Liver­more vet­eran helped bring Burns’ film to life

The Mercury News - - Local News - Gary Peter­son Colum­nist Con­tact Gary Peter­son at gpeter­son@ba­yare­anews­ or 408-859-5394.

Rion Causey was 19, a wide-eyed kid from Chad­bourn, North Carolina, when he ar­rived in Viet­nam as an Army medic in Septem­ber 1967. He wasn't there long when he re­ceived an en­tic­ing of­fer.

“An­other medic and me were in this bunker and some­body came over and said, ‘We need some­body for Tiger Force,'” said Causey, now 69, re­tired from the San­dia Na­tional Lab­o­ra­to­ries and liv­ing with his wife in Liver­more. “We both looked at each other and said, ‘What's Tiger Force?'”

Tiger Force was a 30man unit that for seven months in 1967 roamed the Cen­tral High­lands herd­ing Viet­namese civil­ians into U.S. gov­ern­ment-run camps “so they couldn't be there to grow rice to sup­ply the North Viet­namese and the (Viet Cong) armies,” Causey said. There was lit­tle tol­er­ance for those who didn't wish to re­lo­cate. In some cases, peo­ple weren't given a chance to com­ply.

“The sec­ond day I was with Tiger Force, as we're leav­ing this area I looked over and there's a woman in a ditch, and she's had her throat slit. And I said, ‘Well, this isn't ex­actly what I thought was go­ing to hap­pen.' Within days we were yank­ing peo­ple out of lit­tle hooches (huts) and just throw­ing them down on the ground and killing them. That was a 38-day op­er­a­tion.”

Tiger Force will be one of the top­ics in “The Viet­nam War,” a 10-part, 18hour film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that pre­mieres to­day on PBS — six days shy of the 50th an­niver­sary of Causey's de­par­ture from Seat­tle to Viet­nam. The film's pro­duc­ers flew Causey and his wife to New York, where he was in­ter­viewed by Novick for al­most four hours. It sounds like a lot of talk­ing, but he has plenty to say.

What Causey saw dur­ing his time with Tiger Force — he was wounded by friendly fire on March 6, 1968, and sent home — re­sulted in de­layed on­set PTSD. Gre­nades were tossed into un­der­ground bunkers filled with in­no­cent, de­fense­less men, women and chil­dren. One night the unit was tasked with keep­ing in cus­tody a re­cently dis­charged sol­dier from the Republic of Viet­nam overnight. In the morn­ing, one of the more en­thu­si­as­tic mem­bers of Tiger Force killed the man with Causey three feet away.

“He came up from be­hind him and just cut his throat,” Causey said. “While he did it, he kept his left hand be­hind his back be­cause he wanted to see if he could kill a guy with one arm.

“It's my opin­ion now that Tiger Force wasn't a rogue unit, it was a unit that was do­ing ex­actly what the com­mand­ing of­fi­cers wanted. And that goes to the bat­tal­ion com­man­der and even be­yond.”

The mas­sacre at My Lai, of course, was the most in­fa­mous U.S. atroc­ity of the Viet­nam War, and it's pos­si­ble it over­shad­owed the blood lust of Tiger Force. But Tiger Force has been re­turned to the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions. In 2003 the Toledo Blade ran a four-part se­ries on Tiger Force, in­clud­ing in­ter­views with Causey, that earned a Pulitzer Prize for re­porters Mike Sal­lah and Mitch Weiss. Their re­port­ing re­vealed a 4½-year crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Army that ul­ti­mately brought no charges. Two years later, the Blade re­porters wrote a book.

“The blow­back was un­be­liev­able,” Causey said. “I got threats. There was a medic friend of mine, he sent me an email and said, ‘Have you been keep­ing up on the chat­ter on the 101st?' I said, ‘No.' He said, ‘Well, a lot of it's about you.' So I de­fended my­self. I had to. You talk about PTSD com­ing back. Peo­ple you served with and were also in Viet­nam at the same time in other parts of the 101st, and they're all af­ter you. It didn't make much sense to me.”

With the film about to de­but, Causey is weath­er­ing an­other salvo of notso-friendly fire via on­line posts. He shrugs it off.

“A lot of peo­ple from Tiger Force were not healthy when they came back, men­tally,” he said. “It was a unique unit. Thirty peo­ple running around like they're 150 peo­ple. They al­most got wiped out ev­ery six months. A few more scars and then you add atroc­ity on top of it. They didn't do well.”

That said, Causey, who has not yet seen the film, be­lieves it is a worth­while project, es­pe­cially given that Viet­nam was a di­vi­sive, and in many ways, mis­un­der­stood war.

“I think the peo­ple that want heal­ing will find it,” he said. “I'm on Face­book with Tiger Force and the 327th, which is the bat­tal­ion I was in. Vet­er­ans were look­ing for­ward to it and get­ting some un­der­stand­ing of what it was all about. I think a lot of peo­ple will get a lot out of it. I know I will. I'd like to un­der­stand it a lit­tle bet­ter.”


Rion Causey of Liver­more is a Viet­nam vet­eran who was a medic as­signed to Tiger Force, a pla­toon that was or­dered to re­move civil­ians, which led to deadly con­se­quences.

Rion Causey points to him­self in a pla­toon pho­to­graph from 1967. The for­mer medic will be fea­tured in Ken Burns’ 10part, 18-hour doc­u­men­tary on the Viet­nam War.

The Tiger Force pla­toon in­signia.

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