It was such a fine line, this difference between a legal and an illegal killing. In the shadowy world of espionage and counter-terrorism, the line was even more difficult to define. Yes, the men and one of the women under his command had already killed more than two dozen people since the operation began in El Salvador less than a week earlier. But those deaths all fell within the hazy edge of legal killings.” -excerpted from “A Mission for Delta” by L.H. Burruss
In the publishing world’s search for authenticity, they often procure the names of writers who have been there and done that, but generally being a great soldier does not make one a great writer. Because of this, we end up with a slew of ghost-written mish-mashes of fictional memoirs and non-fictional novels. However, a relatively unknown author named L.H. Burruss broke the mold long before the world ever heard of the late, great Tom Greer who wrote under the pen name Dalton Fury. Lewis “Bucky” Burruss may not have been to all of the rodeos during his time as a career Army officer, but he went to quite a few of them. Jokes aside, Bucky served in “Mike Force” with Special Forces in Vietnam. After the war he was sent on an exchange to the UK and completed British SAS selection before Colonel Charlie Beckwith tapped him to come help stand up Delta Force in the late 1970’s where he then served as A-Squadron Commander and later as Deputy Commander of the unit.
Bucky (referenced as “Buckshot” in Beckwith’s Delta Force memoir) wrote an incredible non-fiction account of his time with “Mike Force” in Vietnam. Unfortunately, not many have read the book but it stands in a league of its own alongside other Green Berets who also happened to be exceptional writers like Jim Morris and John Stryker Meyer. I’ve read a lot of SOF memoirs and I have read a lot of Vietnam memoirs as well. “Mike Force” would easily make my top three. After writing about his experiences in Vietnam, Bucky turned his eye towards fiction and has written a number of novels in the espionage and military thriller genre. Honestly, I have had some Special Forces soldiers tell me that Bucky’s book about Mike Force is exceptional but that they never really cared for his fictional works. Having read his novel “A Mission for Delta” I would beg to differ and will explain why.
Also, as a fair warning, I will be covering pretty much the entire plot of the novel in this review so if you don’t want to read spoilers, hold off and come back to read this after you finish the book. I figure that since the book is fairly obscure and since it was published in 1991 that you have either read it or you haven’t. Hopefully this review gets some folks interested in tracking the book down and taking a renewed interest in it. “A Mission for Delta” is a hidden gem of a book, one that will make you question some of the things we have been told about contemporary history, and one that will make you wonder what the hell was really going on during the Reagan years.
“A Mission for Delta” takes place against the backdrop of the twilight years of the Cold War and the on-going Iran-Contra hearings. At Fort Bragg Delta operators are taking their seats, preparing for a mission brief. Just about everything at the unit is compartmentalized, with teams working their own independent operations. While they know that their teammates are running ops as well, what they may not know is that their missions are actually inter-connected with one another, playing towards the same end game. Throughout the novel, two men will quietly meet for a side bar outside of official briefs, the CIA director and Delta commander hashing out their own plan, and then only briefing part of that plan while only two or three people in the world know the full scope of the actual mission.
Sergeant Major Matt Jenson walks up to a cork board where Delta’s intel officer had just thumb tacked a picture to. He recognizes the face, but saying nothing. Stoic, seasoned, and professional, Jenson plays his cards close to his chest, just like everyone else. Jenson and so many other Delta operators in the novel have their origin story (if you will) in the Vietnam War. Jenson goes as far as to describe himself as a creature of Vietnam at one point as his experiences in MACV-SOG were so formative. The Delta commander himself had been a part of the Phoenix Program.
As the mission brief begins, Colonel Garret (the Delta commander) informs the small group of men that no one outside that room is to be told of the mission and that their operations officer (Major Ames) was just returned from the White House where he received the mission from the National Security Council. Of interest, is that this implies that the Pentagon is cut out of the chain of command and that Delta is taking orders directly from the White House. In real life, Delta’s chain of command was a point of contention. The unit was stood up to tackle POW rescues behind enemy lines but policy makers were primarily concerned with hostage barricade and tubular assaults (aircraft hijackings) scenarios at that time. The order to send troops into a foreign country to conduct counter-terrorism missions is inherently political. With guns held to the heads of hostages, demands being made, and the clock ticking, the assault element needs a streamlined chain of command. However, what we are told in the literature is that Delta works for the Secretary of Defense and the White House. In this case, the SECDEF is nowhere to be found and the unit is taking orders from “Rollie” who is a NSC advisor and even the CIA director at times. More on that later.
Jenson’s target is Emilio Ramirez AKA Raul Valenzuela who is on the lam in El Salvador. Jenson then lets it slip that he served with Valenzuela in MACV-SOG where he disappeared on a mission “across the fence” in Laos. What Jenson keeps to himself is that the mission was the recover a small canister of plutonium taken from the university reactor at Hue City shortly after the Tet offensive. Valenzuela was known to be a sneaky son of a bitch who was good in the woods. Back to reality, about 50 MACV-SOG men are still unaccounted for in Laos and Cambodia.
Now Valenzuela has re-emerged after being missing for decades. Intel suspects that after being captured and left behind in South East Asia by his government that he was indoctrinated into communist ideology. Jenson is to hand select a small group of operators and lead a mission to El Salvador to capture Valenzeula alive. Ames states that the intel on Valenzeula came from the CIA rep at the White House and we can assume it is the agency that wants him brought in and interrogated for intel gathering purposes. After Jenson comes up with a plan, Ames then has to travel back to the White House to get final approval. Take note of that, mission orders and details are communicated verbally and in-person. No paper trail, no audio recordings, no evidence.
