It was a teacher at Hollywood High School who changed my life. I was sitting at a table in the school library in February 1971, where I was supposed to be researching a paper for my international relations class—one of the few I found interesting. My teacher, Dr. Anthony DeRiggi, was a World War II veteran with strong views about U.S. foreign policy. A proponent of the “realist school” of international relations, DeRiggi was an admirer of President Nixon and a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War. I didn’t agree with him about Nixon and I had mixed feelings about the Vietnam War, but I liked his general approach to international relations, which emphasized the importance of power and the pursuit of national interests.
I was either reading or more likely daydreaming about baseball or football when he walked over to my table and slipped a copy of that day’s New York Times in front of me. He pointed to an article and said, “You might be interested in this.”
The New York Times had just published a major story on the CIA’s covert operations in Laos and its base at Long Tieng. The agency was employing a secret army of Hmong tribesmen in a large-scale paramilitary operation against the North Vietnamese Army along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.1 To this day, I don’t know why Dr. DeRiggi thought I’d be interested in that article, but I was. I imagined myself leading secret armies in far-off lands and winning against impossible odds. I imagined myself doing things that only a James Bond could do. And, for the first time, at the age of seventeen, I thought seriously about becoming a CIA officer.
There wasn’t much about me at that point, though, that suggested I was destined for a life in intelligence and special operations. For starters, I was born with strabismus, or “crossed eyes,” and amblyopia, which caused my brain to process images from only one eye at a time, precluding my ability to see in three dimensions. My right eye was also turned significantly inward, which, needless to say, didn’t escape the notice of other children. Five surgeries between ages one and nineteen improved my appearance but could not give me 3-D vision. Fortunately, my brain found other ways to judge depth and distance. I was also blessed with excellent eyesight—better than twenty-twenty in my left eye and twenty-twenty in my right.
I didn’t come from a military or CIA family. My father had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and had earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart while flying with the Eighth Air Force as a B-17 bombardier and gunner over France and Germany in 1943.2 My grandparents were all immigrants, three of whom spoke only limited English. “Vecchiarelli” became “Vickers” a few years after my Italian grandparents, who hailed from a mountain town east of Rome, passed through Ellis Island. My mother’s parents had come from eastern Slovakia, her father finding work in Chicago’s steel mills. Los Angeles in those days was a magnet for immigrants, including refugees who had fled from Hungary and Cuba, so I had a lot of exposure to foreign cultures growing up. Most of my childhood friends were recent immigrants, and this sparked some interest on my part in world affairs.
Our family watched the evening news once or twice a week, and we talked a bit about the evils of Soviet Communism and America’s difficulties in Vietnam. But we focused on international events mostly when we felt our own lives were threatened. During the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when it looked as if we were on the verge of nuclear war, my father stocked our shallow and very porous basement with a few canned goods and a radio, and we practiced taking shelter there a few times. Truth be told, I didn’t think it would do us much good. If nuclear war came, I was convinced our chances of survival were slim to none.
I did show some taste for adventure. As a kid, I often went hiking in the Hollywood Hills, the big white Hollywood sign a frequent destination, and when I was older, my friends and I hiked and camped in the higher mountains beyond Los Angeles. We’d also drive out to the desert to shoot our .22-caliber rifles at Coke bottles and tin cans. But I was never a Boy Scout, let alone an Eagle Scout, and had never gone hunting or fishing. And to top it off, I was a superb underachiever academically, graduating from high school with a C-plus average. When I applied myself, as I did my senior year in Dr. DeRiggi’s international relations class, I did very well. But those successes were few and far between.
My dream growing up was to be a professional baseball or football player. I had a strong arm and was a pretty good quarterback, pitcher, and outfielder. I was also a good hitter, as long as I got a fastball to hit. After high school, I enrolled at a local community college—Los Angeles Pierce—the first in my family to attend college. I had a shot at the starting quarterback position my second year, but a temporary shoulder injury put an end to that. I tried my hand at baseball one last time, with similarly unsuccessful results. It was time to listen to Dr. DeRiggi.
Special Forces Selection
At the beginning of my final semester at Pierce, I came up with what seemed to me like a plausible plan. I figured my best route into the CIA was to first become a Green Beret. A college degree was required to become a CIA officer, but I didn’t want to wait the two or more additional years that would take. The Special Forces seemed as close to CIA, or at least my image of CIA, as one could get, and I could become a Green Beret now. I’d have adventure and get guerrilla warfare training and more foreign-language instruction. (I had already taken a year of Russian at Pierce.) All of this, I reasoned, would make me attractive to the agency. Somehow, I’d also find time to finish my degree in international relations. I planned to go from chronic underachiever to multitasking man of action in the blink of an eye. To my nineteen-year-old brain, it seemed like a straightforward path to a glorious future. The hard part would be doing it.
I read everything I could get my hands on about the CIA and Special Forces and attended a lecture at Pierce on intelligence by a former deputy director for intelligence at the CIA, Ray Cline. A Harvard PhD, Cline was far more cloak than dagger, but his talk was still interesting. I didn’t expect the CIA to talk about its secret operational side in public.
I soon went to see an Army recruiter in Van Nuys. I told him I wanted to be a Green Beret and took the Army’s required battery of aptitude tests, but he kept encouraging me to enlist in the infantry, get some experience, go to Ranger School, and then try for Special Forces on my second enlistment. My odds of making it would be better that way, he said. He might have been right, but I didn’t want to wait. So, I walked out the door and went in search of another recruiter.
