2nd Generation & Then Some

By: Charlie Quesenberry

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“Put silver wings, on my son’s chest….” It’s pretty unlikely anyone reading an issue of The Drop is unfamiliar with the refrain of “The Ballad of the Green Beret”. For these two former Special Forces soldiers, those words ring very true and accurately indeed.

Don Gross put silver wings on his son Rick Gross’ chest when he graduated from Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia (1977). Rick is one of a number of second-generation jumpers to get his parachutist wings and go “Airborne!” “After I joined the Army and was sent to Jump School, Dad surprised and joined me for my 4th and 5th graduation jumps. He gave me a jump master check then jumped with me (he could do this as he was still on active duty, a unique situation).”  This father and son team took it a few steps further, Rick went on to become a second generation Special Forces soldier and later they joined up for other parachuting adventures.

This writer will go out on a limb and assume that many of The Drop’s readers remember their first jump from “a perfectly good airplane”. Rick’s first jump was from a C-130, that tried and true workhorse of a cargo and troop transport. He was fourth in his stick to leave the plane, and when the jumpmaster opened the door (at the standard jump altitude of 1,250 feet) he was disappointed, his first thought was “we’re not high enough”, Rick wanted to jump from a higher altitude. Over the course of the next few years on active duty he would go on to make jumps from a “perfectly good airplane”, earn Tunisian jump wings and attend the SF HALO school (High Altitude Low Opening) quenching his thrust for more altitude.

“Years later dad and I carried on the tradition of jumping together by attending the Russia Officers Parachute School (in Ryazan, Russia 1992); just a few months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  We jumped Soviet helicopters (Mi8 Hip) via static line that deployed a drogue chute with a 3-5 second delay mechanical timer which fired the main canopy. In 1994, Dad and I attended the People’s Republic of Vietnam Parachute training outside Hanoi (Dien Bien Phu). Again jumping Soviet gear and helicopters. Interesting times as we had to use dad’s pocket knife to scrape the rust off our reserve pins. The trip was prior to the U.S. having established diplomatic relations with Vietnam. These adventures afforded us an opportunity to visit places like the berlin wall, Lenin’s Mausoleum, Red Square, St. Basil’s Catherdral, Saigon, Hanoi, Chu Chi tunnels, the infamous POW camp Hanoi Hilton, Tru Bach lake where US Navy aviator/Senator John McCain landed after his A-4E Skyhawk was hit by a Soviet made SA-2, Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, a visit to Thailand to see the Bridge over the river Kwai and numerous museums from Russia and Germany to Vietnam. We also visited places Dad had been stationed and where we had lived as a family. Like, the Kaserne at Bad Tolz German, go see our dependent housing locations (“upper and lower” – for those that know), toured the quaint, beautiful Bavarian town of Bad Tolz, the Church on the Hill overlooking the Isar river, we stayed at the local guest houses, walked the Flint Kaserne, the post theater, Chapel, commissary, field house, bowling alley, football stadium and even the neighboring Kaserne in Lenggreis (where we went as a family for our Thanksgiving dinner (at the mess hall) – nothing like being able to eat as much turkey, pumpkin pie and washing it down with cold milk that a skinny boy could eat – life was good!). We rode the gondola lift up the Brauneck ski resort and viewed the snowcapped peaks of the Alps.  So many years later, so many locations, so far away and yet a recall of vivid memories of a childhood spent as a military brat brought back in an instant with an odd, unexpected familiarity of being home again”.

Rick’s father, Don Gross spent thirteen years as an enlisted soldier before receiving a battlefield commission as an officer. He would go on to serve as a company commander in Korea and retire as a Major. Typical of Special Forces soldiers of that era, he is reluctant at best to talk about his military service. This author attempted to get some details with little result, when pressed Don responded with “No, that’s enough detail.” However his son provided an overview of Don’s service: Seventeen-plus years’ Special Forces (3rd, 5th & 10th Groups), Weapons MOS, Jumpmaster & Scuba qualified, attended the German Jump School, three tours in Vietnam, Recondo School Instructor, JFK Warfare Center Instructor. Received a battlefield commission to First Lt. while serving in Vietnam and retired as a Major after 25 years’ services. He went on to work as a private contractor with multiple trips overseas and stints to Afghanistan 2002-2005. 

