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'Father John' Siebert was leader of Vietnam SEAL platoon

Staff writer

They were called the Men in Green Faces.

“They come from nowhere, they go nowhere,” says John Siebert of Florence, recalling the saying. “We’re just there, and then we’re gone.”

As a member of U.S. Navy SEAL Team One Delta Platoon, Siebert was among the most elite members of the military. The Viet Cong coined the Men in Green Faces moniker. For a 20-year-old Siebert, the nickname his platoon bestowed upon him was “Father John.” He was the youngest member of his platoon, but he was also its leader on combat patrols.

He celebrated his 21st birthday in April 1970, a year in which he was deployed in Kien Son, Vietnam, from Jan. 20 to July 13. He and his platoon stayed in a South Vietnamese army base with 30 soldiers, a medic, a radioman, and a lieutenant. As he recalls, his living quarters were essentially a barn made of tin; the platoon put wire mesh on the foundation to keep rats off them in their sleep.

They slept during the day, though. SEALs only operated at night.

“That’s when Charlie’s moving,” Siebert says, referring to the Viet Cong soldiers. “If you’re gonna catch him doing something, you need to be out there when he’s out there.

“We’d try to get back before daylight.”

In the dead of night, the Men in Green Faces communicated in silence.

“You knew who it was by the sounds they didn’t make,” Siebert said.

According to the letter that came with the commendation medal he received, Siebert went on 45 combat patrols, and engaged the enemy on 25 occasions.

Intelligence was part of it, but intuition was too. Siebert sometimes felt he was being watched while scouting a patrol route. He would go tell the lieutenant to change course, and the lieutenant would listen.

“I never led our patrol into an ambush, which is what you always fear,” he said.

Siebert himself took steel shrapnel from a mortar round to his right knee, which he removed himself before stitching the wound back up.

The medic suggested to Siebert to put him in for a Purple Heart. He declined.

“I only put about eight stitches in there, pulled it out and stitched it up myself,” he said. “Save that for the guys that are really wounded bad. I’d feel bad for getting a Purple Heart for a piece of steel in the knee.”

Pride also got in the way at the time. Siebert said a Purple Heart may have suggested he wasn’t doing his job as well as he could have.

“Our job was to mess up — that’s a good way to put it — the Viet Cong infrastructure, the VCI,” he said. “Our main mission was to capture guys, interrogate them, get information out of them, what was going on, supply routes, who was doing what. Then we’d turn them over to the Vietnamese for further interrogation.

“Most of them were supposed to go to prison, which was a joke. We captured one guy three times.”

About a month after he turned 21, Father John led the Men in Green Faces to a Viet Cong village. An attempt to capture the village chief seemed thwarted when he escaped the premises through a small tunnel.

Siebert followed the man through the small tunnel and, the commendation letter read, “chased the enemy on foot until he was overtaken.”

“They didn’t say how he was overtaken,” Siebert says. “I couldn’t run faster than him, but that bullet was faster than me.”

***

John Siebert graduated Marion High School in June 1968, less than 20 months before he was deployed to Vietnam.

His stepfather had been in the Air Force, so he had moved around in his youth — to Puerto Rico in fourth grade, then Columbus, Ohio, in eighth grade — before coming back home.

He was on the swim team in Puerto Rico, which equipped him with skills he’d use later in SEAL training and combat. He hunted, too. He had a beebee gun and would shoot at crows, sparrows, rabbits, and coyotes.

He never saw himself as college material.

“I was kind of a hellraiser,” he said. “I got decent grades in school, but I was patriotic. Our country was at war.”

He remembers in high school being one to intervene whenever he encountered bullying. He saw a similar situation in Vietnam.

“We probably shouldn’t have ever been there,” he said. “But there was an oppressed people there. We were able to stop some of that oppression, try to give support to people that couldn’t support themselves.”

Siebert is, in the words of his wife Marianne, “pretty beat up.” His walk is the jaunt of a crinkled man who’s had two back fusions, knee and hip replacements, and both rotator cuffs operated on.

He gets around still, albeit slowly. He’s ever the patriot — denim shirt on denim blue jeans, a red bandana, and white hair with bolts of blonde. His handshake is tough but soft, like quality leather. His sense of humor softens his hardened personality in a like manner. After a day’s work installing a fence on his rural Florence property, he pours himself a glass of whiskey on the rocks.

“To kill the pain,” he says.

Upon his return to the states after the war, he sold real estate for a couple years in California, then moved to Nebraska, where he managed a 600-head herd of cattle. Eventually he ended up in Marion County, back where he started, making a living as a bovine podiatrist, like his father and brother. A career of operating on the hooves of what he said was more than 250,000 bovines took its toll on his body.

His mind, however, is still quite sharp. In recounting his war days, Siebert doesn’t dive into gory details, preferring to refer to his combat situations mostly in euphemisms.

He understands that he killed people. He also understands why.

“You’re not there to kill people, you’re there to help people that can’t help themselves,” he said. “With that kind of an attitude, you can come home and you can sleep at night knowing what you did.”

He doesn’t hunt anymore. He and his wife share a love of horses, and they own several on their property. They also own chickens, cattle, and dogs.

His wife Marianne tells the story of a coyote puppy they found hit by a car at the top of a nearby hill.

“We both felt really bad about it,” she said.

Eventually, Siebert discovered there was another coyote pup. He said he was pretty sure it was twin to the one that had gotten hit.

Young John may have ran for his beebee gun. Father John, in his experience, opted for dog food.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Things change.”

Last modified Nov. 13, 2014

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