just thought that West Point was the best opportunity I
could ever have hoped for and really was somewhat shocked when I announced
to him that money was important to me, as opposed to pure military...being a
distinguished warrior. He did not really agree with that and said, well, son, if you
want any money at all for Harvard, you are going to join the National Guard, and,
if you do join the Guard, I suggest you be an officer [because] the view is a lot
better from that angle. I said, dad, that seems a little unilateral and a little bit
heavy-handed of you. And he was like, well, so be it; you will get one-third tuition
if you join the Guard. It took me three days to enlist in the Massachusetts Guard
to sign up for basic training that summer, literally three weeks later, and get
involved in an ROTC program at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].
So that is kind of how I got involved.
G: Did your dad have a military background?
W: He did. My father came over from New Zealand [at] age sixteen. His father
passed away within six months of their arrival here, and then his mother passed
away six months later. He was kind of a ne'er-do-well high-school dropout, had
gone from job to job. On her deathbed, she told my father, Owen, you have to
join the military; that is the only way you will make anything out of your life. He
committed that he would do that, prior to her death, and did join the Army. In a
way, it was his father and his mother. He realized in the military that he was a
bright person, that he had intellectual capacity, and [he] later went to law school
on the GI Bill. This was in the period of, I think 1954-1957, so he was also
fortunate enough not to get caught up in either Korea or Vietnam.
G: So you got commissioned through MIT ROTC?
W: Yes. Harvard's ROTC was kicked off-campus, I think in 1969, back in the
heyday of the Vietnam protest. MIT was really the only avenue available for
Harvard College men and women, and we all did ROTC at MIT along with
Wellesley and Tufts, all in one.
G: So you were commissioned in the Massachusetts National Guard?
W: That is correct. They actually had something called the simultaneous-
membership program, whereby you would be in ROTC, which is a program of the
U.S. Army Reserve, for purposes of attaining your officer commission. However,
your actual service was not active-duty, was not Army Reserve, but was in fact
the National Guard. So I was with the 1st [Battalion] of the 182nd Infantry
[Regiment], out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had the distinction of being
the oldest military unit on North America, bar none. It was actually the militia that
the Pilgrims had founded when they first landed. It was very interesting and had
a very rich, long history. So I did both ROTC and National Guard drills
simultaneously during my four years.
G: How did you come about being in the Florida National Guard?
W: I went right from college and did my four and a half months of officer basic
training at Fort Benning [Georgia]. In February of 1988, I finished that up and
then came down to south Florida, moved back in at home, and looked for
employment. It was less than a year later that I wanted to get back into a military
unit and happened to see this armory on State Road 84 down in Fort Lauderdale.
I saw something about Special Forces, and that really intrigued me. I thought,
well, that is interesting. I did not realize the active component had a special ops
[operations] company down here. So I just wandered in and took a look around
and decided it was really something I wanted to pursue. Part of it, too, was my
own neuroses from my youth. I was probably six or seven at the time, but I
checked out a book by William Colby. Colby had this whole series of books that
detailed the different branches of the service. I was intrigued by it early on, and
my grandfather said, what are you doing there, what are you reading? I said, oh,
a book on the Green Berets. He said, why are you doing that? You could never
do that. And that just kind of resonated. Here was an opportunity to do
something I was not supposed to do.
G: What was the training once you got in? What were the requirements to get into
W: You definitely had to pass the screen of the company commander and his XO
[executive officer]. Aside from the normal requirements on paper, there is this
unspoken culture that you have to be worthy of their company. They would want
to be able to fight next to you or to trust their back to you on a patrol or in
combat. So there was a little bit of social-hazing during the first interview. With
having a Harvard degree, I was told later the company commander was looking
at my resume on a mission, a deployment they had in Spain, and they just had a
good hoot looking at it, saying, oh, this guy is going to be fun to interview; let's
have him in just for laughs. I guess I did okay, convinced them that it was
something I really wanted to do and had the ability, physically and mentally. In
the initial screening process, there is an advanced physical-aptitude test. I
cannot remember all of it, but I know some of it had to do with jumping off of a
diving board, with a blindfold on, with an AK-47 replica. I am not sure if the
active-component does that as well, but there were certain things we had to do in
addition to the normal entrance-requirements for normal units.
