Retired U.S. Army Maj. Harlan “Rip” VanWinkle planned to pursue a career in forestry after graduating from high school in 1958, but growing up in the tiny town of Iredell, about 90 miles north of Fort Hood, the 17-year-old found he was not prepared for college life.
“Colorado State University at that time was about the third-best forestry school in the nation, so that’s where I went,” VanWinkle explained. “I just didn’t do very well. I did learn how to play bridge, drink beer and there were a few more girls up there at Fort Collins than there were in Iredell.”
After winding up on academic probation early in his sophomore year, VanWinkle headed back home, not knowing what to do next, but sure that going to school was no longer part of the plan. That decision didn’t sit well with his father, and before long he found himself joining the military.
That was Jan. 13, 1960, and back to Colorado for basic training at Fort Carson, then advanced individual training at Fort Hood, followed by airborne school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and on to the famed 82nd Airborne Division.
In 1963, he applied for flight school, but wound up going to Officer Candidate School instead, and after a tour at Fort Hood, then Special Forces training back at Fort Bragg, he went on to spend 11 years with Special Forces, including time with the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Special Operations Group (MACVSOG), a highly classified, multi-service unit that conducted covert combat operations prior to and during the Vietnam War.
VanWinkle, one of 11 central Texas veterans honored recently by Congressman John Carter for service to the country and the community, served a total of 20 years, four months, and 13 days in the Army, retiring as a major in 1980. Of all that time serving all over the world, he says probably his most memorable experiences were in Vietnam.
“The place where I thought I did the most good was in MACVSOG, because as far as the media were concerned, we were still winning the war then,” the 78-year-old father of two, grandfather of two, and great-grandfather of two, said. “I always felt like we were doing something right, and I still feel that way.”