DaNang, Vietnam
Spring, 1967
by Bob Sanders

All my life I've been called a "Leader," but that is not necessarily always a good thing…

It started when I was young. In fact, in kindergarten, on my very first day, I was called on to lead all the other little kinders in the Pledge of Allegiance. This is sometimes a hard cross to bear, being a Leader. It sounds fine, and it makes you feel good, but oft times that is the extent of the benefits. Many more times being the Leader had cost me something.

For instance, food. Growing up, when that last delectable chocolate chip cookie was on the plate, my Mother would say, "Now son, you are the oldest (meaning Leader), so let your baby brother Richard have that cookie." Cookie gone, but leadership talents enhanced.

Being a Leader also often caused pain. As a teenager, the Leader was always expected to test the new kid on the block. And most times that new kid could hit, kick, and bite with the best of them. And if you lived in a neighborhood with a lot of families moving in and out, as I did, you spent a lot of time recovering from "leadership wounds."

Then sometimes being a Leader would be expensive. As one got older, and went out for a few drinks with the boys, they expected you, as Leader, to pick up the tab. As Leader, you had to dress better, have a nicer car, and, if you had a date, you couldn't just go to a fast food drive-in but at least reach as high as a Bonanza Steak House for your dinner.

But somehow, just being known as the Leader overcame all these drawbacks. I always walked tall, was proud, and, over the years, developed a sort of easy-going arrogance about my role.

After graduation from college, during the early years of the Vietnam conflict, my ingrained conception of being a Leader led me right into the arms of the United States Marine Corps. Right away I found myself with 49 other Leaders in a platoon of officer candidates at Quantico, Virginia. We were only candidates to become 2nd Lieutenants, who everyone knows aren't really officers. You had to become at least a 1st Lieutenant to really be an officer. But that fact didn't deter us 50 from trying to out-Leader one another.

You can't even begin to imagine trying to be a real Leader among 50 would be Leaders! We all spent our time and best efforts on trying to make the chosen Leader for the day from our Platoon look bad. But we had to do it in such a way that the Drill Instructors didn't realize what we were doing. We Leaders learned some real Machiavellian tactics during those USMC Officer Candidate school days, along with a little bit about infantry tactics.

Soon after graduating from the Officer Candidate School, and then the Basic School, and becoming a brand new "90 Day Wonder" 2nd Lieutenant, I found myself in Vietnam. I arrived in DaNang on Christmas Eve, 1966, along with 32 other new USMC 2nd Lieutenants, each of us convinced we represented the ultimate in Leaders. Having survived the trials of Quantico, we were confident that we would be great Leaders of lesser Marines, and visions of leading charges up hills and attacks on pillboxes were in our minds.

In Vietnam, units, after initial deployment, were not replaced as complete outfits but individuals were constantly coming in to replace casualties and those rotating back to the States after completing their 13 months tour. So, no matter how leaderish you felt, you were still the newest kid on the block. And this was a very tough block where more than kicking and slugging was being dished out.

My plan was to lay low and let my leadership qualities sorta have a rest. I was lucky and inherited an experienced Platoon Sergeant who was in his ninth month in-country. He was a lifer in the Corps, from Oklahoma, where I had gone to school, and we hit it off pretty well. I was glad to have him run the show and let my Leader role take a back seat for a while.

I did so well in the backseat that after a little time went by, it became evident that most of my platoon began to think that I didn't even have any leadership abilities. Now they didn't just come right out and say "Lt., you ain't no Leader." They just sorta let me know in other, more subtle ways. Like on this one particular patrol, about my third or fourth, after no real action on any of the earlier ones. We were called up to assist this other platoon that has been ambushed and was having a hard time breaking contact. I was given the map coordinates where the firefight was taking place and I immediately started the necessary map work to get us there.

Now the jungles of Vietnam are a little different from the woods around Quantico but I figured the principles were the same to get from point A to point B. This was to be my real chance to exhibit my leadership talents, especially since the Platoon Sergeant was off in Bangkok on R&R.

I called the squad leaders together and assigned one Corporal to go 10 meters to this side and another to go 10 meters to that side, while I assigned the middle track to myself. In this manner I would allow for a margin of error. I used to do this doing the orienteering exercises at Quantico, but had to do all three tracks myself. Heck, this was going to be even easier because I didn't have to do all three alone!

