A marriage made through combat, and the promise of a reunion: The Green Berets and the Montagnards

hcahill@thestate.comJune 7, 2014 

John Rollinson (back row, far right) with Montagnard and Vietnamese forces at the Recondo School in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

JOHN ROLLINSON — Special to The State

  • The Green Berets in Columbia

    About 1,100 Green Berets, the Army’s Special Forces, will descend on Columbia this week for their 50th anniversary National Conference. It’s the first ever national conference held in South Carolina.

    Where: Marriott Hotel, 1200 Hampton St.

    When: Monday-Sunday

    Source: National Special Forces Association

Almost 50 years after experiencing what one Green Beret called a “marriage made in heaven,” Green Berets who fought in Vietnam and their Montagnard brethren will meet again in Columbia this week.

The Dega people of the Central Highlands in Vietnam have been living in the region for nearly 2,000 years. When the Vietnam War began for the United States in the mid-1960s, the U.S. government sought the help of these indigenous people to fight against Viet Cong forces from North Vietnam. A contingent of around 3,000 Green Berets were deployed to the Central Highlands to organize an armed resistance of these tribes.

The Dega people, more commonly known as the Montagnards, a French word meaning “mountain people, worked with the Green Berets in the mountainous terrain. The two groups of fighters became brothers-in-arms as they attempted to liberate South Vietnam from an impending communist threat, working to stop Viet Cong activity near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a major North Vietnamese supply route.

It was “a marriage made in heaven,” said former Special Forces Green Beret George Clark.

This week, Green Berets of all ages will be setting up camp in Columbia as the National Special Forces Association hosts its 50th annual conference at the Marriott Hotel on Main Street. Veterans from both the Green Berets and the Montagnards living in the United States will attend. There will be a variety of events, including a golf tournament, sharpshooter tournament and various tours around South Carolina to take in its rich military history.

It will be the first time many of the Montagnards have attended and the first time they have seen the Green Berets they fought alongside. A large group of Montagnards now live in North Carolina.

The conference will honor Green Beret veterans and those on active duty as well as the Montagnards, many of whom left Vietnam because of religious persecution.

“They were the most oppressed people during that time – sort of like the American Indians,” said former Green Beret John Rollinson of Camden. “Millions of them have been killed since the war by the Chinese because they are Christian.”

In 1989, a landmark piece of legislation known as the Morrison-Lautenberg Amendment, authored by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., allowed for those who were being persecuted to relocate to the United States. Since then, organizations such as Save the Montagnard People have been dedicated to relocating the Montagnard refugees who were forced to flee from their Central Highlands homes.

Clark, president of the organization, says it’s like a foreign aid mission at home.

“We don’t forget our allies,” said Clark. “The U.S. Government asked them to fight, and they have been fighting ever since.”

According to Clark, the organization staged rescue operations to extract more of the Montagnards from Vietnam. Between 2002 and 2007, Save the Montagnard People has been able to rescue nearly 2,500 refugees and relocate them to mountainous land in Asheboro, N.C., and surrounding cities.

Members and former members of the 5th Special Forces Group have donated nearly $7 million in amenities, including furnished apartments, clothes, food and other necessities to help the Montagnards begin new lives close to the Green Berets who helped liberate them.

“We were hell bent to not let them down,” Clark said. “They wanted to be as close to their special forces brothers as they could.

“It founded a brotherhood that could never be better.”

Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305

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