Rick and his family grew up as an Army brat and went to numerous schools on Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and other locations. During those days, the Gross family lived in Corregidor Courts, Hammond Hills and later off post in Fayetteville housing area off Yadkin Road. He remembers many schoolmates and “as a kid, I remember my classmates’ fathers who went away during the Vietnam War and didn’t come back”, he said. He recalls the movie We Were Soldiers. “it brought back memories, the time frame, learning of the loss of friends father and realizing how fortunate we were that our father came back”.

Growing up an “Army brat” has a profound effect on kids raised in a military environment. Wikipedia describes life for military brats in part as: “Military brat” and various “brat” derivatives[a] describe the child of a parent or parents serving full-time in the United States Armed Forces, and can also refer to the subculture and lifestyle of such families. The term refers to both current and former children of such families.

The military brat lifestyle typically involves moving to new states or countries many times while growing up, as the child’s military family is customarily transferred to new non-combat assignments; consequently, many military brats never have a home town. War-related family stresses are also a commonly occurring part of military brat life. There are also other aspects of military brat life that are significantly different in comparison to the civilian American population, often including living in foreign countries and or diverse regions within the U.S., exposure to foreign languages and cultures, and immersion in military culture.

The military brats’ subculture has emerged over the last 200 years. The age of the phenomenon has meant military brats have also been described by a number of researchers as one of America’s oldest and yet least well-known and largely invisible subcultures. They have also been described as a “modern nomadic subculture”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_brat_(U.S._subculture)

“It’s a unique perspective one can only have if you were a child and raised in that community. We lived and grew up with other soldiers and their families.  The mom’s, the other kids (everyone know by their last name, the Norbury’s, Hubbards, Thomas, Browns, Mendez, etc.).   We were a rag tag group of kids thrown together, all colors, races, religions, ages, boys and girls, it didn’t matter.  We were tight, had one another’s back and we were always welcome in their homes and it felt as if their family was your family”, said Rick.

“As a military brat, we moved often, attended numerous high schools (5) and so many grade schools I couldn’t name.  We grew up mainly on Military Posts. Could hear the morning reveille and evening taps at the main post flag pole, still can feel the rush of catching the Post school bus, attend sporting events at Hedrick or Towle stadiums, played basketball and swam at Lee Field House, eat out (once a month if we were lucky) at the “Chute Drive In” or Bowling Alley No. 3 (great cheeseburgers – the best), play games, smell and eat the food at the “on Post” carnivals, enjoy the post theaters (Bruce Lee and John Wayne movies for 30 cents), get a haircut for 10 cents at Flint Kaserne’s barbershop (Germany), attend Mass every Sunday at the Chapel (with Father Shea) and being an Alter Boy with my big brother Scott. We didn’t have I-phones or game boys, we traded comic books with neighbors, joined the cub scouts, horse played and cut through the various housing areas – Anzio Acres, Corregidor Courts, Hammond Hills, we knew the Posts’ like the back of our hand. Went to cook outs at McKellars Lodge, took bow lessons, helped make an archery range, hung out at the Youth Activities Center (YAC), play all sports, all year…..often your friends were your team mates, sometimes your brothers were. Years later as a solder while stationed at Ft. Bragg my youngest brother Don played YAC basketball, I was able to sign on as his teams coach. We watched my sister Robyn participate in many Dance recitals. Mom kept us gathered up and on the straight and narrow – better be home by 5:00pm for dinner…..and that was no joke. She shuttled us around, made trips to the TMC to update “your shots” or when we broke an arm or leg it was a dash to Womack Army hospital for repair, or the main PX for jeans and school clothes – we all came out looking the same. We learned how to adapt at an early age…..seems we were always the “new kid” (but we all were)……my family was a unit, my parents embraced it and made a life’s adventure out of it!   Yes, Dad was gone often but we gained a deep appreciate for his service and commitment to his family.  When he wasn’t in Vietnam we went on weekend trips – too many to count and often times with other SF families.  We saw and experienced things few civilians can imagine.  From living all over the US, to cool places in Europe like Bad Tolz Germany in the middle of the Alps with weekend trips to Munich, Dachau, Eagles Nest, ski resorts, attending the “Jump Fests”, watched our friends participate, watched the Golden Knights, the Thunderbirds, visited Kings Castles, swam in Jacehnau and lakes in Germany, went on hikes in Bavaria – one adventure after another.  One year while on leave back in the States from Vietnam Dad took us boys “camping” (lol…in hindsight it’s hard to imagine he really wanted to do that – he spent most of that year in the jungle in Vietnam – so on leave he took us boys camping! —- what were we thinking?), he would simply smile.  Being a military brat had lots of advantages – once I got a cool Seiko watch (sent by Dad from Vietnam) for my birthday, it so nice that when we went to size the band to fit (I was the proto-type for the large faced watch – it covered my whole wrist), the watchmaker told my mom it was too nice for a boy my age, last time I saw that watch.  As a boy, I learned to set up a camp, string a poncho, make a sand table, tie rope knots, fire a pistol and in general I got a perspective on life (at the time too deep to understand – which would serve me well later).  While on a camping trip in Uwharrie National Forest age 14, Dad taught me land nav. Little did I know I’d spend a lot of time in that forest doing land nav. during my Q Course.”

