Everyone who knows me knows that I have fallen in love with the study of historical leadership since learning from the LIFE Leadership subscriptions and mentoring with Orrin Woodward. Lessons in leadership abound from the study of history. Lessons in bravery, courage, and heroic measures can teach leadership that can be applied during our time. Shockingly, as I have reviewed my research, there are only a few books written about the Vietnam War. I was curious why this was. I grew up during this controversial time. I remember the protests and the riots of the sixties and seventies. Many of them I attended. When GI’s returned from the Vietnam War there were no parades like there were in World War II. In fact there was hostility toward the GI’s. Accounts of this war are largely ignored and there are minimal amounts of books written about this time. Popular opinion developed that was largely against the war. Many men who fought said after the war “They were never allowed to win the war.” It was a war where many lost their lives and those who lived have scars that will remain forever. I became curious when I found accounts of this period were mostly ignored by historians but gained a significant amount of knowledge that I learned from fellow LIFE Leadership subscriber Michael.
The average age of a Marine joining the Vietnam War was eighteen or nineteen, barely out of high school. Young men from hometowns through out America ended up in Vietnam. I remember getting a draft card at the end of my senior year of high school and I wasn’t happy about the prospects of going to war. Many kids that enlisted had families who served in the military in the past. My friend Michael joined on a dare. Michael said, “My dad was thrilled to death that I had joined because I was the first in the family since my grandfather.” He says, “My mother was scared to death that I would go to Vietnam. She was also very proud, but you know how mothers are.” Michael was very excited to start doing duty for his country. He wanted to prove what he could do.
My Father – in – law Gene served in Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. Thinking of him and Michael made me remember that Semper Fidelis (Semper Fi) stood for “Always Faithful.” For a marine the beginning of this brotherhood and lessons in leadership are learned from boot camp. Boot camp was a hard way to learn simple lessons. “You learn that you can push yourself much farther than you think you can.” “People think they have limits.” In combat, a minor infraction can cost a life. In combat, you are not an individual, you are a team. During boot camp, drill instructors are tough, tireless, and demanding, but there is a method to their madness. They are there to train you at all levels to assume leadership. If you are not broken from the weeding out process you move forward to becoming a Marine but when Michael went to Camp Pendleton he found, “There wasn’t a combat Marine yet that said he wasn’t afraid.”
Originally the country Vietnam splintered into two parts while fighting for independence from France in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In 1966 fighting increased as the communist north attempted to reunite with the south. Most of Americans considered the war to be justified because they were thinking it would stem the tide of communism. The “domino theory” was the prevailing philosophy at the time. People thought that the loss of freedom would spread from one country to another. The Vietnamese Army was a professional army stationed near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. The Viet Cong who were masters of guerilla warfare were farther south. Both were devoted to their cause.
In the book, Lions of Medina, Doyle D. Glass describes the scene. "Fighting in boot camp compared to the jungle was different. The skills needed in the steamy conditions were new. Vietnam was a hot, backward, rural area where people where poor. It was dirty. The people there did not speak English. People there just wanted to get on with their lives. They didn’t care about politics. When Michael first arrived in March of 1967 he felt like the air was a furnace blast as the doors opened from his plane. Looking at the Marines returning from duty left a lasting impression on him." They were all very young but when they returned they appeared to have aged. They were changed.
When Michael joined a rifle company called Charlie Company, he knew he would learn new lessons very quickly. Listening to his lieutenant he heard, “We don’t play John Wayne around here. You don’t stand up and shoot your rifle like in the movies.” The hero keeps the other guy alive.” Michael said, “If you get any incoming, you get your head down, get to cover, and then return fire.” “It’s not like school when you have time to look up the answer to the problem. You just do it.” In combat, you don’t have much time to think other than, “What do I want to do to overcome this obstacle.” Doyle D. Glass, author of ‘Lions of Medina’ writes, “When a guy got shot he didn’t move himself out of the field of fire. The corpsman had to go into the field of fire to get him. It’s like a paramedic with no highway patrolman around to slow traffic.” There were also unsuspecting elements to deal with like Agent Orange that would be sprayed overhead causing the foliage to wilt instantly. It felt like mosquito spray but it burned. The Marines learned that staying on the trails would lead to ambushes and mines. When Michael asked a veteran how he survived he was told, “I never walk anywhere. I always run in a zig - zag, or an erratic pattern.”
Michael became a radioman. Radiomen were marked targets for several reasons. Without radios, men would be stranded without support. Communication is critical in battle. Without leadership, chaos would happen. Michael had to stay with the Lieutenant at all times. You needed to develop a sixth sense. You could always find the lieutenant by finding the radioman. The lieutenant was the leader. Lieutenants demanded accountability, commanded respect, and in turn respected each person’s capacities. In addition, his lieutenant had a sense of humor that seemed to keep the men bound together.
Carving a trail through the forest with a machete was the work of the point man. It was tough work and point men needed to be spelled frequently. The marines needed to stay off the trail because of the hidden booby traps. In Glass’s book, he describes a battle occurring in the deep part of the night when grenades started to fall all around the marines. Michael said, “It was like the fourth of July.” He covered his head as grenades began to detonate. Glass writes, “Picture yourself in a pitch – black setting, except for flashes of light. You have to know who the guy is on your left and on your right. When squad leaders were wounded and no longer able to lead, somebody would automatically step up into their place.” Michael was part of this coordinated effort. It was the brotherhood that held the Marine Corps together. Michael knew, “The Vietnamese were right on top of them.” The heroism of the 18 and 19 year olds was shown through that night. Michael says, “When the reinforcements came it was better than winning a million dollars.” Afterward that traumatic night Michael was sent on rest and recovery. He never talked about his mission but he did thank God for getting him through it.
I opened up the book cover that Michael gave me that recounts his experience in Vietnam. On the inside cover he wrote me, “George, you are an awesome leader. The best there is, Semper Fi. See you at the top.” You will always find Michael walking into the Madison Wisconsin seminar with his Marine Corp hat, medals and limping with a cane. You see he is the time - keeper that sits in the front row. Have you ever thought you were up against insurmountable odds? Have you ever thought that the tide of popular opinion was against you? Michael told me that he “often thought about taking his life, that if it wasn’t for LIFE Leadership and Orrin Woodward he probably would have.” The next time you think about your challenges think about Michael. I only hope that you and I develop half the courage that Michael demonstrated. It’s he that is the true leader. God Bless, George Guzzardo