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Tarnished Star

The new director of the Office of Homeland Security, Tom “T-Bone” Ridge, has been widely hailed as a hero of the Vietnam War. But there’s something screwy about Ridge’s Bronze Star.

Ridge was drafted in 1968 while he was in his second year as a student at Dickinson University School of Law. He passed up officer training school because it would have meant an extra year of service. Ridge arrived in Vietnam (where he gained the T-Bone moniker) in November 1969, and joined Bravo Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. He was quickly promoted to staff sergeant by a captain named Boyd Harris, who later nominated Ridge for a Silver Star. Members of Ridge’s battalion have suggested that Harris, a West Point man with political ambitions, made his promotions based on class status and education.

“I became a buck sergeant with my own squad in the first platoon”, a man who served under Ridge in Vietnam wrote to a veterans’ webpage last year when Ridge was under consideration as a vice-presidential candidate. “The last several months I participated in the Pacification program along the Red Ball. My squad then consisted of four other US soldiers and up to ten ARVN. What a waste. I was not impressed with Ridge either. He was the squad leader of my squad before I became a sergeant. The pathetic SOB would have caused all of us to get killed if we hadn’t taken care of him. I was glad when he no longer led us”.

Ridge was stationed in a coastal village in South Vietnam where his company was involved in what his office delicately refers to as the Army’s “pacification” campaign. Pacification was the CIA’s reader-friendly word for its extermination of civilian opposition to the US war machine in South Vietnam. Another alias for pacification was the Phoenix Program. It routinely involved sweeps through hamlets to make mass arrests, brutal interrogations, the destruction of villages, napalming of rice fields and wide-spread assassination.

Like Bob Kerrey, Ridge won his Bronze Star for an operation that seems to have been little more than outright murder by ambush which was almost immediately sanitized as an act of heroism. Ridge’s own account has made the operation seem like a firefight between US troops and regulars of the North Vietnamese Army.

But in fact it appears that on March 30, 1970 Ridge and his squad sneaked up on a group of Vietnamese who were having lunch under a tree near the hamlet of Vinh Lac 4 and opened fire on them. The subsequent incident report claimed that one 25-30 year old man wearing “a blue uniform” was killed. They recovered a rifle, a grenade, US Army ammo pouch and “15 bushels of potatoes and a small amount of rice”. The report says the lethal shots were fired from the unlikely distance of “500 meters”.

Ridge was later credited with firing the shot that killed the young man, an action that led Harris to belatedly put him up for the Bronze Star. “I’m not 100 percent sure who fired the shot”, said Ridge. “I have a pretty good idea. I think it was (me).”

But Ridge’s radio man doesn’t think that Ridge was the triggerman. In fact, he doesn’t even remember finding a body. “I don’t remember T. Ridge getting a KIA”, the radio man wrote to a website maintained by veterans of Ridge’s battalion. “I could be wrong and wouldn’t want to swear to it because it was 30 years ago. I do not remember finding any bodies that day. 500 meters is a long distance”.

Several things undermine the contention that these were NVA regulars. But the text of the citation also gives away the true nature of the ambush. “Sgt. Ridge moved forward and began placing accurate bursts of rifle fire on the insurgents, eliminating one and forcing the remainder of the hostile elements to take evasive action”, his medal citation says.

The troops of the North Vietnamese Army weren’t insurgents. Insurgents is the term the CIA and the Pentagon applied to the National Liberation Front (aka Viet Cong) and South Vietnamese civilians. The choice of the word “eliminating”, as a euphemism for killing, is also a giveaway. “‘Eliminating’ is pure Phoenix speak”, says Doug Valentine, author of The Phoenix Program, the definitive work on the CIA’s bloody operations in Vietnam.

So, a veteran of the CIA-run terror program in Vietnam, which left upwards of 30,000 dead civilians, now steps into the top counter-terrorism job here on the domestic front, with the distinct prospect, as CounterPunch has reported (see our recent story) of replacing vice president Dick Cheney. CP

Read Douglas Valentine’s story, Homeland Insecurity, which details how this new department is likely to operate.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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