Decisive action-key to survival-on the battlefield, on the street!
Many in law enforcement first learned firearms and deadly force in the military. After discharge, most put those skills behind. However, if you were like Frank White and myself, we transferred not only deadly force but the will to use it to the domestic war front. Once again, both Frank and myself volunteered, but this time we signed up to fight crime, which is a more pervasive and sustained attack on civilization than any violent conflict.
This article is the second in a series that will relate to the many gun battles and related events that Frank participated in as an agent for the DEA. From these deadly episodes we will distill some lessons learned that we hope will serve both aspiring and veteran law enforcement officers and help them survive the ordeals ahead of them.
Often warriors start at an early age and Frank was no exception to this calling. He held a highly romanticized vision of war, but this was severely tempered as he matured and attended The Citadel. Many of his professors and instructors were combat veterans and they did not hesitate to explore the brutal realities of modern warfare with their young charges. These men quickly dispelled Frank's chivalrous and noble notions of combat, preparing him for the realities of the battlefield. Nevertheless, with his illusions shattered, he still wanted to experience the thrill of leading brave men in battle for a just cause and share in the special comradeship that men develop through being involved in mutual hardship and danger.
For Frank, his four years at The Citadel were a laboratory for leadership. Hazing was still part of the institution's tradition. He and most of his fellow plebes accepted this extreme form of discipline and motivation as immunization against the physical hardships, stress and anxiety that would steel them for the rigors of campaigning. This Spartanesque approach to warrior development, which is considered by "progressives" to be too draconian for today's cadets, enabled him to block out unimportant distractions and focus all his energies on the task at hand. As a result of this ability to concentrate and become absorbed in the moment, death and serious injury were relegated to the distant background.
Graduation led to induction into the Third Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, and it wasn't too long before he found himself getting what he wished for. During the long flight to Vietnam he engaged himself in serious introspection. As with most untested leaders his greatest fear was not death itself, but whether fear would paralyze him and he would not be able to do his job-to lead. The great question that gnaws at every neophyte commander: When the flag finally goes up, will I let my men and myself down? No one wants to die, but death becomes the least of our concerns when honor is involved and any potential sacrifice is a noble one. During combat, Frank never dwelled on yesterday or contemplated the future, but only lived in the here and now-the present.
His initial meeting with Colonel Fear did nothing to alleviate his misgivings and he was bluntly told that he expected him to make decisions and not agonize over "what if I am wrong." Fixing him with his eyes, Colonel Fear said, "Soldiers may die as a result of your decisions, but if you fail to make a decision I will court-martial you. Now get out and lead."
Frank did not have to wait long for is first opportunity to be decisive. While waiting to link up with his own combat team in Vietnam's Central Highlands, he accompanied a reconnaissance element led by a highly revered lieutenant. As the team crossed a stream, a sixth sense screamed danger to him. He responded by snapping his M16 rifle to his shoulder and the recon lieutenant dropped to a knee, firing. Muzzle blast and smoke revealed the location of an enemy soldier strafing the small force from the dense jungle. Frank almost instinctively fired and watched him recoil as his bullets took effect and he dropped behind an anthill. The lieutenant ordered everyone to break contact and regroup at the last rally point. As Frank attempted to lay down covering fire, his rifle choked and an immediate action stoppage clearing drill did not solve the problem. A fired case was stuck in the rifle's chamber. To make matters worse, firing picked up again from behind the anthill. Realizing t! hat his rifle was useless and that a withdrawal under fire was extremely risky, he transitioned to his .45 caliber pistol and rushed forward. He flanked the anthill and spotted the enemy soldier he had shot lying on his back. However, busily chopping up the patrol was his gutsy buddy on the far side of the hill. As "buddy" made eye contact and swung his AK-47 toward him, Frank put a .45ACP bullet into his head. After this, his kills, Frank ran to the rally point, where the team commander was calmly calling in an artillery fire mission.
During the rest of his time in Vietnam and thereafter in law enforcement, Frank would be known for his decisiveness under fire.