By Harrison Smith
The Washington Post
Michael D. Healy, an Army major general and highly decorated counterinsurgency expert who retired as the top-ranking Green Beret and a legend in the Special Forces, died April 14 at a hospital in Jacksonville, Fla. He was 91.
He suffered a heart attack, said his wife, Jacklyn Healy. He had previously undergone two bypass surgeries, and for years wore dog tags that boasted an epithet to ridicule death — which he had evaded in combat during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Gen. Healy bore scars on his neck, face, arms, legs and stomach, many of them from covert operations in which he parachuted into remote villages or trekked behind enemy lines in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The details of nearly all his operations, which took him from Cold War Germany to lucrative oil fields in the Middle East, remain shrouded in secrecy. But his brilliance as a counterinsurgency expert was evident in a career that saw him become one of the first Green Berets to achieve the rank of a general.
“There was always one thing about Healy,” the novelist and war chronicler James Jones wrote in “Viet Journal,” his 1974 book about the last months of the Vietnam War. “You knew his aggressive physical courage was monumental, and that his nerves were absolute steel.”
The son of a Chicago police officer, Gen. Healy enlisted in the Army at the close of World War II. He commanded a Ranger company during the Korean War and became known as “Iron Mike” for dodging enemy machine-gun fire while leading an assault on a hill.
Gen. Healy joined the Special Forces in 1953, one year after the unit was formally created, and led guerrilla attacks during the Vietnam War that made him an inspiration for John Wayne’s character in a patriotic 1968 movie about the conflict, “The Green Berets.”
He arrived in South Vietnam in 1963, as the United States began expanding the number of military advisers in the country, and served five tours for a total of eight years — a remarkable duration for a soldier of his rank, said Keith Nightingale, a retired Army colonel who served with airborne and Ranger units in Vietnam. “There were probably very few people who understood the war and its issues better than he,” Nightingale wrote in an email.
Gen. Healy initially served as the operations officer and senior American adviser to Vietnamese Special Forces, organizing and commanding a battalion-size mercenary unit that bore his name: The Mike Force, short for mobile guerrilla strike force. Mike Forces used indigenous fighters and deployed in hot spots across Vietnam, where they were sometimes outnumbered 4 to 1 by enemy troops.
He was named commander of Special Forces in Vietnam in 1970, in the aftermath of what Time magazine described as “a Vietnam War scandal second only to the My Lai killings,” when U.S. troops massacred 500 unarmed civilians.
The incident, known as the Green Beret affair, centered on the killing of an alleged Vietnamese double agent, who was taken into custody by the Green Berets and killed at sea.
The slaying became a national sensation when the Green Beret’s commander, Robert B. Rheault, was arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy. The charges against Rheault and seven other Green Berets were dismissed, but resulted in Gen. Healy’s taking over the Green Berets at a time when Creighton Abrams, the general overseeing U.S. military operations in Vietnam, was said to be fed up with the unit.
Gen. Healy “was able to resurrect [Special Forces] in Abrams’s view,” Nightingale said, and effectively brought them “back into the Army” during his nearly 20-month tenure as the unit’s commander in Vietnam.
After the last U.S. combat forces were withdrawn from the country in 1973, Gen. Healy played a similar role as commander of what was then the John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance at Fort Bragg, N.C., the training center for Special Forces warriors.
According to the center, now known as the Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Gen. Healy was “charged by the conventional Army to dismantle Special Operations.” Instead, he worked to modernize the unit’s training regimen, using his experience in Vietnam to create a new emphasis on counterterrorism operations.
In 2015, Gen. Healy was named a distinguished member of the Special Forces Regiment, essentially the unit’s hall of fame.
“This is the highest honor that I have ever received, but it’s not really mine,” he said at the time. “This honor belongs to every soldier I was ever honored and permitted to serve with. . . . They gave me their hearts and a lot of them, their lives. I never forget them. Every night I speak to them.”
Michael Daniel Healy was born in Oak Park, Ill., on June 13, 1926. His father was chief deputy of detectives for the Chicago Police Department and a disciplinarian who insisted Gen. Healy and his three brothers eat at the dinner table in coat and tie, seated on the edge of their chairs. The regimen of Army life, he later quipped, “was nothing compared to what we had at home.”
He graduated from a Catholic preparatory school in 1945, then enlisted in the Army at Fort Sheridan, Ill., two months before the Japanese surrender ended World War II.
While serving with the Allied occupation forces in postwar Japan, he met and married Jacklyn Maddrix, whose father was a U.S. prosecutor in the military tribunal that tried Japanese leaders for war crimes. In addition to his wife of 69 years, of Jacksonville, survivors include six sons; 10 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Gen. Healy’s most renowned engagement occurred on his first day of combat during the Korean War, when he parachuted onto the roof of a thatched hut and then rolled into a ditch in the village of Munsan-Ni during an assault on a nearby hill. Nine members of his company were killed in the first three minutes of the attack, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Taking charge from a platoon commander who refused to move, Gen. Healy took four volunteers and soon secured the hill.
Gen. Healy said he killed four or five North Koreans before he was knocked down by a grenade blast, which knocked his carbine from his hands. A North Korean soldier charged him and lodged a bayonet in his leg. Weaponless for the moment, Gen. Healy grasped the North Korean’s hands to keep him from striking again. An American medic subsequently shot and killed the soldier.
For his actions in the attack, Gen. Healy was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest honor. He received the Bronze Star Medal, in what the Tribune described as a case of military politicking over which unit was supposed to have taken the hill.
His other military honors included three awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Silver Star, four awards of the Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Gen. Healy went on to serve in the office of the Army’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence, as head of the special warfare operations and foreign intelligence branch. He also held several postings in Vietnam, including brigade commander with the 9th Infantry Division and finally as the top U.S. military official in the country’s rugged Central Highlands.
In one of his last Army assignments, he oversaw joint military maneuvers in Ankara, Turkey, before breaking his hip while riding an Arabian stallion.
At the request of Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first female mayor, he served briefly in 1981 as the chief of public health and safety for the Chicago Housing Authority, where he was tasked with stemming gang violence at the Cabrini-Green Homes and other housing projects.
He was offered the job within weeks of being mustered out of the Army, after reaching the mandatory retirement age for soldiers who fail to become three-star generals. (“Mike didn’t have the West Point ring, or the right schools,” one retired general told the Tribune in 1981. “He’s from the old school. He’s a fighter, not a manager, not a systems analyst.”)
Gen. Healy said he was angry that his military career ended when he was 54, and still felt he had more to give. He soon got over that, he told United Press International.
“My only regret is that I can’t start all over again,” he said. “I’d like to walk in the back gate at Fort Sheridan, like I did almost 36 years ago, and say, ‘Yes, sir, I’ll go.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported that Gen. Healy was the first Green Beret to achieve the rank of general. While he was one of the first, his predecessor William P. Yarborough held the rank of lieutenant general. The story has been updated.