By Peter B. Gallagher

ST. PETERSBURG An administrative decision by the Regional Office of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has cleared the way for the late Seminole Indian war hero Charlie Steel Gopher to receive the full burial benefits denied him and his family for the past 38 years.

“In the eyes of the VA, Charlie received an honorable discharge,” said Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Bureau Chief Marc McCabe, who spent nearly four years and thousands of miles of travel battling with both the VA and the U.S. Army to reverse their decision. “Now we just have to wait on the U.S. Army to follow suit.”

The VA originally decided against Gopher’s appeal in early July, and then, reversed their own decision the next day without comment. McCabe said fear of the potential intervention of U.S. Congressman C.W. Bill Young and VA Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki may have forced Smith’s hand: “There is a lot of validity to that reasoning,” McCabe said. “She was the victim of a two-frontal attack. Here was The Seminole Tribune asking questions and getting ready to interview Congressman Young and there I was on my way to Washington to drop this whole case right on Gen. Shinseki’s desk.”

 Congressman Young is a longtime supporter of veterans’ affairs and a member of both the powerful Committee on Appropriations and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. He is also Chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense. Gen. Shinseki is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served during the same years as Gopher and is a survivor of a land mine explosion that blew off part of his foot.

“Gen. Shinseki is a Vietnam combat veteran, and she knew I could get an audience with him,” McCabe said. “Congressman Young approves the VA budget. The last thing these VA bureaucrats want is the U.S. Congress and the VA headquarters calling them up.”

Gopher, an untreated victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, received an other-than-honorable discharge in 1974 after numerous desertions that were initially covered up by the Army, which kept confining him, restoring his status as a Team Leader and returning him to the front lines throughout his nine-year military career. (Read Gopher’s tale on page 7A.)

Then, the desertions were used against Gopher in denying his family U.S. Army benefits. McCabe recently filed a 32-page appeal (to upgrade Gopher’s discharge) with the U.S. Army. It was quickly denied.

“They said the veteran himself had to be there,” said McCabe, shaking his head at yet another turn of events. “I jumped on a plane and went to Washington, D.C., walked in and said, ‘How stupid are you people? Didn’t you read my report? The veteran is dead.’”

McCabe, a Vietnam veteran himself, said he has no idea how long it will take the U.S. Army to rule.

“It’s very difficult to get the Army to reverse a decision made so long ago,” he said.

McCabe works from an office embedded in the St. Petersburg Regional VA headquarters, but he answers to no government authority. He travels each week to the Brighton Veteran’s Building to counsel and assist Seminole veterans in recovering the benefits owed them – more than $3 million so far.

“No group was more mistreated by our military than American Indians after their service,” he said. “I’ve got more work than a whole office of people could handle just right here among the Seminoles.”

Rita Gopher McCabe, who was just an infant when her father died, approached Marc McCabe (no relation) when he began his counseling trips to Brighton. Her compelling story about her father gripped him, and he dedicated much of his time during the last 18 months to the Gopher case.

“It all looked like something that just was never going to be able to happen,” Rita McCabe said. “But Marc and his staff are so smart. I know they will not give up.

“When we finally got my father’s records, all the battles he fought and the medals he won, it was like a slap in the face the way he was treated. It was shameful. I felt like this is my dad and if I or my sister don’t do something, the connection to him will just get less and less and less.”

Marc McCabe and the VVA traveled to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to pick up the medals that were awarded – but never given – to Gopher. They are being arranged in a shadow box and will be presented to the family with the flag at a ceremony around Veteran’s Day.

“At least that is the plan right now. A lot of people want to attend from all over the country,” Rita McCabe said. “Hopefully, the Army will have made their decision by then as well.”

 

Classified Army papers tell Charlie Steel Gopher’s tale

Personal documents and classified U.S. Army documents that were hidden for more than 38 years piece together the account of Charlie Steel Gopher’s military career. The documents reveal an astounding timeline of heroic battlefield service mixed with mysterious desertions, all manipulated by an Army anxious – at all costs – to keep a top soldier on the front lines.

Gopher entered this world on Nov. 7, 1943 in a remote South Florida chickee, one of 10 children born to Maude and John Henry Gopher. He spent most of his life on the Brighton Reservation and worked as a ranch hand in the Seminole cattle industry. He graduated from Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma in June of 1965, one month after the first U.S. Army Division left for the Vietnam War.

