In the publishing world’s search for authenticity, they often procure the names of writers who have been there and done that, but generally being a great soldier does not make one a great writer. Because of this, we end up with a slew of ghost-written mish-mashes of fictional memoirs and non-fictional novels. However, a relatively unknown author named L.H. Burruss broke the mold long before the world ever heard of the late, great Tom Greer who wrote under the pen name Dalton Fury. Lewis “Bucky” Burruss may not have been to all of the rodeos during his time as a career Army officer, but he went to quite a few of them. Jokes aside, Bucky served in “Mike Force” with Special Forces in Vietnam. After the war he was sent on an exchange to the UK and completed British SAS selection before Colonel Charlie Beckwith tapped him to come help stand up Delta Force in the late 1970’s where he then served as A-Squadron Commander and later as Deputy Commander of the unit.
Bucky (referenced as “Buckshot” in Beckwith’s Delta Force memoir) wrote an incredible non-fiction account of his time with “Mike Force” in Vietnam. Unfortunately, not many have read the book but it stands in a league of its own alongside other Green Berets who also happened to be exceptional writers like Jim Morris and John Stryker Meyer. I’ve read a lot of SOF memoirs and I have read a lot of Vietnam memoirs as well. “Mike Force” would easily make my top three. After writing about his experiences in Vietnam, Bucky turned his eye towards fiction and has written a number of novels in the espionage and military thriller genre. Honestly, I have had some Special Forces soldiers tell me that Bucky’s book about Mike Force is exceptional but that they never really cared for his fictional works. Having read his novel “A Mission for Delta” I would beg to differ and will explain why.
Also, as a fair warning, I will be covering pretty much the entire plot of the novel in this review so if you don’t want to read spoilers, hold off and come back to read this after you finish the book. I figure that since the book is fairly obscure and since it was published in 1991 that you have either read it or you haven’t. Hopefully this review gets some folks interested in tracking the book down and taking a renewed interest in it. “A Mission for Delta” is a hidden gem of a book, one that will make you question some of the things we have been told about contemporary history, and one that will make you wonder what the hell was really going on during the Reagan years.
“A Mission for Delta” takes place against the backdrop of the twilight years of the Cold War and the on-going Iran-Contra hearings. At Fort Bragg Delta operators are taking their seats, preparing for a mission brief. Just about everything at the unit is compartmentalized, with teams working their own independent operations. While they know that their teammates are running ops as well, what they may not know is that their missions are actually inter-connected with one another, playing towards the same end game. Throughout the novel, two men will quietly meet for a side bar outside of official briefs, the CIA director and Delta commander hashing out their own plan, and then only briefing part of that plan while only two or three people in the world know the full scope of the actual mission.
Sergeant Major Matt Jenson walks up to a cork board where Delta’s intel officer had just thumb tacked a picture to. He recognizes the face, but saying nothing. Stoic, seasoned, and professional, Jenson plays his cards close to his chest, just like everyone else. Jenson and so many other Delta operators in the novel have their origin story (if you will) in the Vietnam War. Jenson goes as far as to describe himself as a creature of Vietnam at one point as his experiences in MACV-SOG were so formative. The Delta commander himself had been a part of the Phoenix Program.
As the mission brief begins, Colonel Garret (the Delta commander) informs the small group of men that no one outside that room is to be told of the mission and that their operations officer (Major Ames) was just returned from the White House where he received the mission from the National Security Council. Of interest, is that this implies that the Pentagon is cut out of the chain of command and that Delta is taking orders directly from the White House. In real life, Delta’s chain of command was a point of contention. The unit was stood up to tackle POW rescues behind enemy lines but policy makers were primarily concerned with hostage barricade and tubular assaults (aircraft hijackings) scenarios at that time. The order to send troops into a foreign country to conduct counter-terrorism missions is inherently political. With guns held to the heads of hostages, demands being made, and the clock ticking, the assault element needs a streamlined chain of command. However, what we are told in the literature is that Delta works for the Secretary of Defense and the White House. In this case, the SECDEF is nowhere to be found and the unit is taking orders from “Rollie” who is a NSC advisor and even the CIA director at times. More on that later.