When I walked into the Army recruiting office in Hollywood, the staff sergeant who greeted me was an affable Greek American named Jim Maniatis—a Green Beret and eight-year Special Forces and Vietnam veteran with silver jump wings, a scuba badge, and a host of medals adorning his khaki uniform. I had found my guy. And it wouldn’t be the last time a Greek American would have a profound impact on my career.
He invited me to his cubicle and told me about Special Forces training, his service as a Green Beret in Germany and Vietnam, and what I would need to do to qualify for direct enlistment into SF. I was more than qualified intellectually, having received a perfect 160 out of 160 on the Army’s IQ test—way above the 110 needed to become an officer or a Green Beret—and was in excellent shape. Not surprisingly, though, when I took my physical, the armed forces’ examining physician initially disqualified me because of my strabismus. I was devastated. I had already received a very high score on the Special Forces Selection Battery, which is where most candidates for Special Forces fail to make the cut—the reason for those lines in Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets,” “One hundred men will test today / But only three win the Green Beret.” I couldn’t believe my strabismus would disqualify me, particularly given my excellent vision and proven ability in sports to judge distance well. Fortunately, my crusty examining physician agreed to give me a second look. He administered some additional tests, and once satisfied that I indeed had the ability to perceive depth, he grudgingly passed me. I will remain forever grateful to him.
My experience taking the Special Forces Selection Battery convinced me I had made the right career choice.3 The battery was administered at the central Army recruiting station in downtown Los Angeles, and on the day I took it, I was the only candidate. I took that as a sign that I was joining an elite group.
The SFSB consisted of three timed parts and took several hours to complete. Its origins lay in the selection process for the World War II predecessor of Special Forces and CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. The administrator told me to sit down at a table in a large, empty room and handed me the first booklet. It was a psychological aptitude test, consisting of more than a hundred true-false and multiple-choice questions that were designed to assess one’s aptitude for unconventional warfare and other Special Forces missions. Did I take risks as a kid and climb trees? Do others see me as a leader? Could I empathize with people with different backgrounds and from foreign cultures? Was I able to master new skills quickly? Was I good at improvising? Did I want to volunteer for dangerous missions? Was I willing to jump out of airplanes? It wasn’t too difficult to see what they were after. “You bet,” I thought. And it had the virtue of being true.
The second section tested my attention to detail and my ability to orient myself and determine location. I was shown photographs of farm scenes, urban areas, and terrain shots. The perspective would shift, and I had to decide from which direction a new photo was taken, or what was missing from or added to a previous photo. Looking at shadows and other clues in the photos was key. It was advanced spatial reasoning with an operational bent.
The third section was by far the most difficult, but the one I liked the most. It was a series of operational scenarios—eighty-eight in all—that required me to make critical decisions within ten seconds. I was given a thick booklet, and the administrator hit play on a reel-to-reel tape recorder sitting on the table in front of me. A male voice described the situation for each problem and let loose with a barrage of tactical details. No pauses or replays were allowed. Ten seconds to rank four to six courses of action from best to worst. I don’t know if the TV show had inspired the test or the test had inspired the TV show, but the tape-recorded voice and the tactical situations seemed right out of Mission: Impossible. The only thing missing was “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”
It was a stressful and intellectually difficult test, one of the most challenging I’d ever taken. I understood why most candidates failed the SFSB. One of the scenarios particularly got my attention:
Your Special Forces team has infiltrated Red China. Your team has acquired information about Chinese nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems that is vital to the national security of the United States. Your team’s mission has been compromised. You are trapped in a cave and surrounded by a superior force of Chinese troops that has already engaged your team. Most of your team’s members have either been killed or are badly wounded. You are among the few who remain combat capable. What do you do?
I quickly concluded that the best course of action was to transmit the critical information we had acquired. My fictional team’s chances of fighting its way out and escaping seemed to be near zero, but we could accomplish our mission before we were overrun if we could transmit the information we had been sent in to collect. I found myself wondering (focusing admittedly on the extraordinary nature of the mission rather than on its grave risks), was this what being a Green Beret was really like? If so, sign me up!
When I told my parents I had passed selection and was going to enlist, they were alarmed. They were worried I wouldn’t make it through the training, or worse, that I would get killed in combat. I assured them I’d be fine and signed a contract for the three-year, Special Forces direct enlistment option. And as I advanced in my career, I told them less and less about what I was actually doing.
Special Forces Qualification
I reported into Special Forces Training Group for the Special Forces Qualification, or “Q,” Course near midnight in December 1973 with a sense of excitement and foreboding. My classmates and I generally knew what was coming, but knowing a bit and experiencing it fully are two very different things.
Before attending the Q Course, I’d had to complete Army basic training, advanced individual training, and the airborne, or basic parachutist, course. Toward the end of my basic training at Fort Ord, California, I’d been encouraged to apply either for Officer Candidate School or West Point. I declined both.
The Special Forces direct enlistment option—today it’s called the 18-Xray program—attracts high-quality talent into the service, individuals who otherwise might not enlist in the Regular Army, and my class was no exception. Most of my forty or so classmates were already well into their twenties when they enlisted, so I was on the younger side. We had several college graduates among our ranks, and nearly all of us had the test scores and college credits to qualify for officer training. Several were also accomplished athletes, and all were very fit. We were from all across the United States, and our psychological screening had ensured that we were an unconventional lot. All had joined or reenlisted in the Army with the sole purpose of becoming a Green Beret, attracted by the Special Forces mystique of being the most elite fighting force in the world. It was a bit like showing up at an Ivy League college and discovering that all your classmates were at the top of their high school class too.
Copyright © 2023 by Michael G. Vickers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.