Sheriff Robert T. Doyle entered the Army at nineteen years of age. He jokingly states, “I tell people I joined the Army because I got tired of my parents telling me what to do. You just kind of laugh and think, ‘Oh, you’re going to go into the military, and they’re not going to tell you what to do?’ …You don’t know it at the time, but you look back on it; that’s what’s it’s all about. They want to break you down, and then they want to teach you what you need to know.” Little did he know that the Army would prepare him for a life of discipline in civil service. As the Sheriff of Marin County, Doyle has had his share of high profile incidents, such as the media bombardment surrounding Robin Williams’ tragic suicide in Tiburon and the recent high-risk warrant search of a Southern California rap musician and gang member at his residence in Sleepy Hollow. He is extensively involved in his community, both socially and politically. His strong leadership skills are made evident by the numerous organizations he heads and chairs. However, despite the fact he is a man of the people, he is noticeably humble, modest and approachable. I am certain his strong presence and cordial mannerism are why he has been elected as Marin County Sheriff-Coroner five times. It appears that the structure, discipline, teamwork, and work ethic the Army instilled in him at a young age has served him well.
Robert T. Doyle was born on August 3, 1947 in San Francisco, California. His father was a jet mechanic and worked at the Naval Air Station in Alameda. His mother was a homemaker and a seamstress. He lived in San Francisco, on Dolores in the Mission District, until he was six, and then his family moved to Daly City. After graduating from high school, Doyle attended College of San Mateo in California, but after two and a half semesters, he decided to quit and took a position in the mailroom of a large insurance company in order to pay off his college tuition debt to his parents. Knowing he would soon be drafted, Doyle joined the Army against his parents’ wishes. His parents, particularly his father, were not too happy with his decision. Doyle had a brother who died when he was three, and his parents were concerned about their only son entering the Army at wartime. However, the Army had a special program, and if he joined, he could pick a geographical area to be assigned to or pick a job he wanted to do. Doyle wanted to see his grandfather and other relatives in Italy on his mother’s side and chose Europe as his destination.
He entered the Army at nineteen years old in February of 1966 and was assigned to basic training at Fort Ord near Monterey, California. He remembers that, when he arrived, there was a meningitis outbreak, and so his training was a bit different in order to not spread the virus. His unit had to always be together and was never allowed to interact with other units. In the evening, the windows in the barracks had to always be open for ventilation. The Army was still unsure how the virus spread. Later, the Army concluded it was because many of the soldiers were coming from farms in Montana, Wyoming and Utah and had never been exposed to many viruses. Doyle describes his experience; “It was sort of an interesting time for two-and-a-half or three months. You didn’t have a whole lot of latitude about where you could go, and every place you went, you marched with everybody in your training unit. Whereas in other places, you’d be off, and you’d get to go the PX or go to wherever and recreate. We couldn’t; we had to go as a group because they didn’t want us associating with any other people.”
After Basic Training, Doyle was sent for four months to Fort Still, Oklahoma for radar training, including anti mortar rockets and anti artillery, as well as ground surveillance. This was a memorable time for Doyle, for he had never traveled out of California nor on a commercial airline. After his training, he was given a two-week leave before he was deployed to the 24th Infantry Division in Munich, Germany. During his leave, he went home, relaxed, slept in, and visited friends. He was excited about his next assignment.
Doyle arrived at the replacement depot to receive his orders for the 24th Infantry Division. Most of the solders in this division were sent to Augsburg, Germany; however, the radar division and artillery headquarters were both based in Munich. He was stationed outside of the city at Will Kasernes, which housed old German military barracks that were used during Hitler’s rule. When he first arrived, he shared a room with several people. But, as he progressed through the ranks as Sergeant, he received his own room. The rooms were heated with coal, and he remembers a couple of times, the German man that was in charge of his building would go off and have one too many beers, and when they would get back in from an evening out, the place would be brutally cold because he forgot to stoke the furnace. At that time, Munich was a large city of three million people, and Doyle enjoyed his time off there. He traveled all over Bavaria and headed south to see relatives in Italy. He also spent some time in Spain and Portugal. He was even able to attend a couple of Oktoberfests. Normally, the military was sent out for field exercises during the festival to avoid any interruptions. However, during Doyle’s tenure, the radar was broken. He describes his situation: “In the military, you had this charge of quarters where there had to be an officer and an enlisted person. You would be up 24 hours a day. You’d field phone calls and emergency situations, so I got that assignment, and I would work one day and be off two or three days. I got to attend the Oktoberfest a couple of years, and it was a lot of fun.” Doyle found his experiences in Germany and Europe to be positive. In Germany, most people did not speak English as they do today, but the civilians were friendly and helpful. During that time, Bavaria did not have a workforce to support its infrastructure, so there were many immigrants from Turkey and Greece and other countries. He enjoyed this diversity and multicultural experience and found it quite valuable.
