Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret.
-- "The Ballad of the Green Berets"
Gripping a shovel with both hands, Deborah Gitell followed her brother's lead Wednesday and tossed a clump of dirt on her father's pine coffin after it was lowered into his grave.
She uttered, "Bye, Dad," as if Vietnam War veteran Gerry Gitell could hear her.
And if he could have listened, he also would have heard nephews Noah and Zachary Katz, sister Sandra Katz, son Seth Gitell and the rest of his family sing the song he helped popularize, "The Ballad of the Green Berets."
Befitting the moment and reminiscent of the No. 1 hit that his friend, Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, sang on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1966, members of the Special Forces Association Chapter 51 stood in the chapel at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery and joined in the chorus, each wearing a green beret.
It was the same place where Gerry Gitell, a retired Army captain from Boston who moved to Henderson 10 years ago, had participated in a Veterans Day ceremony just hours before he died Nov. 12 of complications from heart disease and hypertension. He was 69.
"He was an avid reader, a history buff, an enthusiast of books and movies that describe adventure and the derring-do, Errol Flynn and John Wayne," Seth Gitell said of his father.
"His job involved winning over the hearts and minds of the civilian population to the American side. He and his colleagues may have thought of themselves as a Peace Corps with guns."
Before he left Fort Bragg, N.C., for Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group in 1965, he befriended Sadler, who wrote the ballad with author Robin Moore. As a public information officer, Gerry Gitell was the one who saw the song's promotional value at a time when the anti-war movement was budding.
He obtained recording equipment from the Special Warfare Center and persuaded their commander, Brig. Gen. William Yarborough to support them in recording and selling the song. For his effort, he received 25 percent of the royalties from the hit that topped the charts for five weeks, surpassing "We Can Work It Out" by the Beatles and "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones.
Veteran Special Forces officer Sully de Fontaine, who was among the Green Berets at the funeral, described Gitell as "a soldier's soldier."
"He was fond of that Green Beret deal and it became quite a song. It's like our national anthem," de Fontaine said.
While Sadler was gearing up to sing the ballad on TV shows, Gitell was using his Special Forces skills in South Vietnamese camps near Cambodia, places with names like Tinh Bien and Vinh Gia. As an adviser, he led South Vietnamese fighters against communist forces from the north.
Seth Gitell said his dad was the first soldier on the scene after friendly forces mistakenly conducted a napalm air strike on a group of fishermen that his unit had been trying to win over.
When he tried to give them first aid, he was met with pain and hostility, Seth Gitell said, recalling how the scene troubled his father years later.
"He saw people on fire, burning. He saw a napalm canister that indicated it was American and he was very, very disturbed by that," Seth Gitell said.
Nevertheless, when he returned from the war, Gerry Gitell "remained a very, very big believer in the cause of trying to keep the people in Vietnam free and fighting against communism."
He deplored protesters who spit on returning troops, calling them "baby killers."
"He wasn't spit on but when he came back he was on a radio show in Boston ... and a caller called in to say, 'If you weren't killing babies over there you'd be killing them over here.'
"And that really upset him, especially when he was so committed to the idea of working with the native and local people and keeping them safe," Seth Gitell said.
Gerry Gitell was born June 21, 1941, in Boston to Jewish immigrants, the late Hyman and Rose Gitell, who eventually moved to Las Vegas.
He played basketball and graduated in 1959 from Newton High School in Newton, Mass.
He then attended Boston University, where he joined the ROTC program and graduated with a communications degree in 1963. As an Army officer, he served from August 1963 to May 1972. He kept a "warm relationship" with his ex-wife, Leanne Gitell, who lives in Hull, Mass., their son said.
After his honorable discharge, Gerry Gitell worked in the travel industry and briefly owned a travel business.
For many years, "he led a secluded life as a cab driver in Boston," Seth Gitell said.
"About 15 years ago after an arduous day, he called and told me about a group of tourists from an economically thriving country in Southeast Asia," he said. "They happened to ask him if he had ever visited their part of the world. He looked at them with a smile and said, 'Yes,' and told them about his service in Vietnam.
"They said, 'Thank you, thank you. Thank you for holding the line for us over there.' "
He moved to Henderson in 2000, joined Special Forces Association Chapter 51 and sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"So thank you, Dad," Seth Gitell said in front of mourners Wednesday. "Thank you for your patriotism. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for everything."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.