As we approach Memorial Day, I am reminded about those remarkable men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. I often think about my Dad who served as a medic in General George Patton’s 3rd Infantry Division and marvel. How did a diminutive man from a large farm family earn a silver star and four purple hearts? Those awards alone are evidence of both his valor and ability to recover from injury and keep going. Yet, like many in his generation he rarely spoke about his heroic service. It was only many years later that I fully understood his bravery. He told how an enemy shell hit his squad and he was the only man who survived. A long ugly scar on his leg, showed he barely escaped. At one point, he found himself behind enemy lines and spent two weeks hiding and maneuvering to eventually rejoin friendly forces. My dad was a hero.
As a plebe, when I would earn the privilege to call home from West Point and want to complain about how difficult it was and detail all the abuses, my Dad would listen and simply say, “Well, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
And if I kept up my tirade, he would cut me off and tell me how expensive the call was and then I knew it would be cut short. To some my Dad, may have seemed a bit callous, yet at the time, he knew I needed to lean into a difficult situation, have faith and just keep going.
I imagine those brave men and women whom we celebrate this Memorial Day also chose duty over convenience and for that we should all be eternally thankful. Perhaps we can learn to complain less when we remember and honor them. Join me as I share a bit from the chapter in my book entitled No Whining!
Cadets are notorious complainers. When we are Plebes, we complained about our outrageous Squad leaders and those overbearing Upperclassmen. During the academic year, we complained about those overly demanding professors or those horrendous assignments like the infamous “Sosh” paper. If we were more lovers and poets than those more gifted in math and engineering, we made known our disdain for classes like Differential Equations and “Juice” (electrical engineering). If we espoused a love for regiment and the military profession and did not get a slot as a Cadet Basic Training Squad leader, we complained about our assignment at the “lesser” Camp Buckner. We complained about being forced to stand at attention for long periods of time during an inspection or before a parade. Most of us cadets complained that we never got enough sleep. And most of the Corps would agree that the Department of Physical Education (DPE) Instructors had it in for all of us.
If you were a woman at West Point, you complained about the male cadets who seemed to “have it in” for us, or who belittled and ridiculed our every move. We complained about those who made female cadet jokes, such as that all women members of the Corps have “Hudson Hips” disease – a reference to the wide Hudson River upon which the Academy is located. If you were male, you may have complained about women cadets dropping out of runs, being granted favoritism or degrading the standards of the Academy.
We all complained, yet I find this is a common human condition. Much of the experience of the Academy, however, was to learn to cope despite being stressed, frustrated, marginalized, overly tired, cold and sometimes even hungry. In admitting we had no excuse; we were learning to accept personal responsibility.
The incorporation of “no whining” began early. As New Cadets, when corrected on our uniform or lacking Plebe “poop” or knowledge, we simply learned to state: “No Excuse, Sir (or Ma’am). In admitting we had no excuse; we were learning to accept personal responsibility. The demands placed on cadets, whether physical, academic or emotional, were designed to develop our character and commitment to service to our nation. Those trials developed our ability to handle multiple responsibilities at the same time and to do so with candor and integrity. Although we moaned and derided the bane of our very existence, we gradually learned to handle more and complain less. We were learning to get busy and get going.
At the very end of our seven weeks of Cadet Basic Training or “Beast,” our cadre would prepare us for a week at Lake Frederick. Our Squad leader would build this “dream” of Lake Frederick as the land of milk and honey. A place where we could get “boodle” (access to candy and cookies). We began the week with a 12-mile road march out to the lake. We knew this week would be challenging and yet, once completed, we would then march the 12 miles back to the Academy and no longer be New Cadets but accepted as members of the Corps.
We had been warned that part of this event was to successfully complete the Bayonet Assault course. All summer we had drilled for hours with our M16s with bayonets attached. We would run in formation to the drilling field chanting words like, “Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow.” In the sweltering heat of the summer, we were taught to “parry” and “thrust” to administer “butt strokes” and “slash” maneuvers. We were paired with other cadets and practiced slashing and slicing with a pugil stick (a padded stick with large oval cushions on either end). We were taught to jab at an opponent, and they in turn could block us and even overcome us.
I remember that my fellow woman opponent and I struggled to go on the offensive. We each would turn our backs and absorb blows by one another rather than attack. Aggression was contrary to how we were raised. We tried not to laugh after being yelled at as we tried again and again to fight aggressively.
We were not only being taught hand-to-hand combat, but also a warrior-type spirit. “Blood, blood, blood makes that grass grow!” I struggled emotionally with repeating these harsh cadences as we marched to the Bayonet Assault practice field. Yet, after many hours of drilling, we were instructed to simulate killing our arch rival’s mascot, the Navy goat. It was then, I confess, that the transformation happened – I became Athena the Warrior! I screamed and yelled, and I enjoyed slashing and smashing that imaginary farm animal.
