To the end, colonel a man of the troops Top brass not expected at funeral of war hero By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff | May 30, 2005 WASHINGTON -- His courage under fire was the stuff of Hollywood, such as once ordering his helicopter pilot to land in the middle of a firefight so he could rescue his wounded men. As an orphan shining shoes at a military base in Santa Monica, Calif., he lied about his age to join up in the waning days of World War II. That started a career that led him to Korea, where he survived a gunshot to the head, and a whopping four tours of duty in Vietnam, where his daring and swagger became the inspiration for Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore character in the movie ''Apocalypse Now." Tomorrow, the US military will lay to rest Colonel David H. Hackworth -- among its most decorated heroes of all time -- at Arlington National Cemetery. The top brass is not expected to attend. Hackworth's most enduring foe was not the communists he fought. He earned a a chestful of medals, including two Distinguished Service Medals, 10 Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts. His adversary became the US military bureaucracy, which he railed against for 30 years on grounds that it failed to put the troops first. He also opposed military action in Bosnia, Kosovo, and especially Iraq. But while the military leadership may be absent from the funeral, hundreds -- and probably thousands -- are expected to attend. The numbers would be larger, except that many who consider him a hero aren't in Washington. Hackworth became a touchstone for soldiers in the Middle East who questioned the Pentagon but didn't feel comfortable raising complaints with superiors. ''He had an incredible communication line to the barracks and the trenches," said Roger Charles, president of Soldiers for the Truth, Hackworth's organization, which has a website that averages about 1 million hits a day. ''He answered all the e-mails." To the very end, however, the military brass treated him with disdain for his biting criticism of insufficient training, equipment, and pay. There were deeper grievances as well, including his role in 1996 in exposing the fact that the chief of naval operations, Admiral Jeremy M. ''Mike" Boorda, wore combat ribbons that he did not earn. Boorda committed suicide an hour before a planned interview with Hackworth. ''He could never be forgiven for what he did to Mike Boorda," said a retired admiral who requested that he not be identified. He said Hackworth did not reveal the true nature of his investigation into Boorda's ribbons, leaving the Navy chief ''blindsided." Hackworth's allegations eventually were substantiated, and his defenders point out that wearing undeserved combat ribbons is a serious offense. Remembered as father figure to the troops But while Hackworth was an unyielding critic to generals, admirals, and defense secretaries, he was a father figure to thousands of grunts. Some held memorial services for him in between hunting for Iraqi insurgents, his family said. Hackworth called paying today's troops $7.50 a day for combat pay -- which, when adjusted for inflation, is three times less than in World War II -- a scandal. He continually hounded leaders from the president on down for strategic blunders in Iraq. He reminded them that those mistakes were always paid for by young soldiers. Many of Hackworth's ''kids," as he called them, have expressed their gratitude since his death May 4, at 74, from bladder cancer that he suspected was caused by jungle defoliants in Vietnam. One soldier who said he got back from Iraq ''five minutes ago," expressed his feelings in a note to Hackworth's family May 13. ''Man, there is a lot of emotion in me for a man I barely knew. We corresponded some, of course, I read all the books and articles. I will miss the true warrior that inspired me through trying times." An active-duty Army major recalled how Hackworth, on a recent fact-finding trip to Iraq, insisted on lending him his state-of-the-art body armor. ''A lot of these guys were touched by Hackworth," said Nick Profitt, a former Army sergeant and Newsweek journalist who met Hackworth in the jungles of Vietnam, where he penned a manual on guerrilla warfare, still widely read. ''He appealed to the combat-leader type and was a monumental pain . . . to those in the Pentagon he considered phonies." Hackworth was a thorn in the Pentagon's side ever since his highly public departure from the military in 1971, when he appeared, in full dress uniform, on the Dick Cavett show to declare that the Vietnam War was being lost. He was quickly drummed out of the Army and, as he recalled in his 1989 memoir, ''About Face," received death threats and left the United States. He threw out his medals in protest, including the eight Purple Hearts he received for combat wounds. (They were replaced in the 1980s.) He spent nearly 20 years in Australia, where he emerged as a leader of the country's antinuclear movement. But