The Special Forces Association 2018 Convention was held in El Paso, Texas from June 12-16, 2018. Every year Special Forces veterans belonging to the Special Forces Association gather in a different part of the country to reunite with old SF friends and to make new acquaintances. The event was planned, coordinated, and hosted by the SFA Chapter IX – also known as the Isaac Camacho Chapter located in El Paso, Texas. Most of the events of the Special Forces Association 2018 convention took place at the Wyndham El Paso Airport Hotel.
The convention featured many events and presentations that both entertained and informed the convention participants. The theme of the Special Forces Association 2018 Convention was a celebration of the Mexican-American Special Forces veteran. A number of legendary Mexican-American Green Berets were in attendance at the convention and a few of them shared their war stories and experiences in formal and informal settings.
Chapter IX provided an excellent opportunity to the convention attendees to learn more about and enjoy the wonderful city of El Paso, Texas. In addition, a total of 9 well-attended briefings and presentations took place in the hotel’s in-house theater. A description of the Special Forces Association 2018 Convention is provided below.
Tuesday, June 12th
The first day of the Special Forces Association 2018 Convention consisted of reception, registration, and welcome by the Special Forces Association National President Gary Koenitzer and Chapter IX Vice President Steve Franzoni. The hospitality room (open every day and evening) provided coffee in the morning, soft drinks, beer, and other beverages after noon time. Light snacks were in abundance.
Wednesday, June 13th
Many informative presentations were provided during the convention. The first was by Bob Delaney – providing an inspiring presentation about his life experiences to include his time as an undercover law enforcement officer who infiltrated the mafia gangs of New Jersey. Delaney would, after his career with the New Jersey State Police, become a book author and referee for the National Basketball Association (NBA). Delany is a PTS / Operational Stress authority and advocate and shared his thoughts about Post Traumatic Stress with the SF veterans in the audience.
Other speakers provided briefings on Special Forces related topics. A representative of USASOC’s Black Daggers gave an update on his parachute team’s activities supporting recruitment for USASOC. The outgoing and incoming commander for the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion (SORB) updated the audience on recruitment efforts for Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF).
One of the events held on Wednesday morning was a Golf Outing at the Butterfield Trail Golf Course.
Las Cruces Chapter 80 hosted an afternoon trip across the border to Santa Theresa, New Mexico where convention attendees were treated to a southwest style picnic – named “Whole Enchilada Picnic” – at the War Eagles Museum. The location featured numerous vintage airplanes spanning the military and civilian aviation sectors. The picnic was attended by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
Wednesday evening a showing of The Green Berets took place at the Historic Plaza Theater located in downtown El Paso. This is the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie that starred John Wayne, David Janssen, and Jim Hutton. Autographing photographs prior to the showing during a pre-show cocktail hour were some of the actors in the film. The actress that played the part of the mistress of the North Vietnamese general – Irene Tsu – was in attendance and signed numerous autographs. SGM (Retired) Fred F. Balderrama had played the role of ‘SGT Baldo’ and he posed with many of the attendees for photos. Bill Olds was present for the convention as well – he played the role of the North Vietnamese general who was taken captive and exfiltrated via Fulton Extraction.
Thursday, June 14th
A tour of the La Vina Winery in New Mexico provided some entertainment for the attendees. The vineyard is New Mexico’s oldest winery.
Rocky Bleier, the famous running back for the 1970s Pittsburg Steelers, described his hard-fought battle to rejoin the National Football League (NFL) after being wounded while serving in the Vietnam War. He detailed his physical recovery from wounds and his storied career in the National Football League. In addition he presented his thoughts on how to be successful in life. Bleier was in the Steelers backfield when he appeared in four Super Bowl games.
Mike Taylor, SFA / SOA member, provided an informative update on the status of the US government’s efforts to recover Missing in Action (MIA) service members from the Vietnam War. He recently returned from a trip to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam where he visited some of the sites where recovery efforts are underway. An account of his trip is provided in Spring 2018 edition of the The Drop. Mike is currently the Chairman of the Joint Special Operations Association / Special Forces Association POW / MIA Committee. He is also Vice President of the Special Operations Association.
Eugene Gutierrez, one of the last surviving members of the First Special Service Force, spoke to the audience about the training and operations of the FSSF during World War II. He initially joined the Army Air Corps specializing in parachute rigging and then joined the FSSF. The FSSF will be having a reunion this August in New Brunswick, Canada.
The afternoon and early evening saw the crowd enjoy a mesquite grilled steak dinner at the Cattleman’s Steakhouse at Indian Cliffs Ranch. A petting zoo, museum, and gift shop provided added enjoyment. The Army’s 243rd birthday was celebrated with the cutting of a cake by the youngest and oldest SF soldiers present. Music was provided by Cliff Seamans and the Country Classics.
In the evening back at the hotel a local western poet – Mike Querner – entertained the audience with his ‘cowboy poetry’ and then a DJ finished the night with music in the hospitality room.
