Soldier in the Shadows: Billy Waugh Turns 83

December 01, 2012

By Will Grant

Billy Waugh is a true American Hero. Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you the same thing. Many of his enemies are dead, and more than a few of the friends he’s served with long-since retired. In many circles, Waugh is legendary—as a Green Beret, as a CIA paramilitary, as the man who nailed Carlos the Jackal.

“If you look at the dictionary definition of patriot, there’s a picture of Billy there,” says Ray Calafell, a US Army combat-wounded veteran of the Vietnam War and friend of Waugh’s in Tampa, Fla. “He’s a hard-headed Texan. An absolute patriot. In an age of few proper role models, Billy is a hero.”

Saturday, December 1, 2012, is Waugh’s 83rd birthday. Originally from Bastrop, Texas, he enlisted in the Army on August 24, 1948. He retired as a Sergeant Major and decorated Special Forces veteran in 1972. In 1977, he started a second career with the CIA. He continues to serve, mostly in the classroom, teaching soldiers 60 years younger than him what’s he learned over the years.

“Computers were spawned during my lifetime,” says Waugh, who now owns an iPad. What that means is that he has the breadth of perspective to write a firsthand history book on the range of warfare he’s participated in—from the last years of the Korean War, through the jungles of Vietnam, to Afghanistan in October 2011. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he says.

The most fun in all those years? Hunting and tracking Osama bin Laden in the Sudan in the early 1990s:

“Jogging was my cover to get around the city [Khartoum]. The police follow you for a while, and after about a year, they leave you alone. I jogged by his [bin Laden’s] frigging compound every day, and all his Afghani guards would fake throwing hand grenades at me, and I’d fake throwing hand grenades at them. Pull the pin on nothing and sling it.”

Waugh was wounded eight times and left for dead by the North Vietnamese. He was on the first HALO jump into a combat zone. He trained Libyan armed forces. He guarded US missile secrets in Kwajalein Atoll. He was among the first Americans into Afghanistan to hunt al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11: “We kicked a lot of ass and took a lot of names,” he says. “They didn’t know what the hell had hit them.”

His career has pockmarked the globe like a spray of gunfire. He’s served in more countries than most people will ever visit, and he’s a master of low-profile surveillance. Which is what he teaches to soldiers today. As a capstone to his career, though not to underestimate him operationally or otherwise, he passes on his knowledge with Power Point presentations and lectures. As he says, it’s where he finds enjoyment in life now, whether addressing young captains at JSOC or speaking to civilians.

He recently spoke to schoolchildren at a Veterans Day event.

“It was the first time Billy had ever spoken to kids, and there were 300 of them in the auditorium,” says his friend Ray Calafell. “By the end, they were eating out of his hands. They loved it. After it, he told me it was one of the more satisfying experiences for him.”

Waugh has an engaging, contagious enthusiasm.  He speaks in a thick, twangy Texas accent, and his wit and tongue are sharp as tacks. He has an undying work ethic, driven mostly by his intense patriotism. As Calafell says, he’ll do anything in the world for the people who have earned his trust. And he affects the same on other people.

“I will never let him down. Never,” says Calafell. “But if he comes to you with a ‘good deal,’ run for the hills.”

Waugh’s ‘good deals’ seem to be part of his reputation.

“The boys had a hole cut in the wall at the barracks up at CCN,” Calafell says. “There was a flag covering the hole, and they’d jump out it when they saw the Sergeant Major come looking for volunteers.”

Waugh’s contribution to American freedom is fully known only by those for whom he’s worked. But he has recorded some of his life story, and continues to do so. His book Hunting the Jackal, published in 2005, reads like an espionage novel—probably because his kind of work is what novels are based on. He’s working on a book now to be published sometime next year. It’s the story of three distinct chances the US had to win the Vietnam War.

“It’s a trilogy, really,” says Waugh, “of three separate operations that were just super, super, super top secret. I’m 83, they can’t do anything to me now.”

On Saturday, his birthday, Waugh will go out with a friend to eat chili with jalapenos. He loves jalapenos, like any good Texan. It occurs to him that eating so many jalapenos over the years has kept him full of strength and vigor.

“That’s what’s kept me young,” he says. “If you just keep eating them and gobble them down, you won’t die… One day when I can’t even walk any more, I’m going to quit eating these damn jalapenos.”

On his 83rd birthday, we tip our hat to Sergeant Major Billy Waugh.

Photos courtesy of Billy Waugh

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