G: What was the unit's mission?
W: 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces. Our geographical-orientation was Latin
America. It had just changed over. I think we were West Africa, but they moved
us towards Latin America, in terms of our CAPSTONE alignment. That is no
longer classified, so I am comfortable releasing that. The primary mission we
had was FID, foreign internal defense, which is primarily organizing, training,
assisting, and advising host-nation countries. There is an additional classification
of mission according to where the money comes from, whether it is State
Department, DOD [Department of Defense], or a National Guard Bureau
[money]. That gets into a whole other layer. Essentially, we would train in
specific areas, to train at skills and combat operations and then, in summers, go
down to different countries in Latin America and train the host nation forces in
U.S. doctrine. If I can go back, after the initial requirements, there was a
weeding-out process. You were called an NQP, non-qualified personnel.
Essentially, they had to train you and oversee your progress and see if you were
fit to go off to the selection course. For some people, it might take them as long
as two years to get ready to go. Sometimes, there were civilian employment
conflicts but most often, they were not really ready physically or they would not
demonstrate the confidence to be able to pass the selection course. The
selection course is about a three-week ordeal. It is called Special Forces
Assessment and Selection, SFAS. We always called it the Sore Feet and
Shoulders school or the School For Advanced Suffering. That is kind of what it
was known as. It was a tough course. People had been killed by that course,
either through heatstroke or through neck injuries. You carry an incredible
amount of weight in some of these exercises, and if you trip or stumble down a
berm or something like that, it is very easy for you to snap your neck. Even
active-duty guys who would come back would kind of dread it. Some of them
had to go through just to be re-validated or re-certified or to keep the course
comparable with the old requirements, and they never really relished having to
go through that.
G: What would the state would use the Special Forces units for?
W: The governor would generally call us, and the governor is, and was, our
commander-in-chief in peace time. Primarily, the missions that we had...[we
were] called out in the 1980s once during an oil-trucker strike. This was before I
arrived, but the Guardsmen down there in C company, their Battalion 20th Special
Forces had to guard the truckers, who were basically the scabs who were willing
to drive the trucks out of Port Everglades to deliver fuel. Also, I believe they were
put on standby for two out of the three Miami riots. The first two riots were before
my time, so I do not remember, but I had heard that they did good service during
that period. Also, I commanded a scuba detachment, I would say a good three-
quarters of which were on active state-orders as the state's counter-drug team.
There is a very interesting little-known history about the state's counter-drug
operations, a lot of things that possibly skirted legal issues in terms of what they
should have been doing, or should not have been doing. But, they did some
interesting things. Among the other things, some of the things a counter-drug
team does is surveillance of marijuana fields and landing strips, where they
literally do special-reconnaissance missions, dig in to hide sites and camouflage
themselves and use satellite-equipment to call in any kind of identifying markings
they find on vehicles, or if an arrest seemed timely, to call in local law-
enforcement to affect that arrest. Some other missions: they would do harbor-
surveillance, I heard recently, down in the Tampa area, in terms of looking for
drug-traffic in and out of areas in the port. What else did we do? Our unit had
the distinction of being the first unit on the ground in Hurricane Andrew. We were
literally there, I would say, seven hours after the eye passed through Florida City.
I remember driving the lead vehicle in the lead convoy down through
Homestead. Because Hurricane Andrew, in the extent of the devastation, caught
the state so off-guard, we became more and more efficient at our mission and
executing our mission and deploying alongside with other federal, state, and local
agencies. Just one example: because our communications experts, or our
communications sergeants, were so good at what they did and frequently were
the only ones who could make communications with Tallahassee and with other
areas that needed up-to-date information, we then had the training proponents
for other agencies to set up communication nets and things like that.
