Years later, when he read a newspaper article that said Beckwith had a sign on his desk at his Texas-based security company which read, “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” he had been disappointed in the man he now considered his mentor. He wrote him a scathing letter, and one of the former Delta officers who worked with Beckwith, Wade Ishimoto, told Sadler that when Beckwith read the letter that he replaced the sign. The most precious thing on the face of the earth is a human life.” -Excerpted from “A Mission for Delta” by L.H. Burruss
This obscure novel, published in 1991, offers a small glimpse into the covert world of espionage and counter-terrorism as few could ever describe, the author having served as the deputy commander of Delta Force.
In part one of this review, the first half of the book is unpacked as we read about a Delta operator named Matt Jensen who tracks down a rogue Green Beret named Raul Valenzuela in El Salvador, the character clearly based on the real life Special Forces soldier David Baez who died under mysterious circumstances in Honduras. In the novel, Delta conducted the snatch and grab at the CIA’s request because it is believed that Valenzuela constructed an improvised nuclear device, a loose nuke that is now missing. Unfortunately, Valenzeula was killed during the mission by an errand shot fired by a Cuban helicopter. The Delta operators did manage to pick up his pregnant girlfriend though and smuggle her back to Delta’s compound on Fort Bragg.
With Valenzeula dead, it is decided that Delta and one expert from NEST will begin the hunt for the improvised nuclear device which is suspected to be somewhere in the U.S. A Spanish-speaking operator will begin working to win the trust of Valenzeula’s girlfriend, while a small team is put together to snatch Hakim Nidal (obviously based on the real like Abu Nidal who also had an interesting relationship with the KGB as does his fictional counter-part) who has left Lebanon and is vacationing in Cyprus as it is suspected that Valenzeula was going to sell Nidal the bomb, meaning the notorious terrorist may have additional information that could lead the Americans to the weapon.
Meanwhile, Delta’s operations officer embarks on a ad hoc not quite legal counter-intelligence mission in Washington D.C. as it becomes apparent that classified information is leaking from Congress. At one point, Delta’s commander even grumbles about how his unit keeps coming under investigation despite it being clear that his operators are not the ones leaking sensitive information, but rather the leaks come from politicians. In reality, a journalist named David Martin wrote a rather revealing article about Delta’s mission into Iran in 1980 dubbed Operation Rice Bowl/Eagle Claw. In the Newsweek article Martin writes that, “(Dick) Meadows and another member of Beckwith’s staff, Capt. Lewis (Bucky) Burruss, were dispatched to Washington to draw up an emergency rescue plan, to be used if the Iranians started killing their hostages.”
In “A Mission for Delta” Delta’s operations officer named Dave Ames laments that some damn journalist outted his name to the public in an article about Eagle Claw, calling out Martin by name. Ames believes this makes him too compromised for undercover work. It comes off as a bit of a inside joke between friends. Dave Ames seems to be a stand in character for Burruss and David Martin offers a blurb on the back of the novel about what a great writer Bucky is. The real life references continue throughout the book, with Charlie Beckwith and Wade Ishimoto, who served as Delta’s first commander and intel officer respectively, named in the lead quote to this article. Others are presented under thin aliases such as Schumann (Walt Shumate), Mel (Mel Wick), Birdie Sadler (Barry Sadler), and of course there is a Marine officer on the National Security Council named “Rollie” who is none other than Oliver North.
In real life, it is worth taking a look back at the early years of Delta Force. Counter-terrorism was a new field, tactics were being developed on the fly, developing the inter-agency processes needed to successfully conduct these operations were in their infancy, and considering the myriad of potential threats, a unit like Delta had to be prepared for anything. Delta’s Naval counter-part, SEAL Team Six probably felt the same way. In an interesting aside, it is rumored that Dick Marciko made Bucky Burruss the villain in one of his novels, of course using a different name.