Jenson opts for a small eight-man team to go in for the snatch and grab in El Salvador. Colonel Garret gripes that if the Joint Chiefs of Staff planned the operation that they would have sent, “a Ranger battalion, two SEAL teams, and half the damn Air Force.” That’s a gripe that continues to this day actually. The author then walks us through the planning, intelligence gathering, logistics, and tactics of how American SOF operators run a clandestine operation which makes for some fascinating reading. I think this is why some readers felt that Burruss was not a great author, it can be dry at times as real life combat operations do not unfold like they do in the movies. Burruss doesn’t cut corners, nor does he dumb it down the way most authors do in order to be more mainstream or commercial.
As Jenson and his team prepare to infiltrate El Salvador, we are also introduced to Captain Rachael Brown who is assigned to Delta’s “administrative detachment.” This would be the infamous “funny platoon” or G-Squadron within Delta, known by others as “the harem.” These are female intelligence operatives who undergo tradecraft training and are put through CQB training by operators so that they know how to defend themselves if shit goes sideways. Together with Major Ames, they fly into Honduras and began preparing the backside logistics for Jenson’s team.
As Sergeant Major Jensen and his boys hit the ground and prepare to kick some ass for the US of A, we need to backtrack for a moment to another real life sidebar. Who is this rogue Green Beret named Valenzeula? In order to understand this curious plotline in “A Mission for Delta” we need to take a look at a real life Green Beret named David Baez.
Baez grew up in Nicaragua where his father was killed in an uprising against Somoza. As he got older he began taking up his father’s cause and his family feared for his life so they sent him packing to live with relatives in the US where he eventually became a citizen and joined US Army Special Forces in the 1970’s. His entire family back in Nicaragua was supporting the Sandinistas while the US government was involved in all sorts of fun and games supporting the Contras, leading into the Iran-Contra scandal. After separating from the service, Baez apparently joined up with the Sandinistas and began training a Nicaraguan commando unit alongside Cuban advisors. Suffice to say, the trail gets murky from there.
Did Baez go rogue and become a renegade ex-Green Beret working for the communists? Was he really a double agent working for the CIA all along? Much like George Washington Bacon who served in MACV-SOG prior to going freelance and being killed by communist forces in Angola while fighting alongside FNLA in the 70’s, it is very difficult to ascertain if he was in the employ of the U.S. government or if he was working as a mercenary.
In “A Mission for Delta” Matt Jenson and his men take Valenzeula/Baez alive, but then he is shot when some Cuban HIND-D gunships show up, causing him to bleed out and die. However, they do manage to take his pregnant girlfriend off the objective. What happened to Baez in real life though? In 1983, about 90 communist guerrilla fighters infiltrated into Honduras with Baez and an American guerrilla chaplain named Carney. One source told this author that the guerrillas were more like Honduran mercs rather than communist ideologues, which may be why their fighting formation came unglued so quickly. Some of the mercs defected, others were run down and killed in the harsh Honduran jungles by local U.S.-trained Special Forces units.
In 2004, a memoir called “Inside Delta Force” was published by Eric Haney. He claimed in the book that he was assigned the mission to hunt down and kill the Honduran merc unit by the CIA station chief, but was not told that Baez was a member. Like the fictional Matt Jenson who served in MACV-SOG with Valenzeula, Eric Haney attended Delta Force selection with Baez. Haney claims in the book that he personally shot and killed Baez. Bucky Burruss has vigorously refuted this account, stating that Haney nor any other Delta operator killed anyone in that firefight. Others have also affirmed that it was a Honduran Special Forces mission that did not include U.S. advisors.
Like Valenzuela in the novel, Baez left behind a pregnant wife. What really happened to Baez we may never know, but when the same plot line shows up in “A Mission for Delta” (1991) as well as in “Inside Delta Force” (2004) and then we juxtapose it with what we do know about Baez, it is a safe bet that something went down in Honduras in 1983. How Delta Force may have been involved remains unclear. It seems that the Honduran jungles are remiss to give up their secrets.
After Matt Jenson’s team shoots down a HIND, has one operator KIA, as well as their primary target killed, they then exfil out of country on a Delta aircraft ostensibly covered as belonging to the Green Beret parachute club on Fort Bragg. Brown and Ames have a brief punch up with a hostile intel service in which Rachael gets her first kill. Traumatized by the event, she hooks up with Ames after their debrief at the Stockade, Delta’s then-headquarters. Jensen wakes up as they land on the airstrip at Camp Mackall where Q-course students are trained. This is also the location where Burruss and Beckwith completed some of Delta’s final validation exercises in the late 1970’s, taking down simulated hijacked airplanes.
Jensen has been having nightmares before landing at Mackall, nightmares about being left behind in Vietnam the way Valenzeula was. Here, the Delta Sergeant Major is humanized a bit and we see what he truly fears. It isn’t just the fear of being left behind in an enemy POW camp, but the guilt of believing that teammates were in fact left behind. The fact that Valenzeula’s corpse is loaded on the same airplane and that Jensen even spoke with him before he died proves that troops were in fact left in South East Asia after the war. This is a keystone issue throughout the novel.
In part two of this review, we will look at the conclusion of “A Mission for Delta” and discuss some other plot elements and their real life inspiration including improvised nuclear devices, the use of official cover for operations, the National Security Council, the USSR/KGB threat, and how the end of the book imagines would could have been a real life mission to insert a nuclear device into Soviet territory using Special Operations Forces.