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JFK has lasting connection to Fort Bragg

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William Yarborough, the Commander of Special Forces, meets JFK on October 12, 1961. William Yarborough, the Commander of Special Forces, meets JFK on October 12, 1961.

As the nation mourned the death of John F. Kennedy fifty years ago, there in the middle of his funeral was an honor guard including Special Forces from Fort Bragg. Their green berets made them stand out.  No other members of the American military wore anything like them.

"We were right there at the head of a column. The other services followed us," explained Sgt. Major Albert Slugocki.

He was one of those Special Forces soldiers. Reportedly, inviting them was one of the first decisions widow Jackie Kennedy made after the president's assassination - a decision that some may not have immediately understood.

"Especially when you consider that Kennedy was a navy guy," said Roxanne Merritt, the director and curator of the JFK Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg. "So you would think maybe her first words mouthed would be maybe the folks from Annapolis or maybe somebody else, but no, she mentions Special Forces."

If you go back to two years to October 1961, Kennedy's connection to army Special Forces makes more sense. He visited Fort Bragg because he felt Special Forces and their unconventional warfare were the future of the military. Slugocki was there for the visit.

"He was impressed," Slugocki said. "We had a demonstration for him, you know what we can do – all the little dirty tricks of war."

Kennedy's visit also settled a dispute that had surrounded Special Forces for years. He requested they wear green berets while he was on post. It was head gear many Special Forces soldiers wanted to wear as a sign of distinction, but berets were banned because others in the Army opposed it.

"The only berets made at that time were for girl scouts or fashion type things," Merritt said. "There was many a fight I'm sure in many bars that started with somebody being cute and saying do you have any girl scout cookies for sale."

Merritt said Kennedy liked the idea of visually setting apart Special Forces. During his visit to Fort Bragg he learned Commander William Yarborough also thought berets were a way to do it.

"[Yarborough] knew that for Special Forces to thrive they had to make themselves distinctive, more so than they already were," Merritt explained. "He knew that if he could get the Special Forces the beret that would again increase the emphasis on the unit as to how special they actually were and what they did."

From that visit came presidential authorization for Special Forces to wear the beret.

In the next two years, Slugocki went off to Vietnam. He had not been back in America long when he got word of the president's assassination and a special request delivered by his colonel.

"He said, ‘I have an invitation from the Kennedy family that you the selected ones will bury the president,'" Slugocki recalled.

Special Forces soldiers were there to watch over Kennedy's casket throughout for the next three days. Once the state funeral was over on Monday, the Special Forces soldiers placed their green berets by the eternal flame.

"They said it's only right that he gets this since he gave it to us," Merritt said.

"We were all very much Kennedy…  President's men, and we were proud of it, and we did the best we could," Slugocki commented.

In the 1969, the JFK name was added to the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. Special Forces have now become known as simply Green Berets. To this day they still honor John F. Kennedy by placing a wreath at his grave every fall – an ongoing tribute to the president who gave a mark of distinction to the Special Forces.

Brandon Herring

Brandon is a North Carolina native and UNC alum who lives in Fayetteville, and covers Cumberland County and the Sandhills. Returning to North Carolina to work as a journalist is a dream come true for Brandon. More>>

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