TAMPA — In Billy Waugh’s final years, Gen. Bryan Fenton, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, made Waugh an offer he knew he’d find tempting.
“Billy, you look really fit,” Fenton said. “Why don’t you come back, and let’s go get back in with our troops. Let’s go jump out of some planes. Let’s go riding around Tampa.”
Waugh’s wife, Lynn, had to interject.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “He’ll do it.”
Waugh, a longtime military special operative nicknamed the “Godfather of the Green Berets” who lived in Lutz, died in April at 93. He was honored with a memorial at MacDill late last month surrounded by hundreds from around the special operations community.
Even into his 70s and 80s, Waugh was the restless type. He’d get up every day at 3 a.m. and make a beeline for his computer to check his email. Once the sun came up, he was on calls with any number of people he knew in special operations, rearranging teams and assigning people to missions.
Waugh had always slept lightly, something he trained himself to do (and deal with) during his half-century of work with the Green Berets and CIA. Once he and Lynn got married and moved in together at 75 and 54, respectively, he’d turn the fan on at night and move into another room once he was up. That arrangement worked just fine for her.
He wasn’t commanding raids in Vietnam or outing terrorists in Sudan anymore, but he was still active — far more active than a septuagenarian who had nearly lost a leg, performed an experimental parachute drop from over 30,000 feet and hunted the world’s most wanted men should be.
“He was kind of surprised that not everybody worked like that,” Lynn said. “Like, why don’t you want to do that? It’s gonna be exciting.”
A man without fear
Waugh was thankful he got shot in the forehead in that Vietnamese rice paddy.
Green tracer rounds darted overhead and the deafening sound of gunfire ripped through the air. His foot was a fountain of blood after a bullet entered by his big toe and exited at his ankle, shattering everything in between.
Then came another shot, which ricocheted off a piece of bamboo before clipping a 2-inch gash in Waugh’s forehead. It knocked him out cold. Combined with his mangled right leg, any reasonable soldier would presume that Waugh was dead. This presumption saved his life, he wrote in his 2004 autobiography, “Hunting the Jackal.”
He was discovered naked — stripped of his uniform and watch — and was hauled to a helicopter atop a nearby hill, where he was flown back to safety and a hospital tent. High on painkillers and full of adrenaline, he joked constantly on the operating table, much to the chagrin of the nurse charged with removing a “colony of leeches” from his leg and saving a shredded foot.
Waugh always found room for humor among the perilous. It was the only way a soldier could stay sane, he said.
He once told a man in Vietnam to rub hot sauce on his chest because it would help him grow chest hair like the Americans, Lynn said. In Afghanistan, he convinced his whole unit to use an airdrop shipment of Windex to clean themselves after weeks without a shower. They didn’t do that again.
Waugh’s beginnings with the military were modest.
After meeting two soldiers returning from World War II, the then-16-year-old Waugh resolved to hitchhike his way from his home in Bastrop, Texas, to Los Angeles to enlist in the Marines despite being underage. He got caught in New Mexico without identification and was jailed before his mother wired him the bus fare back to Austin. A lengthy lecture and a “firm belt-whipping” awaited Waugh upon arrival, alongside a mandate to get back in school, according to his book.
He enlisted in the Army six months after he turned 18 and earned his green beret in 1954.
“He wasn’t afraid of anything,” said his daughter, Leslie Waugh Hayn. “I don’t know anybody else like that.”
At times, Waugh’s commitment to his craft bordered on recklessness. He was the guinea pig for the first-ever High Altitude/Low Opening (HALO) jump in Vietnam, a practice in which soldiers leap out of an airplane at about 30,000 feet and wait to deploy their parachute until they’re under radar. It has since become commonplace in U.S. special operations. His ashes will be accordingly scattered in a HALO jump near Fort Liberty, North Carolina, on Saturday.
Waugh flocked to the world’s most dangerous military theaters over and over again, even when convention suggested he was too old. By the end of his 50-year career, Waugh had completed missions in 64 countries. He kept a map board with pins on each one.
One of the more notable pins was in Khartoum, Sudan, where the CIA sent him to hunt the world’s most dangerous terrorists in the early 1990s. From the driver’s seat of a Land Cruiser feigning engine problems, Waugh captured the first photos of Carlos the Jackal in a decade. When Waugh left Sudan, the Jackal — the world’s most wanted man at the time — was in French police custody.
Waugh would also do biweekly jogs around Osama bin Laden’s compound and his AK-47-wielding guard unit.
