Billy Waugh: One old Soldier who refuses to 'fade away'

  • Published
  • By Nick Stubbs
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
For most old Soldiers, especially those past their 80th year, the glory days of service and sacrifice are long past.

Then again, Billy Waugh, 81, is no ordinary "old Soldier."

Waugh was a U.S. Army Special Forces legend whose career spanned several years of work with the Studies and Observation Group in the early days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (before the war officially began). He earned the Silver Star Medal, four Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts (at one point left for dead by the enemy), four Army Commendation Ribbons, 14 Army Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation. He was nearly 50 when he worked for the CIA during the Cold War, and later worked tracking and conducting surveillance on famed terrorists Carlos the Jackal and Osama Bin Laden, long before most knew the later's name.

Waugh was 71 when he participated in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, going into Afghanistan as a member of a CIA team there to topple the Taliban and Al Qaeda at Tora Bora.
That's right, 71, and now 10 years later the Tampa area resident hasn't slowed down a bit. Is he still working for the CIA? It might be hard to imagine, but then with Waugh, it's also hard to say. Like that bunny on TV that hawks batteries, he just keeps on going. His last parachute jump was just a couple of years ago at 79.

"If the mind is good and the body is able, you keep on going if you enjoy it," the energetic octogenarian said, leaning back in the swivel chair in the office of his Land O' Lakes home, where he's working on his latest book, an untitled piece about his days in Vietnam.

And he does enjoy it. On the road almost as much as not, he is an active guest speaker all over the country, some of his most enjoyable engagements addressing military members looking to join Special Forces.

After a slide show set to the "Ballad of the Green Beret" and peppered with old photos of his SOG team, images of long-ago operations and the battle hardened faces of the Green Berets who carried them out, there isn't anyone in the room who isn't aching more than ever to become a part of that history, said Waugh, who admits he's a great recruiting tool for the Army.

He keeps up the pace by working on his physical health, but perhaps most importantly keeps his mind engaged.

"Your mind is like your body," he said. "You have to use it or you start to lose it."

Waugh said he likes what he does helping educate and inspire, and he likes what he sees in today's young military members.

"These kids are sharp," he says of special ops recruits these days, adding that the evidence is in modern operations like the one conducted by Navy Seals to take out his old nemesis Osama Bin Laden.

Waugh drafted several plans to kill Bin Laden before the radical rose to terrorism infamy. He'd had him under surveillance for some time and knew his every move.

"I was within 30 meters of him," said Waugh, who added, "I could have killed him with a rock."

Waugh's proposals were ignored, and the rest is history.

His surveillance work on Carlos the Jackal did pay off, proving instrumental in his capture in Sudan in 1994. Waugh chronicled that part of his CIA career in his book, "Hunting the Jackal," co-written by Tim Keown.

Though a highlight of his career, helping capture who was then the most wanted terrorist in the world was just a chapter in Waugh's life. It was his time in Vietnam, where he "was allowed to be a Soldier," that his most cherished memories were born, and where the bonds of brotherhood with fellow Soldiers were forged for a lifetime. They routinely reunite, the most recent event held earlier this year in Tampa, which featured a ceremony and parachute jump at U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill.

"Our operations were small units, well behind enemy lines," said Waugh of his Vietnam service. He and his team were their own support on the ground, and the danger was as thick and the jungles they slogged through.

He recalls it as a time when the Air Force perfected "tactical air strikes."

Following targeting information provided from the SOG teams like Waugh's, aircraft carried out precision attacks on strategic targets.

"It took them a while to get the hang of it, but those guys (Air Force pilots) were good and they got very good at what they did."

An old jungle "snake eater" who these days opts most often for the Reuben sandwich at the Bay Palms Golf Club on his regular visits to MacDill, Waugh says his goal is to keep contributing as a speaker and advisor as long as he has something to offer. It's about service to country, but he admits it is much about the difficulty of winding down from a larger-than-life career as anything.

"Once you get used to that (a life of adventure), you're not about to quit," he said smiling. "How could you want to do anything else?"