(AP) Retired Army Col. David Hackworth, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who spoke out against the war and later became a journalist and advocate for military reform, has died, his wife said Thursday. He was 74.
Hackworth died Wednesday in Tijuana, Mexico, where he was receiving treatment for bladder cancer. He lived with his wife in Greenwich, Conn.
A Newsweek correspondent during the Gulf War, Hackworth worked in recent years as a syndicated columnist for King Features, often criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war.
“Most combat vets pick their fights carefully. They look at their scars, remember the madness and are always mindful of the fallout,” Hackworth wrote in February. “That’s not the case in Washington, where the White House and the Pentagon are run by civilians who have never sweated it out on a battlefield.”
Hackworth ignited a national debate last year when he reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used a machine to sign condolence letters sent to the families of fallen soldiers. Rumsfeld later promised to sign each letter by hand.
“Hack never lost his focus,” said Roger Charles, president of Soldiers for the Truth, a California-based veterans group that Hackworth chaired. “That focus was on the young kids that our country sends to bleed and die on our behalf. Everything he did in his retirement was to try to give them a better chance to win and to come home. That’s one hell of a legacy.”
Orphaned before he was a year old, Hackworth was raised in California by his grandmother and in foster homes. He became a merchant marine at the age of 14 and lied about his age to join the Army in 1946 when he was 15.
Hackworth gained a reputation for blunt talk when, as a teenage private in Italy, he told Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The chow stinks.”
At 40 he became the youngest full colonel in Vietnam, where he served for nearly six years. He won some 80 medals in his career, including two Distinguished Service Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, and eight Purple Hearts.
His unsparing criticism of tactics and doctrine continued throughout his 25-year career. It culminated in 1971 when he appeared on ABC’s “Issues and Answers” show. He told a national television audience that the Army’s Vietnam tactics were not unlike the food he had in Italy.
It was one of the first times a senior officer had publicly spoken out against the Vietnam War, and the Army unceremoniously retired the man who had been told a few months earlier that he was virtually assured promotion to brigadier general.
“I was brokenhearted because the Army was my family,” he told The Associated Press in 1990. “I loved it.”
He gave up his medals in protest and moved to Australia, where he made millions in a restaurant business and a duck farm.
His medals were reissued by Brig. Gen. John Howard in the 1980s and he returned to the United States around the time he published his best-selling autobiography, “About Face.”
“Writing the book had driven the devil out of me,” he said. “I was able to heal myself.”
He decided to channel his energy into pushing for reforms and streamlining the military, saying “the American people are tired of being ripped off.”
Hackworth’s other books include “The Vietnam Primer” and “Hazardous Duty.” His latest was “Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts.”
He came under fire because of his role in a 1996 Newsweek investigation of whether Adm. Michael Boorda wore medals for valor that he did not deserve. Boorda, the Navy’s top admiral, committed suicide rather than face disgrace, and some in the Pentagon blamed Hackworth.
Then, CBS reported that Hackworth may have worn a “Ranger” tab he did not earn. An audit by the Army’s chief of awards and decorations found he was issued the Ranger tab improperly, but that he should have been issued other medals and was not. There was no indication Hackworth wore any medals beyond those issued him by the Army.
He is survived by his wife of eight years, Eilhys England, a stepdaughter and four children from two earlier marriages, the family said.