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Rated: 18+ · Book · Writing · #1677545
"Putting on the Game Face"
#969703 added November 17, 2019 at 5:22pm
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Vietnam, Trauma and a Maturing World View
Background: In Vietnam I was traumatized on numerous occasions. Sniper fire, Improvised Explosive Devices (Booby-Traps) Enemy Contacts and witnessing the carnage of war on the enemy, civilians and our own soldiers. At the time and upon recollection it was not so much the intensity of each event, which were generally interspersed with periods of boredom and nothing much happening, but rather with the protracted and unrelenting fear, constantly worrying and anticipating that suddenly an event would materialize, out of the blue, something violent, unanticipated, characterized by surprise, shock and brutality. I can personally relate to a handful of such events but it was the responsibility for the welfare of the men and the chronic fear that took the greatest toll. It was not the individual combat events that hardened my world view but the cumulative effects that built up over time.

In this epistle I'm not going to describe the details of any specific combat event but rather to relate the overall effect on the criteria named above. These include Safety, Trust , Power, Control, Esteem and Intimacy (familiarity). While there was trauma experienced in the "Eachs" it was the cumulative effect of each of these events over time that changed my belief systems as thy relate to the criteria. For example, I had a way of looking at life before I went to Vietnam that changed after I got there and grew as I experienced the debilitating effects of combat. So rather than focusing on a single event and the effect it had, I will answer in terms of how the overall experience changed my life.

The baseline was who I was before I arrived in country. I was basically an ordinary person, trained to lead a Rifle Platoon. I didn't really fit the profile of a John Wayne type, however, I'd been prepared by my upbringing in a military family in ways I didn't realize at the time. For example a favorite pastime with my friends was playing "Guns." We would pretend we were allied soldiers and we would sneak around trying to get the upper hand on one another. When I went to College it was at North Georgia, a military college with a tradition for producing small unit infantry leaders. The ROTC program further prepared me as did the Summer Camp training at Ft. Bragg North Carolina. So while I might not have looked the part, being six foot 130 pounds, I had a solid grounding on what a Rifle Platoon leader was supposed to do in accomplishing the mission and looking out for the welfare of the men. Over the the course of the year I started out with the belief that War was going to be fraught with trauma, people were going to get killed and injured, however I would emerge unscathed and not become another sad statistic. About halfway through my tour I changed that belief to one where...."When my number comes up, I sincerely hoped it won't be too serious, maybe a limb blown off or something along those lines..." I'd seen plenty of that. By the end of my tour I confronted the real possibility, that given the attrition rate I was probably going to die, unless G0D stepped in with some serious intervention.

Applying the Criteria to the Trauma

SAFETY: It was possible to behave in a combat environment in ways that promoted your personal safety and reduced the likelihood of being killed or seriously injured. For example at the sound of rifle shots or machine-gun fire my body was conditioned to instantaneously find cover and concealment. It became a reflex, happened spontaneously, and did not require a conscious act. To this day the sound of a car backfiring sets me heading for the prone position. I hate being startled in that way and loud unexpected noises put me into a dark frame of mind. The tour in Vietnam taught me to recognize dangerous behaviors. I often described these to my soldiers and discussed them with my peers. Whenever a Lieutenant, NCO or soldier got killed or wounded we would discuss the event at some length. From this post mortem analysis the "100 Mistake Theory" evolved. For example, suppose a Lieutenant was prone to find a secluded place to perform his basic body functions. Everybody else prudently got used to defecating inside the platoon perimeter. One day the VC stumbled upon the LT doing his daily routine and killed him. The analysis would show that he made this mistake many times before the consequences of his unsafe behavior caught up with him. The lesson learned was that people do stupid things on a recurring basis and that while it was natural to look at only the last act that led to death, it was also important to look at the habitual carelessness that led up to it. This sounds self-evident but patterns of bad behavior are looked on much differently in civilian life than combat where the consequences are much more extreme and unforgiving. This evolving awareness of the fundamentals of prudent behavior shaped my thinking and the views of my soldiers.