Friday, June 15th
Attendees were afforded the opportunity do the El Paso Mission Trail Tour. The tour included visits to the Ysleta Mission, Socorro Mission, and San Elizario Presidio Mission.
An address to the audience by the commander of the JFK Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS) did not take place due to travel constraints (weather) experience by Major General Kurt Sonntag.
Mitch Utterback, a retired Special Forces officer, provided a briefing about the fight for Mosul earlier this year. Mitch had accompanied the ground commanders of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and Emergency Response Division (ERD) during the Mosul offensive. As a Special Forces officer he had previously advised both of these Iraqi officers during 2007-2008. Both the CTS and ERD were advised by U.S. Special Forces for many years. Mitch saw the results of that advising effort first-hand during his most recent trip to Iraq. An account of his return to Iraq is provided in the Spring 2018 edition of The Drop.
Vito “Tutuc” Cellini provided a brief on his life serving as a partisan in Yugoslavia and working with the OSS and SOE in Italy during World War II and his experiences after the war. Born in the United States but raised in Italy – Cellini was drafted into the fascist Italian Army during World War II. He deserted the Italian Army and joined Tito’s Yugoslavian partisans fighting the Nazis. He would later return to Italy where he worked covertly with the British Special Operations Executive and U.S. Office of Strategic Services. Present as well was Mick J. Prodger, a writer who has authored a biography of Cellini’s life entitled Cellini – Freedom Fighter. Cellini gave an engaging and humorous talk to the audience – he apparently has had a diverse and storied life! His book is published by Elm Grove Publishing.
The day ended with attendance at the El Paso Chihuahuas vs Nashville Sounds AAA baseball game – and then music and a gathering in the hospitality room.
Saturday, June 16th
The Vietnam Memorial Ceremony Excursion was cancelled due to inclement weather. The hospitality room was put to full use during the day with old friends exchanging war stories (many about Vietnam) and the making of new friends.
The evening brought a Cocktail Hour, the Annual SFA Banquet, and a Hospitality Room Disco Dance.
The 7th Special Forces Group commander – Colonel Patrick T. Colloton provided his thoughts on the current state of the SF regiment, training of Green Berets, and the extensive worldwide commitments of the SF groups.
The keynote speaker was LTC (Ret) William Luna – a historian, author, 12th SFGA veteran, and expert on Mexican-American military history. Sam Trimble played the National Anthem trumpet solo and Richard “Kinky” Friedman read his Fathers Day Tribute “The Navigator”.
The contributions by the convention sponsors were a big factor in the success of the convention. Local and national firms such as Walmart, Food City Supermarkets, GECU, T&T Staff Management, Hawthorn Suites by Wyndam, Pioneer Services, Heritage Distilling Co, Food King, Pepsico, Glazer’s Beer & Beverage, Economy Cash & Carry X-press, Hotel Paso Del Norte, Green Beret Foundation, Helen of Troy, River Oaks Properties, Sarabia’s, USAA, Special Forces Charitable Trust, Veterans United Home Loans, Fifteen VeMac Years, and others played a big role in the success of the convention.
As is the case with previous SFA conventions there were vendors present selling their goods. Books, photographs, T-shirts, baseball caps, rings, jewelry, and other SF related products were on display in the “SF Marketplace”. Vendors present included authors Jason M. Hardy and Stephen Sherman with books on display about special forces units and operations during the Vietnam War. The presence of the vendors in the hospitality room of the Special Forces Association 2018 Convention was a plus – providing the attendees with greater access to the vendors and the vendors more customers.
Gary Koenitzer, the president of the Special Forces Association, provided an update on the current status of the Association. He outlined some of the current and future initiatives of the Association and emphasized that the Association was growing with many new active Special Forces members joining the organization. There are currently 88 SFA chapters located around the world with over 10,000 active members. The Associations’s quarterly publication – The Drop – will continue to be published in its current form although there are improvements on the way for the magazine.
The Special Forces Association 2018 Convention provided the opportunity for friends to catch up with each other, learn more about the current status of the world’s conflicts and developments in the SF community, and for the SFA leadership to provide information on the status of the SFA. The overall message from the SFA officers is that the Special Forces Association membership is growing, the financial situation is sound, and the SFA national office and individual chapters are doing great work for Special Forces community and the nation at large.
There are already plans in the works for the 2019 and 2020 SFA conventions; with details to be announced later in the year. If those future conventions are as good as the Special Forces Association 2018 Convention held in El Paso then they certainly will be well-worth attending! The Special Forces Association 2018 Convention was a huge success due the excellent planning and coordination by the El Paso SFA chapter. Brian Kanof was the 2018 SFA Convention Chairman and he put a tremendous amount of time and energy planning and coordinating the week-long event. Chapter IX deserves high praise for their successful efforts with the Special Forces Association 2018 Convention!
Image credit: Top image from the SFA Chapter IX convention website.