The sergeant was old beyond his years, badly battered by alcohol. Some of us thought he should have been put out to pasture years ago, but word was that his commander, himself highly decorated and severely wounded, protected the sergeant. Because the sergeant had survived at the Rapido River in Italy.
In January 1944, the 36th Infantry Division, Texas National Guard, was ordered to effect a crossing of the Rapido River to take pressure off the landings at Anzio. The attempt, at night in bitter cold, was met by massive German force and fire. In the hellish nightmare that followed, including a desperate second attempt, the 36th Division had 1,681 soldiers killed and 1,196 wounded.
One day the old sergeant, in a haze-free moment, reminisced about the Rapido disaster. Describing the unimaginable horror of the disaster, he told of seeing a lieutenant crying heart-brokenly as remnants of his shattered unit struggled back. The sergeant, 14 years afterward, still thought that was unmanly.
So the discussion of the weeping USMA quarterback after the Army-Navy game is nothing new, but just an example of reasonable people holding quite different points of view. Shortly after the old sergeant talked about the Rapido, an incident that might have shocked him occurred within yards of where he had sat talking about the crying lieutenant. Our battle group commander had been reassigned, and as he, much admired and even loved by many, stood saying final farewells to a small group of us, I noticed a grizzled old master sergeant, combat veteran, a few feet away openly and unashamedly weeping a flood of tears as he gazed sadly at the Old Man.
I recently heard a psychologist talk about the relationship between crying and laughing. He described them as both being involuntary, instinctive reactions, implanted in our systems at the beginning of life. I gather, then, that how and whether we express the emotions that would naturally trigger tears is determined by any number of external factors. Some of us weep. Some of us look straight ahead, dry-eyed.
My years in the Army have led me to believe that soldiers in general tend to hold strong emotions. The closeness to fellow soldiers, often under trying conditions, creates incredibly strong bonds. It has been said, and I believe correctly, that soldiers don't fight for flag and country, they fight for each other. Cohesiveness, shared sacrifice, a sense of family--these all create deep emotions. Some reflect them outwardly because that is their nature. Some hide them, for the same reason. They may exhibit fantastic toughness in a fight, but the soft flame of human emotion still burns in an inner chamber. I believe the energy in that inner chamber is what binds good soldiers together and binds good leaders to their soldiers in a self-denying way.
I saw a tough, airborne unit commander in operation in Vietnam. His bearing and obvious competence impressed me in the brief time I saw him. Later, he was my brigade commander back in the States. Capable, calm, a highly professional commander. Nobody would have called him a sissy. Not long after I took command of one of his battalions, he was reassigned. At a farewell dinner, after higher commanders had spoken glowingly of his fine service, he stepped to the rostrum to make his farewell remarks. He uttered the first two words, was overcome by emotion, broke into wracking sobs, and had to be ushered away to recover. He never finished the remarks. I ran into him years later. A general officer by then, he was still tough, professional and, I would guess, emotional.
I have known other leaders who looked upon the saddest of sights with dry eyes and no display of emotion. Which is not to say they didn't have it; they were just practiced in hiding it.
As for me, I've always tried to hide my emotions and shed no tears in public. Sometimes I've even been successful at it.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."