Jenson’s target is Emilio Ramirez AKA Raul Valenzuela who is on the lam in El Salvador. Jenson then lets it slip that he served with Valenzuela in MACV-SOG where he disappeared on a mission “across the fence” in Laos. What Jenson keeps to himself is that the mission was the recover a small canister of plutonium taken from the university reactor at Hue City shortly after the Tet offensive. Valenzuela was known to be a sneaky son of a bitch who was good in the woods. Back to reality, about 50 MACV-SOG men are still unaccounted for in Laos and Cambodia.
Now Valenzuela has re-emerged after being missing for decades. Intel suspects that after being captured and left behind in South East Asia by his government that he was indoctrinated into communist ideology. Jenson is to hand select a small group of operators and lead a mission to El Salvador to capture Valenzeula alive. Ames states that the intel on Valenzeula came from the CIA rep at the White House and we can assume it is the agency that wants him brought in and interrogated for intel gathering purposes. After Jenson comes up with a plan, Ames then has to travel back to the White House to get final approval. Take note of that, mission orders and details are communicated verbally and in-person. No paper trail, no audio recordings, no evidence.
Jenson opts for a small eight-man team to go in for the snatch and grab in El Salvador. Colonel Garret gripes that if the Joint Chiefs of Staff planned the operation that they would have sent, “a Ranger battalion, two SEAL teams, and half the damn Air Force.” That’s a gripe that continues to this day actually. The author then walks us through the planning, intelligence gathering, logistics, and tactics of how American SOF operators run a clandestine operation which makes for some fascinating reading. I think this is why some readers felt that Burruss was not a great author, it can be dry at times as real life combat operations do not unfold like they do in the movies. Burruss doesn’t cut corners, nor does he dumb it down the way most authors do in order to be more mainstream or commercial.
As Jenson and his team prepare to infiltrate El Salvador, we are also introduced to Captain Rachael Brown who is assigned to Delta’s “administrative detachment.” This would be the infamous “funny platoon” or G-Squadron within Delta, known by others as “the harem.” These are female intelligence operatives who undergo tradecraft training and are put through CQB training by operators so that they know how to defend themselves if shit goes sideways. Together with Major Ames, they fly into Honduras and began preparing the backside logistics for Jenson’s team.
As Sergeant Major Jensen and his boys hit the ground and prepare to kick some ass for the US of A, we need to backtrack for a moment to another real life sidebar. Who is this rogue Green Beret named Valenzeula? In order to understand this curious plotline in “A Mission for Delta” we need to take a look at a real life Green Beret named David Baez.
Baez grew up in Nicaragua where his father was killed in an uprising against Somoza. As he got older he began taking up his father’s cause and his family feared for his life so they sent him packing to live with relatives in the US where he eventually became a citizen and joined US Army Special Forces in the 1970’s. His entire family back in Nicaragua was supporting the Sandinistas while the US government was involved in all sorts of fun and games supporting the Contras, leading into the Iran-Contra scandal. After separating from the service, Baez apparently joined up with the Sandinistas and began training a Nicaraguan commando unit alongside Cuban advisors. Suffice to say, the trail gets murky from there.
Did Baez go rogue and become a renegade ex-Green Beret working for the communists? Was he really a double agent working for the CIA all along? Much like George Washington Bacon who served in MACV-SOG prior to going freelance and being killed by communist forces in Angola while fighting alongside FNLA in the 70’s, it is very difficult to ascertain if he was in the employ of the U.S. government or if he was working as a mercenary.
In “A Mission for Delta” Matt Jenson and his men take Valenzeula/Baez alive, but then he is shot when some Cuban HIND-D gunships show up, causing him to bleed out and die. However, they do manage to take his pregnant girlfriend off the objective. What happened to Baez in real life though? In 1983, about 90 communist guerrilla fighters infiltrated into Honduras with Baez and an American guerrilla chaplain named Carney. One source told this author that the guerrillas were more like Honduran mercs rather than communist ideologues, which may be why their fighting formation came unglued so quickly. Some of the mercs defected, others were run down and killed in the harsh Honduran jungles by local U.S.-trained Special Forces units.
In 2004, a memoir called “Inside Delta Force” was published by Eric Haney. He claimed in the book that he was assigned the mission to hunt down and kill the Honduran merc unit by the CIA station chief, but was not told that Baez was a member. Like the fictional Matt Jenson who served in MACV-SOG with Valenzeula, Eric Haney attended Delta Force selection with Baez. Haney claims in the book that he personally shot and killed Baez. Bucky Burruss has vigorously refuted this account, stating that Haney nor any other Delta operator killed anyone in that firefight. Others have also affirmed that it was a Honduran Special Forces mission that did not include U.S. advisors.