In real life, Delta Force participated in a training exercise called Gold Junction in June of 1982 which saw the unit challenged with gaining access to an airplane, air traffic control tower, and a tractor-trailer which were protected by high end security systems and to then defeat a simulated improvised nuclear device (IND). Two other NEST exercises followed at the Nevada Test Site and the Idaho National Energy Laboratory in which Delta Squadrons had to assault guarded objectives and then secure the simulated IND. These types of exercises continue to this day and no doubt influenced the plot of “A Mission for Delta.”
Back in our novel, Rachael Brown, a female operator charged with intelligence gathering missions tracks Nidal. Clad in a bikini as the pool, she positively identifies Nidal and his security detail at a hotel in Cyprus. Throughout the novel, we see Rachael as a tough, determined, and smart officer who wins over even some of the more skeptical Vietnam veteran operators. On the other hand, Rachael also lives up to the stereotype that women are only good for passing around the team room as she seems to have little issue with jumping the bones of whichever operator she happens to be on a mission with on multiple occasions.
While Dave Ames is back in D.C. and after bugging a congressmen’s office, he discovers that the secretary is the leak who is passing information to a German spy who is in turn working for the Russians. The devious and experienced CIA director finds out that Ames slept with the secretary and figures they should deal the Delta officer back into the action, and flip both women, turning them into double agents. This results in several amusing ménage à trois scenes in the book.
Delta’s Sergeant Major, Dick Salem, and his men snatch up Nidal after killing his bodyguards in Cyprus. This is another area of operations that Delta was familiar with in real life, as the unit used the island as a staging area in the past. But there is a problem now, Matt Jenson back in D.C. has followed the leads and discovered the IND that Valenzeula left behind with a long timer attached to it. Secreted away in the cafeteria of the capital building, it is set to go off just as the president is giving his State of the Union address in a few days. Now that they have found the bomb, there is actually no use for Nidal.
The director of the CIA (Jason Moore) has hushed conversations with the Delta commander in the White House. Nidal can’t be brought back to the United States for a trail, it will be a media spectacle and Nidal’s supporters will raise hell. Moore comments that he wishes that the Delta commander was there since he had served in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam implying that he knows how to get his hands dirty. Colonel Garret can’t in good faith issue his Command Sergeant Major (Salem) an illegal order in Cyprus. Yet, sends him an encrypted message using peer pressure and eluding to what must be done. Rachael Brown actually receives the message, takes it to Salem, and then while he is reading it, she unholsters her pistol and puts it to Nidal’s head, who is now tied up in the back of a van. She squeezes the trigger and blows his brains out, feeling that as a officer the execution is her duty and should not be a burden for the enlisted men to carry. Salem is surprised and feels that Rachael should not have done that, but respects her for it.
There are those who have speculated in the War on Terror that JSOC has really just become a proxy force of the CIA, who are the ones who really pull the puppet strings. I’m not so sure that I believe that, but every so often one has to wonder.
Rachael has a physical reaction each time she kills someone, and even hardened operators like Matt Jensen feel that killing a person is the worst experience in life. It is interesting and worth mentioning that Burruss brings out this theme several times throughout the novel. As a young Mike Force officer, Burruss is no doubt acquainted with the grisly world of combat and killing. He doesn’t relish it or wish to brag about it though, feeling that killing a man is about as horrible a thing as can ever be done, even when it is what has to be done. This is an interesting and accurate perspective, but one that you will not likely hear in today’s world of false bravado and machismo that encourages veterans to brag about how many kills they have. As a country, it makes one wonder if our morality has undergone a drastic shift over the decades. We’ve always killed, but now we seem far more accepting of it as soldiers.
Back in D.C. Ames has a series of hilarious experiences with the girls before successfully flipping them. Matt Jensen has found the bomb, but now has to figure out how to remove and defuse it without alerting anyone. Only a handful of people in the entire world know about the mission as not to alarm the public. Moore and Garret brief the president, a stand in for Reagan who displays his trademark “aw shucks” attitude throughout, commenting on the great work his boys do and how patriotic they are.