During the 10 years of the Vietnam War, numerous Seminole Indians enlisted for United States military service, more than at any other time in the Tribe’s modern history. In fact, American Indians across the country comprised the largest per capita military service of any ethnic group – including whites and blacks – during the Vietnam era. Military recruiters, fighting an unpopular draft, concentrated on an impressive cache of strong, dedicated Natives more than willing to defend their country.

In this regard, Gopher was no different than most of his Tribe’s men. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on Nov. 9, 1965 – five days before Ia Drang, the first battle between the U.S. and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) – and was shipped off to basic training in Fort Benning, Ga.

It was the beginning of a wild and tragic military ride for Gopher, nine years full of incredible heroism and mystery that reflects the heartrending horror and confusion that marked America’s controversial Vietnam experience. Quiet, he kept to himself and, friends and family said, never discussed his exploits on the battlefield.

By all accounts – statements from those who served with him and the list of medals he was awarded – Gopher was a powerful fighting machine, a fierce warrior trained in all types of warfare, including hand-to-hand combat. He was known throughout the Army, which kept moving him from Vietnam combat unit to Vietnam combat unit, wherever the danger was greatest and the fighting fierce. He was a paratrooper, an M60 machine gunner and spent most of his career as a Team Leader. Three months after walking off the bus at Fort Benning, he was promoted to Private E-2; two months after that he was promoted to Private First Class E-3; and a month after that was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge. Two months later, he was airborne to Vietnam with Company A, 1st Battalion, 12th Calvary of the 1st Air Calvary Division – the famed “All the Way Brigade.”

A month after walking into the Vietnamese swamps, he was promoted to Specialist E-4 and made Team Leader of his unit. A month later (Oct. 2, 1966), he and his men fought the Battle of Hoa Hoi, one of the war’s most vicious confrontations. A month later, his entire unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in combat actions; Gopher was awarded the Individual Air Medal for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.

Gopher never actually received any of his medals.

There was no time for ceremony. His unit was dispatched to Kim Son Valley for what would become, by most accounts, the most ferocious campaign of the entire war. Some 32 American soldiers were killed and 120 wounded by a surprise NVA ambush. Mike McCoy, who served with Gopher at that battle, provided the Gopher family with a colorful narrative portraying Gopher as the hero who stayed in his foxhole, “head popping up and down” and firing his weapon to cover soldiers as they retreated to escape sure death.

At one point, McCoy said, a grenade exploded next to Gopher’s hole.

“I yelled for Charlie but no answer,” he said. “Five minutes pass and no Charlie. I curse a blue streak, and the guys thought the [NVA] killed Gopher. No way he could have taken that blast and lived. We are all fighting like hell and no longer care about survival. It’s just how many can we kill before they get us. I stand up to see and start pounding the gun positions with my M79. I couldn’t care less if they whack me now.

“Suddenly, Charlie pops up, gun blazing, and we are all elated. He is bleeding from the ears and nose but alive. No doubt, the concussion had knocked him out. I believe Charlie’s actions prevented the NVA from overrunning us and killing us all.”

Gopher was never the same after that event. The next time his mother saw him, “she knew something was wrong. He was different,” said daughter Rita Gopher McCabe, who said her father was never awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries under enemy fire.

Known throughout the Army for his heroics on the battlefield, Gopher was promoted to Sergeant E-5 on Feb. 13, 1967 and awarded another Air Medal. By this time, there were nearly half a million U.S. troops overseas, an increase from the 60,000 that were there when Gopher enlisted. As the Vietnam Counteroffensive Phase III began, he was made Team Leader for Company C, 3rd Battalion, 325th Infantry.

After four more months of fighting, his Commanding Officer (CO) called him in and offered him a deal. The Army would give him an honorable discharge after only two years, six days service (instead of the required three full years for enlistees) in return for his immediate re-enlistment for a six-year term. There was a raise in pay and a bonus involved as well. On Nov. 14, 1967, Gopher signed both honorable discharge (Convenience of the Government) and re-enlistment papers.

Years later the Army would deny benefits due to him from the honorable discharge. The reason: He did not serve the required three years.

Two weeks after he re-enlisted, on Dec. 2, 1967, he walked off his post, absent without leave (AWOL) for the first time. He was gone 28 days. There is evidence he found a flight back to the States and went home to Brighton. Then he flew back, walked through the jungle and resumed his duty. No explanation. Two days later he went AWOL again, this time for eight days. While he was gone, the Army officially declared Gopher a deserter. He would be arrested on sight.

