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A deserving leader of men
© St. Petersburg Times
Fort Stewart, Ga., in the late 1970s was rare among Army installations: It had a newspaper.
I and other journalists there constantly amazed our colleagues at other posts by writing stories that were meaty and meaningful, even controversial. We accompanied a local man into the swamps surrounding Fort Stewart when he went to fish out bales of marijuana left to drift by a courier, the water's predictable flow allowing the two to make the exchange without seeing one another.
We wrote about a veritable Third World village a few miles outside our gates peopled by black families driven to the barren, sandy plot when the government scarfed up their fertile farmland and built Fort Stewart on it. County services, including law enforcement, ignored them, deferring to the man who ran the liquor joint.
We wrote about drug use and the infidelity that was common when spouses were deployed. We wrote about anything that was relevant to the people living there.
Journalists at most other military locations were forced to write propaganda and PR sheets for their commanding generals. The prevailing philosophy for most post commanders was that a story that didn't paint a command in a positive light didn't get printed, that the newspaper was not the proper forum for airing problems.
Our commanding general had a different directive for us: If it's true, print it.
He had the confidence of a man who had come to leadership because he deserved it, not because he hung around long enough or kissed the right butts. If our reporting uncovered problems, he viewed them as tools pointing to areas that might deserve a look, not as aspersions cast on his competence that deserved punishment and coverup.
That was James Vaught, a two-star general who wore a thick leather belt with an oversized buckle and carried a swagger stick, and was confident enough to talk simply and straight to the point. Years after he left command of Fort Stewart and the 24th Infantry Division (which was stationed there at the time), his legacy was unfairly tarnished by the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue attempt, which he commanded.
Vaught's chief of staff when he was at Fort Stewart was a man who would have been played by John Wayne if his life had been made into a movie.
James Shelton was cut from the same cloth as Vaught -- except perhaps he required an extra yard or two of it -- and he was the same kind of straight talker and soldier's soldier that his boss was. A colonel when I knew him, Shelton retired as a one-star general and is living south of Tampa Bay in Englewood.
The military is still a big part of his life, and he frequently travels to posts around the country to speak to soldiers. Recently he was at Elgin Air Force Base near Jacksonville to talk to Airborne Rangers. "I love to talk to the troops," he says. "Any chance I get to talk to soldiers, I do it."
Lately he has been traveling around the country talking about his book, The Beast Was Out There, chronicling a Vietnam battle he has struggled with since Oct. 17, 1967, the day it was fought.
Shelton says he had no intention of writing a book. "I just started writing. It wasn't intended to be a book, just reminiscences. Just a history to give my eight kids."
It is a story of guilt, disappointment, tragedy, valor, anxiety, anger and humor. But most of all, it is what I would have expected of Shelton: a realistic picture of what the military and war are like.
He does not pander to the simplistic method of historians, who paint war as elaborate dramas masterminded by larger-than-life but human generals and fought by faceless, expendable soldiers. In Shelton's book, the people -- with names and faces, and families back home, with fears and anxieties and ulterior motives, with bowels that sometimes were too active and brains that often were not -- are as important as the action.
Just as they were at Fort Stewart, the thoughts of the man who toted his radio are as important in Shelton's book as the thoughts of the men who commanded thousands into battle. Shelton dedicated his book to one of his radio bearers, Spc. 4th Class Ray Neal Gribble, who begged to leave that relatively cushy and safe job to rejoin his platoon, a request that cost him his life at Ong Thanh, the battle Shelton's book chronicles.
Of course, Shelton remembers the name and personality of the soldier who carried his radio after Gribble returned to his combat unit, Spc. 4th Class Pasquale Tizzio.
The battle of Ong Thanh was not the most significant clash in the war in Vietnam. In October 1967, it was far from being decisive. Ong Thanh gains relevance 35 years later through Shelton's recount of it.
Fifty-nine of the nearly 200 American soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry "Black Lions," who went into battle did not return. Seventy-five came back wounded. Shelton had been reassigned to the unit's headquarters days earlier and could only follow the defeat through radio traffic.
He could only sit there and listen and wish that he, like Gribble, could be out there with his men, convinced in that irrational way that guilt fosters that he could have made the difference.
He copied the log, the transcript of the communication, and has carried that with him since.
I knew few specifics of Shelton's past when I worked for him 10 years after Ong Thanh. We knew from all the hardware and patches on his uniform that he had qualified for virtually every skilled designation a soldier could earn, including airborne and combat infantry, and that he was somebody who talked with the authority of his experience and not just his rank.
My colleagues and I merely wallowed in the benefits of the lessons he learned from that battle.
The first lesson is that leaders, who in the military have the authority to be absolute dictators, need to create an environment in which they can hear the ideas of their subordinates without being threatened by them. In his view, Americans lost the battle of Ong Thanh largely because the commander didn't heed the advice of some of his subordinates.
In no small way, the battle of Ong Thanh allowed me to work for my first real newspaper more than 25 years ago.
Maybe now Shelton really has something to feel guilty about.
(Proceeds from sale of the book will help fund memorials to the soldiers who fought Ong Thanh and soldiers of the 1st Division -- "the Big Red One" -- who died. It can be purchased through the Cantigny First Division Museum, John F. Votaw, General Editor, 1 South 151 Winfield Road, Wheaton IL 60187. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Telephone (630) 668-5185.
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