I thought I knew my father. But we were talking on the phone one recent Sunday afternoon when I realized that I didn’t know him at all. We were discussing the war, and when I mentioned the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, I realized I was talking to a stranger.
“You know, they’re trying to do the same thing to those guys they did to us,” he said. “You should write about [that].”
This wasn’t the first time he’d asked me to write about his life as a soldier. I usually begged off, saying I was too busy trying to make a living as a freelance writer to write about his adventures. This was the first time he had my attention.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
My father, U.S. Army Capt. Fred Ferguson, served three tours in Vietnam and retired 15 years ago after 29 years in the military. He mentioned he was in something called “Tiger Force.”
“They did the same thing to us, tried to blame the recruits,” he said. “The officers covered it up. Everyone got off, but it’s the same thing.”
Half-listening, I turned to my computer. I typed “Tiger Force” into a Web search engine and got a hit--a series of articles last year in the Toledo Blade, an Ohio newspaper, about a 45-member special-operations unit called Tiger Force. My father, a sergeant then, said he had volunteered for the preeminent group and joined the platoon in May 1967--the same time the articles said things began to go wrong. He was transferred out three months later, in July, after a disagreement with his platoon leader. What I read made my skin crawl.
“Let me get this right,” I said, my voice unsteady. “It says here that the guys in your unit sexually assaulted, murdered and mutilated civilians. Is this right?”
He paused. “I’d heard that.”
I kept reading. “And it says that your unit killed innocent women and children, and cut the ears off people and wore them as necklaces. And people were scalped. Scalped? What is that about?”
I started to cry. “Why are you telling me this?”
He tried to explain, but I cut him off, said I had to go. Hours later I was still reeling. Who was this man who forgot to mention this experience, and who now was casually dropping it into my life? Unable to sleep, I went back to my office and read the articles more closely.
Last year, the Blade wrote a series of investigative articles about the activities of an elite reconnaissance unit of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. The unit roamed the central highlands of South Vietnam, terrorizing its way through civilian areas from May to November of 1967. None of the atrocities had been chronicled before, and no one has been formally charged with any crime despite evidence that the unit was clearly out of control. My father was there. He told me he had volunteered “because we had been trained as a reconnaissance unit. It was like putting the ‘Dirty Dozen’ together. We were supposed to be something special.”
The story remained buried until three reporters, Michael D. Sallah, Mitch Weiss and Joe Mahr, uncovered it and started talking to former soldiers and victims. They won a Pulitzer Prize this year for their reporting.
I was sick to my stomach when I finished reading. I called my father at his home near Carmel. “Were you involved in any of this?”
He took a deep breath. “I can remember it like yesterday. It was May, and there was a full moon. I was on guard duty and I saw a figure run across the field. He was lit up by the moon. I shot him and he went down. I thought that was the end of it. Later he started to moan, real loud, because I guess I just wounded him. [My commanding officer] was mad at me because I wouldn’t go out into the jungle to finish him off. In the morning, he took me and two other guys to find him. He was still alive.”
My father paused. I waited. “My CO asked us who wanted to slit the guy’s throat. The other two started to argue over who got the honors. I never saw them actually kill him, but later I saw the guy’s body. I was pretty disgusted.”
After that, he said his commanding officer was always on his back. He was 29 then, not as easily influenced as some of the younger Tiger Force members. He was transferred a few months later to another company. He reassured me, saying, “I can still sleep at night.”
If I didn’t know differently, I might have been reassured. But most nights he ends up on the couch and often sleeps in his car.
So is he telling me the truth, or what he thinks I want or need to hear? I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t. For the first time in our relationship, my dad was sharing something deep and dark with me. I wasn’t prepared for the revelation, and I definitely wasn’t ready to judge him.
I did ask him one last question: “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Who would I tell?” he said. “The officers knew what was going on. It went all the way up the chain of command. Besides, unless you were there, you don’t know how it was. It was kill or be killed.” Referring to the American soldiers at the Iraqi prison, he said, “Those guys went too far.” Even if they face charges, he said, “You know the guys at the top will walk. Somebody should say something.”
I was worn out when I hung up the phone. It took a few days, but at some point I began to understand why my father told me his story. He wants me to put his story down on paper. He passed all this along to his daughter, for reasons too complicated for me to understand. But telling his story is the least I can do for him. Maybe the other questions, maybe even forgiveness, will come later.