LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – If life in law enforcement puts you in the line of fire, then Bill Buford always found himself first in line.
“I was shot six times, stabbed once, blown up once,” he said.
Not a list of achievements on most resumes, but Buford’s resume is not like most.
In the early 1960’s, Buford was busy on a football field at Kansas State University enjoying the excitement of playing ball on a full scholarship. But the excitement he saw in a far-off country called Vietnam got his attention.
“I decided the Vietnam War was going to be over with, and I’ll miss out on it,” he said. “Little did I know it was going to last a long time.”
He wasted no time living up to a family tradition of men who have served.
“My whole family had been in the military, World War I, World War II and Korea,” Buford said. “I didn’t want to let the legacy down, I guess.”
He sure didn’t let the legacy down. Buford excelled in the elite special forces and became a Green Beret. He liked what it offered.
“Good outfit, good people and leadership,” he said.
In no time, Buford found out just how good the people were in his outfit when an Australian soldier he was fighting with clued in the new Green Beret.
“Aye, mate! I said yeah. He said, do you hear that buzzing around your head? I said yeah! He said those are bloody bullets!! Get your head down,” Buford recalled with a bit of laughter.
It was a bond forged under fire only a soldier knows.
“My 12-man team we were so close, closer than brothers,” he recalled. “We did everything together, bled together and died together.”
Buford didn’t miss getting in on the action, but with luck from above, the enemy kept missing him. He keeps a bullet in a small box surrounded by pieces of shrapnel taken out of his body. The bullet is from a gun aimed at him at point-blank range. The enemy soldier pulled the trigger, but the bullet didn’t fire. Buford went home, but the other guy didn’t.
Back home after his service, Buford was navigating life outside the military and was working in a building bombed by antiwar protesters. A group of men were called in to investigate, and Buford’s curious nature had him asking questions.
“I said, ‘Who are you guys?’ They said ATF agents. I said, ‘What’s an ATF?'” he explained. “They said we work Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and explosives. I said I can do that!”
With his military background and knowledge, Buford fit right in at the ATF. After a few years in, his boss called with a promotion.
“He said ‘Congratulations! You’re the new Resident Agent in Charge in Little Rock, Arkansas,'” he recalled. “I said ‘What? I didn’t put in that for that.’ He said ‘Well, that’s where you’re going.'”
As the agent in charge, Buford single-handedly took charge, going undercover and getting to work.
“I started buying stolen guns out in College Station,” he said. “I’d go out there by myself most times in the middle of the night, meet these guys and buy guns.”
Things like that got the new guy in town plenty of respect from members of the Little Rock Police Department. It was the beginning of a long relationship that Buford said he needed.
“The guys at the PD started accepting me and figured maybe I was okay to run with. That was a good thing because they took care of me for years,” he said.
In the years that followed, there were plenty of low-profile but highly dangerous cases. Then in 1993, another call came. It would turn out to be both high profile and highly dangerous.
A group was stockpiling weapons, and Buford was tasked with assembling an ATF team to go in and get the guns at the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas.
Buford said what made the mission urgent was that the group’s leader David Koresh had already given one order to his followers.
“He [Koresh] armed them with machine guns and hand grenades, told them, ‘We are driving into Waco to the McDonald’s and kill everyone in the McDonald’s,'” he recalled.
Koresh called that plan off, but Buford’s was still on. The ATF knew the guns were in there, but by now, the Branch Davidians knew the ATF was coming. Buford’s team was met with gunfire as soon as they rolled up.
“They started shooting at us through the walls, a tremendous amount of gunfire” he remembered.
Buford made it to a second-story window and into the gun room. He was shot almost as soon as he got in. The shooting just intensified from there.
“It didn’t hurt that much,” he said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I can handle this.’ They just kept shooting through the walls, I was returning fire through the walls. I caught two AK-47 rounds, one in the hip and one in the thigh. Next thing I know I’m on the roof and I couldn’t tell you how I got out of there.”
Fellow agents got Buford down, but he was still being shot at while injured and on the ground. ATF agent and Buford’s good friend Rob Williams saved him by returning fire at the Branch Davidians who were shooting at him.
In his office, Buford points to a photograph of him and Williams at a monument with a bible verse engraved reading, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Williams died that day doing just that while giving covering fire to Buford, saving his life.
“I think still if they had not been tipped off, we’d have carried it out and we would not be talking about it today,” Buford said. “I wish that was the case we lost some good people.”
Agents Rob Williams, Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan and Steve Willis were all killed in the gunfight.
Recently, after all the gunfights, the undercover work and the long hours, Buford got another call from the higher-ups at the bureau. He was to be given the ATF Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Oh! It just knocked me out! I could not believe it. There are so many more people that have done so much more than I have,” he said.
For sure an ATF Lifetime Achievement Award is not an honor on most resumes, but again Buford’s resume is not like most.
“I don’t ever want to be in another gunfight, but the ones I was in I don’t regret,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to survive them.”
Buford was surviving for more than himself. At his side all these years, waiting for him to come from one dangerous mission after another, was his wife Mary and their family.
“She is amazing. Has never discouraged me from anything I wanted to do, even though a lot of times it was pretty crazy stuff,” Buford said. “She has put up with so much, and, because of me, the boys all went into the military. She had me to worry about back here and the boys in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is my biggest fan.”
Married to an Arkansas treasure like Buford, she has a lot to cheer about.