Special Forces vet reflects on 63-year Army career
May 17, 2011
- His AMSAA cubicle holds little of the past, save for a grainy photo or two of his battle buddies in Vietnam
- 'I convinced my mother to sign a waiver so I could join up.'
- 'I'm heading to Fort Bragg to join up with my old unit - the 82nd Airborne Division - the Honor Guard of America'
- 'I never knew this place existed. And now for 33 years I've been here taking care of Soldiers.'
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - An old Soldier, one of America's few surviving World War II-era veterans, is preparing to do what old Soldiers do -- fade away.
"Don't mention any of my awards," Arif R. Zaky said as the interview comes to an end.
"The only one that means anything to me is the Good Conduct Medal. Believe me, I earned that one," he added, chuckling as he takes a sarcastic swipe at his duty performance.
Zaky will retire at a May 24 luncheon at the APG-North recreation center. By his accounting, he will have completed 63 years, 5 months and 13 days of federal service. He is 80 years and 8 months old.
Zaky's performance, first as a noncommissioned officer for 25 years, then five years as a commissioned officer, and for the past 33 years as military operations analyst at the U.S. Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity, has provided him with a stimulating and rewarding life.
His AMSAA cubicle holds little of the past, save for a grainy photo or two of his battle buddies in Vietnam.
"They were the best," he said, holding one of the photos, his mind racing to a distant time and place.
His demeanor is slow and thoughtful -- and thorough. His brown eyes sparkle when he talks about Soldiers and soldiering -- skills he learned at a young age with men he continues to call his brothers.
Born in Chicago in 1930, Zaky is the son of Turkish immigrants.
"My father came to America before World War I with his six brothers, but only two of them stayed," he said, adding he's never visited his relatives in Turkey because he spent all his time "on the other side of the world," meaning Southest Asia.
"Dad was 42 and mom was 16 when they married," he said. "Dad was an Albanian Turk, and mom was a Yugoslav Turk, born in the U.S. The marriage didn't last long."
In the three years they were together, the Zaky's had three children, Arif and his brother, Enver.
"We had an older brother, but he died," Zaky adds. "Dad never told us what happened."
After his parents divorced, Zaky's mother remarried, and Zaky has a step-brother from that union.
"His name is John Michael Wegel. His father was German. We're still in contact -- we're actually pretty close. He's retired now, a big hunter and fisherman up in Wisconsin."
Zaky isn't sure whether Wegel will attend his retirement luncheon.
"It's just going to be my family - my son and his wife and my two granddaughters, and one of my two great granddaughters, and my daughter and her husband and my grandson. My other great granddaughter can't make it because her husband is deploying with the Air Force," he said.
And Gisela "Jeanie" Barwig, Zaky's new bride, will be there. The two married earlier this month.
Too young for World War II, Zaky became an under-aged Army recruit in 1946.
"I convinced my mother to sign a waiver so I could join up," Zaky recalled.
After basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., and airborne training at Fort Benning, Ga., Pvt. Zaky reported to the 187th Parachute/Glider Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division, and began his Army career jumping out of perfectly good aircraft. With hostilities coming to a close, Zaky never saw combat.
"They heard I was coming," he said, smiling.
Zaky runs through his military career chronologically, to keep things straight. He adds colorful sidebars, comical asides and keeps a listener's attention with vivid, captivating narratives.
After World War II, Zaky separated from the service and considered going to college.
"As a WW II vet, I joined the 52-20 GI Bill... $20 a week for 52 weeks. I was living with my dad. He came home one afternoon as I was packing my bag."
"Where you going'" his father asked.
"I'm on a three-day pass," Zaky said, trying to explain. "I'm heading to Fort Bragg to join up with my old unit - the 82nd Airborne Division - the Honor Guard of America."
Zaky reenlisted for the 82nd and boarded a bus for North Carolina, this time to begin his military career in earnest. In February 1951, Zaky volunteered for an assignment with the 187th Regimental Combat Team - in Korea, a part of the world he would become extremely familiar with over the next two decades.
"In July 1959, I volunteered for Special Forces. I was an E-7 at the time and became team sergeant in the 77th Special Forces Group - Airborne.
"In 1960, my sergeant major sent me to medical school as a secondary MOS (military occupational specialty). I went through Special Forces medical school.
"Our training was advanced, and some doctors liked us, some didn't. I learned to debris battle wounds, set fractures, stitch people up. I pulled teeth. And I learned it in one year. Some doctors don't like it when you do things like that, and others try to help. Within Special Forces, you're the team medic," Zaky says, explaining the need for his training.
"In 1961 I was with the 5th Special Forces Group, to help them form up. Then I went to 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa in 1962. In July we left for Seno, Laos, to the only three-way paved runway in the country. There was a French marine battalion there, too. We worked with Group Mobile One, airborne guys. We jumped with them.
"We also learned to speak the language, but we pulled out of there in September 1962. Americans were out. French were still there.