Like Valenzuela in the novel, Baez left behind a pregnant wife. What really happened to Baez we may never know, but when the same plot line shows up in “A Mission for Delta” (1991) as well as in “Inside Delta Force” (2004) and then we juxtapose it with what we do know about Baez, it is a safe bet that something went down in Honduras in 1983. How Delta Force may have been involved remains unclear. It seems that the Honduran jungles are remiss to give up their secrets.
After Matt Jenson’s team shoots down a HIND, has one operator KIA, as well as their primary target killed, they then exfil out of country on a Delta aircraft ostensibly covered as belonging to the Green Beret parachute club on Fort Bragg. Brown and Ames have a brief punch up with a hostile intel service in which Rachael gets her first kill. Traumatized by the event, she hooks up with Ames after their debrief at the Stockade, Delta’s then-headquarters. Jensen wakes up as they land on the airstrip at Camp Mackall where Q-course students are trained. This is also the location where Burruss and Beckwith completed some of Delta’s final validation exercises in the late 1970’s, taking down simulated hijacked airplanes.
Jensen has been having nightmares before landing at Mackall, nightmares about being left behind in Vietnam the way Valenzeula was. Here, the Delta Sergeant Major is humanized a bit and we see what he truly fears. It isn’t just the fear of being left behind in an enemy POW camp, but the guilt of believing that teammates were in fact left behind. The fact that Valenzeula’s corpse is loaded on the same airplane and that Jensen even spoke with him before he died proves that troops were in fact left in South East Asia after the war. This is a keystone issue throughout the novel.
Years later, when he read a newspaper article that said Beckwith had a sign on his desk at his Texas-based security company which read, “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” he had been disappointed in the man he now considered his mentor. He wrote him a scathing letter, and one of the former Delta officers who worked with Beckwith, Wade Ishimoto, told Sadler that when Beckwith read the letter that he replaced the sign. The most precious thing on the face of the earth is a human life.” -Excerpted from “A Mission for Delta” by L.H. Burruss
With Valenzeula dead, it is decided that Delta and one expert from NEST will begin the hunt for the improvised nuclear device which is suspected to be somewhere in the U.S. A Spanish-speaking operator will begin working to win the trust of Valenzeula’s girlfriend, while a small team is put together to snatch Hakim Nidal (obviously based on the real like Abu Nidal who also had an interesting relationship with the KGB as does his fictional counter-part) who has left Lebanon and is vacationing in Cyprus as it is suspected that Valenzeula was going to sell Nidal the bomb, meaning the notorious terrorist may have additional information that could lead the Americans to the weapon.
Meanwhile, Delta’s operations officer embarks on a ad hoc not quite legal counter-intelligence mission in Washington D.C. as it becomes apparent that classified information is leaking from Congress. At one point, Delta’s commander even grumbles about how his unit keeps coming under investigation despite it being clear that his operators are not the ones leaking sensitive information, but rather the leaks come from politicians. In reality, a journalist named David Martin wrote a rather revealing article about Delta’s mission into Iran in 1980 dubbed Operation Rice Bowl/Eagle Claw. In the Newsweek article Martin writes that, “(Dick) Meadows and another member of Beckwith’s staff, Capt. Lewis (Bucky) Burruss, were dispatched to Washington to draw up an emergency rescue plan, to be used if the Iranians started killing their hostages.”
In “A Mission for Delta” Delta’s operations officer named Dave Ames laments that some damn journalist outted his name to the public in an article about Eagle Claw, calling out Martin by name. Ames believes this makes him too compromised for undercover work. It comes off as a bit of a inside joke between friends. Dave Ames seems to be a stand in character for Burruss and David Martin offers a blurb on the back of the novel about what a great writer Bucky is. The real life references continue throughout the book, with Charlie Beckwith and Wade Ishimoto, who served as Delta’s first commander and intel officer respectively, named in the lead quote to this article. Others are presented under thin aliases such as Schumann (Walt Shumate), Mel (Mel Wick), Birdie Sadler (Barry Sadler), and of course there is a Marine officer on the National Security Council named “Rollie” who is none other than Oliver North.
