This past Saturday, Bill Cervenak, a Vietnam veteran and beloved coach, passed away at the age of 80. Only then did many of his admirers learn of his covert past in serving his country—first as a Marine and then as an officer within the CIA’s paramilitary arm.
A Marine aviator during the Vietnam War, Cervenak flew 80 aerial missions in some of the war’s earliest action. During the period of February 7 to April 17, 1964, Cervenak flew so many perilous missions that he was awarded the Air Medal with two Gold Stars for “meritorious achievements as an aerial observer during combat support missions in the Republic of Vietnam against insurgent communist guerrilla forces,” his citation reads.
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey to Czechoslovakian immigrants, the dedicated and athletic Cervenak—he played defensive end on scholarship for the University of Iowa football team—served in the CIA for 33 years, working in places like Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa before his retirement in 1999.
While stories of Cervenak’s exploits in Honduras and Laos among others was known to close family members, Cervenak’s apparent modesty became clear after his death.
His nephew, Michael Cervenak, told HistoryNet in an email that “we were always aware that he worked at the CIA, but he NEVER talked about it, not specifics. We suspected he worked in counterterrorism only because my father overheard one of his coworkers talking. He was as tight-lipped as they come, and I believe for two reasons: (1) the culture at the agency is one of anonymity, and (2) he didn’t want his mother to worry about him.”
As his brother Emil Cervenak began going through his brother’s belongings, Emil stumbled upon a shelf full of CIA awards and commendations.
“I’m reading these citations about the unselfish things that he did, putting his own life at risk, and I couldn’t believe it,” Emil Cervenak told NBC News.
As a member of the CIA’s Special Activities Division—a ground division responsible for covert actions—Cervenak helped to train many operatives who went on to serve in Afghanistan post 9/11.
“Bill was a mentor to generations of officers at CIA, as he was to me,” Phil Reilly, a former CIA colleague, wrote to NBC. “He was highly respected for his operational record of service that saw him rise to the senior intelligence ranks, but also for his larger-than-life personality. He was, without question, the funniest person I have ever met. He used that humor to defuse situations, put colleagues at ease, but also to teach.”
Cervenak never married, but his legacy continues in the community he helped to strengthen. For two generations Cervenak served as a Little League coach in the town of Vienna in Northern Virginia. In 2015, the baseball field at Glyndon Park, Vienna, Virginia was rededicated in his honor.
“He was also very charitable with his time and money,” his nephew wrote. “Coaching, i.e. volunteering, was an outlet through which he expressed all of those traits. I guarantee you Bill was not just teaching those kids how to play sports, he was teaching them lessons that would serve them well beyond their short-lived athletic careers—integrity, hard work, determination [and] decency.”
A mentor both on and off the field, Cervenak was once asked why he continued to coach Little League.
“For the money,” he quipped.