But when he came back, he was restored to full duty and made Team Leader again. The bloody Tet Counteroffensive was about to begin, and they needed Gopher and his machine gun out in the field. He won another Combat Infantryman Badge “for actions against an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam.”

“That’s basically what it was. Charlie was such a great soldier that they were willing to overlook his other problems,” Vietnam Veterans of America Bureau Chief Marc McCabe said. “He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and instead of receiving treatment, they sent him back out to the front lines – the worst possible move they could make for a person in Gopher’s condition.

“They used to call it ‘battle fatigue,’ but it was just not a typical diagnosis back then. Whatever. Charlie Gopher was a classic case; he had all the markers.”

Five months after the award, Gopher disappeared again. He was demoted back to Private and was gone for 78 days, much of that time spent in military jail. When he got out (Dec. 10, 1968), he was made Team Leader again and sent back out to the front lines. Two days later, his team received the Presidential Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism. Eleven days after that, he was AWOL for seven days. A month after that, he took off for three days and the Army began taking money off his paycheck. But they made him Team Leader again.

On May 23, 1968, he left again, this time for 74 days, according to official U.S. Army records. He was declared a deserter a second time. He was demoted again. But in the middle of his desertion, he showed back up on the battlefield, they threw him his weapon, made him Team Leader for Company A, 3rd Battalion, 50th Infantry and sent him back out to the front lines of the Tet 69 Counteroffensive with his team.

When they came back from the front, the Military Police (MPs) were waiting for him. He was thrown in the brig for 126 days (during which time he assaulted three soldiers, was demoted all the way back to Private E-1 and sentenced to 60 more days hard labor).

But on Dec. 19, 1969, the Army suspended the hard labor and restored Gopher to full duty as a Rifleman for Company B, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry.

“There was a war to fight and no one could do it better than Charlie Gopher,” McCabe said. “They didn’t want their top fighting machine pounding rocks in a prison yard.”

For the next six months, there is no record of any odd behavior on Gopher’s part. Then in June of 1970, his CO told him he was discharged by the Army. Gopher left immediately for Brighton, not bothering to pick up his discharge papers, as the CO suggested. At least that’s the story Gopher told an FBI agent nearly four years later, when the government tracked him down at the Rollins Ranch where he was working near Brighton. In fact, Gopher was so sincere that the agent decided not to arrest him. The agent called the next day and confirmed that Gopher was cleared and would get his official discharge papers soon.

Two weeks later, at 6 a.m. June 3, 1974, two Army trucks filled with MPs drove up to the ranch and hauled Gopher to jail. A ranch supervisor named Bill Vines wrote a letter of complaint (that made it to U.S. Army Command headquarters in Washington, D.C.) accusing the Army of harassment.

On July 17, 1974, after an Army physician examined him and found no psychiatric issues present, nine years and three months after enlisting, Gopher was officially discharged from active duty under other-than-honorable conditions.

He had served three years, 11 months, 29 days of active duty, almost every day of that time on the frontline battlefield during the most violent battles of the 10-year Vietnam War. Gopher won the Combat Infantry Badge, two Air Medals with a V, the Parachutist Badge with three Overseas Bars, the Vietnam Service Medal with five Bronze Stars, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Leaves. Regiments he led won three U.S. Army Presidential Unit Citations (Battles of Ia Drang/Kim Son, Pleiku and Hoa Hoi), the Vietnam Civil Action Honor Medal and the Valorous Unit Award for Operation Fish Hook.

He saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers with his trademark M60 machine gun. Day in and day out, he fired that gun from foxholes, hills and jungles for hours as return fire bullets and grenades flew by his eyes.

“He was without a doubt a true warrior,” McCoy said. “He could move through the jungle without a sound. He had tracking skills that few others could ever hope to have.”

Gopher never sought treatment or claimed any medical condition; after suffering the concussion at Kim Son, he was back on the ground fighting two days later. Military records indicate he said he never experienced excessive worry or depression.

Nearly two months after his discharge, at 2 p.m. on Sept. 13, 1974, Gopher hung himself at his home in Brighton. His war was over.

The Army and Veterans Administration refused to provide a military funeral. His family was refused all burial benefits, including the flag and the official Vietnam medallion for his headstone in the remote Ortona Cemetery.

Gopher was 30 years old.

Seven months later, Saigon fell and Charlie Gopher’s other war – Vietnam – was finally over.