URBANA — Green Beret Tracy Harper worked in intelligence on a trail that Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars used as a highway for supplying their troops.
The staff sergeant has little time to tell his story because he has cancer, and he said he doesn’t expect to live much longer.
Now 69, he hopes to make it to 70 in a few weeks.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “I’ve lived a full life. To get this far is pretty good.”
Harper doesn’t like to talk much about his war experiences.
He would rather talk about pool — he once bought a $4,000 cue stick — and the trophies he won, so many that some had to go into storage. Jupiter’s downtown was his favorite haunt.
Harper also has a room dedicated to Al Capone memorabilia.
But the Urbana native, who spent parts of 1969 and 1970 in Vietnam and Cambodia on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Special Forces, has vivid memories.
He enlisted at a storefront in what was then called Five Points in Urbana, and he later spent a decade in the Army National Guard.
But 1969 was near the height of the war.
After Fort Leonard Wood, he had to take a jump test at Fort Benning, the first requirement for becoming a Green Beret, he said.
Harper took further tests and joined the group.
“We trained under physical and mental stress,” he said. “We would go on missions they said couldn’t be done. We thought we could.”
As a Green Beret, he was qualified for a dangerous duty.
“I volunteered for the Studies and Observation group,” Harper said.
It was an elite group, so secret that the government denied it even existed.
Among its missions, according to recently declassified papers, the all-volunteer SOG soldiers made parachute jumps behind enemy lines and carried out reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos and Cambodia. They also attempted several POW rescues.
Harper was on the Ho Chi Minh Trail several times.
“The work was mostly intel, but I was basically a sniper,” he said. “We would go out in four- to five-man groups to watch the Viet Cong and NVA. We paid a lot of attention.”
That included filming the enemy trucks, he added.
Harper was useful in his group.
“I was a good map reader,” he said. “If something happened, I could find a way for us to get out.”
Harper said SOG troops put their minds to “a lot of dirty tricks on the Cong.”
The most memorable?
“We bent the firing pins on some M-16 rifles and made sure they were going to get them,” he said.
“We gave them to line units, and told them to make sure two cases of brand new M-16s got ‘left behind’ so the Cong could use them in an ambush.”
He didn’t get to see the results, and isn’t sure whether the M-16s “jammed or exploded.”
“I’m sure they really did some damage,” he added.
He said he didn’t feel like a hero, but he did drag some wounded buddies to safety during a firefight.
After his year in Vietnam and his discharge, upon his return to the United States, he was definitely not treated as a hero, he said.
That includes being spit on when he was in uniform at an airport, he added. “I decked him; I put him down on the ground.”
He acknowledges it was the war that was unpopular, but individuals took the brunt of the reaction rather than the government.
“They despised what I had done,” Harper said.
He was offered more stripes and a higher pay grade in the Guard, but he decided he liked his day job better.
After decades as a mailman, Harper retired in 2002 and spent some time in his Florida house.
He has also joined veterans groups here and in Florida.
“I don’t think anybody owes me anything but respect,” Harper said.