In the spring of 1968, Doyle decided that he wanted to make a career out of the military and took the appropriate tests and applied to Artillery Officer Candidate School. He passed and was sent back to Fort Still, Oklahoma for a six-month program. He learned how to become an officer and be proficient in all fields of artillery. The program began very similarly to basic training. It was physically and mentally demanding. There was an insignia ranking system with different color ranking depending on how far along a candidate was in the system. About three months into the program, President Johnson indicated that the Vietnam War would soon be over. Doyle rethought his decision, and if that were the situation, he would still have to serve a three-year commitment after Officer Cadet School training. This would extend his commitment an additional eighteen months. Usually, during wartime, the US Government expands its officer base, and with the war ending, it would be decreasing its officers. Doyle explained, “So as they contract, then they need to get rid of people. The way it works is the military takes care of their graduates from all of their academies and their college programs and ROTC programs. The first ones to get RIF (Reduction In Force) are the officer candidate school graduates that would be someone like me. I thought, ‘Gee, I don’t want to spend this extra time, and then get demoted back to the enlisted rank because that’s not what I wanted to make as a career’, so after three months, I decided to quit.” He knew they would not send him back to Germany, and when he received a San Francisco APO (Air Post Office) number, he knew he was soon going to get orders to go to Vietnam. Doyle went through Jungle Warfare training at Fort Still. Once his orders came in, Doyle was given thirty days leave, after which, he was to report to Fort Lewis, Washington where they would prepare him for Vietnam. Interestingly, he vividly remembers the plane ride to Vietnam. Doyle was twenty-one at the time and more mature than most of the men on the plane, who were eighteen and just out of high school. He recollects they thought they were all going to be war heroes. Every one smoked back then, and with all the anxiety, the plane was filled with thick smoke.
Doyle landed in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. He recalls, “I remember coming in from the airport and seeing people waterskiing on Cam Ranh Bay, thinking, ‘My God, I hope I stay here.’ Cam Ranh Bay was sort of eclectic; it had lots of different nationalities. The Koreans were there, and it was a big Air Force base.” Though he was not Airborne trained, he received his orders to go to the 173rd Airborne Battalion, which made him a bit leery because it was a tough assignment, and there were many war stories about this unit from WWII to Vietnam. Unfortunately, their radar was broken, and so he was assigned to the 26th Target Acquisition Battalion near the demilitarized zone in Dong Ha. He loaded a C130 cargo plane and remembers, “They didn’t have any seats, so when you got in, they’d sit you down, and you’d lock arms, so that when you took off, you all stayed together. It was a combat plane, and the back was kind of open, so you could see out.” His flight took hours, as it had many stops to let soldiers off at various destinations along the way. The flight started with 30 or 40 soldiers on the plane, and at the end, he was the only one left going to Dong Ha. Doyle remembers thinking, “Boy, I must be going to a great place to be the only one on the airplane.” Upon their approach, they began receiving incoming enemy fire. So as they were getting ready to land, the load master said: “Look, we’re not going to stop; they’re going to come out and get you, and I’m thinking, ‘Well if you’re not going to stop, how do I get off the airplane?’ He said, ‘Oh no, we’re going to land and when we turn around to take off we’re going to throw your stuff out, and you jump out, and there will be somebody waiting there to pick you up.”’ They did throw his stuff out, and he jumped off. Alone he waited, and finally, a jeep came and picked him up.
Doyle arrived at Dong Ha, a tent base camp with dirt roads. He was in the target acquisition battalion, which included radar, sound rangers and flash rangers. From this camp, he was sent out for thirty-day stretches, usually with Marines, to detect anti-artillery encampments along different areas of the demilitarized zone. Most of the areas he was in were referred to by a number or a letter, except for one place called Cong Tien. Another important responsibility his battalion had was calibrating the heavy artillery. The living conditions at the camp were bunkers, underground units that were covered with sandbags for safety. He remembers nights being very dark and damp. Every once in a while, he remembers having some fresh foods to barbeque, but food was, for the most part, limited to C-rations. He also remembers that whenever patrol returned to base camp, they were usually followed by the enemy, who would lay an attack just to let the soldiers know they knew they were back and to make things uncomfortable for them.
