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Steve Hansen: Military teaches a valuable lesson about competition

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Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 12:00 am

Opening scenes in the popular new movie “Lone Survivor” brought back memories from my past. I was in Ft. Ord Army basic training during the summer of 1966.

As suggested in the movie, we often don’t know what we can accomplish until someone sees our potential and is willing to push us beyond our wildest imaginations.

One day, while returning from the rifle range, I was really feeling sorry for myself. Exhaustion was a factor. Our company of recruits was in the process of jogging back to the barracks.

Five-mile runs were common daily activities. A uniform two sizes too big, an 11-pound rifle, heavy boots, a steel helmet and a backpack full of gear made the struggle even greater.

I only weighed 145 pounds and had a small physical frame. Poor coordination, a crossed hand/eye dominance and knees that knocked together hardly made me a poster boy for the ideal infantryman.

No one really wanted to be in this unpleasant situation. The Vietnam War was hot, and Washington was drafting any eligible male that could be found between the ages of 18 and 26. In those days, it was difficult for many young men to envision a future that was beyond fighting in a country that few cared about.

My basic training company contained about 200 men. During the run that day, I began to fall behind. Soon, I was trailing the entire formation. A student squad leader moved to the rear and ordered me to “catch up.”

I replied with an expletive that cannot be repeated here.

“How could this unfeeling @#% be so heartless?” I thought. “Here I am — struggling for my next breath — and this is how he treats me? Can’t he see that I really don’t have the strength to be here?”

As I continued to bemoan my fate, a real lieutenant in a sharply pressed and tightly tailored uniform overheard my crude response.

“What did you say, soldier?” he enquired.

“Nothing, sir,” I replied.

The next thing I remember was that same officer removing his belt with a canteen attached. He struck me in the derriere with it.

“What?” I thought. “He can’t do that. They’re not allowed to hit the troops!”

But before my neurons could finish firing that impression, he hit me again, and then again. As a matter of fact, that lieutenant lightly beat my butt for at least a mile all the way back to the barracks!

But instead of being at the rear of the formation, I was now ahead of the entire company!

When we got to home base, I thought for sure he would report me to the captain for cursing the squad leader, but he never said a word.

I owed him a ton of gratitude. You see, by his actions, he had essentially risked his career and perhaps even exposed himself to a criminal charge.

But on that day, he taught me more about myself than any other man had previously. I thought being the first at anything was impossible — let alone a physical activity. Thanks to the lieutenant, the proof was there. I had outrun the entire company by over 1,000 feet, and there was no way it could be denied!

I graduated from basic training and went on to complete officer candidate school, where only 1 out of 3 survive the program. I continued to serve in the National Guard and later, the regular Army.

This story makes me wonder if the following is true: Perhaps there’s a lesson in the military that has now been forgotten in civilian life. It seems today, especially in schools, that some just want to coddle and protect younger folks from the strains and stresses of real competition.

Yet, ironically, by doing so, aren’t we eliminating the very essence of what makes self-respect and self-worth attainable realities? Coupled with team support and sacrifice, isn’t this what the movie “Lone Survivor” is all about?

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.