At this point two Delta EOD experts fly in from Bragg. One of them is a operator named Mark Vinson who is quite clearly a stand in for the real life Sergeant Major Mike Vining, a Vietnam veteran who passed Delta’s Operator’s Training Course. Together with Jensen and a Secret Service agent detailed by the President, they sneak the IND out of the capital building and put it on a plane where Vinson defuses it. The Delta men want to dismantle the bomb and drop in into the ocean but are stopped by the wily CIA director who has another big idea.
This is just the first improvised IND, but there will be others the director tells Garret. With two Russian intelligence agents recently flipped, the Russians fooled into thinking that they might have Valenzeula alive, Nidal killed, and a live IND in their hands, the United States is sitting on a golden opportunity, a way to leverage the situation into forcing the Russians to cooperate with America to fight against nuclear terrorism, and to stop working with nut cases like Nidal. Vinson is ordered to leave the bomb unarmed but to reassemble it and bring it back.
Director Moore and Colonel Garret cook up the crazy plan and pitch it to Matt Jensen, the quiet professional, the quintessential operator. He agrees to it, but on one condition. Colonel Garret must use all of his power to try to force the U.S. government to bring back any soldiers left behind in Vietnam. The Colonel agrees and Matt Jensen is off to Berlin as it is revealed that he has previous experience there and speaks German.
As the novel concludes, it really becomes about Special Forces Detachment A rather than Delta Force. Det A was a small group of Green Berets stationed in Berlin who had the urban unconventional warfare mission. In the event that the USSR invaded, they would blend in with the civilian population and conduct acts of sabotage, knocking out key infrastructure that would stymie the Soviet advance into Western Europe. After, they would attempt to escape and evade back to friendly lines, but all the Det A members knew that it was a suicide mission. The Det is never mentioned by name in the novel, but the author was no doubt aware of them as he was also a Special Forces officer. Furthermore, Delta Force had a small contingent of Det A members with them during Operation Eagle Claw.
Jensen, Rachael, and the CIA director’s right hand man are the only three people involved in the operation. They manage to get the IND into Berlin using diplomatic sealed pouches but a new problem emerges as Jensen has come down with the flu. Rachael again takes the lead as Jensen is trying to sleep off a fever. Using latex gloves that simulated Valenzeula’s fingerprints (lifted from the corpse still in deep freeze at Delta’s compound at Bragg) they reassemble and arm the IND. Rachael runs recon around Berlin and finds a canal where the bomb can be inserted into East German territory using SCUBA gear.
In reality, there was a program called Green Light in which Green Berets would parachute into enemy territory with miniaturized nuclear weapons which would be used to destroy key infrastructure and delay enemy actions. Again, it was a suicide mission for the team and thankfully they never had to deploy a actual weapon. However, Det A was at one point tasked with figuring out a way to insert a nuclear device into East Germany, just as Rachael does in the novel. The female Delta operator buys some civilian SCUBA gear and Jensen (as the qualified combat diver) swims the device out into the river even as he is nearly depleted from his fever.
Dropping the device under the bridge, Jensen starts back but falls unconscious as he releases his weight belt. Rachael sees him belly up in the river, swims out to get him, and drags him back into their van. Keeping their covers intact, she brings him to a hospital then reports back to the CIA officer at their safe house. Meanwhile, information is leaked to the double agents that Ames turned (and then turns over control of them to the CIA of course) while the CIA director meets with his KGB counter-part in D.C. to tell him that they have intelligence that Valenzeula and Nidal planted a IND in Soviet territory.
Before the timer on the device counts down, Soviet divers pull up the IND from under the bridge and disarm it. Reagan gives his State of the Union address. Rachael accepts a date with the CIA director’s deputy, the U.S. government announces that it will continue looking for POW/MIA’s in South East Asia, and Matt Jensen sits at home watching much of this on the news with his wife and two young daughters.
The book lives up to its title, this was a mission for Delta.
Colonel Burruss insists that “A Mission for Delta” is simply a work of fiction and should not be seen as anything more.