After U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, I was named head of the covert NSA operation in South Vietnam. I found myself in charge of forty-three men who looked to me for guidance. Their safety and wellbeing, and that of their wives and children who were with them, were my responsibility.
By the time I took over as head of NSA’s detachment in Vietnam, I had already learned that for an organization to achieve, the man or woman in charge had to lead, not manage. I knew my job was to give my subordinates whatever they needed to be the best that they could be. I was there not to control them but to uplift and inspire them. That meant I had to respect them and give them the freedom to fail and the undergirding to succeed. In the simplest terms, I was there to help them.
As Saigon was falling and the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, forbade me to evacuate my men and their families, I used every ruse I could think of to get my men and their loved ones safely out of the country. I did it without help and often despite resistance from those in power in Washington. Once again, I was on my own. My job again was to help, this time to assist my men and their families to survive.
When the AIDS crisis peaked in the 1980s, I felt called upon again to help. Men were literally dying in the streets because no one would go near them for fear of being infected with a fatal germ. I couldn’t stand to watch it happen, so despite the risk, I volunteered to take care of men dying of AIDS. I worked my way during five years through seven patients, all gay men who died. As we learned eventually, the risk of infection was small—it required introduction of the AIDS virus into the bloodstream. As it happens, I did suffer a needle stick after giving one of my patients an injection, but I didn’t come down with AIDS.
Once again, I found myself working alone to help others.