"I went back to Oki," Zaky said, referring to Okinawa. "Then we went to Vietnam in February 1963. When I came back in the summer, my wife and kids were on Oki. And it was good. Both my kids learned to speak Japanese fluently. Every Friday, their Japanese teacher would start them out with songs and then to speaking the language.
Zaky later accepted an assignment with the 1st Armored Division in Fort Hood, Texas.
"I told the personnel guy there I was a parachutist and he said, 'Good. Jump off a tank.'
"It took me about four months to get out of Fort Hood, out of the 1st Armored Division," Zaky recalled. "I had to volunteer to go to jump school for the third time. I only had to take one jump, and then went back to my old company, Company K, 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division."
Zaky spent much of his career at Fort Bragg. Once he left on orders for Korea, only to be blindsided by a change in plans.
"I got to Oakland Army Terminal, stopping so I could see my mother in California," Zaky said. "And the personnel guy at the terminal said, 'I can't send you to Korea. You didn't sign a waiver.'
"Well, I ain't signing no waiver," Zaky said, being stubborn.
"So I got assigned to Alaska, to Fort Greeley. I became an instructor in the U.S. Army Cold Weather and Mountain School," he says, adding that Alaska was a great tour.
"In winter I taught arctic survival and skiing. In summer I taught mountain climbing, boating and river navigation.
In May 1964, Zaky again returned to Okinawa. At that time, Capt. William L. Richardson was forming Project Delta to train Vietnamese officers.
"It was November 1964, that's when they came in," he said referring to Project Delta at the 5th Special Forces Group. Zaky was assigned as senior advisor to a Vietnamese ranger battalion.
"We didn't wear any rank because when we trained the recon teams. They were mostly officers. They all thought we were warrant officers," he says.
In November 1965, Zaky received orders from the 1st Group to go to SOG - Studies and Observation Group.
"Our guys called it the Special Operations Group," he said.
The SOG was a highly classified, multi-service U.S. special operations unit that conducted covert unconventional warfare during the Vietnam War.
In 1968, Zaky received a direct appointment to captain and was assigned to Camp Hardy, Okinawa, as executive and training officer for Special Forces pre-deployment training for A Teams departing for Vietnam.
Later, after attending the Basic Infantry Officers Course at Fort Benning, Zaky was assigned to the U.S. Army Infantry Training Center at Fort Bragg as commander of a basic training company.
"I couldn't stand it," Zaky said. "I wanted to get back to Vietnam."
Zaky had to wait until the end of a training cycle before driving to the Pentagon for an office call with the Army chief of staff, one of his former commanders, Gen. William Westmoreland.
"The general said if any of us boys ever needed anything to come see him, so I did. I walked out of the Pentagon with orders for Vietnam," Zaky says.
Zaky retired from active duty Jan. 31, 1977, with more than 30 years' service.
After retiring, Zaky and his first wife, Martha, traveled around the country for a few months ("I didn't do anything," he claimed). Then a former commander offered Zaky a job at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"I didn't even know this place existed," he said.
Zaky took the job, and he has been at APG since.
"At AMSAA I started out in the war gaming room. What we did was classified. I can't talk about it," he said, adding that he was developing war games in which NATO countries were involved.
"I was part of a team. We did everything, the whole scenario, both sides. There was a bigger effort here than down in the unit where I was. Down there at the unit we played Army," Zaky said.
"We had numerous war games, plus we did studies for the Army. We did a communications study and won an Army award for that. It was good. I briefed the AMC [Army Materiel Command] commander on it because my boss picked me," he added.
"We did quite a bit down at Fort Benning -- Soldier studies," he said. "We've been involved in human science modeling, comparative results, operations in urban terrain, worked with Rangers down at Fort Benning - some on equipment, but mostly tactical movements.
"I never knew this place existed. And now for 33 years I've been here taking care of Soldiers.
"I love Soldiers," Zaky said with unquestionable conviction. "I love 'em."
"AMSAA does quite a bit, but my area is mostly involved with the Soldiers - equipment and Soldiers. What equipment will fit in the new vehicles' What can they carry and what they can't.
"The Soldier still carries the load," Zaky said, adding, "I never carried more than 25 pounds, but things were different then."
Things will be different for Arif Zaky beginning May 24. His first journey will be back to his past.
"I'm going to a Special Forces reunion in June, with the 1st Group - the group from Oki," he said.
"I was in the 77th, the 7th, and the 5th I helped form, and I was with them and the 1st. The 1st SF Group -- we were the tightest group - that's our opinion. Some of the guys from Germany might argue that. But we were the tightest at the time because we were closest to Vietnam, and we were always coming and going from Oki."
Zaky flashes to his time on Okinawa.
"We had a policy, when a guy was gone, we took care of their family. They knew to call us, they had our numbers. We called the families once a day to check and see if they needed anything because a lot of them didn't have cars."
Zaky expects to see 194 members of his Special Forces family at the reunion June 17-22.
"The hotel is already sold out," he chirped as he talked about his accommodations. "But they got another one about a mile away, and it's $20 cheaper."
That's obviously with the senior discount Zaky so richly deserves.