TRUST: Is based upon an assumption that people will do what they were trained to do and behave as soldiers in the United States Army. For a platoon leader making this assumption was quickly disabused. I've had many discussions about the relationship between accomplishing the mission and looking out for the Welfare of the Men. Fear of being killed or wounded is unrelenting in combat. Even worse is the fear of not measuring up in ways that lead to the death of those under our leadership. It gets to be a heavy emotional weight that accompanies a leader 24/7. I noted early in my tour that the men were often resentful that I made them go to our ambush sites instead of simply going a couple of hundred meters beyond the perimeter of the base camp and hiding out for the night. Instead of accomplishing the mission concurrent with doing it in a way that maximized the welfare of the men Leaders often took counsel with their fears and compromised the mission by failing to fulfill all its requirements. Naturally there is some guilt in adopting this MO and instead of confronting it, many rationalized it away. My platoon sergeant held the view that the mission was exclusively to look out for the welfare of the men and the mission be damned. So there was a constant struggle on my part reconciling the two basic responsibilities of a Platoon Leader. I had a responsibility to my Company Commander as well as to the men and the conflict led to some serious trust issues with many of those I led. As a result I tended to be much less trusting of others as my time in Vietnam went on. This extended into my life outside the war-zone and continues to this day.

POWER: Is the authority to direct others in a corporate enterprise. It is the means by which a social organization is moved towards a corporate goal. Often that power is used for personal gain rather than in the corporate best interests. This is often referred to as "Abuse". The execution of power requires checks and balances. In the absence of these safeguards individuals in an organization often loose the ability to make the distinction between corporate and personal goals. Its like having two credit cards, one with your name on it and the other with the organizations. In Vietnam and throughout my career in the military I exercised great care in how I used the power of my office, because I have seen its debilitating effect and feared the possibility of this happening to me. One must be willing to use the power for the good of the enterprise and refrain from using it for personal gain. I have seen so many examples of this abuse leading to to dishonor and corruption, that I've lost count. My experience in Vietnam and elsewhere led to the realization that a sense of "humility" is the only real defense against loosing the distinction between corporate and personal power. Wherever possible, I've sought to use my power to bring out the best in others and thereby protect myself from becoming victimized by self importance, arrogance and greed.

Control: As a result of my Vietnam experience and what I later encountered in life, I have come to realize that we really have very little control of matters outside ourselves. My experience taught me in the leading of my soldiers, relationships with my wife and the raising of my children, that I should not pat myself on the back too hard when things go well nor overly chastise myself when they don't. Christian values go a long way towards illuminating the road to a decent life, as do treating others with respect and kindness. In combat however, while these principles still apply, it is often necessary to make recourse to authority and compel soldiers to do things they don't want to do. It is the same with raising children. Setting a good example, having standards of conduct, are important but also important is giving others a chance to make mistakes. Given that my goal as a father and leader was not to screw up the development of those I was responsible for, I had to accept and underwrite the inevitable consequence of behaviors that have to be learned in the school of hard experience.

Esteem: In Vietnam I managed to hold my value system together. I did nothing to bring dishonor onto myself, my units and superiors. I've always fancied myself a good man with all the imperfections inherent is the human condition. I am fortunate to have survived some very difficult times and emerged intact both physically and mentally. Still, I have my scars, baggage and unique cast of demons. They cause me to bolt upright in the dead of night and cry out to God to forgive me my imperfections. I would change none of the things I have experienced, but must have fallen short in ways I can't fathom or remember, because of the nightmares I'm plagued with.

Intimacy: I see intimacy as ones relationship with a spouse. It is not something for a leader to pursue with someone else particularly where a direct line of authority exists. If a leader is "married" then they should not seek intimacy with anyone that is not their "Significant Other." For a leader I'd use instead the term "Familiarity." In a platoon in combat it is often said that "Familiarity breeds Contempt." What this means is that if the Lieutenant or NCO, allows subordinates they get to know them too well, then then followers can no longer attribute to their mental or moral qualities, the benefit of the doubt. They come to see their leader as someone no better than they are. He or she is exactly who they are. Soldiers ideally want to be led by a God, but have to settle for a human being. They want to attribute to that mortal qualities that they often don't possess in large measure. If a leader cavorts with subordinates they soon realize that they are not dealing with someone exceptional but only an ordinary person or worse, who like themselves are prone to all the shortcomings that human beings demonstrate in their daily lives. They do not view this as conducive to their longevity. In the life and death world of a combat environment they understand that a leader is human but want that leader to be as close to Godlike as they can get. It might sound bizarre to the uninitiated, but to a soldier God becomes very real. If they can't have one of the almighty for their leader then soldiers want someone of the highest mental and moral standard, someone who at the very least is in good standing with God, who in leading them will bring the benefit of a person in good stead with the divine and the umbrella that relationship provides. So the "Familiarity" rule generally holds in that it keeps the baseness of a leader hidden from view and allows for the attribution of the benefit of doubt, however, in rare cases it can also lead to a realization that a leader ls someone with exceptional qualities and in such rare instances "Familiarity can lead to awe."

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