His was the last face I saw, the final voice I heard before I stepped backward off the 100-foot cliff.
Even now, nearly two decades later, I can envision his weathered features and wispy white hair, and I can recall much of what he said. My fear, he told me, was not only natural but essential both to my survival and to that of the species. Human beings were not meant to jump from high places. He then hastened to add that I should have no doubts about doing exactly that. My ropes and braking bar were in order, as was my climbing harness. If I got into trouble, he would reel me in.
With that, I was gone. At first, I was tentative, descending as slowly as I could. But as I gained confidence, I put on speed, using my legs to push off from the sheer rock wall before me with what amounted almost to jauntiness. When I reached the bottom of the abandoned granite quarry that was my destination, I was astonished by how tiny those still at the top looked. I had never rappelled before, but then I had never done any of the tasks that the 16 of us did the week we were in the charge of Robert Rheault, who died last month at 87.
Rheault was a trim and fit 71 when we met on Hurricane Island, a jagged protuberance just off the coast of Maine that serves as one of the chief facilities for Outward Bound. He had gotten involved in the program, which uses physical obstacles in a wilderness setting to teach self-reliance and communal values, 26 years earlier because he was in dire need of help.
During the Vietnam War, he had commanded all of America’s Special Forces, a job that embroiled him in one of that controversial conflict’s worst controversies. He was the officer on whom screenwriter John Milius modeled the infamous Col. Walter Kurtz. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Kurtz in the film “Apocalypse Now” remains the indelible image of a great nation’s military elite descending into madness.
Col. Rheault had been at the helm of the 5th Special Forces Group and its 3,500 men for just three weeks when, in July 1969, he and five of his troops were accused of conspiracy and murder in the killing of a Vietnamese informant suspected of being a double agent. Although Rheault did not take part in the killing, he lied about what happened to protect his men, who believed they had approval from the CIA for their actions. Before Rheault could stand trial, Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor, apparently under pressure from the Nixon administration, dismissed all charges.
The decision to drop what became known as “the Green Beret case” sparked allegations of CIA intrigue and a high-level coverup, making the incident an emblem of the mysterious and dark Vietnam War itself. Not only did Rheault’s case inspire the creation of Kurtz, but it also prompted Rand Corp. analyst Daniel Ellsberg to leak the secret history of the conflict in what became known as the Pentagon Papers.
For Rheault, the whole experience was devastating. The product of a privileged Boston upbringing, he had attended Phillips Exeter Academy, graduated from West Point and studied at the Sorbonne. After being awarded a Bronze Star in Korea, he got a master’s degree from Georgetown University and joined the Special Forces, where he learned how to parachute at high altitudes, ski above the tree line and dive to the oceans’ depths. He served on the East German border during the Cold War and advised forces in Turkey and Pakistan. In military circles, he was regarded as a rising star.
But in late 1969, shortly after charges against him were dropped, he resigned from the Army, giving up everything he had worked for. In 1971, as he put it, he “staggered” into Outward Bound. “It saved my life,” he later said. “I’ve been trying to pay it back ever since.”
Rheault started as a contract instructor. Eventually, he became acting president of the Hurricane Island operation. Juvenile delinquents, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, adults seeking everything from new directions in life to inner peace — all had been under his supervision.
During the days I was with Rheault, he gave me only a hint about what had happened to him. He had served in Vietnam, he said, and things had not ended well. He urged me to read about it when I got home.
The subject was still painful, but I don’t think that’s why he told me so little. The kinds of conversations Outward Bound encourages are internal. In fact, the program could just as accurately be called Inward Bound. The drills are rigorous — before rappelling from that high cliff, I had to climb up to it, using my hands and feet to find tiny crevices in the stone that would serve as stairs.
But for me the real work was about fighting my way through writer’s block. For Rheault, it had been about the war. Everyone brought his own demons to Hurricane Island. Rheault believed that’s what made the program so effective. It forced participants to confront hard truths. “Hard is not bad,” he often said. “Hard is good.” Better still was shared adversity. “You get close to people,” he advised, “by doing difficult things with them.”
I last saw Rheault at our group’s farewell dinner. The previous two nights, we had slept outdoors without blankets. The first night was on the unforgiving deck of a sailboat, the next on the ground. On farewell night, we not only bunked indoors but had our only hot meal of the week — a spaghetti dinner in Outward Bound’s rustic headquarters above the Atlantic. After we finished, everyone pitched in to bus tables and wash dishes. There was a stereo system, and the building pulsated with Motown. Rheault worked at the sink, but whenever there was a lull, he made his way to the middle of the kitchen and started dancing.
Steve Oney, the author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank,” is writing a narrative history of National Public Radio.