EGLIN AFB — An Estonian-American who was part of the earliest days of the Army's 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) died recently in California at the age of 95, according to a report from ERR News, the English-language service of Estonian Public Broadcasting.
Jyri Laats, who trained as a Special Forces soldier in 1959 and became a combat medic with the 77th Special Forces Group that was retooled as the 7th Special Forces Group in 1960, took a circuitous route to the United States and military service.
According to a friend's recollections included in the ERR News report, Laats was born in in Estonia in 1923. Seventeen years later, as Russia — and shortly afterward, Germany — set their sights on Estonia during World War II, Laats made his way to Finland. Once there, he became part of a Finnish infantry unit. In 1944, as manhunts were under way for soldiers like Laats who had fought against the Russians in Finland, Laats fled to Sweden. From there, he stowed away on a ship to Brazil and then immigrated to the United States.
Once in America, Laats began to work on merchant ships. In the early 1950s he volunteered for military service and eventually served with the 11th Airborne Division and the 82nd Airborne Division, among other assignments, before applying for Special Forces training in 1959.
Laats was sent to Laos, at the time embroiled in the Vietnam War, as a Special Forces soldier — but not before he earned a small measure of celebrity.
"The Army made something of a minor movie star out of Laats, playing a guerilla chief ... in the 1963 U.S. Army promotional film 'Guerilla USA,' " Laats' friend and fellow Special Forces soldier Jüri Estam recalled in the ERR News report. The film was part of "The Big Picture," an Army-produced series of documentaries that aired on American television from 1951-64.
In addition to serving as a medic in Laos, Laats also was involved in reconnaissance missions that ranged north up to the Chinese border.
Following his duty in Laos, Laats was reassigned to the 10th Special Forces Group. Medical issues resulting from the physically punishing work brought an end to Laats' Special Forces service, but he subsequently served three tours at U.S. Army hospitals in South Vietnam.
Laats' military career ended at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, where he supervised more than 300 non-commissioned officers and enlisted personnel.
"Friends say Jyri experienced a peaceful ending to what had otherwise often been a tumultuous life," Estam wrote in the ERR News report. "No one will ever know how Jyri's life might have unfolded otherwise had the Baltic States been left in peace eight decades ago, but fate intervened dramatically instead, early on in his long life and, launching him on a long and exotic, though not fully voluntary, 'walkabout.' "