Unlike the low-profile operations they conducted during the Vietnam War, a group of veterans that has lurked in the shadows since first coming to Las Vegas 38 years ago to relax and reminisce has decided to go public in hopes of attracting new members.
“We want the public to know we are here, especially in Nevada,” Jimmy Tong Nguyen, a director of the Special Operations Association, said in an Oct. 27 interview at The Orleans after the association wrapped up its annual reunion.
“We want people to know that our organization consists of the most elite combat units of the United States and allied armed forces. We’re proud of ourselves. Of course, the circumstances we were in did not allow us to go public,” said Nguyen, who also serves as chairman of the reunion crew.
One example of a “circumstance” is the “Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia” who gathered intelligence there from 1967 to 1972.
A book with that title by retired Army Lt. Col. Fred S. Lindsey, featured in this year’s reunion program, reflects on the covert reconnaissance teams of two or three soldiers each that would go behind enemy lines to spy on North Vietnamese army units as they passed through Laos and Cambodia down Ho Chi Minh trails to reach secret bases along the border near South Vietnam.
It’s stuff that Special Ops soldiers didn’t talk about then, and some association members are still reluctant to have their faces shown, Nguyen said. That’s why he has become “the face” of the organization.
Other association members over the years have had more high-profile positions, such as retired Maj. Gen. John “Jack” Singlaub, the 93-year-old founder of the CIA and a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He received his 35-year pin as an association member this year. Singlaub commanded the Special Operations Group in Vietnam for two years.
At their first reunion in 1976, about 60 veterans who served in units such as Army Special Forces, Marine Recon, Air Force commandos and Navy SEALs came to Las Vegas.
“Immediately after the war, the group decided to get together first for enjoyment and second for fraternity,” Nguyen said. “It was amazing. They remembered that strong camaraderie of the Special Ops between the American Special Forces and members of the South Vietnamese airborne. You remember the people who fought together with you.”
As a South Vietnamese airborne ranger in 1968, he was recruited to join “liaison services,” specifically “OP 35,” or Operation 35. Until 1970, his salary was paid by the U.S. government through the code-name “liaison services.”
Not long after that, American forces prepared to pull out of Vietnam, and he was transferred back to the regular army of South Vietnam.
“It was sad. I felt abandoned. I felt lost,” he said.
Two days before the war’s end with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Nguyen managed to flee the country with his girlfriend, who worked for Pan American World Airways.
“We were surrounded by the enemy with no American supplies. We were on our own with no direction,” he recalled. He said he was lucky to get on an airplane that took him to an Air Force base in Florida.
Then it sunk in that he would have more hurdles to overcome in the United States, not the least of which was finding a job and becoming a U.S. citizen.
“At 26 years old I became countryless, homeless and familyless,” he said. “I felt like I was on a mission again on my own to restart life in New Orleans. You’ve got to do something to survive just like in the jungle. You’ve got to speak good English to survive.”
And that’s what he worked on the next five years while he trained to be a policeman and land a job in New Orleans.
Two years ago, he retired to move to Las Vegas specifically to be here to help organize the annual reunion.
At last month’s gathering, the association, which numbers more than 2,000 nationwide, drew about 700 members and guests to The Orleans. The ranks included veterans of Air Force Skyraiders attack aircraft crews.
Local members of the Special Operations Association in Southern Nevada number about a dozen.
As years go by, Nguyen said it’s important to recruit new members to keep the fraternal flame burning. The association is looking to Special Ops allies in Italy, Great Britain and Thailand to augment membership.
“We want the public to know we work hard and party hard as well,” he said.
The association is open to all Special Operations veterans and those who serve on active duty in the post-9/11 era. Applicants must undergo a vetting process.
To learn more about the association, go to www.specialoperations.org.
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.