The Man Behind the Legendary Special Forces Mustache Framed at The Unit

walt shumate special forces mustache

Walt Shumate served seven combat tours in Vietnam and is considered a legend among his Army Special Forces teammates. Before he began his cancer treatments, Shumate shaved off his glorious mustache (like the one pictured here) and framed it inside the HQ of The Unit. Photo courtesy of Find A Grave. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Find A Grave. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

In a hallway of the dining facility within the headquarters building for “The Unit,” a handlebar mustache sits framed on the wall. The mustache is bushy and brown with tips that curl upward into two fine points. It is a big, strong, illustrious mustache, not the sort ordinary men can grow.

The enshrined mustache was once worn on the face of a legend — a man whom Green Berets today regard as one of the greatest commandos ever to enter their ranks. His name was Walter “Walt” Shumate. He died some 30 years ago, but among the elite warriors who walk the path he blazed, his memory and his mustache will live on forever.

Originally from Pocahontas, Virginia, Shumate had 10 years of experience as a paratrooper before he volunteered for the newly created US Army Special Forces in 1962. He was instrumental in the early development of the Green Berets’ combat diver program. He also completed seven combat tours in Vietnam with various Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs) from the 1st, 5th, and 7th Special Forces Groups, as well as being a recon team leader with MACV-SOG.

Richard Rice, who spent 25 of his 27 years in the US Army with Special Forces, served alongside Shumate when they were both recon team leaders with MACV-SOG. Rice remembers Shumate as an exceptional operator. “The thing that always struck me about Walt was he was a very detail-oriented guy,” he told Coffee or Die Magazine. “He prepared his people and conducted operations in the most extraordinary manner.”

Walt-Shumate-Composite-DS.jpg

Walt Shumate’s legend stems from his historic Army Special Forces career, and he is honored through his mustache at the headquarters of The Unit. Photos courtesy of Find A Grave. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photos courtesy of Find A Grave. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

According to Rice, Shumate did indeed sport a mustache in Vietnam; however, he says it was modest compared with the one Shumate later grew while serving with the shadowy counter-terrorism special missions unit that operators simply refer to as “The Unit.” Rice and Shumate were among the original members of The Unit when it was established in 1977 by Charlie Beckwith. Shumate spent about five years as an operator there before retiring from the military in 1982, yet he continued working as a civilian safety officer on Fort Bragg at Range 19 until his death from cancer in 1993.

Mike Vining, a retired sergeant major and another original member of The Unit, referred to Shumate as a “legend” in a recent email exchange with Coffee or Die. Vining recalled that just before Shumate died, the Unit decided to do something to honor and preserve his legacy. “When Walt was diagnosed with cancer, he knew he would lose his hair,” he said. “The Unit has relaxed grooming standards, and Walt let his mustache grow out. Very handlebar style. He had it carefully cut off and framed.”

The mustache was then mounted to the wall at The Unit’s dining facility, where it remains to this day. Those who served with Shumate say it’s a fitting tribute to the man they knew and respected.

“Everybody likes to think that they could leave something as a legacy towards what they had done,” said Rice. “Not a monument, but a recognition of their service, and everybody knew Walt Shumate by his handlebar mustache. By the early ’90s, there was no question in anybody’s mind that his mustache had to go up on the wall.”

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Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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