In real life, it is worth taking a look back at the early years of Delta Force. Counter-terrorism was a new field, tactics were being developed on the fly, developing the inter-agency processes needed to successfully conduct these operations were in their infancy, and considering the myriad of potential threats, a unit like Delta had to be prepared for anything. Delta’s Naval counter-part, SEAL Team Six probably felt the same way. In an interesting aside, it is rumored that Dick Marciko made Bucky Burruss the villain in one of his novels, of course using a different name.
In real life, Delta Force participated in a training exercise called Gold Junction in June of 1982 which saw the unit challenged with gaining access to an airplane, air traffic control tower, and a tractor-trailer which were protected by high end security systems and to then defeat a simulated improvised nuclear device (IND). Two other NEST exercises followed at the Nevada Test Site and the Idaho National Energy Laboratory in which Delta Squadrons had to assault guarded objectives and then secure the simulated IND. These types of exercises continue to this day and no doubt influenced the plot of “A Mission for Delta.”
Back in our novel, Rachael Brown, a female operator charged with intelligence gathering missions tracks Nidal. Clad in a bikini as the pool, she positively identifies Nidal and his security detail at a hotel in Cyprus. Throughout the novel, we see Rachael as a tough, determined, and smart officer who wins over even some of the more skeptical Vietnam veteran operators. On the other hand, Rachael also lives up to the stereotype that women are only good for passing around the team room as she seems to have little issue with jumping the bones of whichever operator she happens to be on a mission with on multiple occasions.
While Dave Ames is back in D.C. and after bugging a congressmen’s office, he discovers that the secretary is the leak who is passing information to a German spy who is in turn working for the Russians. The devious and experienced CIA director finds out that Ames slept with the secretary and figures they should deal the Delta officer back into the action, and flip both women, turning them into double agents. This results in several amusing ménage à trois scenes in the book.
Delta’s Sergeant Major, Dick Salem, and his men snatch up Nidal after killing his bodyguards in Cyprus. This is another area of operations that Delta was familiar with in real life, as the unit used the island as a staging area in the past. But there is a problem now, Matt Jenson back in D.C. has followed the leads and discovered the IND that Valenzeula left behind with a long timer attached to it. Secreted away in the cafeteria of the capital building, it is set to go off just as the president is giving his State of the Union address in a few days. Now that they have found the bomb, there is actually no use for Nidal.
The director of the CIA (Jason Moore) has hushed conversations with the Delta commander in the White House. Nidal can’t be brought back to the United States for a trail, it will be a media spectacle and Nidal’s supporters will raise hell. Moore comments that he wishes that the Delta commander was there since he had served in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam implying that he knows how to get his hands dirty. Colonel Garret can’t in good faith issue his Command Sergeant Major (Salem) an illegal order in Cyprus. Yet, sends him an encrypted message using peer pressure and eluding to what must be done. Rachael Brown actually receives the message, takes it to Salem, and then while he is reading it, she unholsters her pistol and puts it to Nidal’s head, who is now tied up in the back of a van. She squeezes the trigger and blows his brains out, feeling that as a officer the execution is her duty and should not be a burden for the enlisted men to carry. Salem is surprised and feels that Rachael should not have done that, but respects her for it.
There are those who have speculated in the War on Terror that JSOC has really just become a proxy force of the CIA, who are the ones who really pull the puppet strings. I’m not so sure that I believe that, but every so often one has to wonder.
Rachael has a physical reaction each time she kills someone, and even hardened operators like Matt Jensen feel that killing a person is the worst experience in life. It is interesting and worth mentioning that Burruss brings out this theme several times throughout the novel. As a young Mike Force officer, Burruss is no doubt acquainted with the grisly world of combat and killing. He doesn’t relish it or wish to brag about it though, feeling that killing a man is about as horrible a thing as can ever be done, even when it is what has to be done. This is an interesting and accurate perspective, but one that you will not likely hear in today’s world of false bravado and machismo that encourages veterans to brag about how many kills they have. As a country, it makes one wonder if our morality has undergone a drastic shift over the decades. We’ve always killed, but now we seem far more accepting of it as soldiers.
