Special Ops guys come in all shapes and sizes.
When you look at Fred Arooji, you think you are looking at a kindly grandfather. Standing about five feet six inches, weighing maybe a 160 pounds and sporting gray hair that has long resided on his scalp.
Arooji is all that, but he is also a guy who entered Iran ahead of an American hostage rescue attempt in April 1980, survived on his own for two weeks after the mission was aborted, escaping only by his wits. A guy, who would become a Special Ops pilot, help pioneer night vision goggles technology, and fly hundreds of Special Operations missions during his more than 30 years in Special Operations.
The hostage rescue mission in Iran became known as Operation Eagle Claw and the mission planners would have to bring in unique talent from throughout the Department of Defense. One skill they were looking for was Farsi language speakers.
“Shortly after the embassy in Iran had been overrun by so called students, and at that point some sixty Americans were being held hostage, we quickly found the need to have some Farsi speakers or Iranian Americans,” retired Army Lt. Col. Bucky Burruss, an Eagle Claw participant said. “We searched DoD and one of the ones we interviewed was a young Airman named Fred Arooji and pretty quickly we recognized that he was someone special.”
Born in Iran, Arooji immigrated to America as a child and enlisted in the Air Force in 1971. He served as an avionics mechanic for RF 4 Phantom jets when the call came out for Farsi language speakers. Intrigued, Arooji went through the interview process not knowing the reason DoD was looking for Farsi speakers. Making it through the interview process, Arooji was selected for Eagle Claw.
“I went through all kinds of training, and months later General James Vaught (overall Eagle Claw mission commander) called me in his office and asked me ‘Are you ready to travel?,’” Arooji said. “I said yes and he said ‘OK son, go and get your tickets to Tehran.’”
“It was decided that we needed to send in an advance party to do last minute reconnaissance and Fred, as a native Iranian, had the tongue, had the eyes, the ears, and had the sense of things happening in Iran, so we asked him to be part of the advanced party,” retired Army Capt. Wade Ishimoto and Eagle Claw planner said.
Vaught would be the overall commander, but the commander on the ground would be Special Operations legend Army Col. Charles Beckwith. Arooji’s first meeting with Beckwith was testy.
“I was with Captain Bucky Burruss one day and Colonel Beckwith walks in the room, big guy, huge, he had a real raspy voice,” Arooji said. “He looked at me and said ‘That beard, that looks good, don’t shave that beard.
“Colonel Beckwith turned to walk away, stopped and looked at me and said ‘I’ll tell you what son, while you’re here, you keep your mouth shut, you understand?’ I said yes I do. He looked at me again and said ‘No, you don’t understand, this is my country, I love my country, and I am not going to let any son-of-a-bitch destroy it, so you keep your damn mouth shut while you are here and if I ever find out you are talking too much I’ll put you in a jail, or you will never see the sun again.’”
Arooji continued, “I stepped two or three feet toward Colonel Beckwith, I looked him straight in the eye and told him, ‘sir, you know what the difference is between you and me?’ He said ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘the difference is you were lucky, you were born in this country as an American, I earned mine and I love it just as much as you do.’ He looked at me and said, ‘We’ll see,’ and turned and walked away. I thought I was going to faint. Bucky turns to me and says ‘Hey Freddy, he really likes you.’”
Later that day, according to Arooji, Beckwith would approach him in the chow hall and give him a big hug and tell him “You know what, you are a true American.”
Arooji joined another Special Operations legend, Army Maj. Dick Meadows, for the reconnaissance mission in Iran ahead of Eagle Claw and where they encountered significant challenges for which Arooji’s ingenuity would prove to be invaluable.
“The mission was supposed to occur on the night of April 24th and 25th, 1980. That particular day, the 24th of April, Dick Meadows and Fred went by the warehouse where the vehicles were stored and Fred detected that a ditch had been dug across the driveway. That was significant and there was no way those vehicles could be driven out,” Ishimoto said.
