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Robert Rheault, 87; colonel in Vietnam murder case started program to help veterans

Colonel Rheault walked with his wife, Caroline, and daughter Susanne after arriving at Logan Airport in 1969.

Associated Press/file

Colonel Rheault walked with his wife, Caroline, and daughter Susanne after arriving at Logan Airport in 1969.

Colonel Robert B. Rheault stepped off a plane at Travis Air Force Base in California on Oct. 1, 1969, free on US soil at last. He and several of his Green Beret subordinates had been jailed on charges of murder and conspiracy in the killing of an informant who was working for US forces, but was suspected of acting as a double agent for the North Vietnamese.

The Army had dropped all charges in the June 1969 death of Thai Khac Chuyen, who was killed after days of Special Forces interrogation. But the informant’s death initially was covered up, and when the story broke, it generated national headlines into the fall. News reports based on unnamed sources suggested that the Special Forces officers and soldiers were freed because the CIA refused to let anyone testify, and that the White House exerted pressure to drop the case.

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“I believe my honor has been cleared,” Colonel Rheault, who had taken command of US Special Forces personnel in Vietnam only a few weeks before the killing, told about 50 news representatives on hand in California the day he returned.

Asked how he wanted history to record the episode, he said he would “rather not see it recorded. It’s not a particularly valid historical incident. It better be forgotten as long as people remember that we were exonerated.”

At the end of that month, on his 44th birthday, he retired from the Army when officials refused to let him return to the job from which he had been removed: commanding the Army’s 3,000 Special Forces personnel in Vietnam.

Colonel Rheault moved to Maine afterward and worked for more than 30 years with Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, for which he set up a program to help Vietnam veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was 87 when he died in his sleep Oct. 16 in his Owls Head, Maine, home.

What became known as the Green Beret murder case was so murky that a few days after Colonel Rheault landed in California, a Washington Post reporter began “a bit of instant history” by explaining that it “should be read in light of the limitations of the art: It comes from sources who, in most cases, had an interest in purveying a particular version of what happened.” Candid in a way that was absent from other reporting about the incident, Robert G. Kaiser noted that his story “seems to be the most plausible explanation now available.”

Two years later, Robert F. Marasco, a former Special Forces captain, told reporters that he was the one who shot and killed the alleged double agent. Marasco said he also helped two other officers dump the body, in a weighted sack, into the South China Sea. He added that the killing was done at the behest of the CIA with the knowledge of “our chain of command,” which included Colonel Rheault.

Over the years, writers returned to the case in different venues. Jeff Stein’s book-length account of the incident, “A Murder in Wartime,” was published in 1993. Screenwriter John Milius told The New York Times in 1977 that he based the Colonel Kurtz character in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” in part on Colonel Rheault.

“Rheault is a great man,” Milius told the Times, adding: “I firmly believe that Rheault was framed.”

As for Colonel Rheault, he told Life magazine for a Nov. 14, 1969, cover story that the case never should have been prosecuted because it would have “been a travesty of justice to try dedicated soldiers for doing their job, carrying out their mission, and protecting the lives of the men entrusted to them in a wartime situation.”

He said he retired because he “didn’t want to become a bitter old fud of a colonel mumbling into my martinis about the star I should have had but never got.” Serving in the Special Forces, he said, was an experience “so great that it spoiled me for any other Army service.”

Robert Bradley Rheault grew up in Westwood, the second of three sons born to Charles Auguste Rheault and the former Rosamond Bradley. His father formerly served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and then became a financial counselor. His mother was from a prominent family, and Colonel Rheault’s name was listed in the Boston Social Register in 1969 while he faced charges.

As a teenager, he worked as a cowboy on Wyoming cattle ranches. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, he secured an appointment to the West Point military academy from US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

Colonel Rheault graduated from West Point and in 1947 married Caroline Young, with whom he had three children. Their marriage ended in divorce. Mrs. Rheault, who was known as Nan, was an artist on Martha’s Vineyard and died in 2006.

The Army stationed Colonel Rheault in places from West Germany to Korea. He was fluent in French, which he taught at West Point, and before taking command of the Special Forces personnel in Vietnam, he served a Special Forces tour there during the war. Colonel Rheault also had served on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and received a master’s in international relations from George Washington University, writing his thesis on the Kurds.

The family maintained a home in Oak Bluffs on the Vineyard and later lived in Brookline before Colonel Rheault moved to Maine and began volunteering with conservation organizations and working with Outward Bound.

“It took one of our nation’s true heroes and finest patriots and trashed his career and sent him in another direction,” his son, Robert Jr. of Wakefield, R.I., said of the incident that led Colonel Rheault to leave the Army. “Time and again we find that our nation’s warriors come back and become advocates for peace.”

At Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine, he served as an instructor, course director, program director, and acting president, logging more years with that organization than he served in the Army.

“He was a natural-born leader,” said Susan St. John, whom Colonel Rheault married in 1977, 36 years and a day before he died.

Colonel Rheault led Outward Bound expeditions, sleeping outdoors in conditions that often were wet and cold, until he was 77. “Not very many people can do that,” his wife said.

While he was with Outward Bound, she said, he created the program to assist Vietnam War veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and led them on excursions into New Hampshire’s mountains.

“I think his work with the vets was rather unique and it showed his insight into the military psyche,” his son said.

“He had two very different lives,” his son said, adding that while the Green Beret incident might define Colonel Rheault’s place in history, “I think he was a far richer individual than that narrative will tell you.”

In addition to his wife and son, Colonel Rheault leaves four other children, Susanne of Lincoln, Meesh Rheault Miller of Olympia, Wash., Nicholas St. John-Rheault, and Alexis St. John-Rheault; a brother, Charles Jr.; and grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 2 in Camden Opera House in Camden, Maine.

Inspired in part by his father’s explorations in northwestern Canada, Colonel Rheault liked to spend time outdoors skiing, mountain climbing, and hunting.

When he left the Army at 44, he weighed 160 pounds, his weight the same as when he was a West Point cadet. At 6 feet tall, he had the bearing and chiseled looks of a Hollywood version of a Green Beret.

The Life magazine cover story included a photo of Colonel Rheault out for his regular morning exercise run with his men while they were being held the Long Binh jail near Saigon in 1969.

“Challenge is what life is all about,” he told the magazine. “Without it, there is no meaning.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

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