By Capt. John W. Strickland, U.S. Army
On a crisp autumn morning, a group of Green Berets stood at the grave of John F. Kennedy as the morning sun began to rise over the Nation’s capital. Located just below the Arlington House, the site is home to one of the most spectacular views in the city.
Just weeks before his death, President Kennedy stood in front of the Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s former home, in Arlington National Cemetery. Kennedy was overwhelmed by the remarkable view and stated, “I could stay here forever.”
It was only natural that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy agreed to the current site for his entombment and where the late president is forever remembered by an eternal flame.
A few years before his prophetic statement, Kennedy made another declaration, one that would shape the capabilities of the Department of Defense and the future of armed conflict. Following a visit to the Army’s Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in October 1961, the president made his vision for a dedicated counter-insurgency force clear in a letter penned to the schools commander, then Brig. Gen. William Yarborough.
He later showed his unwavering support for these “unconventional warriors” by authorizing Special Forces Soldiers to wear a distinctive uniform item as their official headgear. From then on these unique Soldiers would be known as “The Green Berets”.
In April of 1962, the President penned an official White House Memorandum stating, “The Green Beret is again becoming a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.” This official document forever joined the legacy of Kennedy with that of Army Special Forces.
Several months later the Green Berets would be called to serve the president as they stood guard over his coffin and participated in the Honor Guard at his funeral. Unaware of the impact it would make, Command Sergeant Major Francis J. Ruddy laid his own beret at Kennedy’s grave in the ultimate gesture of gratitude and respect.
That same beret is now on display at the John F. Kennedy Library as a memory to the president’s vision and to honor all Special Forces Soldiers who have served the Nation, especially those who sacrificed their lives.
Every year following, a contingent of Green Berets and members of The Old Guard, who stood watch that day in November 1963, remember this gesture by laying a wreath complete with the now iconic Green Beret at the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
This year, the 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) commander, Maj. Gen. John Deedrick, continued the tradition alongside Congressman Joseph Kennedy III and Dr. William Smith of the Kennedy family.
As the group set the symbolic wreath and beret before the flame, the words President Kennedy spoke rang as true today as they did nearly 60 years ago.
“I know that you and members of your command will carry on for us and the free world in a manner which is both worthy and inspiring. I am sure that the Green Beret will be a mark of distinction in the trying times ahead.”