11 Things I Learned in Vietnam That Made Me More Successful in My Civilian Career

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LTG Robert Cushman, USMC, awarding the Legion of Merit to the Author

by James G. Van Straten

Van Straten is the author of A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam, a new memoir describing his service as a Medical Service Corps during the early years of the Vietnam War. Assigned as the senior medical advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in I Corps, an area close to the DMZ, he traveled extensively and interacted with military officers and non-commissioned officers, peasant-class farmers, Buddhist bonzes, shopkeepers, scribes, physicians, nurses, the mentally ill, and even political operatives. Daily letters that he wrote to his wife from July 1966 through June 1967 are the detailed basis for his book.

After he retired from the military in 1986. Van Straten moved into academia. In 1990, he was appointed dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. In this article, he reflects on lessons learned during his service have helped in his civilian career. All photos in the article are courtesy of James G. Van Straten.

1. Fear is your worst enemy: deal with it, overcome it.Image13

ARVN soldiers in staging area after being alerted for airlift into battle

2. Follow your gut; if it feels wrong, it probably is.

3. When you enter new territory, if the indigenous people don’t come out of their homes to greet you, be careful. Something is wrong.

4. Never hold a grudge. It will only make your heart heavy and cloud your judgment.

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Vietnamese man transporting empty casket on his bicycle

5. Keep the well-being of your soldiers foremost in your mind. You’re responsible for their lives.

6. Live in the moment; be mindful of your surroundings.

7. Good and evil exist simultaneously in each person’s mind. It’s up to each individual to sort out the two and determine which path to follow.

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Political detainees being vaccinated against cholera using air gun

8. Take care of your soldiers. Respect them and their work. It will be key to your success.

9. To succeed, sometimes to stay alive, you’ve got to make tough and timely decisions, usually with incomplete data.

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Heavily laden don ganhs in the central marketplace of DaNang

10. Bad assumptions can kill you.

11. Study the issues before deciding on a course of action–but do decide. Do not delay or defer important decisions or you will, in all likelihood, get burned by your indecision.Straten_CoverLayout_01c