Of his various experiences in the military — including being selected for the Special Forces after basic training, working on reconnaissance projects with indigenous South Vietnamese tribes, and surviving a deadly aircraft inferno — Vietnam veteran Scott Whitting said, “It was an honor.”
The 76-year-old Green Beret lives in Glen Head, and is now the proprietor of Whitting Funeral Home, a family business started by his father in 1946. As a young man growing up in Glen Cove, he said, “I was anxious to go into the military as soon as I could,” because, he added, “I didn’t want to get my funeral director license right out of high school.”
Whitting wasn’t just anxious to join up. Unlike many of his contemporaries, draftees vying for non-combat positions, he wanted to play an active role in the fighting. After being assigned to a clerk-typist position, he told the personnel officer that was processing his enlistment that he wanted to go into the infantry, with the intention of joining the Special Forces.
“He looked at me like I was kind of crazy,” Whitting said, “but he took out my card . . . and changed it right there in front of me.”
After enlisting in the infantry, he went on to “jump school,” where he would learn, among other things how to parachute down onto the battlefield. From there, he was recruited to take a Special Forces test of his ability to process information. At the beginning, there were 30 recruits being tested alongside Whitting. Only three, including him, passed.
They were brought into a room and asked to fill out some paperwork that, according to Whitting, essentially said, “the Government is no longer responsible for anything that happens to you.” The other two recruits got up and left, he said.
Whitting began his first tour of duty in Germany, at a World War II-era barrack that once sheltered Hitler’s mountain troops. As the war in Vietnam began to ramp up, he felt that he was “missing out on something . . . So I extended my enlistment on a voluntary basis and volunteered for Vietnam.”
When he arrived, he learned that higher-ups had slated him to be part of the Mobile Strike Force Command, or MIKE Force, an elite group responsible for training local Vietnamese in reconnaissance, rescue and guerrilla warfare. “It was a great honor,” he said.
When he first jumped out of the plane to his assignment, he said, “I thought I had a really bad accident. I thought I was seeing stars,” which made him think that maybe he hit his head on the jump. Later, he found that the plane had been shot 14 times, and the stars were really tracer bullets whizzing by his head.
He spoke extremely fondly of the indigenous people he worked with on what was called Project Omega, a precursor to Project Delta, a major player in the covert operations in the Vietnam War. “We made all the mistakes that Delta Force learned from,” Whitting said.
The indigenous people and the Americans that worked with them were “tight,” he said. “We used to socialize, they initiated us into their tribes. It was a wonderful experience.”
This reporter sat in on an interview that Whitting did with Ben Zeitlin, founder of MyStory Video, which produces videos based on people’s personal stories, which has recently started a project called, “Our Heroes, Their Stories.” The project was inspired by a video-memoir Zeitlin made for the family of a veteran who had fought in World War II, in the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
“We asked him how many times he had talked about the war,” Zeitlin said, “how many times he had told these stories, and he said, ‘This is the first time I uttered the words since the war in 1945.’” He added that a lot of the veterans he’s spoken to can go on and on about their experiences once you ask them, “but first you have to ask them.”
In his Glen Head home, Whitting keeps memorabilia from his tours in Vietnam. The maroon beret of a British paratrooper to whom he had traded one of his green ones; two wooden crossbows gifted to him by the tribes with whom he was embedded; various knives; a radio he had once used to call for an extraction.
His story isn’t typical of most front-line Vietnam veterans, and, he said, the work he did to help South Vietnamese locals defend themselves against communist incursions from the North Vietnamese tells a broader story about American foreign policy.
“Look what the American military does for the whole world in providing a defense mechanism,” Whitting said. “Look at the charity that Americans provide . . . anybody in need. We didn’t go to war to capture Germany, or to capture Vietnam. We went to war to help them help themselves.”