Five or more years ago, Camp Ripley held a program to honor veterans of the Vietnam War. By bureaucratic definition, I am officially a Vietnam vet, having visited the war zone numerous times during my 31 months on active duty.
Back then, the Vietnam deployment was generally 13 months for those who served in-country. Those were mostly members of the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marines. However, I served in the U.S. Navy.
All things considered, I had it easy. Once or twice I heard gunfire off in the jungle, but being on a ship in a harbor a half mile from shore, none of it was ever directed at me.
My ship, the USS Eldorado, had a small helo deck, and the Marine detachment serviced our one helicopter, which was piloted by a Marine captain. His duties mostly involved taking the admiral we carried into whatever port we were visiting.
The crew of the Eldorado used to joke with the Marines about “three hots and a flop.” One of the great benefits of being in the Navy, the sailors meant, was three hot meals and a bed with a mattress in a dry space. It may not have been a four-star accommodation, but it was better than lying in a bunker, eating meals out of a can or trying to sleep with one eye open in case of a night ambush.
So it was that, at the Camp Ripley ceremony, two friends who had served in-country came up to be honored. I went to the program to honor their service, but I could not bring myself to walk in with them. I gave up almost three years in service to this country, but they risked life and limb. There is no comparison.
Recently, I have been reading “Call Sign Chaos,” the new autobiography of former Secretary of Defense and Marine Gen. Jim Mattis (and co-authored by Bing West, who is no relation). The book is not only a good reminder of the sacrifices made by our veterans, but it also offers leadership advice that would be helpful even to those leading non-military organizations.
A lackluster college student but passionate party-goer, Mattis ended up being ordered by a judge to spend his weekends in jail because of underage drinking. He writes, “I learned that no matter what happened, I wasn’t a victim. I made my own choices on how to respond. You don’t always control your circumstances, but you can always control your response.”
He began his military career by spending summers in officer candidate training at Quantico, Va. Half of the candidates washed out; he didn’t. “You had to be as tough as your troops, who weren’t concerned with how many books you’d read. I tried to work out with the most physically fit and learn from the most tactically cunning.”
He quickly learned that the senior non-commissioned officers actually ran the Marine Corps. Without their support, no officer can be successful. He also learned to have faith in his subordinates after he had trained them.
The further he rose in the Corps, the less opportunity he had to interact with the grunts on the ground. He had to resist the urge to micromanage details. That, he says, leads to timidity in organizations. While people wait for decisions from on high, opportunities are lost.
• Recruit for attitude; train for skill.
• Never advantage yourself at the expense of your comrades. When tasked with supporting other units, select those you most hate to give up.
• Having a plan counts for nothing unless those above you have confidence that you can execute it. Operations proceed at the speed of trust.
Mattis oversaw operations in Operation Desert Storm, as well as against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11 and in the Iraq War. While the nation as a whole continued on a peacetime footing, Mattis reminds us of the months U.S. troops spent in the desert with no days off and little in the ways of personal hygiene. (e.g. No running water meant no showers.)
Our most recent wars have not seen the casualty counts that this nation has experienced in the past (e.g. in World War II, the four counties of Benton, Morrison, Stearns and Todd lost 289 soldiers in combat, in Vietnam they lost 49 and in Korea they lost 37), but the thousands of combat veterans In Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq experienced the same kinds of hardship as their predecessors.
On this Veterans Day or any other day, let us never forget their patriotism and effort on our behalf. In the conclusion of his book, Mattis quotes Gen. John Kelly, who lost his own son in Afghanistan: I think the one thing (the parents of the fallen) would ask is that the cause for which their son or daughter fell be carried through to a successful end, whatever the means, as opposed to “This is getting too costly,” or “Too much of a pain in the ass,” or “Let’s just walk away from it.” They were willing to go where the nation’s leaders told them to go and, in many cases, gave their lives for the mission. They were willing to see it through literally to their ends. Can we do less?
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.