A very dear friend died recently. His obit read:
”Col. David H. Hackworth, the United States Army's legendary, highly decorated guerrilla fighter and lifelong champion of the doughboy and dogface, ground-pounder and grunt, died Wednesday in Mexico. He was 74 years old. The cause of death was a form of cancer now appearing with increasing frequency among Vietnam veterans exposed to the defoliants called Agents Orange and Blue.”
”Col. Hackworth spent more than half a century on the country’s hottest battlefields, first as a soldier, then as a writer, war correspondent and sharp-eyed critic of the Military-Industrial Complex and ticket-punching generals he dismissed as ‘Perfumed Princes’.”
I never served with Hack. In fact he left the army the same year I went on active duty. However, we became friends after I interviewed him on the radio.
We seldom saw each other but routinely communicated via email and phone. I loved the guy. We didn’t agree about everything. Like most friends we occasionally argued and those ‘discussions’ were mutually laced with language neither of us would ever use on the radio.
The last note I sent him was one of encouragement, prayers, and orders to listen to doctors and his wife. He replied:
“THX. STILL FIGHTING. SHLD KNOW SOMETHING IN ANOTHER MONTH OR SO. WR, HACK”
Two months later, what we know is what is gained is loss. Cancer did what bullets and shrapnel could not and killed him at the age of 74.
Hack’s greatest strength and most consistent position was a personification of what we were all taught about leadership. FM22-100 defined Dave Hackworth. He was an officer “of the troops and for the troops”. He thought (and demonstrated by example) that leaders should lead from the front and by example.
That demonstrated leadership and willingness to put himself in the same jeopardy as his troops resulted in consequences positive and negative. On the plus side he earned the respect, admiration and trust of his subordinates. It also contributed to his collecting a gaggle of medals for valor including ten Silver Stars.
The downside of leading at the front end of the spear was multiple Purple Hearts and the attendant scars.
His harshest criticisms were routinely directed at what he called ‘Perfumed Princes’. He had a healthy contempt for the senior and general officers that functioned more as politicians or medieval court bureaucrats than soldiers.
Hack was (regrettably) in the minority of senior officers opening and chronically critical of the brass. Not surprisingly the military leadership (and pentagon types) really didn’t like the mouthy Colonel. He wasn’t the Lone Ranger, but he did serve as a minority report.
I recently spoke with Col David Hunt about his new book and Hunt agreed with Hack and me that our uniformed services are way too top heavy and that in the interest of cost efficiency and mission integrity would could and should do what General Marshall did at the start of WWII and fire a big contingent of the senior officer contingent.
Hackworth’s life was full and epic. He lost both his parents as an infant and was raised by his grandmother. He was 14 when he lied about his age in order to get into the Merchant Marines toward the end of World War II. He lied about his age again a year later to get into the Army. During the subsequent 26 years he served seven years in combat.
He was in many ways the antithesis of the John Kerry types who tried to hyperbolize their daring do. He just did what his kind of leader did, and medals happened. He was three times nominated the Medal of Honor. He received the Army’s second highest award for valor twice (the Distinguished Service Cross). He was also awarded ten Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars and eight Purple hearts.
I don’t know if time and opportunity will allow me to attend the formal burial at Arlington, but I’m planning a private memorial similar to the one I held when B.T. Collins died.
I will take my old rucksack and hike into an isolated lake in the California Sierras. I’ll sit by a campfire alone, throw the cap from a bottle of scotch into the fire and toast my friend. David Hackworth, the orphan who embraced the Army as his family and spent a lifetime trying to make it better for the grunt infantryman.
Duty, Honor, Country is more than just words to some people. For Hack it was the essence of his being. His courage and integrity was palpable. He personified ‘command presence’ and he did it with cheerfulness and enthusiasm. I will miss him.
His critics (and there are many) can kiss my Airborne 4th point of contact….