His most memorable and scariest moment was the time he got a ride on a gunship helicopter. He was always cautioned to never take a ride from a gunship helicopter, but he needed to get somewhere quickly. The enemy had shot at them during their flight, and the pilot took it as a challenge. Doyle elaborates; “If you’ve ever been in a helicopter before, you hear the rotors. When you start hearing them slow, and you can hear the noise clearly, it means they’re making these very unusual turns that are testing the ability of the helicopter. I thought to myself, ‘What was I thinking getting in this thing when everybody told me not to?’ So that was probably the scariest time; I thought we were going to crash and die, and that’s the first time I probably thought, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
The hardest part of his tour in the Army was being away from loved ones. Communication was limited to letters. Doyle did receive brief Rest and Relaxation leaves, one in country and one out. He had a friend from high school that was in Da Nang, and he visited him during his in-country R&R. On his return, he was informed his father had some medical issues, and he was given an early release after seven-and-a-half months in Vietnam. He immediately traveled back to Da Nag and was put on a plane to Hawaii. Soon after, he arrived at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino County, California. He remembers, “There was about 9 or 10 of us on emergency leave. Typically, when you get out of the military you come back from combat and go through an Army base; we went through an Air Force base. We were all in jungle fatigues, and I had been travelling for a couple of days and probably looked pretty bad.” He was put on a Western Airlines flight and flew home in his jungle fatigues and boots that still had mud all over them. After he arrived home, the Army made the decision to give Doyle an early out for compassionate reasons, and he was told to report to the Army Terminal in Oakland. There was a bit of a delay; he had left Vietnam so abruptly that his personal things had to follow, and it took a few weeks until they finally were able to process the paperwork. Doyle received a Vietnam War Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal during this time.
Doyle feels extremely fortunate that he was not seriously injured or traumatized by the war. He was able to move on quite quickly. He was not ashamed he had been to Vietnam; he never hid that. Even today, when he travels to Washington D.C., he always visits the Vietnam Memorial to pay his respects to three of his friends and the men and women that sacrificed their lives doing what they believed was right. As Doyle looks back, he is sadden by the tremendous loss of life that occurred during a long drawn-out war that the government never seemed to have a plan to win.
After Doyle’s release, he took a position with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office. During this time, jobs in firefighting and police work were being offered throughout California. Doyle, being a calculated risk taker, saw the test line for police work was shorter, and the odds of being offered employment greater, so he took the police test. He went back to college on the G.I. Bill and received a degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in Sociology.
Impressively, he has held every position in the Sheriffs’ department. He reminisces, “I’m in my 45th year in the sheriff’s office, and I started as an entry level Deputy Sheriff. I think to get to this position requires being at the right place at the right time and a little luck and a little skill, and so I don’t know that there’s anybody that’s held all the merit ranks from Deputy all the way up to Undersheriff. I held that position for a number of years until my predecessor retired early, and I was appointed to fill his term. And now, I’ve been elected five times, the fifth term will start in January of 2015. I feel very fortunate.” Doyle oversees 340 employees with a budget of approximately $60 million.
Sheriff Doyle has also been very active in political and community organizations. He was President of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, two-term President of the Marin County Police Chiefs’ Association, Officer of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, Chair of the California State Sheriffs’ Legislative Committee, appointee by Governor Schwarzenegger as a member of the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, appointee by Governor Wilson to represent the State Sheriff on the State Task Force on Court Facilities, Co-Chair and Executive Committee Member of the Marin County School/Law Enforcement Partnership and a member of a variety of law enforcement committees. Additionally, Sheriff Doyle served as Treasurer of Novato Youth Soccer Association, on the Executive Committee of Fight Crime/ Invest in Kids California, and on the Executive Committee, Marin County School/ Law Enforcement Partnership.
In closing, Sheriff Robert T. Doyle is a true man of service. He is one of the most impressive and accomplished men in the county. He is honorable and humble. He carries a tremendous amount of responsibility on his shoulders keeping the citizens of Marin safe. His time serving our country has helped instill the hard work and discipline required of him as Sheriff-Coroner. I thank you for your legacy of service to all of us in Marin County. Thank you for looking out for us and keeping us all out of harm’s way.
Interview by Peter Jake Daniels on July 2, 2014.