I Should Have Done Something

Service in the military can be very challenging.  An element of danger is there for everyone and it’s omnipresent for many.  Nevertheless, the military can really spoil you.  Responsibility, yes.  Reliable paychecks, yes.  A roof over your head (in kind or through payment), yes.  The same for victuals.  The work is usually long, often challenging, and can be tremendously fulfilling.  Responsibility comes early, increases rapidly, and can take on huge dimensions.

Despite all these characteristics which make Service life good, what spoiled me the most was the overwhelming professionalism of those I worked for, with or supervised.  Across the board, great people.

Almost.  I can count on a single had the number of people who embarrassed me because they wore the same military uniform I did.  The first one was one of our own Palace Dog English teachers in Saigon.

We had a lot of guys serving as teachers spread among six schools.  Three were in Saigon and one each in Vung Tau, Nha Trang, and Dalat.  We represented a broad cross-section of America, but were all college graduates with some having their master or doctoral degrees.  It was that level of education that set us apart within the entire US military.  No other all enlisted (and junior enlisted at that) unit was composed solely of college graduates as its operational personnel.

As with our country, we also were across the spectrum in our thinking about the value/viability of the Viet Nam War.  We’d joined the Air Force for a variety of reasons, but the primary one was the same as mine.  We wanted to avoid the draft, the Army and Viet Nam.  Then, with our educations, we were put in a personnel pipeline that led straight to Viet Nam.

Our duty there was to be English teachers five hours a day.  Tough duty, huh?  We may have been scared, we may have been lonely, and we may have been derailed in our personal or professional plans.  But we didn’t have it tough.  Our behaviors were more dangerous to us than the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.  We should have been thankful.  Most of us, at least with a rearview perspective on everything, were.

Except for this one guy.  He resented his situation so much that he put people’s lives in danger, while he lived in relative comfort and safety.  At worst, he was in the training pipeline for six months, was assigned for one year in Viet Nam, and perhaps another couple of years at one base in the United States as he finished up his four year enlistment.  Though I never kept track of him, I cannot imagine he stayed in the military.  At least, I hope he did not.

What he did that was so egregious was to teach his students “opposites.”  Up was down, down was up.  Pretty was ugly; ugly was beautiful.  Stop was go, and so on.  I ran across this situation in my second tour when I had his class as a substitute teacher on a day he was not available.  Because we all had the same textbook and were all to progress on a lock step schedule, it was fairly easy to be a substitute.  Get the class number and get the training week, you’ve got the book and lesson set to go.  Pretty much anyway.

His was a midlevel class.  I walked in, did the usual “Good afternoon,” greeting and was pleasantly surprised when several students replied with something like, “We’re great.  How are you doing?”  It was perfect conversational English, with perfect intonation and pronunciation.  We were lucky if we could develop those capabilities with Specialized level students after they’d been a year in school.

He’d had these guys for two books — four weeks — and it was like being in Mr. Kotter’s classroom.  It takes great rapport with the students and hours of repetitive practice to develop that ability.  His predecessors and he had done a great job.  After just a few minutes of this, I noticed a consistent anomaly in their vocabulary.  It was the “opposite” thing.  “Ya wanna go in for a beer?”  “What’s down doc?”  “I worked so hard today I’m done out.”

At first, I thought it was sort of funny, made the corrections and moved on.  Later in the week, I ran into an earlier class of his that was just about to be washed out of the school for failing their English Comprehension Level (ECL) tests.  They, too, lived in an “opposites” vocabulary world.  He’d trained his students well.

However, the impacts of his actions may very well have proved tragic.  Impacts he may not have considered.  Impacts that may have come to pass regardless of what he did.  Yet, as this has festered within me over time, these were probably impacts about which he really didn’t give a damn.

What I’m talking about was what happened to the vast majority of students who washed out of the schools in which we taught.  In the first place, they were in that school because they’d scored at least at the minimum level on a language aptitude test.  That test didn’t guarantee success though.  The aptitude had to be developed by good teachers and hard work by the students.  Without one or the other – preferably both – aptitude represented unfulfilled potential.

All those students of ours at least had the potential to succeed.  Their failure to progress through the books and American Language Course, progress defined by continuing to pass the book level tests, resulted in them being washed out of the school and returned to the infantry units from which most of them were drawn.  Success in our school was a way to learn English, a way to learn their jobs taught in technical schools in the United States, a way to move up in rank, a way to serve their country, and a way to improve their quality of life.

Failure meant going back primarily to combat and logistics units.  The units on the front lines of the war.  Where the bullets hit the bone.

No doubt some of our successful graduates later died in the Service.  It was much more likely that our unsuccessful students would die though.  This unprofessional member of our special group of Americans may have contributed to that.

He’ll never know.  I’ll never know, but at least I’ve wondered.  I should have done something to stop it.

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