G: During the late 1980s with the climax of the Cold War, did you see any changes
in your unit, in the overseas mission?
W: Yes. The orientation, when I was there, we switched from North Africa to Latin
America. I think that was a recognition. First of all, Africa was always on the
chopping-block. It was one of the least critical areas, whether it was active duty
or reserve component. If funds drew down, they would usually get rid of Africa.
But, also, Latin America became very important in the 1980s as time went on
because of all the Leftists, or the Marxist-Leninist insurgencies in Central
America. So, I think they were taking advantage of the fact that we had many
Latin American or Spanish native speakers and people who had worked with
other federal agencies as well: DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency], FBI [Federal
Bureau of Investigation], State Department. [For] people who had civilian jobs,
there were some synergies of having them also dedicated to that theater.
G: Was there a language-requirement in your unit for the region you were in?
W: Generally, yes. In terms of how strict the requirement is, you always have an
area-orientation. I remember it was in 1991 that it became a very extensive
requirement, that everyone had to have a certain basic-proficiency in a language,
and you would be tested on it regularly; so, every four months, we would get
language tested four six. It was not too much of a problem. We spoke a lot of
Spanish, and our missions gave us plenty of exposure to using Spanish
operational terms. I was very impressed with our ability to pull off missions. We
generally got very high ratings from our active Army components who would
come down to assess us. We usually had an advisor on every mission we did,
and they were helpful too, because there were some things there was no way we
could have known at the time. It is nice to have a guy there who understands
how the regular Army would confront a certain issue.
G: Was your unit pretty well integrated as far as minorities?
W: Probably less so than most, and part of that has to do with...you are going to
laugh, but SF soldiers, Special Forces soldiers, have to be very comfortable in
the water, have to be very good, and their swim tests are much more strenuous
than the active component. For whatever reason, whether it is cultural or
economic or social, African-American soldiers tend not to have the same comfort
or ability in the water, and that seemed to screen out quite a few, to be honest. I
have seen more than one applicant or person show up and just not be able to
make the swim test. Compared to the units in Virginia, I think we had less of a
problem with integration. I think the fact that we had Hispanics and, if you want
to call us, redneck whites, and African-Americans, there was perhaps less focus
on black/white issues. There were not that many though, I must say. I think we
had in my unit, out of [fifty or] sixty soldiers, we maybe had two African-
Americans and maybe fifteen Hispanics.
G: And there were no women in your Special Forces unit?
W: That is correct. Sometimes you see them in the support outfits, driving trucks,
serving meals, and stuff like that, but we have very little interaction. It is one big
G: Talk a little bit about your civilian career and your early years there in the
W: I say SF, meaning special forces, is a jealous mistress; it is jealous of your
civilian career. It was extremely difficult to have any kind of professional identity
and also be a dedicated special operations soldier in the National Guard. Part of
that is the fact that you have to go away and do extensive periods of training in
order to become certified. If I look through my different periods of training, I had
three weeks of selection, six months of the qualification course, three weeks of
pre-scuba training, five and a half weeks of scuba training, and often
deployments that exceeded the normal two-week requirement. They would
sometimes run as long as four or four and a half weeks, in order to do a full
deployment. [They were] not concurrent, but [would] come at times that you
cannot predict. You [could not] predict when your orders would come in or when
a pot of money would free up from the National Guard Bureau to be able to send
you off. So, usually, you would find that people in these units, who are just
getting into them, usually were in their twenties and early thirties. After that, a
person had a family to feed, they had a career, and they had employers that
really were not all that supportive, or could not afford to be really. Frequently,
you would find in these units [that] the people who could kind of navigate the
conflict between civilian and military career were federal employees, policemen,
firemen, paramedics, postal workers. Frequently, people would get off active-
duty, join our unit, and then would find a civilian job as a consequence. So, there
was a strong network internally, finding state jobs that would be supportive of
National Guard requirements and deployments and training needs.