Back in D.C. Ames has a series of hilarious experiences with the girls before successfully flipping them. Matt Jensen has found the bomb, but now has to figure out how to remove and defuse it without alerting anyone. Only a handful of people in the entire world know about the mission as not to alarm the public. Moore and Garret brief the president, a stand in for Reagan who displays his trademark “aw shucks” attitude throughout, commenting on the great work his boys do and how patriotic they are.
At this point two Delta EOD experts fly in from Bragg. One of them is a operator named Mark Vinson who is quite clearly a stand in for the real life Sergeant Major Mike Vining, a Vietnam veteran who passed Delta’s Operator’s Training Course. Together with Jensen and a Secret Service agent detailed by the President, they sneak the IND out of the capital building and put it on a plane where Vinson defuses it. The Delta men want to dismantle the bomb and drop in into the ocean but are stopped by the wily CIA director who has another big idea.
This is just the first improvised IND, but there will be others the director tells Garret. With two Russian intelligence agents recently flipped, the Russians fooled into thinking that they might have Valenzeula alive, Nidal killed, and a live IND in their hands, the United States is sitting on a golden opportunity, a way to leverage the situation into forcing the Russians to cooperate with America to fight against nuclear terrorism, and to stop working with nut cases like Nidal. Vinson is ordered to leave the bomb unarmed but to reassemble it and bring it back.
Director Moore and Colonel Garret cook up the crazy plan and pitch it to Matt Jensen, the quiet professional, the quintessential operator. He agrees to it, but on one condition. Colonel Garret must use all of his power to try to force the U.S. government to bring back any soldiers left behind in Vietnam. The Colonel agrees and Matt Jensen is off to Berlin as it is revealed that he has previous experience there and speaks German.
As the novel concludes, it really becomes about Special Forces Detachment A rather than Delta Force. Det A was a small group of Green Berets stationed in Berlin who had the urban unconventional warfare mission. In the event that the USSR invaded, they would blend in with the civilian population and conduct acts of sabotage, knocking out key infrastructure that would stymie the Soviet advance into Western Europe. After, they would attempt to escape and evade back to friendly lines, but all the Det A members knew that it was a suicide mission. The Det is never mentioned by name in the novel, but the author was no doubt aware of them as he was also a Special Forces officer. Furthermore, Delta Force had a small contingent of Det A members with them during Operation Eagle Claw.
Jensen, Rachael, and the CIA director’s right hand man are the only three people involved in the operation. They manage to get the IND into Berlin using diplomatic sealed pouches but a new problem emerges as Jensen has come down with the flu. Rachael again takes the lead as Jensen is trying to sleep off a fever. Using latex gloves that simulated Valenzeula’s fingerprints (lifted from the corpse still in deep freeze at Delta’s compound at Bragg) they reassemble and arm the IND. Rachael runs recon around Berlin and finds a canal where the bomb can be inserted into East German territory using SCUBA gear.
In reality, there was a program called Green Light in which Green Berets would parachute into enemy territory with miniaturized nuclear weapons which would be used to destroy key infrastructure and delay enemy actions. Again, it was a suicide mission for the team and thankfully they never had to deploy a actual weapon. However, Det A was at one point tasked with figuring out a way to insert a nuclear device into East Germany, just as Rachael does in the novel. The female Delta operator buys some civilian SCUBA gear and Jensen (as the qualified combat diver) swims the device out into the river even as he is nearly depleted from his fever.
Dropping the device under the bridge, Jensen starts back but falls unconscious as he releases his weight belt. Rachael sees him belly up in the river, swims out to get him, and drags him back into their van. Keeping their covers intact, she brings him to a hospital then reports back to the CIA officer at their safe house. Meanwhile, information is leaked to the double agents that Ames turned (and then turns over control of them to the CIA of course) while the CIA director meets with his KGB counter-part in D.C. to tell him that they have intelligence that Valenzeula and Nidal planted a IND in Soviet territory.
Before the timer on the device counts down, Soviet divers pull up the IND from under the bridge and disarm it. Reagan gives his State of the Union address. Rachael accepts a date with the CIA director’s deputy, the U.S. government announces that it will continue looking for POW/MIA’s in South East Asia, and Matt Jensen sits at home watching much of this on the news with his wife and two young daughters.
The book lives up to its title, this was a mission for Delta.
Colonel Burruss insists that “A Mission for Delta” is simply a work of fiction and should not be seen as anything more.