Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Betty Vanderwielen

Force Recon – A 27-Year Adrenaline Rush


Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

James Sackett has no pictures of himself in his "cool" Marine uniform. They were all burned in a fire. He is equally proud of being a firefighter. Here he poses in his Seeley Lake Fire Department uniform.

SEELEY LAKE – Seeley Lake resident James Sackett joined the U.S. Marine Corps straight out of high school. Why the Marines? "Because I thought they had the coolest uniforms," he said. By the time he mustered out 27 years later, that uniform was filled with medals.

In a more serious vein, Sackett said he joined the military because he hoped that would keep his brother safe. Though brother Jerry was two years younger and twice Sackett's size, he was not a fighter. Sackett said he had fought Jerry's battles for him all his life. He hoped the U.S. Sole Survivor Policy would mean that Jerry would not be drafted, or at least not sent into combat. It didn't work. Jerry was later drafted into the Army and lost his life fighting in Vietnam.

Sackett chose to enlist in the Marine Corps rather than another branch of service because his uncle Luke, who was a Marine, had always been a big influence in his life.

He said his uncle told him, "In the Marines you get the best training. They're the toughest and the meanest and the orneriest SOB's there are." Sackett figured, "That's gotta be me."

Boot camp training at Parris Island, Raleigh, S.C. was tough. Sackett felt he was particularly singled out because of his small size. So he went AWOL. He said he was one of only three recruits who ever succeeded in escaping from the island. He was caught on the mainland and returned for court martial but the general was more interested in learning how Sackett had succeeded in doing the apparently impossible.

After Sackett demonstrated how he used the steam pipes and hand-walked under the bridge between the island and the mainland, the general said, "Anybody who is that damn sneaky, I have a job for in Vietnam."

Traditionally Marines graduating boot camp go into the infantry. Sackett graduated into the reconnaissance division. He received reconnaissance training at Fort Lejeune and later was also trained as a paratrooper and a scuba diver.

As part of the Third Force Recon, Sackett was sent to Da Nang, Vietnam, which became his base of operation for missions into Cambodia, Laos and other hot spot areas during the Vietnam War. He served three 13-month tours in Vietnam.

Sackett said by that time he had discovered he loved being a reconnaissance Marine and decided to make a life career out of it. He subsequently served in Desert Storm, the Gulf War, the Liberation of Kuwait, in Beirut, and as Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of Guerilla Warfare in Panama. The latter position he held until he retired in 1994. Along the way Sackett earned a chest-full of medals.

He joked, "You oughta wear 'em sometime. They'll tip you over."

Aside from medals earned for outstanding service of one kind or another, he received seven Purple Hearts – which means he was wounded in combat seven times, five times in Vietnam and twice in Beirut.

As Sackett expressed it, "Those Purple Hearts, it hurts to get one. I've been shot three times and I've been blown up four."

In Vietnam, Sackett was shot in the leg, just above his boot. He said, "It whipped me around and dropped me in the rice paddy. I dug that one out myself. Put a battle dressing on it and called it good."

Another time a bullet grazed the top of his head. He said, "I was a little woozy. Took a couple of weeks to get over that one. Still have migraine headaches from it."

In the third shooting incident, the bullet lodged against a bone in his arm. "They didn't remove it," he said. "They just put a battle dressing on it and said, 'Go on back to work.'"

Thirty years later, he began to have pain in his shoulder. When it got so bad he couldn't raise his arm any more, he went to the Veterans Administration Medical Center-Fort Harrison, in Helena, Mont. They extracted an AK47 bullet. It had traveled up his arm to lodge in the muscles in his shoulder and was pressing against a nerve.

Concerning the incidents when he was blown up, Sackett said he's still dealing with shrapnel from those. Many of the pieces of shrapnel he takes out himself. He said the shell fragments migrate outward where they show up as small pimple-like bumps on the skin. He scratches until he works the metal closer to the surface, then he digs the metal piece out with his knife.

One of the shrapnel incidents took place in Beirut, Lebanon, when Sackett was part of a team sent to rescue American hostages. Negotiations had deteriorated and three of the 16 hostages had already been killed. A first Force Recon rescue attempt had resulted in a helicopter crash with all the crew and the Recon team killed. A second co-op team was formed, a mixed team of Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Forces, Green Berets and Force Recon Marines. Sackett was one of those Marines. The group trained together for two weeks, then time ran out. Word was that the hostages would be executed the next day.

The team boarded a submarine, were taken within three miles of the coastline and then shot out of the torpedo chutes - which Sackett called "fun." They swam the rest of the way and entered a drainage culvert. From there they made their way to the schoolhouse where the hostages were being held. The ensuing fight resulted in three of the hostages and eight of the rescue team being wounded (including Sackett), but all hostages and team members made it back to the ship alive.

The injury Sackett didn't get a medal for, but is still suffering from is Agent Orange. Sackett said he was sprayed with the toxic chemical numerous times. His exposure to it has resulted in numerous skin cancers, including eye cancer, he has had 40 percent of his lung removed and is now suffering from bone cancer.

He is waiting to get an appointment with an oncologist to find out what his options are. Currently, efforts are focused on finding a medication that will help him manage the pain.

Sackett said, "I'm to the stage now to where it's just a matter of time."

When Sackett retired from the Marine Corps, he and his wife traveled around and eventually wound up in Wyoming where Sackett became involved in wildland fire fighting.