G: Did you have any involvement, you or your unit, in Desert Storm?
W: Yes, we were one of, I think, two combat units that was mobilized. The
background behind that was, early on in the war, apparently, the active Army
took significant losses in its special operations, not something they let on. I am
not sure if it has been released yet, but we had heard background reports that
the casualty-rate was very high among the special-reconnaissance units and the
units that did the target laser-designations on the sites. All those wonderful,
glorious pictures that you have of bombs being guided into exhaust shafts and
stuff like that...well, there was a man on the ground for every bomb you saw,
generally, guiding that in, and many of those people got caught, or killed, or
captured, and I am not sure the Army has released that info yet. So that is why
we were called up. Our entire group was called up, one battalion in Mississippi,
one battalion in Alabama, and the Florida battalion, the 3rd Battalion. It happened
quickly. We were notified [and] ten days later, we shipped out to battalion
headquarters at Camp Blanding. Then, that very week, we were at Fort Bragg
[North Carolina]. The irony of the whole thing was that it was a 100-hour ground
operation and by the time we had gotten to Bragg, the war effectively was over.
They were nice enough to keep us on active-duty orders so that we could receive
many of the veterans' benefits. They had to keep us up there a month anyway,
so they decided to keep us on an additional two in order to get those benefits.
Many people, of course, were unhappy. There were tons of wives calling
congressmen, trying to get us home earlier. But, I think, in retrospect, we
appreciated being included. Many people-and when I say many, I think there
were probably between fifteen and twenty people-did go over and support
[Operation] Provide Comfort. We had people with specific communications,
logistic and medical capabilities, who helped train the Kurds [Kurdish minority
faction in Iraq]. There are some pretty interesting stories that came out of that.
So, that was kind of the extent of our involvement.
G: You went to regular Army schools? These were not National Guard schools?
W: That is correct. They try as much as they can to make sure that special
operations does not dilute itself, in terms of allowing reservists to play. My
understanding is that these units came about after the Vietnam War, that there
were a lot of special operations people who had just rotated home, and they did
not want to lose their unique skill-sets and the money that had been invested in
them. The men were also happy to hang out in units at home with their friends
and still stay on the sidelines, should they be needed again. That is kind of the
background of where they came from. But every bit of our training was active
duty. Frequently, and during Desert Storm, many men decided that, rather than
keep getting called up for hurricanes and active-duty call-ups and stuff, they
might as well just go on active anyway, and a lot of guys did go on active. Most
often, it was your medics and your communicators.
G: Talk a little bit about your duty positions in the unit, as an officer.
W: When I first came into the unit, I was an NQP, a non-qualified person. Rank did
not make any difference, and it generally did not in an SF unit. There were two
kinds of people, qualified and non-qualified. So you definitely had to march down
that road and pay your dues and prove that you could do it and get through the
training. The funny thing was, you never really knew who was going to make it
through the training. You could see the most confident, athletic, charismatic
soldier and think he would be a shoo-in but, somehow, did not mentally have
what it took to hang in there at the last minute, when your battery was really
drained low. On the other hand, you would have a guy who looked kind of
skinny. Clearly, we all had athletic ability, but you just were not quite sure.
Maybe he was quiet, but he had what it took. That is part of what the NQP
process was about. I did that for about a year and a half and then went on and
did the selection course. Then, as a graduate of the SFAS program, you came
back and waited for your orders and money so that you could rotate into the
active- duty course. You then still have to hang out with the non-qualified people,
but more in the role of a trainer, because you had been through the selection.
