Memories of blood, sweat, tears, courage and character were the focus of attention at Woodside Plantation Country Club Friday afternoon, with one of Aiken's most prominent Army retirees celebrating his 90th birthday in the presence of friends and family members from around the country.
Tom Gaffney, a Woodside resident who joined the Army at age 17 and wound up receiving Three Silver Stars over the decades, was the subject of a variety of stories shared by his military brethren, mostly from the 506th Airborne Infantry (101st Airborne Division), whom he accompanied through some of the hottest points of America's involvement in Vietnam.
Gaffney, who was born in Honolulu in 1929 (when Hawaii was still a territory), retired as a captain. He also served in Special Forces, as a Green Beret, and was part of an honor guard protecting the casket, in November 1963, of President John F. Kennedy. Gaffney became an accountant after his military years, and he and his wife, Carolyn, moved to Aiken in 1998.
On hand for Friday's celebration were veterans now living in Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois and Washington, D.C., and ready to express thanks to (and for) the man who helped them stay alive and advance against the enemy.
"These guys couldn't do anything wrong," Gaffney said, after listening to a string of stories from his former brothers in arms. "Everything I told them to do, they did right, so I'm real proud of them, and I'm really, really proud that they came here to honor me on my 90th birthday."
Army retiree Tom Gaffney, at center (wearing a vest), is the focus of attention Friday afternoon at a party honoring him on his 90th birthday.…
Looking back to late January 1968, he shared some memories from the Tet Offensive, one of the highest-profile clashes in the Vietnam conflict. "All of our lieutenants were wounded. There's three of them here tonight. The other one died from natural causes later on, after the war," he said.
"We went over there and we spent a year. We were very active during Tet," he said, pointing out that his company made the first contact with a rifle company from the North Vietnamese Army Jan. 31 – Tet's first day.
"We eliminated that company. That's how good they were. Captured the company commander and political officer."
Regarding the Kennedy connection, Gaffney said, "I was on an honor guard at President Kennedy's funeral. There were 40 of us (associated with the funeral), in Special Forces. Jacqueline Kennedy was the one that requested us. President Kennedy thought the world of us, and we thought the world of him, and so it wasn't hard to get volunteers, so we went up there and spent all three days."
Gaffney was a master sergeant at the time. His media interaction, over the years, included an interview with CBS under the title of "JFK's personal connection to Army's Green Berets."
The CBS story noted, "All the armed services took part in the funeral procession, but none felt a greater loyalty to their fallen commander-in-chief than the Army's Green Berets. Just two years before, the young president had endorsed the beret and the Special Forces who wore it. Tom Gaffney was there that day in 1961 when JFK visited Fort Bragg, N.C."
The future Aiken resident was "part of the demonstration the president had come to see – everything from the far-fetched down to the nitty-gritty," CBS' report noted.
Army retiree Tom Gaffney, a Woodside resident whose career included receiving three SIlver Stars and serving as a Green Beret, tunes in for a …
Gaffney's top soldiers were assigned to orchestrate a mock ambush for the president, and Gaffney was familiar with the concept. A handout from Friday's gathering noted, "He trained units of the Korean Army, the Laotian Army, the new Germany Army and elements of the U.S. Special Forces destined for ... Congo in Africa and even for insertion into Cuba."
Recalling the demonstration offered to Kennedy, Gaffney said, "They presented him with a green beret, and when they did, he said, 'Wherever this beret is worn, there will be freedom in the world.' The next day, we not only had green berets but a regulation on how to wear them, so that shows how much power the president's got, and so I was an initial recipient of a green beret."
He spent six years in Special Forces, but most of his time was spent "in the airborne infantry with these guys," he said, gesturing toward the men around him Friday afternoon.
Gaffney's affiliations are now with such organizations as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the 101st Airborne Division Association.
Gaffney's son, Tim, expressed thanks to those who helped organize Friday's gathering, acknowledging "a brotherhood born out of sacrifice and service to your country."
He also added some humor to the occasion, reflecting the fact that he knew his dad mostly as a Veterans Administration accountant – albeit one with a spectacular military record and characteristics appropriate for someone with such a background.
"Let me share with you what I knew, as a child, about an accountant. Accountants were the most fearsome force on the planet. Accountants were physical specimens, always ready for action. They worked out three times a week, knew martial arts and knew a lot about weapons.
"An accountant could smoke a cigarette, run five miles, and then smoke another cigarette. Truth. Accountants didn't need ladders. They could just jump off the roof. That was a practice at least one neighbor hurt himself trying to emulate, in the neighborhood, and when accountants get angry, they double in size and volume – terrifying, still."
The retired captain's awards and qualifications, aside from three Silver Stars, included a Bronze Star, three Air Medals, six Army Commendation Medals, four Amy Good Conduct Medals, a World War II Victory Medal (he joined the Army just before the war's end) and the National Defense Service Medal, among several others.
Friday's handout, referring to Gaffney, noted that "his service record reads like a compendium of U.S. military hotspots – experiencing combat in wars in Korea, Laos and Vietnam and less-known conflicts in ... Lebanon and the Dominican Republic."