At Lake Frederick we were required to successfully navigate the Bayonet Assault course while running and toting the pugil stick. The course began by running up a steep mountain pass, then navigating through uneven terrain and assaulting a series of adversaries. The “enemy” in this case was rumored to all be members of the Army football team.
When you are 5’2” and weigh 100 lbs., you get worried that you may not do well fighting a football player. To make matters worse, Lake Frederick did not turn out to be the Promised Land. It was cold and rainy. And although my roommate, Tracey Brown Curley and I carved a ditch around our tent, the rain still ran into our tiny living quarters. Cold and wet, we did not sleep while cradling our weapons on the night before the event.
To read how I fared with the Bayonet Assault Course, check out my book!
Later in life I met another hero. Through the West Point Society of Richmond, Virginia, I had the privilege to get to know Paul Galanti, U.S. Navy Commander (Retired). Paul is a United States Naval Academy graduate and former Vietnam prisoner of war (POW). Paul became a real champion to me; he encouraged me and mentored me in my various corporate roles.
At just 26 years of age, Paul, a Navy pilot, was shot down by enemy fire and spent nearly seven years as a prisoner. He was held in a prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. He was tortured and beaten, even so he endured until his release. As I got to know him, I inquired how he kept going given the unrelenting persecution of his captors. He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I knew that the CAG (Commander Air Group), James Stockdale was in the camp. He was 46 years old and was badly injured with a shattered knee. Paul, continued, “I thought, if this ‘old guy’ can do it, then so can I.”
The endurance of his leader was enough for Paul to make it through another minute, another hour, and then weeks and years. In turn, Paul and the other detainees found ways to communicate with one another to keep up their spirits despite their situation.
The Tap Code1
- Letters were comprised of two sets of taps, separated by a pause. The first set goes down the column. The second set goes across the rows.
- Example: For “A,” tap once, pause, then tap once more. For “B,” tap once, pause, then tap twice. For “S,” tap four times, pause, then tap three times.
- “C” and “K” shared a block because of their similar hard sounds.
First, using the Tap Code method, inmates could pass information and encouragement to their fellow captives. The code was simple and easy to learn. The prisoners would tap on walls, pipes and even one another. They used abbreviations such a “GN” for Good night and “GBU” for God bless you.2
Later in their internment they used a form of sign language to more quickly communicate, undetected. Using both communication systems enabled the inmates to bond and maintain their sanity. It also created
a sense of order by re-establishing the chain of command. As the years passed, Paul and his fellow prisoners were eventually allowed to spend time in larger groups. To fight off boredom, they began to teach one another difficult subjects such as chemistry or would re-create movies in great detail and all by memory. This type of learning gave Paul an insatiable desire to learn when he was released. Moreover, Paul came through his captivity with the ability to encourage and inspire others. One of his quotes, puts most of our daily challenges in perspective:
“There is no such thing as a bad day when you have a doorknob on the inside of the door.”
Paul Galanti, U.S. Navy Commander (Retired)
Another benefit of knowing Paul was meeting his equally impressive wife, Phyllis. While Paul was fighting his own battles as a POW, Phyllis would emerge as the Chairwoman of the National League of Families of American POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia. Phyllis had gone to college to become a French teacher; however, she was so shy, she was too intimidated to teach. After Paul was taken captive, she began a tireless effort to free the POWs. She was the first non-elected official to ever address a Joint Session of the Virginia General Assembly. She led a powerful letter writing campaign to raise awareness across the country concerning those husbands and fathers still in captivity. Remember this was in the 1960s, raising awareness in this manner had never been done. Nevertheless, the pioneering women of the National League of Families eventually earned the support of the nation. The letter writing campaign even led to a meeting with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
The business tycoon, Ross Perot, sponsored trips of delegations of these wives and family members to the Paris peace talks. On one trip, Phyllis learned of a secret meeting of North Vietnamese. She bolted into the conference room and in perfect French, including some expletives, demanded the North Vietnamese improve the conditions of the captives and release the American POWs.
Her tireless efforts strengthened the hearts of the women and families left waiting and led to the release of many POWs, including her beloved Paul. Her transformation, as described by her husband, was summarized like this:
“When I left, my wife was a kitten.
When I came back, she was a tiger!”
Paul Galanti, U.S. Navy Commander (Retired)
We lost Phyllis a few years ago to an aggressive form of cancer. At her funeral, a good friend delivered her eulogy that detailed her notable achievements both before and after Paul’s release. One memorable tidbit shared was that Phyllis’s chosen email address was email@example.com.
When I heard that I smiled, but I was not in the least surprised. Phyllis, Paul and my Dad demonstrated fortitude over complaining. They knew there was no upside in lamenting their situation. Rather, they continued the fight and chose to embrace hope despite the realty of their situation. Just as I learned during the Bayonet Assault course as I was struggling to my feet from that pool of mud, I chose to get up, keep one foot in front of the other and just keep going… No excuses.