"You can't have all this adrenaline rushing through your body for 20-some years and then just stop," he said.

His Marine parachuting experience made him a perfect candidate for the smoke jumpers. He was a forward observer, a position that has since been discontinued because of the danger involved. As a forward observer, Sackett would parachute in front of the fire, assess the situation, and call in the slurry bombers where required. Sackett said on three occasions he had to take cover under his fire emergency tent as the fire surged over him.

Sackett and his wife moved to Seeley Lake in 2005 and he promptly joined the Seeley Lake Rural Fire Department. He trained and worked as both a firefighter and an EMT. He estimates he probably responded to close to a thousand calls.

Sackett said, "I love my fire department, just like I love my Marine Corps. Those people down there, they give a lot. Most people don't understand the commitment that it takes. I just want the people of Seeley Lake to know that their little fire department is dedicated and very loyal to this community. Each and every member down there deserves a good pat on the back and a thank you."

As to his feelings about the Marine Corps, he said, "The Marine Corps to me was one continuous high. It was an adrenaline high and there's nothing in this world that can come anywhere close to an adrenalin high. No drug on earth, no booze, nothing will ever come close. If you can imagine being a rowdy, bad boy type guy, and getting to do all the fun things you always wanted to do - that was Force Recon for me. I jumped out of airplanes at 10,000 feet. I rappelled out of helicopters at 400 feet. I was doing water insertion – that's where the helicopter flies along the water and you jump out into the water. To me, that's what the Marine Corps was. I was always training. I learned and later taught people how to survive with just a pocket knife. I just loved it."

Despite his medical issues, Sackett said, "I have no regrets. Well, I do regret some of the things that I had to do. Some of them haunt me to this day. I do suffer from PTSD. I have nightmares, of course. But all in all, if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it just like I did."

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Sackett has two shadow boxes displaying the ribbons and medals he earned during his career. The medals in his Vietnam box are surrounded by Marine patches identifying him as a Staff Sergeant, a Force Reconnaissance Marine, and a member at various times of the 3rd, 1st and 2nd Marine Recon Divisions. Those patches contain the words "swift, silent, deadly." The two badges at the top of the service ribbons certify Sackett is certified in scuba diving and as a paratrooper. In describing the medals, Sackett starts at the bottom and works his way to the top, proceeding right to left. The Expert Pistol and Expert Rifle Marksmanship badges are the Marine's highest weapons qualifications awards. Above those are the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, awarded by the South Vietnamese Government for support of operations in Vietnam; the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry Medal, awarded by the South Vietnamese Government in recognition of heroic conduct in combat; and the Vietnam Civic Actions Medal, in recognition of outstanding achievements in Vietnamese civil affairs. In the row above them are medals awarded by the U.S. The Vietnam Service Medal, recognizing Sackett served during the Vietnam War; the National Defense Service Medal, for serving honorably during a period designated a national emergency and the Good Conduct Medal in recognition Sackett completed three consecutive years of honorable and faithful service. Above that are the Purple Heart with a star, recognizing Sackett got shot in battle five times; the Navy Achievement Medal with a Combat V (for Valor) for outstanding achievement; and the Marine Commendation Medal for valorous actions in direct contact with an enemy. The top two medals are the Bronze Star Medal with a Combat V for heroic service in a combat zone and the Silver Star Medal with a Combat V for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States. Sackett has another shadow box for his combat medals from Beirut. It contains another Silver Star and a Purple Heart with a small star, signifying he was wounded twice in Beirut combat.

** Editor's Note run in the Aug. 2 issue regarding this article ~ by Andi Bourne ~ After reading the article on Seeley Lake veteran James Sackett in the July 26 issue of the Pathfinder, some readers found it hard to believe he had earned seven Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and one Bronze Star along with several other badges and medals during his 27-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Furthering the skepticism, it was printed his days as a Marine ended in 1984 yet he served in the Gulf War. The Pathfinder printed 1984 in error. Sackett retired in 1994 and did serve in the Gulf War.

Regarding the medals, a 27-year Army veteran pointed out that Sackett couldn’t be found on any Google search as a Purple Heart recipient.

In fact, there is no comprehensive list of Purple Heart or Silver Star recipients. All of the listing websites we could find were not complete lists. Veterans must voluntarily submit their name and the proper documentation to be listed.

Sackett did however present to me his DD-214 after being asked. It listed his dates of service 1966-1994, statement of service, as well as all of his medals and badges, of which included seven Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, one Bronze Star and the many others.

While it was a surprise to many that we have such a highly decorated Marine among us, it was not a surprise to us at the Pathfinder. In our experience most veterans are very humble about their service and Sackett is no different.

It was after learning that Sackett was a Marine Corps veteran at the Memorial Day ceremony this year and hearing his extensive list of awards read at the pinning ceremony for the Seeley Lake Fire Department in June that we pursued him to do an article.

Never once has a veteran come to the Pathfinder and asked us to do a story on them. Often it takes many requests to get them to agree. Then we have the pleasure of listening and documenting their story as they remember it decades later.

Sackett and the other veterans we have highlighted don’t see themselves as heroes. Instead they say they were just doing their duty to this country and did the job they were trained to do.

For that and all the sacrifices our veterans have made, we thank them! It is a privilege to share their stories.


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