One of the most memorable Christmas seasons I have ever spent was in 1968, when I was a member of an Army Reserve unit that had been activated and sent to Vietnam. My job title was senior automotive mechanic, working in a platoon whose task it was to keep the trucks rolling to provide petroleum products to the northern sector of South Vietnam.
Each enlisted man housed within the compound was assigned a monthlong stint of guard duty at the perimeter. As it happened, I was assigned to the perimeter for the month of December. I would spend the holiday season in circumstances even more devoid of traditional holiday trappings than would the other men in the compound. However, I was to learn that sometimes when these trappings are removed we can experience the true spirit of Christmas more fully.
On Dec. 1, I and several other men from my battalion took a few personal belongings and boarded a truck that took us to our assigned part of the perimeter. There we met the commander of our section, a lieutenant whose name I have long since forgotten but whose character I will never forget. He stood a full head taller than the men he commanded; this in part accounts for his vivid place in my memory.
The other reason for my remembering him was his off-beat style of leadership. The lieutenant had long since rejected the artificial trappings of military leadership, no doubt in response to his views on our involvement in an unpopular war. He seldom wore a hat or shirt and never wore any indication of rank. We soon learned that the lieutenant's devotion to duty, as he perceived it, was absolute keeping his men at the perimeter alive, alert, reasonably comfortable and happy so that our section of the perimeter would remain secure.
This he did by being a friend to his men. When it was time to work, such as filling sandbags and reinforcing the bunkers, he would describe the need, give the assignment and then join in with the men in doing the work. When it was time to
play, he was in the midst of a volleyball or basketball game. If one of his men was unhappy about something, he showed personal interest and talked things over with him. If someone didn't get any mail, he called up the man's company to find out why it had not been delivered to him at the perimeter.
In response, we gave him our loyalty. Because this man showed the true essence of leadership, shedding the arrogant, austere trappings of traditional military leadership, we gave him our loyalty. He believed that to be a good leader he must give of himself. Because of this, my month at the perimeter was perhaps the happiest part of my year in Vietnam, even though the physical conditions under which I lived and worked were the least comfortable.
The month passed uneventfully from a military standpoint. No enemy soldiers tried to penetrate our perimeter, although once a Brahma bull got close enough to trip some alarm wires and alert us. The local civilians kept their distance except to retrieve the straying bull.
On Dec. 24, I got a small package in the mail from my wife, who wrote me a love letter every day during the entire year I was away. I was excited to get a Christmas package from her, but as I began to open it I wondered what she could possibly have sent that I could use, particularly out there on the perimeter.
I found that the package contained a large number of very small packages, each one carefully gift-wrapped. Each contained a piece of candy or a stick of gum something I could indeed use on the perimeter. I passed them around to the men in my bunker. One of them said, "Your wife sure must love you!" I knew he was right. Tears filled my eyes as I realized what she had really given me for Christmas. In that bunker out there on Christmas Eve, I learned something about Christmas giving. In fact, it was the same lesson I learned about leadership.
At midnight, the lieutenant shot up a flare from the command post that lighted the sky as it swung gently from its small parachute. It hung over the bunkers on our section of the perimeter much as the star of Christ had hung over a lowly stable many centuries before.
Ivan Sanderson was born in Murray and reared in Utah County. He and his wife, Venna, have been married for 37 years. They have five children and seven grandchildren. His hobbies are writing, hiking and photography.