Friday, November 9, 2007

Retired and far from battle, war still this vet?s life

Ketchum resident Dick Couch turns experiences into books

Express Staff Writer

US Navy photo courtesy of Dick Couch Veteran Dick Couch stands outside Camp Marc Lee, the SEAL compound in Ramadi, Iraq, named after the first SEAL killed in the war-torn nation.

At 5 feet 6 inches and 155 pounds, Dick Couch probably wouldn't strike most people as a onetime Navy SEAL, whose daring, elite volunteers are customarily portrayed as big tough guys with bulging muscles. Nor does Couch live up to Hollywood's mythic image of a CIA agent, which he also was for four years.

Body size belies Couch's physical prowess, however.

He was first in his SEAL class's demanding training, first at the Navy's underwater swimmer's school and first in his class in the risky free fall High-Altitude-Low-Opening (HALO) parachute technique used to stealthily drop special operations units into enemy country.

As final proof that size is relative, Couch led an audacious SEAL raid on a Communist Vietcong prisoner-of-war camp to rescue American GIs. No Americans were there, but Couch and his SEALs did rescue 19 Vietnamese soldiers.

Still as wiry and fit as he was 40 years ago as a 1967 U.S. Naval Academy graduate (but now gray-haired), and modestly self-styled as "an average SEAL," Ketchum resident Couch has turned his Vietnam-era years with the SEALs and four years with the CIA into a full-time career as a writer of books. Understandably, his themes involve SEALs and Army special ops soldiers, terrorists, war and the surreptitious life he knew before retiring as a Navy captain.

In all, Couch has written six novels and six non-fiction books—remarkable output for an author who wrote a novel in 1991, then took a hiatus before writing the next 11 works since 2001. One of those, the critically praised "Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Soldier," was the product of Couch virtually living with troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., for an up-close experience with Army Green Berets in training.

For his books, Couch chooses research in the real life-and-death world of combat troops: He wrangled visits to Iraq last year for background on "Chosen Soldier," then just this summer to be with Army units winning over tribal Iraqis and driving al-Qaeda out of Ramadi in Anbar Province, often cited by President Bush as an example of progress in the war against terrorists, for his new book, "The Sheriff of Ramadi."

The "sheriff," Couch said, is Army Col. Sean McFarland, a fortyish professional who defied traditional military doctrine by using 5,500 Army and Marine troops, 2,300 Iraqi troops and 30 SEAL snipers to flip Ramadi from defeat into victory by winning over neighborhood by neighborhood.

As Couch's book details, more than 1,000 insurgents there were killed, a third of them by SEAL snipers, whose ranks took relatively heavy losses—two SEALs killed and many wounded in the heavy close combat.

When his manuscript is completed, Couch hopes his 1967 Annapolis classmate, just-retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace, will write a foreword.

Predictably, Couch is a man of opinions about Iraq. His views are grounded not only in his years in the military, but his trips to Iraq where he talked extensively with troops engaging insurgents and senior officers, plus continuing to remain close to active military officers.

He's "cautiously optimistic" about the potential for victory over insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq, calling the unhorsing of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein a "noble undertaking."

But Couch is no Pollyanna. He's severe in his condemnation of U.S. political and military leaders (he didn't mention names) who, he said, were "criminally negligent" in not planning for the deadly insurgency that erupted after the invasion.

As a result, he said, the American public got "tired" of the war because of ambiguous objectives, costs and bloody casualties.

"We're good at big wars and small wars," Couch believes. "But medium wars (such as Iraq) kill us."

He's also concerned about a new wartime phenomenon—the "bigger gap between warriors and the people they serve." Military families are about the only public group directly involved.

But Couch says he has high regard for the competence of the top U.S. officials in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ray Crocker, whom he said are "smart guys who know what's going on." He also is high on today's SEALs—"far and away better trained and more professional than we ever were."

Of the current domestic political debate over torture of captives as a tool, Couch said, "Torture doesn't get you anywhere. Beating somebody is pretty crude and not effective." This is not rhetoric: Couch trained in interrogation techniques at the CIA.

A skilled interrogator can obtain proper intelligence information from enemy detainees without torture, Couch insists. He denounced the scandalous treatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison as the result of "a lack of leadership."

What works in interrogating captives in Iraq, according to SEAL interrogators, is "preparation and knowledge of the geographic area; respect and courtesy; observing customs; compassion and empathy, and asking the right questions."

Editor's note: Veterans Day is Sunday, Nov. 11.

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