his dogged defense of the troops was his enduring mission. His last column, penned two days before he died, called for reforming the military to reward combat leaders instead of ''ticket punchers" -- his term for officers who spent their careers planning policy in the Pentagon. Last year he set off a media storm when he reported that an automatic pen was affixing Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's signature to condolence letters to families of dead soldiers; the defense chief was forced to personally sign each of them. None were spared when it came to dishing criticism Democrat or Republican, few were spared from his wrath. He attacked the Clinton administration for opening combat-related positions for women and leaving the armed forces ''held together with duct tape, bailing wire and gallons of sweat." He lambasted Congress, accusing it of lacing the defense budget with unneeded weapons to line the pockets of arms makers. He even took a three-star general to task in 2002 for prohibiting American soldiers in Germany from drinking beer. ''Can you imagine George Patton cutting off the grog just before D-Day?" he wrote. In recent months he took to likening the Iraq war to a quagmire. ''As with Vietnam, the Iraqi tar pit was oh-so-easy to sink into, but appears to be just as tough to exit," he wrote in February. He blamed those in the White House and Pentagon who ''have never sweated it out on a battlefield." His own military careeer was legendary, if untraditional. Ward Just, a Washington Post reporter who met him in 1966, wrote that Hackworth met him at the airstrip wearing camouflage pants, a T-shirt, flip-flops, and a Rolex watch. He was an infantryman out of central casting, built with forearms resembling coiled springs. He would stand over a map in his command post on the front lines, taking swigs from a bottle of beer. Those who served under him said that even after he became the youngest colonel in Vietnam he never lost his personal touch for the most junior of soldiers, huddling with them in the foxhole, boosting their morale with words of encouragement, a smile or a dirty joke; he always said his most prized possession was not his medals for valor, but his combat infantryman's badge. Later, when Hackworth became a Pentagon critic, an Army investigation raised allegations that he smoked marijuana with his troops and ran a brothel to serve his unit; some called for Hackworth's court-martial, but charges were never brought. Others thought him crazy for the risks he would take for his troops. John Falcon, one of Hackworth's helicopter pilots in Vietnam, witnessed one of his many legendary exploits, on March 25, 1969, when a group of men were pinned down in a firefight with a much larger force. Hackworth called in airstrikes, artillery, naval gunfire, smoke screens, but nothing worked, Falcon remembers. ''During the battle I would occasionally look back and see a collage of emotions on Hackworth's face -- anger, frustration, grief, determination," according to a eulogy Falcon plans to deliver tomorrow. Finally, he suggested ''the most daring rescue conceivable." Ran through hail of bullets to drag his men to safety Hackworth ordered his helicopter to land directly where the wounded were lying. With bullets flying, the colonel leaped off the aircraft and ran through a wall of fire multiple times to reach his men, dragging each aboard the helicopter. As the aircraft left the scene, overloaded, he stood on the skids, clinging to a bulkhead. Hackworth has been recommended for the nation's highest medal, the Medal of Honor, for that day, but it has been held up by what the Pentagon called administrative snags, according to his family and those in his organization. They say he's being punished for expressing his views. ''Hack was in a unique position to be an advocate for the troops," said Randy Holhut, a former sergeant and infantry squad leader in the Massachusetts National Guard. It angered Hackworth ''to see guys being sent to the front without body armor, without enough ammo, without the proper vehicles and security," Holhut said. His burial is expected to be one of the largest at Arlington in recent years, including dignitaries such as former senator and Medal of Honor recipient J. Robert Kerrey, a Vietnam War veteran. ''I am terrified we are going to have people crashing the reception," his widow and writing partner, Eilhys England, said Friday. After some haggling with the Army, and to the tune of ''Yankee Doodle Dandy," Hackworth will be buried ''on the high ground" at Arlington, according to England, where any infantryman would be most comfortable. But not before he left final orders. In what he called ''the big drop file," Hackworth instructed his wife how to keep Soldiers for the Truth, in which he invested much of his own money, alive. He believed ''there is no other place for those at the tip of the spear to come in from the cold," England said. ''His work must continue." Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.