During a career that began in the battlefields of Vietnam, Army Col. Warner “Rocky” Farr helped revolutionize special operations medicine, prepared for a Soviet invasion of Germany and found himself quoted by writer Noam Chomsky for his research into the Israeli nuclear weapons program.
Today, in a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base, Farr retires after 46 years and four days in uniform, the third-longest serving soldier in the Army and one of only 13 of more than a half-million on active duty who served in Vietnam.
“I worked very hard to come up with a career progression path for special operations doctors,” says Farr, 64, who has been the command surgeon of U.S. Special Operations Command Central since 2009, coming over from the same role at U.S. Special Operations Command. “Now it is time for me to get out of the way.”
In the spring of 1967, Warner Dahlgren Farr was attending Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe. Lyndon Baines Johnson was in the White House, a gallon of gas cost 33 cents and the United States was at war in a place called Vietnam.
Farr, 18 at the time, was able to avoid the draft by going to college.
“I made good grades, but I didn’t know what I wanted to major in,” Farr says. “I was somewhat clueless.”
Knowing that he would be subject to the draft after graduating, Farr says he decided to “go ahead and get it over with” by enlisting.
For Farr, a career in the military wasn’t a stretch.
His father, Charles Farr, an Air Force colonel, devised the concept of an aerial gunship during WWII.
“He flew C-47s and was tired of his kickers [the crew pushing out supplies] getting shot by the Japanese,” says Farr. “So he put .50 caliber machine guns on the planes and invented the gunship.”
Farr became a Green Beret, leading to a brief encounter with the famous 1968 John Wayne movie.
“When I went to paratrooper school at Ft. Benning in October 1967, they were filming that, or just finishing up filming The Green Berets,” Farr says. He later went on to serve with some of the soldiers who acted in the movie.
Farr’s first foray into combat came with the storied Military Assistance Command Vietnam - Studies and Observation Group, known as MACVSOG for short, which was a partnership of Special Forces and the CIA.
Farr was assigned to a small group conducting reconnaissance on the Ho Chi Mihn Trail, where the North Vietnamese were bringing supplies to the south. Living in Vietnam and working in Cambodia, his recon team was tasked with stopping the flow of supplies, capturing the enemy and trying to rescue Americans taken captive.
“We were in very small numbers,” Farr says. “Two to three to five people. We would find targets, call in air strikes.”
But in addition to toting a rifle, Farr also carried a medical kit.
“I was a combat medic,” he says. “In Special Forces, we don’t put a Red Cross on our helmet. We shoot.”
In Vietnam, Farr learned firsthand the limits of combat medicine. They were lessons that would stay with him.
But it would be a while before he could apply those lessons. After leaving Vietnam in 1971, Farr had a new enemy to face.
The Soviet Union.
Farr was assigned to what was called a Detachment A. His job was to stay behind in the event the Red Army overran Europe and delay their advance.
The Soviets never invaded and in the late 1970s, Farr returned to the U.S., where he taught a course for medics. It was there t he earned a promotion and a nickname.
“When I went down to teach, all of a sudden there were 10 people called Doc. One of the other instructors decided to issue us nicknames. He claims with no malice aforethought that he called me Rocky and that’s what I got.”
Farr eventually graduated from Northeast Louisiana University and was accepted into the Uniformed Services University. He was commissioned in 1979 as a second lieutenant, earned his medical degree in 1983 and became board certified in aerospace medicine, and anatomic and clinical pathology.
He also learned to fly, both fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
Farr rose through the ranks, becoming a major in 1987, lieutenant colonel in 1993 and colonel in 1999. He commanded a number of medical units, including a stint as division surgeon for the 10th Mountain Division.
Farr continued garnering responsibilities, serving as command surgeon of the Army Special Forces Command at Ft. Bragg before coming to Tampa, where he became Socom command surgeon.
As the man in charge of medical treatment for all commandos, Farr was finally able to fully apply the lessons learned decades earlier in Vietnam.
“There have been tremendous changes since Vietnam,” Farr says. “In Vietnam, tourniquets were considered forbidden. The assumption was that it would kill the limb.”
With Farr’s encouragement, tourniquets became a mainstay.
There were other advances over the years, in both technology and techniques, Farr says. Bandages were treated with substances that promoted clots. Responsibility for medical care was expanded beyond medics to all commandos.
Combined, it meant a reduction in the killed-in-action rate, dropping from about 20 percent before the current wars to about 12 percent now, Farr says.
Farr says one of his biggest accomplishments at Socom was helping develop a battlefield medical kit for troops that included a tourniquet, hemostatic dressing, antibiotics and pain pills and a needle for sucking chest wounds.
“The key thing is that every single person has it,” Farr says. “Your buddy is saving you.”
In 2009, Farr became command surgeon of Soccent, the MacDill-based special operations warfighting headquarters for U.S. Central Command. Though special operations forces in Afghanistan already had robust medical services, the same was not always true in the rest of the command’s region.
For Farr, the challenge became making sure commandos working in smaller numbers elsewhere were able to be properly treated and evacuated.
Farr, who has a Legion of Merit and Bronze Star with “V” Device among his many medals, is one of the special operations forces’ most respected medical leaders, says Doug Brown, a retired Green Beret general who commanded Socom from 2003 to 2007 and was Farr’s boss at Ft. Bragg before bringing him to Tampa.
“Rocky Farr is amazing,” Brown says. “First of all, he has been in special operations forces medicine forever. No one knows it better. He understands the battlefield and was on it. As special operations surgeon, Rocky Farr was exactly the right guy.”
Farr was “instrumental in writing the new medical special operations handbook when I was down there,” Brown says. “There have been so many advances in digital medicine and digital training devices, he was key in doing that. We are losing probably the most experienced battlefield medical expert that I haver ever known or seen.”
Hundreds are expected to show up to bid Farr farewell at Soccent headquarters. After retirement, Farr wants to continue to pursue his love of history, a passion that so far has resulted in multiple articles and four books, including “The Third Temple’s Holy of Holies: The Israeli Nuclear Program,” which was quoted by writer Noam Chomsky.
He says whatever happens, he and his wife, Kathleen Dunn Farr, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, want to stick around.
“My wife and I like it here in Tampa,” he says. “We have six dogs and a small house. I have an offer to go overseas, but I am looking for something here in Tampa. I am tired of travel.”