Before we could start, though, the first Corporal said, "Ah, Sir," and then the second one said, "Ah, Sir."

I am open-minded and was willing to allow feedback, so I asked the first one, "Corporal, was that an 'Ah, Sir' question or an 'Ah, Sir' acknowledgement to my orders?"

He didn't answer directly but said, "There ain't no trail 10 meters over there, and even if there were you couldn't keep track of where I was and you was."

A good point, I thought. But rather than be hasty, I asked the other Corporal if his "Ah, Sir" was a question or what.

He also avoided a direct reply but said, “That 10 meters on the other side there is a trail, and the Viet Cong sure do like to booby-trap trails, and how about I take your track and you take mine?”

Another good point. For him.

I don't want to go into how we got to where we were supposed to be, after all this is not a war story but a leadership story. This little episode is just to show you what they were thinking of my leadership. We did get there, by the way, but not as I originally planned.

There were other times, in those first few weeks, when one or another of the troops would respond to one of my orders with "Ah, Sir." I thought, after awhile, that this "Ah, Sir" phrase was a catchy little bit of American slang that had caught on in Nam, sorta like "The Judge Made Me Do It" that was all the rage in the States for a year or two.

Well, it came to pass, after I had been in-country about three months, and had been through several little firefights and one or two bigger engagements, that the Platoon Sergeant and I were enjoying a quiet moment together, talking about his impending return to the States. One of the old timers, a 19 year old Lance Corporal, came up to ask my permission to catch a ride into DaNang to go to the P.X.

I didn't think it was a good idea for him to be away from our base camp right then, so, calling upon my Leader talents, I explained my negative answer to him.

The Lance Corporal said, "Ah, Sir..." and started to walk off.

The Platoon Sergeant jumped up and yelled, "Come Back Here!

The Lance Corporal hurried back and stood trembling. The Sergeant said, "Apologize to the Lt.," which he did in quick fashion, and then practically ran getting away from us.

Well now, I was mystified and said, "Sergeant, that troop didn't owe me any apology."

"Sir," said the Sergeant, "Have you noticed how many times these troops have answered you with this 'Ah, Sir' routine?"

Of course I had, and said so.

"Sir, do you know what these little smart guys were doing?"

"Yea, they are caught up in some catchy slang...it will pass."

"No Sir. 'Ah, Sir' is not really Ah, Sir...it is A period H period. Get it? It means 'Ass Hole, Sir'."

I was silent for a couple of minutes as I mulled this over. Finally, I asked, "You mean that every time they used the term 'Ah, Sir' they were calling me an asshole?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Why didn't you stop them before, or at least tell me about this?"

"Sir, in my experience all new 2nd Lieutenants are ass holes at first, and some are their whole time over here, or until they get shot or something. It only took you a few months to graduate. Until recently, you were an 'Ah, Sir.' These guys have already quit using that with you, that troop just forgot, it was so much a habit."

Right then I knew that my Leader label had taken on a whole new aspect. Mostly it had been a constant and unconscious game, always being played but with no definite rules. But now, these survivors, these Real Leaders in this war that wasn't a game, had taught and shown me the true responsibilities of being a Leader.

Soon after the Sergeant had let me in on the secret leadership test that I had been going through, the Platoon was altogether for an inspection. We were as spic and span as we could be, but felt this was a ridiculous drill to have to go through, in the muck of Nam. But our new Captain, new to us and on his first tour in Vietnam, was taking over the Company and he had called for the inspection. In only a few days he had established himself as real pompous and one who “went by the book.”

As the Captain approached my Platoon, I called the men to attention and gave him a real snappy salute. In my best leadership voice I said, "Ah, Sir, the Platoon is ready for inspection."

It was terrific, but unfortunately we got a lot of demerits because most of the men fell down, laughing and rolling around on the ground, holding their sides, which one is not supposed to do during an inspection.

The Platoon Sergeant returned to the States soon after this, and I continued to work on my leadership abilities. The Platoon's casualties were considerable below the norm for those active Vietnam years; I always felt it was because of the extra leadership training I had received in the field. I had been privileged to lead men where it wasn't a game, and I would never be able to repay those young, but old, troops, for sending me back into the "real" world with a much better sense of the responsibility of a real Leader.

© 2009 Bob Sanders.  All rights resereved.