“Billy’s cover, in his very own words,” 24-year CIA veteran Enrique “Ric” Prado said, “(was) that of a crazy white guy from the U.S. Embassy jogging around the desert heat and pollution.”
His cover was effective. Waugh identified bin Laden’s white Mercedes and established a bamboo blind on a nearby rooftop to keep tabs on him. He recommended the U.S. government act sooner rather than later, and devised a plan to trap and kill bin Laden in an organized car wreck 10 years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He spoke Arabic with a Texan accent.
“How he got his excitement in life was the mission,” Lynn said. “And once the mission was complete, that’s when he had his high.”
Quite an adventure
Lynn and Billy got married after her ex-husband, a subordinate of Waugh’s, passed away in 2004. He originally reached out and visited to make sure she was “squared away” and was getting all the necessary support from the military.
“He wouldn’t go home,” Lynn said. “He just stayed. He kept finding excuses to stay.”
His at times overbearing tendencies got on Lynn’s nerves, but she eventually found a way to accommodate them by standing her ground to not get “swallowed up by that personality.” They stayed together for 18 years until Waugh’s death.
Waugh’s high-octane lifestyle was not always conducive to a stable family life. He was married four times before Lynn — once widowed, thrice divorced. He had four children, all from his first wife. Two daughters died in their 40s, one of a brain tumor and the other after a heart attack, and a son died at 15 from a respiratory complication. Leslie is Waugh’s last surviving child.
Leslie grew up on an Army base and would regularly go months without seeing her father, who was pinging around Vietnam at the time. She thought nothing of it, since every military family around her was experiencing the same thing. That was until Waugh came back to the U.S. as a result of the severe injuries he suffered in that rice paddy at Bong Son. The leeches were gone by then, but a series of infections almost led to his leg being amputated.
“Most people’s fathers don’t leave and then go get shot eight times,” Leslie said. Even fewer return to the front.
Even though he couldn’t divulge classified information, he was a great storyteller, Leslie said.
By the time he married Lynn, most of Waugh’s adrenaline-pumping exploits were behind him, but he stayed busy. He still yearned for the rush of the special forces. This was part of the reason he and Lynn moved from their home in Niceville to Lutz, to be near MacDill and the area’s thriving special forces community, she said.
Waugh was bored easily, Leslie said. He needed constant stimulation and a sustained aim to feel fulfilled, and did his best to scratch that itch in any way he could. For a while, he floated the idea of moving to The Villages, but Lynn thought he would get restless without the special forces and would miss interacting with his colleagues. They never moved.
In the early 2000s, Waugh made a habit of coming to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Liberty (then Fort Bragg) to teach upstart special forces leaders everything he learned across his 50-year career.
“He was unselfish with his time, and very unselfish about wanting other people to be as successful as he was,” Maj. Gen. Pat Roberson, deputy commanding general of Special Operations Command, said. “To me, that’s the mark of a true leader.”
Current special forces training programs feature extensive study of Waugh’s life and accomplishments, helping spread the legacy of a man colloquially known as “the godfather of the Green Berets” to a new generation. People outside military circles recognize his name, too. Leslie encountered one at a Blockbuster store in Austin. Lynn did with her rheumatologist, who has no military ties.
“It was quite an adventure to be married to Billy Waugh,” Lynn said.
Front and center at Waugh’s memorial service was a large portrait of the 5-foot-9-inch sergeant major receiving a badge next to a display with a green beret poised on a rifle and an empty pair of boots. Service members from across the special forces, including Fenton, took turns approaching the altar. Each raised their right hand slowly to their temple before silently making way for the next person in line.
The praise from Waugh’s eulogies was effusive.
“This is a man who’s a giant in our formation,” Roberson said. “He’s a giant in an organization that’s full of giants.”
“He was indeed, I believe, a purpose-built man,” retired Lt. Gen. John Mulholland said. “I think our good Father above saw a need, and He sent down to Earth this guy Billy Waugh to do one thing and one thing only, and that was to be America’s soldier.”
In his early 90s, wheelchair-bound and in the hospital, Waugh’s head was still on a swivel looking for escape routes, Fenton said. A holdover from his recon days.
“He’d surveyed the whole place,” Fenton said. “I walked in, I was expecting to get a perspective sketch with a north-seeking arrow and some little routes going to and fro.”
Lynn’s phone background features a photo of Waugh touching the corner of an American flag hanging outside their home. It’s an eternal reminder of her late husband’s dedication to his work and his country.
“He was born a leader and he was born a warrior,” Lynn said. “Nothing satisfied him more than those two things.”