Cogito (Ergo) Vivo – You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve almost died. For those who have fought for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.

This observation, which is embraced by every combat veteran I know, has been adopted as the motto of the Special Operations Association. The very first time I heard it, back during my inaugural tour of duty with SOG, it resonated deep within me. I could sense the profound truth it expressed. All I had to do was look around at the men I served with. It would be impossible to find a livelier, more fun-loving, crazy, generous or supportive group anywhere, or at any time. To this day these men continue to be the best of friends, the finest of comrades.

The casualty rates for SOG recon teams were the highest for any unit in Vietnam. We all had our close calls. Thus, each of us was given ample opportunity for the truth of this observation to be incised on his soul. None perhaps, more so than the young, hard-charging One-Zero of RT Michigan, Sergeant Eldon Bargewell. By the Spring of 1969, Bargewell had earned the full respect of his fellow recon men. No one who ever met him doubted his professionalism or determination.

He was not only meticulous when preparing his team for a mission, and a fearless leader when on the ground, but he also possessed a biting wit and an absolute and abiding intolerance when it came to fools and REMFs, fools and REMFs being a redundancy to his way of thinking. As for me personally, I had an additional, but oddly special reason for admiring him: I not only liked the cut of his jib, I liked the way he parted his hair. Like me, he wore his hair longer than was the norm and parted it on the right.

The moment of truth came for Bargewell in March 1969 during a mission in the target MA-14, which was northwest of the A Shau Valley. Don Sheppard was the One-One and Mike Morehouse was the One-Two, radio operator. RT Michigan’s mission was simple: locate an NVA regimental headquarters and way station, pinpoint the base camp and then call in a Hatchet Force from CCS lead by Jerry “Maddog” Schriver, on temporary assignment to CCN.

Upon the team’s early afternoon insertion, two things happened: The fourth American on the team broke his arm, when he jumped from the hovering helicopter and the NVA peppered the team’s LZ with mortar fire. Bargewell had one chopper return and lift out the injured SF soldier.

When that chopper left the LZ, the NVA mortars fell silent. It appeared to Bargewell that the NVA believed the entire team had left the target. The NVA soldiers in the area returned to their regular duties along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and RT Michigan moved in an azimuth toward what intelligence officers said was the regimental headquarters. After moving only 200 meters, the pointman saw an old NVA bunker. Much to Bargewell’s surprise, intelligence was accurate – for a shocking change.

The team crept up the hill and saw more empty bunkers. In short order, Bargewell saw a bunker that appeared to have maps inside of it. This was virtually unheard of; a piece of incredibly good luck. But what do you do in such a case? Well, if you’re Eldon Bargewell, you react like a kid who finds himself in an defenseless candy shop: you go wild, grabbing maps, charts, log books, and assorted documents, stuffing them into your rucksack until it overflows. It was a veritable gold mine of information on weapons caches, supply routes, communications sites and encryption codes. In effect it was a Frommer’s Guide to the Ho Chi Minh Trail: where to sleep, where to eat, where to refuel, where to find weapons and replenish munitions. With this information in hand, the U.S. military could hurt the NVA.