Obituary: Robert Rheault / Green Beret colonel in Vietnam scandal

Oct. 31, 1925 -- Oct. 16, 2013

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Robert Rheault, a charismatic Army colonel who could scale mountains, dive to the ocean floor and speak flawless French, arrived for his second tour of duty in Vietnam in May 1969, when the war was at its raging peak.

He had the job that had been his destiny, commander of the Green Berets, the elite special forces unit that often operated outside the standard Army chain of command.

Within a month, Col. Rheault was embroiled in a case that spread to the highest levels of the Pentagon, White House, CIA and Congress and brought a premature end to his promising military career. The so-called Green Beret murder case, which was splashed across magazine covers and in headlines for weeks, became one of the most puzzling, disturbing and tragic episodes of the war, but it has largely been forgotten in the decades since.

In the words of Time magazine, it was "a Vietnam War scandal second only to the My Lai killings" -- in which U.S. troops killed hundreds of innocent civilians -- "and one of infinitely more complex moral overtones."

Mr. Rheault died Oct. 16 at his home in Owls Head, Maine. He was 87.

His wife, Susan St. John, confirmed his death. She did not disclose a cause of death.

Robert Bradley Rheault was born Oct. 31, 1925, in Boston. His mother came from a prominent Boston family, and his Canadian-born father once served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before becoming a financial adviser.

He was considered "a scintillating leader with the aura of Lawrence of Arabia," Jeff Stein wrote in 1992's "A Murder in Wartime."

"His men were fanatical about him. Rheault was one of those rare officers with the kismet, perhaps, for true greatness."

In Vietnam, the Green Berets were often said to embark on secret missions as "hired assassins, master kidnapers, CIA enforcers," as a 1969 Washington Post story put it. They often worked outside the standard military hierarchy, with weapons that came from sources that could not be traced. The top Army general in Vietnam at the time, Creighton Abrams, was said to be annoyed by these arrangements, concerned that special forces soldiers lacked accountability and discipline.

Col. Rheault had 4,500 troops under his command, plus a wide network of Vietnamese informants and irregular combatants throughout the country. In 1969, his unit received word that a Vietnamese informant named Thai Khac Chuyen was suspected of being a double agent for the enemy North Vietnamese.

Members of Col. Rheault's unit picked up Chuyen and interrogated him for a week. Chuyen's role and significance were never firmly established, but this much is known: Col. Rheault's troops believed they were authorized to deal with him as they saw fit.

On June 20, 1969, three junior Green Beret officers drugged Chuyen with morphine, wrapped him in chains and tire rims and took him out in a small boat on the South China Sea. He was shot in the head and dumped overboard.

Col. Rheault was summoned to Abrams' headquarters in Saigon and asked what had happened to Chuyen. According to information obtained by Mr. Stein, who interviewed dozens of people and reviewed hundreds of documents for his book, Col. Rheault said Chuyen was on a secret mission in Cambodia, despite knowing that he was already dead.

When Chuyen failed to return, Army investigators began to look into the matter. A sergeant working for the Green Berets typed out a statement, attesting to Chuyen's murder, and seven of Col. Rheault's subordinates were taken into custody.

On July 21, 1969, Col. Rheault was arrested. Even though he had not pulled the trigger, he was held in a military stockade, charged with murder and conspiracy. He was one of the highest-ranking officers ever accused with such serious crimes during a war.

Under pressure from the White House and CIA, Army Secretary Stanley Resor announced Sept. 29, 1969, that all charges against Col. Rheault and his officers were dismissed. When the news was announced on the floor of the House, the chamber broke into applause.

"If there had been a trial," lawyer F. Lee Bailey told Time magazine in 1969, "the defendants would have become Abrams, [CIA director Richard] Helms and Nixon. The only winner would have been North Vietnam."

Col. Rheault was offered other jobs in the Army, but the only one he wanted was the one he couldn't have: command of the Green Berets. He retired from the Army on his 44th birthday, Oct. 31, 1969.

To this day, the case against Col. Rheault remains murky and confused, compounded by the adulation in which he was held and by the bewildering fog of war.


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