Following in Don’s footsteps, he enlisted for Special Forces as an “18X” candidate. The 18X program is the Army’s identifier for enlistees joining specifically for becoming a Special Forces soldier.

These days there are many programs to help an SF candidate prepare for what’s ahead such as Special Operations Preparation Course (SOPC) and the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) program prior to the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC). A search of “How many 18X enlistees make it?” revealed various results from less than 5% making it from day one to completing the SFQC to closer to 20%. A recent (February 23, 2015) Army Times article stated in part: “On average, 37 percent of SFAS candidates will be selected to enter the Special Forces Qualification Course. Among the 18X population, about 61 percent are selected to enter the qualification course. Among the active-duty enlisted population, only one in every eight recruits will earn the Special Forces tab. About one in five 18X recruits – these are new soldiers who first go to basic and advanced individual training and airborne school before showing up to selection – will earn the tab..” https://www.armytimes.com/story/military/careers/army/2015/02/23/army-special-operations/23304113/

Whether or not Rick was a “brat” in the more common sense of the term is beyond the scope of this story. He was in excellent physical shape, wiry in build and more fit than most, he said. His mental and physical preparation for what lay ahead served him well, as he became a fully-qualified Special Forces soldier with a primary military occupational specialty (MOS) of 12B (demolition.)

“As a second-generation SF soldier, and “assigned to group”, you grow up fast, it’s a small community of highly trained professionals.  Much is expected of you and there is a strong desire to avoid letting anyone down. You look out for one another – they look out for you – that’s the way it is!   As a 2nd generation SF’er you’ve also developed a bond with your father, you are able to ask, share and discuss what many father/sons don’t.  You understand and gain respect on an entirely new level.  You learn how to be a professional, value of being a team player, to follow, to lead, educate and train. An appreciation for others and especially cultures. You develop a mindset for helping, learn to keep options open, analyze and process in a manner directed at achieving successful outcomes, you hone an ability to assess and focus rapidly and understand that even the most perfect plan is subject to change in an instant.  It’s a great foundation for life’s journey”, said Rick.

Rick went on to become a member of Project Blue Light. “I was recruited by CSM Lupyak, approved by my C.O. Major Ham”. My Dad was assigned to the G-2 section at the time”, he said. Those were, interesting times. Internal SF politics were running high Colonel (“Charging Charlie”) Beckwith was working the early effort with Delta and Project Blue Light was, according to Wikipedia: …Blue Light was a subunit of the 5th Special Forces Group that existed into the early 1980s.

According to Col. Charles Beckwith’s memoirs, this counter-terrorist group was formed by U.S. Army Special Forces leadership who disagreed with or felt politically threatened by Beckwith’s Delta Force, which existed outside the Special Forces hierarchy. He stated that the unit was disbanded when Delta Force went operational.

Beckwith’s memoir, Delta Force, reports that commanders of the 5th Special Forces Group were asked by top brass of the Pentagon to quickly organize a Green Beret counter-terrorist unit to fill in until Delta Force was fully operational; Beckwith estimated it would take two years. Blue Light and Delta had a somewhat adversarial relationship for those two years. The traditional Special Forces leadership felt that they could handle counter-terrorist duties within the Special Forces community (with Blue Light). Delta existed outside of that bureaucracy, with a direct line to top US Department of Defense (DOD) brass and the President. Delta therefore represented a political threat in the minds of some Special Forces commander. Nevertheless, Delta went on to complete its initial certification exercise in July 1978, and Blue Light was deactivated shortly thereafter.