“I said, 'man what are we going to do?' and about ten or fifteen feet away there were kids playing soccer, so I said to Dick we need to give these kids a basket of oranges and I then asked them to help me move some concrete chunks into the ditch and they did,” Arooji said. ,
The ditch repaired, Meadows and Arooji waited for the rescue mission to unfold. Unfortunately, the hostage rescue mission was aborted when a helicopter collided with a C-130 killing eight servicemen at the Iranian staging area known as Desert One.
“After it was detected, that in fact an attempt was made, the media splashed that there were Americans of Iranian descent involved with the mission – this put Fred under great danger,” Ishimoto said.
“We had no idea what took place. I dropped Dick off at his hotel and I got back to my hotel and I turned the TV on and I see they are carrying the bodies of the individuals that got burned and the crash site burning, so I am in deep trouble at this point,” Arooji said.
Arooji then went back to Meadows' hotel and took him to the airport.
“We had a Mercedes someone had bought us, so Dick told me, ‘Take the Mercedes and head to the Turkish border and we’ll contact you there,’” Arooji said. “Well as it turned out, the keys to the Mercedes were in the pocket of another gentleman and he was on his flight home. The only way in and out of Iran now was through Tehran.”
“We had no contact with him after the mission was aborted,” Ishimoto said. “I frankly thought I would never see Fred Arooji alive again.”
Arooji would spend a harrowing two weeks under the constant pressure of being caught before he safely made his way back to the United States.
“When Fred got back he was still an Airman in the United States Air Force,” said retired Gen. Richard Cody, former vice chiefs of staff of the U.S. Army and commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. “When he got back to the United States President Carter wanted to meet him, and at that meeting President Carter said, ‘Young man, I believe I have just met one of the bravest of young men in uniform.’”
“After I had received my award for the mission, President Carter asked me what my wishes were and I said I wanted to be a military pilot,” Arooji said.
Lt. Gen. Vaught would work to ask the Air Force to grant Arooji an inter-service transfer to the Army where he would become a Special Operations helicopter and fixed-winged pilot. Time would prove he was a natural and born to fly.
“Fred is the only one in the world to go from flight school to a special mission unit, stay twenty-four years and serve with distinction” said retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Ned Hubard, fellow Special Operations aviator. “He’s a legend, shoes that will never be filled again, a perfect safety record, never aborted a mission, he is to be admired.”
Arooji and his colleagues in the special mission unit were assigned to test and teach the use of night vision goggles to the big Army.
“If you think about the 1980s and the type of the night vision devices we had back then, you were pretty much going from 20/20 vision to about 20/200,” said Cody. “He was one of the pioneers working out approaches to buildings at night, flying low-level missions for hours at a time under these conditions.
Gen. Cody pointed out one particular mission during the Iraqi war where night vision goggles technology and Arooji’s mastery of it saved a special mission unit.
“During the height of the Iraq war, there was a unit getting overrun, they couldn’t get anyone there to pick them up, there was no real landing zone, but there was a small dirt road. Fred heard the call, turned around and said, 'I’ll take the mission' and actually landed a rather large fixed-wing aircraft on the road, picked these guys up and got them out of there - all under night vision systems,” Cody said.
“Fred helped develop tactics, techniques and procedures for the entire Army and that is part of his legacy he can be very proud of,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, a 2010 Bull Simons Award recipient. “Fred is not this six-foot-five, 250 pound guy that everybody looks at and thinks 'that is a bad guy,' but he is in the sense the way I say it – he is a bad guy, he can do a lot of things with a helicopter and with a fixed-wing aircraft that I have never seen anyone do before and that to me epitomizes a Special Operator.”
Reflecting on his career and what makes a Special Operator, Arooji summed it up.
“The strongest part of your body has to be your heart. It puts my heart in a different dimension to know all the years of my military service I served with the best,” Arooji said. “We don’t look for pats on the back, we don’t live for what we did fifteen or twenty years ago; we live for how well we accomplish the mission today.”