Maj. Gen. Michael Healy, Paragon Among Green Berets, Dies at 91
Posted April 27, 2018 9:34 p.m. EDT
Michael D. Healy, a highly decorated Army major general who became a paragon for Green Berets, especially when he led them in Vietnam after a scandalous murder case in 1969 had depleted morale, died on April 14 at a hospital near his home in Jacksonville, Florida. He was 91.
The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Jacklyn Healy.
Healy enlisted in the Army at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in 1945, when he was just 19. He served as part of the occupying force in Japan but did not see combat until years later, during the Korean War.
In Korea he became a company commander in the Army Rangers and participated in four major campaigns, often taking part in risky missions behind enemy lines.
He earned the nickname Iron Mike in 1951 after he parachuted into Munsan-Ni, a South Korean village, and managed to hold a critical hill in the face of withering enemy fire.
He joined the newly constituted Green Berets in 1953. Officially called the Army Special Forces, the unit, known by the caps the soldiers wore, was composed of soldiers trained in counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare techniques.
Healy arrived in Vietnam a decade later. He was initially the operations officer and senior adviser to the Republic of Vietnam’s Special Forces. Later, he organized mobile guerrilla strike forces made up mainly of indigenous fighters like the Hmong and Montagnards.
After a stint as a battalion commander, he graduated from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1968. The next year, he returned to Vietnam, where he took command of an infantry brigade. Soon, an international incident that came to be known as the Green Beret affair rocked the U.S. military.
Eight Special Forces soldiers, including Col. Robert B. Rheault, commander of Special Forces in South Vietnam, were charged with the murder of an alleged Vietnamese double agent. The charges were eventually dismissed, but Rheault retired anyway.
Green Berets in Vietnam suspected that Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, the commander of military operations in Vietnam who was rumored to dislike the Special Forces, was using the incident to undercut them.
In an article about the collective sentiment among Special Forces soldiers in 1969, Henry Kamm of The New York Times wrote: “The feeling is widespread that the Army hypocritically turned against the men actually involved in the death, which they think was ordered by the CIA, and charged them with murder, and that Colonel Rheault then said that actions taken by his men were his responsibility and challenged the Army to charge him with them.”
Col. Alexander Lemberes, who was not a Green Beret or a paratrooper, was appointed to replace Rheault as the unit’s commander, but his brief tenure did little to bolster morale.
That began to change, however, after Lemberes broke a bone in a parachute jump and was replaced by Healy, who was a colonel at the time.
Col. Jack Tobin, who at the time was a Special Forces sergeant in the coastal city of Nha Trang in South Vietnam, said Friday that he had known almost immediately that Healy would be a good leader for the Green Berets in Vietnam.
“He said, ‘I’m giving you a direct order: You are not allowed to die,'” Tobin recalled. “And one of the guys said, ‘What if we die?’ And he said, ‘Then I’ll be very disappointed in you.'”
Healy made sure his soldiers were adequately supplied and supported by higher-ups in Saigon, and even though Special Forces work was deadly by definition, he did all he could to protect his troops, Tobin said. As a result, he said, the Green Berets had more success.
“He made us so invaluable to Abrams that Abrams had to back off,” he said.
Healy commanded Special Forces for nearly 20 months, receiving a Distinguished Service Medal. He spent some months as an assistant division commander with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before Abrams asked him to return to Vietnam once again. He stayed until American combat forces were ordered out of the country in 1973.
He was awarded his second Distinguished Service Medal for the command.
Michael Daniel Healy was born on June 13, 1926, in Oak Park, Illinois. His father, Daniel, was a police detective, and his mother, Helen, was a homemaker. He graduated from a private preparatory school in Chicago before he enlisted.
He met Jacklyn Maddrix in Japan after the war, and they married in 1949. (Her father was a prosecutor there in Japanese war crimes trials.)
In addition to his wife, Healy is survived by their six sons, Dan, Michael Jr., Timothy, Sean, Kirk and Patrick; 10 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
After he returned to the United States in 1973, Healy took command of what is now called the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, where he trained the next generation of Special Forces soldiers.
In 1975 he became chief of staff of the Combined Military Planning Staff, Central Treaty Organization, in Ankara, Turkey. Afterward he assumed a command at Fort Sheridan, where his military career had begun decades before. He retired in 1981.
Healy’s many citations include two Silver Stars, three Legions of Merit, two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. In 2015 he was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment, the Green Berets’ equivalent of a hall of fame.