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Timely new book ‘Wildflowers Never Die’ follows careers of CIA operatives from Korea to Camp Hale to Laos to Vietnam

April 7, 2023, 11:52 am

While it’s been reported on locally for years, it’s safe to say the lesser-known use of Camp Hale near Vail as a CIA training ground for Tibetan guerillas returning home to fight an insurgency against occupying Chinese forces is far less famous than the camp’s original World War II purpose as a mountain warfare training facility for U.S. Army soldiers fighting the Nazis in Italy and Japanese in Alaska – the famed 10th Mountain Division.

That’s why “Wildflowers Never Die: The CIA and Memories of the Cold War” is an important historical nonfiction addition to the discussion, “following the careers of five CIA operatives from the Korean War, training Tibetans at Camp Hale, participating in the Secret War in Laos and ending with the final days in Vietnam [see full press release below].”

Written by two authors who grew up locally and graduated from Battle Mountain High School — Randall Howlett and Debra Turnbull — Wildflowers Never Die is now available on Amazon.

Starting in the early 2000s, RealVail.com delved into Camp Hale’s shadowy past as a CIA training ground at a time when Vail, the ski area, was in its very infancy. More recently, during the debate over the stalled CORE Act to increase local wilderness areas and preserve Camp Hale’s past – an effort that ultimately led to last fall’s designation of Camp Hale as a national monument – Real Vail took an even deeper dive into Camp Hale’s dark side.

Really, the Pando Valley, bisected by the five-mile ditch that now contains the upper Eagle River, has a history dating back to Native American warfare in the 19th century and likely much earlier – another topic of a recent RealVail.com story.

But Camp Hale is still being used by the U.S. military for winter warfare training, and Real Vail reported on a psyops unit going in one winter day in the mid 2000s – training for “hearts and minds” warfare in some far-flung mountainous theater, most likely Afghanistan.

All of this could not be more relevant today as hearings are held on our chaotic exit from that country after more than two decades of an undeclared war there in the wake of 9/11. A better topic of those hearings might be why the United States was there for so long in the first place and why Congress never officially declared war, especially after the Senate recently voted to rescind the authorizations for such a lengthy occupation and the House now takes up that issue.

Certainly, the world supported U.S. efforts to initially capture Osama Bin Laden and dismantle the Taliban after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but why did we stay so long and where did things go wrong during those two decades? As the Biden administration blames the Trump administration, it seems as if there’s plenty more blame to go around, including the initial invasion by the Bush administration and subsequent escalation by the Obama administration. What was the role of intelligence agencies in this global policy failure?

Similarly, mainstream media fail to engage in full-throated dialogue on the root causes of our forever wars in the Mideast and Central Asia, especially the unilateral Iraq invasion by the United States in 2003 that cost this nation so much blood, treasure and global goodwill – particularl as we try to rally the world against Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

The never-ending debate on the legality of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq – a war many experts feel led to the ongoing rise of Iran, ISIS and the destabilization of the entire region – is all the more painful due to the failures of our intelligence agencies leading up to the war.

Just as the CIA failed to properly prop up Cuban freedom fighters against Castro at the Bay of Pigs, the Tibetan freedom fighters obviously failed to oust the overwhelming Chinese occupation of Tibet. But these are the observations of RealVail.com and its publisher — an Air Force brat who grew around the world during the Cold War (and whose JAG father agreed Congress should declare wars) — and clearly subjects for a much more nuanced discussion than the vast majority of Americans are prepared to engage in these days.

Now here’s the aforementioned press release on the new book Wildflowers Never Die, available now on Amazon:

The road in life can often take mysterious turns and twists. People we went to school with may never be heard from again. People grow up, move away and form their own families and pursue careers. Other times, paths may unexpectedly cross when least expected, even up to fifty years later, in fact. Paths that would not intersect were it not for the impact of social media.

There was no such thing as social media back in 1971 when Randall Howlett and Debra Turnbull graduated from Battle Mountain High School. Battle Mountain back then was a small high school located at Maloit Park in Minturn. So small it had 34 students in its graduating class and combined both senior and junior high school at the same location. Debra and Randall knew each other, but despite having common friends, they ran in different social circles. 

About a year or so ago, they connected on Facebook following a general discussion about Camp Hale and what had taken place after the 10th Mountain Division left near the end of WWII. Most folks believe that after the camp was dismantled it was dormant until it reverted back to the Forest Service. The truth is, however, not all the buildings were at first torn down, and the area was used by the Army for winter warfare training and maneuvers during the 1950s.

From 1958 to 1964, a smaller camp was built by the CIA to facilitate training of Tibetan freedom fighters. No one knew this was going on here except for ominous road signs warning trespassers of secret atomic testing going on. Even the camp itself was located a distance away, shrouded by a high fence from view by passersby on nearby Hwy 24. Some residents suspected something was going on but they just couldn’t quite figure out what.

The Tibetan training would a year ago became the subject of active Facebook discussion, enough that Randall felt compelled to research and write about it. Unlike writing his “Taking the High Road” a couple years ago, about the beginnings of Leadville, Red Cliff and Vail, this book necessitated a research partner who knew many of the long-term residents of upper Eagle County much better. People who would open up and would speak more freely about what they knew or didn’t know.

Unlike Randall, Debra had actually grown up in the area. So, a book partnership was formed, but the narrative was quickly expanded beyond Tibetan training to include the first thirty years of the Cold War. This was a worthier subject considering both were a part of the Baby Boomer generation impacted and shaped by the Cold War. 

“Wildflowers Never Die: The CIA and Memories of the Cold War” is historical nonfiction which follows the careers of five CIA operatives from the Korean War, training Tibetans at Camp Hale, participating in the Secret War in Laos and ending with the final days in Vietnam.

To a lesser degree, the authors’ own experiences are also included, such as Randall’s father being a double agent for the U.S. while assigned to NATO in the 1950s and living in Denver when the Titan I missiles went into DEFCON alert during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and Debra’s late husband, who actually worked in Titan II silos in Kansas before being drafted into the trauma that was the Vietnam War.

As much as the book is about the Cold War era, it is also about the early days of the CIA struggling with morality and transparency issues while being part of a democracy. Given the state of matters today involving Russia, and particularly China, in many respects the Cold War has never really gone away. 

Wildflowers Never Die is available now on Amazon.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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