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Steve Hansen: My experience with bullying

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Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 12:00 am

“Bullying” is not always perceived as a negative act by those in authority. Take Army officer candidate school, for example.

It was the late 1960s, and the Vietnam War was raging. I was facing the first day of a rigorous and stressful training program. Candidates for OCS had been selected based on their level of formal education and Army tests scores.

“Look to the right of you and look to the left,” the sandy-haired officer-in-charge told us. “Those guys will not be here on graduation day.”

In my case, it was true.

While the program involved numerous classes ranging from map reading to tactical strategies, much of it was simply night and day verbal and physical harassment by tactical officers, or “tacs.”

You didn’t necessarily have to be a “tough guy” to make it through. Some of the macho types couldn’t “take it” and quit.

But you did have to know how to handle Army-sanctioned bullying. My goal was avoidance — not to stand out either positively or negatively, but to maintain “invisibility.”

And what was the point of all this harassment? Army officials knew there was very little in life more stressful than a combat situation. Everyone reacts differently under major psychological and physical strains. Therefore, officially approved bullying was a test as to how each individual would react under simulated conditions.

Fortunately, the “tac” assigned to my platoon was a pretty decent guy. If corrections needed to be made, he usually did so in a way that showed compassion for the candidates. He also avoided embarrassing us publicly whenever possible.

But there was another one — a Lt. Thomas (name has been changed to protect the guilty) — who seemed to relish torturing the troops. Not only did he harass his own platoon, but he liked to cross boundaries and get into the face of any candidate he could.

My invisible act was working pretty well until half-way through the program. That’s when Thomas discovered me. The short and stout officer didn’t like the way my knock-knees and pigeon toes bounced while marching. I tried to accommodate him, but there are certain physical traits we don’t control. Once I made his “list,” I knew I was in trouble.

Then one day, the candidates were assigned to wrestling matches. We were told to pair off with someone in our own weight class. However, being invisible, I was slow on the draw and ended up with a guy 35 pounds heavier.

Thomas came by and growled, “I thought I told you to pick someone your size!”

“I don’t mind, sir,” I replied. “I can ‘take’ him!”

That stopped the bully in his tracks. It wasn’t an answer he expected from a guy who couldn’t march.

The wrestling match began, but it didn’t have a “Karate Kid” ending. While I couldn’t take down my opponent, he couldn’t “take” me either. It ended in a draw.

After that day, Thomas left me alone. I guess he was impressed by the fact that I was willing to go beyond the call of duty and face odds that weren’t in my favor.

I graduated from OCS and carried out my military obligation as a commissioned officer.

When it was all said and done, did “bullying” by Lt. Thomas actually make me a better soldier? I can’t say. I did learn that I “came alive” under stress and took my leadership roles more seriously. Thomas put me in a situation where I had to prove myself beyond normal limits.

So, in the final analysis, I suppose bullying is like anything else. It has its pros and cons — all depending on the situation and how you look at it.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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