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From Vietnam foxhole to the Army's highest post

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 1985


EARLY on an October morning 18 years ago, a North Vietnamese rocket exploded in John A. Wickham Jr.'s tent. General Wickham -- at the time commander of a United States infantry battalion in Quang Ngai Province -- rolled into a foxhole, gravely wounded by shrapnel. Seconds later he was sprayed with bullets from an enemy's AK-47 rifle. He lay in the hole for three hours, using a radio to direct American return fire until the attackers were driven off.

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At the aid station a Roman Catholic chaplain administered last rites. Today Wickham is the highest-ranking general officer in the US Army, its four-star chief of staff.

``Having gone through that, I learned eternal humility,'' he says. ``For some reason I may have been given another chance. I am reminded of that every day.''

From his office in the outermost ring of the Pentagon, Wickham presides over an institution that is perhaps unique in history. With weapons research and purchasing growing more costly and complicated by the day, with bases flung to the far reaches of the world, the Army has become as hard to manage as any multinational corporation.

The very model of a modern major executive, Wickham has two degrees from Harvard and talks often of ``mentors'' and ``the marketplace.'' In an hour-long conversation he refers to ``A Passion for Excellence,'' a recent book on corporate management, at least four times. Many of his weeks are spent drawing up and defending his $80 billion budget.

Yet the Army is self-evidently not a corporation. Its product is not computers or cars but the threat of destruction. And more than General Motors, perhaps even more than the Navy or the Air Force, the Army depends on strong personal bonds between leaders and led to accomplish its mission. Army surveys of World War II showed that when bullets started flying, soldiers fought as much for their officers and buddies as for God and country.

``Quality of leadership is what makes the difference between a good army and a great army,'' says Wickham.

``Leadership'' is the Army's official theme for 1985. For Wickham, it was a veteran sergeant named Putman who showed him what leadership entailed.

Wickham was a second lieutenant then, newly graduated from West Point. His first assignment was a weapons platoon, and on the night he took over, his sergeant first class -- Putman -- suggested he memorize all his men's names.

The next day, meeting the platoon for the first time, Wickham asked each soldier to stand as the lieutenant reeled off names. ``I noticed as I went on they were sort of aghast. They thought, `This lieutenant, green as he is, cares about us as individuals.' ''

A few days later, Putman suggested that Wickham learn all about the platoon's main weapons: 60 mm. mortars and 57 mm. recoilless rifles. He also suggested a time and place that Wickham thought strange for those lessons: a muddy field near the latrine, at 5 p.m.

It wasn't until much later that Wickham realized the wisdom of Putman's planning. In the evening, the platoon's enlisted men invariably visited the latrine before dinner -- and on the way they would see their lieutenant, grimy and tired, learning their own jobs. ``A special appreciation for me grew out of that experience,'' says Wickham.

That was in 1950. The coming decades would not be easy ones for the Army. In Vietnam, Army units took most of the weight of an unpopular war, at times shattering the trust between leaders and the led. By the end of the war the Army was short 15,000 noncommissioned officers (NCOs) -- the Sergeant Putmans who hold any fighting force together.