U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. David Waldo stood at attention before President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. He removed his green beret, dropped to one knee and placed the beret at the base of the president’s flat, rectangular headstone. Then he stood up and slowly saluted the fallen commander-in-chief.
Waldo, in this simple action on Nov. 8, 2023, was commemorating the actions of Command Sgt. Maj. Francis Ruddy, another Special Forces soldier, who laid his own beret at Kennedy’s grave on Nov. 25, 1963, the day of the president’s funeral. Ruddy had been part of a security detail at the funeral when he placed his beret, and the laying of a beret has become a yearly event.
For many who attended the ceremony, President Kennedy is considered one of the “founding fathers” of Army Special Forces, informally known as the Green Berets. “He’s the person who saw the potential in what we were doing and gave us our signature headgear,” said Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. “He lives as large for us today almost as much as when he was alive.”
Command Sgt. Maj. JoAnn Naumann, command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command—and the first woman to hold that post—agreed. “President Kennedy was instrumental in standing up Special Operations and supporting it,” she said. “I think we’re all a little bit of his legacy.”
Five members of President Kennedy’s extended family attended the event: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Christopher Kennedy, the children of JFK’s brother Robert (who is also buried at ANC); Victoria Lawford Pender and Robin Lawford, the daughters of the president’s sister Patricia Kennedy Lawford; and Victoria Lawford Pender’s daughter, Alexandra Pender.
After Sgt. Maj. David Waldo laid his beret, Kathy Kennedy Townson, accompanied by three Special Forces officers, laid a wreath before the president’s grave. She then laid white roses on the headstones for the president, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and the two Kennedy infants.
The event commenced with both Old Guard and Special Forces soldiers marching up both sides of the steps to the president’s grave, lining the way to a Color Guard presenting both the American and Special Forces flags. It included a playing of President Kennedy’s Oct. 12, 1961, address at Fort Liberty (formerly known as Fort Bragg), a prayer, a moment of silence, the sounding of Taps and an Army band playing “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “The Army Song.”
After the ceremony, Katherine Kennedy Townsend spoke about the importance of remembering her uncle and her personal connection to the Green Berets. She recalled going to Camp Liberty as a child with her father and watching her uncle deliver his famous speech. “My father was so proud of his brother and all his accomplishments,” she said. She also recalled how Special Forces soldiers came to her childhood home in Alexandria, Va., on their off hours to build an obstacle course in her parents’ back yard for one of her mother’s charities. “They were so kind and helpful,” she said.