Exert 3 The "Cussin" Soldier

    !967 near the Cambodian border with South Vietnam - Very soon the night closed in around us and it became almost pitch black. Flares began to "magically" appear overhead, but it was not magic at all. It was delivered by flare canisters being shot from the big guns of another fire base located several miles down the road. Their lights illuminated the area so we could see to dig in. However, the ground was extremely hard, and it quickly became clear to everyone that this job was not going to be easy. When midnight came, we were still digging. The flares kept coming, making little popping sounds as their parachutes opened above us. As they descended to the ground, they created weird shadows which danced against the jungle backdrop. The effect was enhanced by the flare, itself, as it swung back and forth below its little white parachute, magnifying even more the eerie motion of those shadows.

     One of the guys in my platoon was especially perturbed about the situation. His wife had recently sent him a "Dear John" letter and I am sure that aggravated his mood even more. As he was digging, he started cussing louder and louder. He could be heard a long way off by everyone on our side of the perimeter and there was not a single N.C.O. who bothered telling him to calm down. We were all "bone tired" and if the truth be known he was probably saying nothing more than what the rest of us, including the N.C.O.s, felt like saying.

     As this loud cussing streak continued, this "red faced man" became so focused on digging and cussing in cadence with every blow of his entrenching tool that he failed to see two shadowy figures quietly approaching from the direction of the big guns behind us. It was Dick and our B company C.O. They managed to walk within six feet of the hole that this guy was digging, without being seen by him. Dick now stood directly behind and above the man, with his hands on his hips, looking straight down at him. Oblivious to their presence, the "cussing soldier" just kept digging and cussing away. It seemed like a long time but was probably no more than fifteen seconds. Finally, the man glanced up from his work long enough to notice that the rest of us were standing "dead still" looking steadfastly at something behind him. This caused him to stop digging and look to his rear as well. When he did, he immediately threw down his entrenching tool, did an "about face", stood straight up and saluted our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Dick Cavazos, which was really something we were not supposed to do while in the field. There was no return salute, as everyone including the cussing soldier waited on the inevitable "dressing down" which would surely come from Dick, or any commander, for that matter, in the First Infantry Division. Yet, the "dressing down" never came. Instead, as the soldier slowly lowered his salute, Dick, with a very measured tone in his voice, beckoned the soldier to come up out of his hole and face him face to face. The man meekly complied and climbed out of his half-dug foxhole. Then, as the soldier stood very still before him, he calmly spoke to the soldier as if he were speaking to his own son. I have never forgotten those words to this very day. They were not rebuking words. Nor were they angry or accusatory words. They were just remarkably simple and very direct words which stated the facts. "I know how tired you are and how hard this ground is, but you have got to finish digging that hole, because it will save your life". Now, get back down there and finish the job”. As the man turned to jump back into his foxhole, Richard then caught him with a gentle tap of his right boot to the man's rear end. That was the icing on the cake in this model display of command presence and the man responded appropriately, with a loud fake grunt, while looking back over his shoulder with a smile on his face. There is no doubt in my mind that this entire scene had been choreographed during past command experiences in the life of this veteran commander, possibly as far back as some of his interactions with his own father as a child. Now, it was not only being replayed for the cussing man's benefit, but for the other fifteen or twenty grunts standing nearby, as well. It was also a lesson in real leadership for our "numb-scull" company commander, Captain Brown, to take note of. It is too bad that Brown lost his pencil before he was able to jot down those notes. After the two commanders moved on and everyone went back to their digging, far from being angry, the cussing man kept looking around, periodically, with that same sheepish grin on his face. That silly little grin “pretty-well” said it all. It told how this seemingly insignificant encounter between "Dogface 6" and us frustrated grunts could not only be used to defuse our growing frustrations, but it also was a good example of how great leaders are able to bond with those they lead in the smallest of ways long before the big battles take place. 

     This display of leadership did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because then Lt. Colonel Richard Cavazos had been the recipient of a great gift. Growing up on the King Ranch had given him the means to observe and learn from another great leader, his ranch foreman father, Lauro Cavazos. He was able to witness time and again his father's way of drawing his expectations out of his lead vaqueros. Lauro, had an uncanny ability to motivate all his ranch hands, as well as himself, to do better. The ranch was huge and the various job sites were sometimes separated by many miles. Much forethought was needed to make sure the right supplies, tools, and competent workers, arrived on a job site, to complete a job, without having to continually send someone back for something that they had forgotten to bring along, in the first place. Whether repairing miles of fence, rounding up hundreds of strays or fixing a critical water pump for livestock, these jobs would never get done if supplies and tools were delivered piecemeal or if the job was left to inexperienced or unmotivated workers. Lauro expected every ranch hand to pull his own weight just as he expected his own two son's to complete their daily chores. However, Lauro was enlightened enough to realize that it was best to avoid the kind of heavy handedness, which would certainly break the "spirit" of a ranch hand or a son. Yet, work and chores needed to be completed in a timely and proper manner. People definitely needed to be corrected. As children, Dick, and his brother Lauro Jr. were as foolish as any other child, understanding nothing of what I have just said. Why should they? They were just children. However, they did understand one thing. There would be a consequence dealt out by their dad each and every time they failed to do their chores on time and in the manner expected. That consequence would be dealt in the form of the dreaded "talk" and their father was a master at using the "talk". He could heap more conviction on a person than a "hell fire and brim stone preacher" at a "tent revival". Notice, I use the term "conviction" and not “condemnation”. What's the difference? Well, I am glad you asked. Convicting words are rooted in love and condemning words are rooted in anger and hate. Lauro loved his ranch hands, and he definitely loved his sons. Remarkably, after all was said and done, the dreaded "talk' actually had a way of making the recipient feel better. Why? Because "the Talk" would become the chastisement and thus the end of it, if the subject of the "talk" would just turn from the "error of his ways". When Dick dealt with the "cussin" soldier, that night at “Fire Base Thrust”, he was simply delivering an imprinted version of his father's many "talks" with him, and I was able to witness the results with my own eyes.

      What I have just briefly described here is the duty of every leader. If "the enlightened Talk" is ignored by a leader, then bad things will eventually happen to that child, that soldier, and even a nation, given enough time for this neglect to spread. Dick went on to become a four star General and his brother, Lauro Jr. became president of Texas Tech, as well as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education.