So, we would train them. I tell you: we would put some people through hell,
because once you understand...I had never seen a civilian-unit train as hard. We
had an advantage, I think, over some of the active-duty people because that was
our mission, to train for these things. Also, we had a great repository of
knowledge [from] people who [had or] had not made it through, or people who
broke their ankles on [a given] event [that we would subsequently avoid] and that
kind of thing. A good repository [of knowledge], so when we sent guys off, we
felt they were fairly well-trained. Then, after I finished the qualification course-I
was still a lieutenant-and came back, my first official position on a team was as
an XO, or executive officer. I would serve underneath the captain, who was the
team commander. We were the two officers. There would also be a warrant
officer, who was in charge of operations and intelligence. Then, the other person
is the team sergeant, who is usually a crusty, old E-8 [master sergeant], who has
probably been in special operations fifteen or twenty years. As XO, generally,
you are in charge of running the staff meetings, doing a lot of the administrative
chores; also, when the team would move into a split team configuration, where
we would take our twelve-man team and then literally divide in two-much like a
strand of DNA-[and] all our skill-identifiers are cross-loaded, I would then be
commander of the second team.
G: Talk a little bit about the skill-identifiers in the Special Forces unit.
W: In an operational detachment A, or an A-team, you have a captain, an XO who is
a lieutenant, [and] a team sergeant who is an E-8, a warrant officer who
frequently came up the ranks as a very qualified enlisted man or NCO
[noncommissioned officer] and then, when he reached E-6 [staff sergeant] or E-7
[sergeant first-class], decided to go off to be a warrant [officer]. We have two
weapon sergeants, two communication sergeants, two medical sergeants, and
two demolitions/engineering sergeants. I was really, really, to this day, incredibly
impressed with the synergy of a team, what twelve men can do, in terms of
cross-training each other and getting tasks completed in impossible conditions. I
really felt we could go anywhere in the world with a modest amount of equipment
and get done whatever we needed to get done. They did a good job, too, in
screening people, in terms of being able to get along on a team. You have very
aggressive, very confident, very energetic people who, at the same time, have to
get along. It is not always easy but I guess after a while [when] you hang out
with people, the rough edges rub off.
G: Talk a little bit about Hurricane Andrew.
W: Hurricane Andrew happened in August of 1991. I had just moved up to New
Jersey to be with my wife. She was in medical school, and I was still commuting
down for drills, actually, I was flying at my own expense. There was an incredible
devotion to the unit. People would fly in from Puerto Rico and fly in from Kansas,
just to attend drills, monthly. I am not exaggerating; that is the kind of bond you
had with the guys on your team, kind of the unit esprit de corps. Well, I saw
Hurricane Andrew was going to be a significant threat and that I would probably
be called up, as would the unit. My mother still lived in Fort Lauderdale, so I
caught the last flight out of Newark, which was supposed to land at Miami, but
Miami closed while we were in the air. Then I was going to land in Lauderdale,
which was good for me because that is where I wanted to get; but then,
Lauderdale closed as we were in the air. So we ended up landing at Palm
Beach, and I had to hitch a ride, literally, to get down into Fort Lauderdale. I
guess I got in at five o'clock, helped my mother finish boarding up the house, and
then we rode out the storm. The next morning, I called a friend of mine who I
went through the Q [qualification] course [with] and asked him if he had heard
anything and he said, well, the telephone lines are down, and I do not have
communication with the armory but on my radio-he had a two-way-he said, they
are telling us that we need to get in there. So I grabbed what I could. My
luggage did not follow me, unfortunately, so I showed up in civilians and caught a
lot of grief for that, civvie clothes. I think my nickname for that deployment was
shoeless Williams, or bootleg, because I had no boots; I showed up in tennis
shoes and jeans and stuff, but they outfitted me with what they had. We
gathered what we could, and we went down. I think we left out of the armory at
eleven o'clock or so; it might have been a little later. Those images still really
stick with me. It sounds, maybe, melodramatic compared with stuff that other
people have been through, but it made a big impact on a lot of us. My first
