Livermore veteran helped bring Burns’ film to life
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.