As Chen Ksor walked up to John Rollinson at the main meeting area at the Marriott Hotel along Main Street, large smiles came across their faces.
Ksor, a Montagnard, and Rollinson, a former Green Beret who trained him, embraced — their friendship, a brotherhood that has lasted decades since the Vietnam War ended.
Through limited English, the pair exchanged their happiness at being reunited, this time in Columbia, for the National Special Forces Association’s 50th annual conference.
Ksor, now 58, handed Rollinson, 68, a kong, a small, golden-metal bracelet etched with tribal markings from the Montagnards, symbolizing tribal brotherhood and admiration.
“You couldn’t help but like him when you first met him,” Rollinson said. “We built a bond of trust, which is why the bracelets. We became brothers.”
The pair met at Pleiku, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, during the mid-1960s at the height of the war. Rollinson, then a 21-year-old Green Beret, was deployed with only a handful of other Green Berets to organize the indigenous Dega people. Ksor was not even a teenager, fighting for his country.
More commonly known as the Montagnards, a French word meaning “mountain people,” the indigenous tribes 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.
“He was gung-ho for a 12-year-old,” Rollinson said. “He was a kid carrying a crossbow fighting for his country, and he became kind of like a little brother to me. He is a pretty tough guy.”
Ksor now lives with his wife Iong and daughter Tuan in Asheboro, N.C., on 101 acres of land purchased through the Save the Montagnard People organization. He and other Montagnards have settled in the region after being rescued by that organization from religious persecution.
Today, Ksor helps train Green Berets at Fort Bragg.
“When we met he had darker hair,” Ksor said through a translator, Bliek Dacat. Dacat also fought with American forces during the Vietnam War.
The conference is expected to bring roughly 1,000 to 1,300 Green Berets from around the world to Columbia this week. The association will travel around for the next seven days to take in South Carolina military history. The group also will host a sharpshooting tournament at Fort Jackson as well, as award former Green Beret Melvin Morris with the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam almost 40 years ago.