image, I remember, [was] kind of that giddy fear but kind of laughter, the joking
around but not knowing what you are going to face but kind of the let-us-see-
how-bad-it-is; a little bit of excitement mixed with a little bit of apprehension. At
first, we did not see anything and you are thinking to yourself, ah, this wasn't shit;
what was this all about? But, gradually, as you get further south into Dade
County, you realize that, wow, this could be big, maybe this is bad, we are only
thirty miles from ground zero, so maybe this was bad. Then, we crossed this
one-I remember, I was driving the lead vehicle-and it began to sink in; we could
not really fathom. When we passed Miami International, we saw one of the
planes had been tilted and it was like, wow, this was a bad storm. Then, it did
not register to me that nothing was working, that nothing was right. I remember
stopping at a toll booth and holding up the entire convoy because I was looking;
well, who do I pay the toll to? And everyone is honking behind me, get going,
you idiot. So we drive on, and then the route started getting difficult to get
through because trees had fallen. Then, we hit a power-line here or two and had
to make the decision of whether to go over it. But someone had assured me that
they had brought the grid down and not to worry about it. I do not know why I
trusted them, but I did, so we drove over a couple of wires. Then we hit this one
corner, and I still have that image in my mind. I call it the human ant pile; just as
if you go in a big ant pile, and you throw a stone in it or kick it and all these ants
come up and bubble up through the dirt, for as far as the eye could see, you saw
people climbing on roofs and cars, on anything and everything. It just was not
right. It was the most bizarre thing, humans like ants trying to make things right,
to fix their roofs, to right their vehicles, to locate people. And to see every major
tree plucked as if...they were like 10,000 toothpicks sticking out of the Earth, big
trees, without any kind of foliage on them, as far as you could see. And you
could not put your finger on what was not right, until you realized that was what it
was. Then we passed the Burger King compound and one building where you
see the computer terminals literally hanging out of the building. When we got in,
people cried when they saw us. They were so happy that someone was there to
help them. So, we spent the next couple of days arresting looters, which was not
the fun part, and doling out food and water. Night patrols...we had some people
who had to use their special-operations gear to go after snipers. All manner of
mental-disturbance comes to a forefront during a natural disaster. I am not sure
people are aware of that, but people who normally might seem sane go insane
and start shooting. We had people who had to find them with the night-vision
goggles and try to get that situation in hand. We had to get through to some
people who just literally could not get out; their vehicles could not get out due to
blocked trees. I am trying to think of what else. Guard key facilities, nuclear
G: Were you armed? They issued live ammunition for the operation?
W: Yes. We had our M-16s, we had our .45s, and we had our shotguns. Later, they
decided, I guess in the second week when things calmed down, that they wanted
not to arm us anymore, or wanted us to turn in our ammunition. But we needed
to be armed. The civilians were armed, and the civilians were not always
rational. There were a couple of times we had to step into food-lines. People
were very desperate to get basic goods and services and medicine for their
children, and there were certain policy decisions you had to make in terms of
how the stuff would be distributed and whether property rights would be
respected or not. There was one incident; it was a racial incident between one of
my sergeants-I call him mine, he was not on my team-and a looter, and I literally
had to step in between the two because I felt it was at the point where, really, the
sergeant was probably going to shoot this guy. So, I guess weapons were a
good and a bad thing at the same time.
G: Did you have full arrest powers?
W: I am trying to remember. I believe we did. I know with looters, if we decided
someone was going to jail, they were going to jail. The police generally looked to
us, frequently, for some kind of judgment-call or leadership. The police were
really in a state of shock. They, themselves, had lost everything, so they really
were not always in a position to provide vigorous and active leadership, or law
and order even. They were really numb, I remember, when we showed up.
They were really driving kind of aimlessly, not really understanding where to drop
us off. They were shell-shocked themselves, so we were the law and order.