The Summer 2016 article about Blue Light in The Drop discussed a lot of the politics surrounding Delta and Blue Light. “…No one in the brief volunteered for Delta selection. Several books have been published stating that Blue Light was never invited to try out for Delta Force and none of them ever served in Delta. Both claims are false. As you can see here, Beckwith did invite all Blue Light members to selection, even if he did not show much tact in how he went about it. Down the line, at least four Blue Light members went on to serve in Delta Force.”

Things were, to put it mildly, very different for Special Forces soldiers in the 1980s than they were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The political landscape had changed dramatically, the Vietnam War was over but the after-effects were still being felt. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was beginning to be recognized as clinical fact and treated as such, and the drawdown of forces after Vietnam meant far less SF-qualified and trained soldiers were available for a changing mission, i.e., counter terrorism.

Rick joined Army in 1976, graduated the SFQC, became Scuba & HALO qualified and served as a member of Blue Light. After his service, he continued to scuba dive and sport jump in the US, Hungary and earned Czechoslovakian jump wings in 2001 (near Prague) jumping from an Antonov An-2 biplane. He went on to a civilian career moving to California and becoming Vice President for a large west coast printed circuit board manufacturer, later as Operations VP for a high-end electronic security company (Vindicator Corp.) in San Jose in 1987, then spearheaded an employee purchase of Vindicator in 1996 selling it to Honeywell in 2004. Leaving Honeywell in 06 Rick Co-Founded and licensed a unique, non-lethal ocular interruption technology with professors from the University of Texas. He is currently the President & CEO of PowerBlock, a global health and fitness company.

What does it mean to be “Second Generation”? Rick’s perspective is this: “A special bond is created when you can follow in a father’s footsteps.  It’s a legacy of family service to your country, community and self. A chance to be like our fathers, to serve, prove ourselves, earn an education, grow, learn and be part of a very unique community mentored by our father and his comrades while satisfying a young man’s desire for adventure.  2nd generation SF’ers already possess an understanding of the SF community, the people and mission. It’s the measuring stick and goal for some of us to achieve. Much is expected and we knew that up front. I was able to get Dad’s insights on decisions that affected my career – everything from my choice of MOS, schools, locations, to input from fellow soldiers he served with, where to go and what to do next. Some were very complex and tough decisions to make. Going through the Q course and being assigned to an SF unit provided me a hint of the type of training, experiences and a basic understanding of my father that would have been impossible otherwise. I was able to serve with those that served with him in combat, they knew him from experiences he would never share as well as enable me to share experiences with him, rare moments. In one case he asked me about an assignment and I explained “sorry Dad, can’t discuss that” – he smiled and gave a nod (I had learned and he knew he’d done well). As a son, following in a fathers’ footsteps is the common thread that helps makes the relationship special. As a result of joining Special Forces I gained a unique appreciation for him as a soldier, father and friend”.    

“Being a 2nd generation SF’er was an adventure that turned into a wonderful and very fulfilling life long journey. It shaped me as a boy, as a young man and continues to this day. My time in Special Forces was the single most rewarding career accomplishment in my life. In reflection, it was the foundation on which I have built so much. I’ve had the opportunity of serving for and with many Special Forces professionals. It was an honor and privilege to have served with them. I am grateful to have been a military brat and experience the close knit SF families, be reared by the military community, serve as a soldier, follow my father’s footsteps, be mentored and provided the values, moral compass and overall foundation to build my life’s journey —– and chocked full of adventure! Being a 2nd generation SF’er is all that and more”. My father and I get together often and continue to share experiences.

The following perspectives from Don and Rick are provided for potential future Special Forces soldiers: Upon learning I signed up for SF: My father said “go a step further than anyone else” and “get advice from someone current”. It can be a difficult and risky journey but also a very rewarding one.

Best Advice – It’s about desire and heart – you don’t have to be the biggest, strongest or loudest – just try harder! Understand the value of preparation, there’s always a next level!

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The author (prior 82nd Abn & 19thSFG) would like to dedicate this article to another Special Forces soldier, who earned his “Green Beret” somewhat late in life and inspired me to be better than I ever thought I could be: My dad, John H. Fitch.

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