Self-reliance served me well in Vietnam during my many tours. While providing signals intelligence data to army and Marine forces on the battlefield throughout South Vietnam, I was the only American civilian within hundreds of miles. I lived with the troops, ate with them, slept by their side, used their latrines, and went into combat with them.
In 1974, after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, I headed the covert NSA operation there. The 43 men working for me, all veterans, were experts at their specialties. I didn’t have to tell them what to do or how to do it. My job was to support them, encourage them, and give them what they needed to do their job. My responsibility, in other words, was not to manage them but to lead them. And the guys outdid themselves, producing astonishing results. Thanks to them, I knew that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. I warned the U.S. ambassador, but he didn’t believe the warning and didn’t act on it. He even forbade me to evacuate my men and their families.
The survival of my subordinates and their wives and children was my responsibility—it was up to me and me alone to get them safely out of the country. Once again, I was on my own. To avoid alarming my men, I didn’t tell them that the ambassador had ordered me not to evacuate them. Using any excuse I could think of—vacations, home leave, business travel—I got them all safely out of the country before it fell to the North Vietnamese. Only years later did I discover that they had known about the ambassador’s edict all along but pretended not to know to keep from stressing me out.