There were certain abuses, I am sure. I saw some personalities that I was not
really comfortable with, giving orders or making decisions, and that was where
you had to really delicately step in. On the other hand, some order was better
than no order at all.
G: Who was the unit reporting to?
W: I think one of the things that came out of Andrew was the fact that there was total
chaos, and I do not think that will be the case in the future. I think they have
ironed some of those command responsibilities. Being a Special Forces unit,
being very tight and integrated with each other, we kind of respected our own
authority. We supposedly reported to troop command, which is who we normally
report to, but I do not recall seeing them down there, and they had other things
going on in the state as well. I had heard there were riots in Miami, or some
looting breaking out, which the press took care not to report. So, they may have
had multiple demands on their time. Everyone showed up and tried to claim us:
no, you are reporting to us now; or, if you do anything, you talk to us. Our
commanders response was always, that is great, okay, what do you have for us-
do you have food for us, water for us? In other words, we will work for you if you
are willing to pay for us. So, we generally would work with the law enforcement.
I remember, they would give us vehicles also so that we could take a more active
police role. But, I do not remember really reporting to anybody, at least at the
ground level. I think at the command level, there were various different games
going back and forth, as to who reported to whom. We stayed within the National
Guard chain of command, though; we were not a renegade battalion, but I do not
remember kowtowing to any civilian authority.
G: Describe your most recent duty positions in your unit and how that has affected
your civilian career and lifestyle.
W: After being the XO, I had the good fortune to command two teams, one in
Virginia and then a scuba detachment in Ocala, Florida-A Company. I have
heard from many people-active duty, National Guard, any component-that really
is the pinnacle of your career as a special operations officer, because above that,
you just get a lot of staff duty and you are never really part of a team, twelve guys
with rucksacks and rifles and boots, sleeping in the jungle and doing incredible
things; and, below that, you are always a wannabe as an officer until you get
command. I did a couple of really neat deployments. I guess the pinnacle was
the deployment to Bolivia in 1997. Our company had four teams. We were
deployed down in Yanous Plain. My team went to 14,000 feet altitude, or was it
12,000 altitude, in Challapata, Bolivia. Then, we had one team kind of in a mid-
level mountain area, [I think,] near Chibamba. In terms of what it meant, I feel
more enriched and proud[er] of the experiences and accomplishments that I have
had as a Florida Guardsman in the Special Forces than in [my] academic or
business accomplishments. I think there is that emotional thing, the bond with
the team and other comrades and, also, the element of physical challenge that
you really just cannot get anywhere and, plus, the service to country and
community. You put that in one package-the comradery, the challenge, and the
service-and it is, from what I can see, impossible to find a similar package in any
other environment, corporate or otherwise. It is a tough thing to give up or to
move on from and, someday, that day comes, whether you have to move on for
promotion reasons, or whether family requirements may force that decision upon
you, or career. I guess that is something I can talk about with some experience.
As a consequence of the deployment to Bolivia, which was a month-long
deployment...when I say month-long, it required a two-month pre-site visit to set
things up and then an actual two and a half-week deployment. I was a
stockbroker, or financial consultant, at Smith-Barney at the time, in Tampa.
Certainly, your clients and your boss appreciate the fact that you are serving your
country and doing good things, but they still want what they want, and they still
expect and require a certain level of service and accessibility. If you are not
there, well, it is all well and good that you are going and doing these other things,
but there are other places they can take their money or place their attention.
That was tough. When I came back, whereas by law, they cannot punish you-
your employer cannot punish you, or your clients cannot-certainly they can either
not make any kind of adjustment for the month that you have been gone, in terms
of requirements for production figures or new accounts, accounts signed, and
things like that, and there is no special dispensation. So it can be exceedingly
difficult for a professional to also be involved in special operations at the National
Guard level, where you still have a civilian life as well, unless you, again, are not
a professional and work in a police department or fire department or something
like that. As a commander, I mentioned the deployments, managing twelve men
with all of their gear, interfacing with host-nations, really, in many ways,
executing U.S. foreign policy, albeit at a low level, but you can have a significant
effect on the development of these people with the information you share and the
technology you train them in and, also, the information you bring back. It is not
something that is often talked about, but we do intelligence reports and surveys
when we come back, and we learn an incredible amount by living, eating,
breathing, and sleeping with the host nation. I think, probably, a few people,
least of all the Chileans, realize that the Bolivian borders are unguarded
currently, because they have not one round of ammunition and, in fact, tried to
steal ours. So, it is an interesting experience all around.
G: So, you had to [quit], you said, after Bolivia?
W: Yes, as a consequence, pressure from family, pressure from yourself, you have
to decide, are you going to be what is known (there is a term) as a Guard-bum?
That is a term that people either wear as a badge of shame or a badge of honor.
But, Guard-bums essentially just take paycheck-to-paycheck wherever they can
get it, waiting for the next deployment or the next school or the next partial
whatever, because that is what they live for, and you can do that game for a
good part of your twenties and thirties but, ultimately, it does catch up to you until
you get a more supportive job, or one that is in harmony with the Guard
requirements. I had decided that I had done a lot of wonderful things for myself
and had the privilege of serving my country and the state, whether in Desert
Storm, just by being available, or in Hurricane Andrew, in actually helping save
lives and getting food out to people, and doing a deployment, doing the real deal,
and attending some really advanced schools like the combat-diver course down
in Key West or the Special Forces Qualification Course. I had done most of what
I had set out to accomplish, so I went inactive just around two years ago in order
to give all my attention to the MBA [master's in business administration] program
that I am currently enrolled in. I can go back in, and I certainly struggle with that
on a weekly basis. Again, you cannot ever replace those friendships. And when
you are gone, you are gone; you have left the tribe. People certainly return your
phone-call and remember you, but you are not the same. Things change. There
is that feeling that if you have left, you have left. You could have stayed in twenty
years, you could have stayed in for ten more deployments, but something clearly
was more important than us and our team. That hurts, too. If you go back in,
you are in, but you cannot just wade into it.
G: Why do you think we need a National Guard? Would just a large active-duty
force, do you think, do the job?
W: Ultimately, if you wanted to staff it and budget for the large active force, yes, you
could do it, but I think you would deprive the armed forces and our country of one
of the greatest resources, which is human capital. I have worked with active
forces in combination with reserve-component soldiers, and we bring a
perspective that I think is very valuable, not just in terms of the culture of the
military. The military is a very unique sociological entity in the U.S. and,
certainly, we bring our perspectives, which may be a little more mainstream than
many people who have been on active duty their whole lives. I think it is good
that there is that interchange of ideas and values and those debates that we
have around the campfires or in the latrines and stuff like that. But, also, from an
operational perspective: the skill-sets that my soldiers had were phenomenal,
really without comparison in some respects. I remember on one deployment, our
mission at various times had been rescued or made to run smoother by a
telephone engineer, a guy who understood telephony and how to wire networks,
by a mechanic, a guy who worked on Mercedes and luxury automobiles [and]
was able to fix a vehicle that was broken in Bolivia that no one else had ever
seen. Also, we had some people who had devoted a significant part of their
private life, their hobby time, to martial arts, which is something that active duty
just does not afford you the time to do. I guess, with a small grain of pride, I was
probably one of the few special-operations officers who was also an attorney and
a stockbroker and understood, from the courses I had taken at Harvard, some of
the geopolitical ramifications of the decisions we made. I think that led for a very
rich interchange and mixture with the active components. That is not to say it
was always a honeymoon. You can look back and read your histories of the
Florida National Guard as far back as the Second Seminole War. There always
been that tension between active and reserve components, but somehow we get
along and survive and do missions together.
G: This concludes the Rhys Williams interview.
[End of interview.]