(By guest writer, Jacob Kortum)
Usually when people travel to a new or distant land, their priorities are always the same. See the iconic geography, visit the greatest architectural monuments, and take lots and lots of pictures. This in essence gives the impression that only things worth investing any time into when traveling can be found on a gift shop postcard. On rare occasions though, an opportunity can arise which allows an individual to dive into a nations culture and develop a truly holistic understanding on how things happen and why. Through this understanding, valuable lessons are learned and meaningful relationships created between two different cultures. This provides a better imagery of a new country, and represents its cultural far more than any tourist trap could. In this essay, I will describe my incredible experience in the country of Vietnam, what it taught me, and how I can use what I learned to further my development as a future Army Lieutenant.
This summer, I had the privilege to take part in the exact opportunity described above through the Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency program. Also known as CULP, this program lead by the United States Army Cadet Command, allows for Cadets to visit a variety of nations all over the world in order to learn about a foreign culture, develop meaningful bonds, and provide a necessary service through their specific mission. I had the opportunity to be a part of a Cadet English Training mission in the country of Vietnam. The focus behind this mission was to understand the nation’s culture through our efforts in building relations and to also provide services by teaching the medical officers of the Vietnamese Army basic English in order to help prepare them for their future deployment to South Sudan in 2018. Their mission, lead by the United Nations, would have a great significance in the overall peace keeping of the area and would be the first deployment for one of their hospitals and its resources.
I conducted my mission by traveling to the Military Hospital 354 during the week and working with two separate classes on developing their staff’s English proficiency.
The classes consisted of officers who worked as doctors, nurses, and other hospital employees that had a variety of skill levels when it came to their abilities to speak English. The ways we worked on their proficiency was by developing PowerPoint presentations and games related to their lesson topics but still focusing on allowing them opportunities to communicate with us through our responses and hear how the language sounded. I personally found the classes, and more specifically the students, to be the greatest learning point as far as understanding their culture throughout my duration in Vietnam, as they had a wealth of information and experience to provide.
Never in my life have I seen such an eager group filled with smiling faces and open arms that were also truly considerate, compassionate and willing to learn. Every day, they wanted to not only learn the language, but also ask us questions concerning our lives in order to relate to us and have a better understanding on we lived in comparison to them. It did not take long through our conversations to develop amazing bonds and ultimately what I would call friendships even with our rocky past. I was also astounded by the sacrifice these officers were making. By accepting this deployment, they were taking on the responsibility of learning an entire second language on top of their hectic lives as medical professionals only so they could benefit more people. Overall, their actions demonstrated to me what I believe to be the true spirit of Vietnam, which is the idea that if everyone cares for one another, no one is left out, ultimately creating a sense of unity amongst all people.
We also had the opportunity to visit areas of cultural significance such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi Hilton, and Ha Long Bay. In all of these areas, I noticed this similar theme of unity. For the Ho Chi Ming Mausoleum, thousands of citizens would wait hours on end in the severe heat every weekend just to pay respects to a deceased leader who provided them with their basic freedoms. To the citizens of Vietnam, Ho Chi Ming was a textbook representation of what it meant to care for your fellow man. And because of his efforts in freeing them from their French oppression and guidance during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people are now a independent nation which does their best to live on his values.
At the Hanoi Hilton, which is the famous POW camp located in downtown Hanoi that has confined individuals such as Senator John McCain and many other Americans during the Vietnam War, now stood as a teaching point. I saw how the past evils that once occurred behind the walls making up the compound provided valuable lessons on how others should be treated and the respect all men and women are entitled to. This of course again building up the belief that only through unity as a people will their country pull itself away from its dark past and into a time of prosperity and hope.
During our excursion to Ha Long Bay, which was a beautiful collection of monumental rock formations and various chains of islands, I saw how country’s government invested huge amounts of time and money into the various fishing villages in order to provide their children with the education they felt was both vital for success and a birthright for every citizen. Through their efforts, the fishermen and women of the villages were allowed to continue their living while also maintaining their culture as their children went to school. I have never met such a respectful, friendly and enthusiastic collection of people who were willing to step far beyond their means just to be able to lend a hand. Overall, I believe that all citizens of Vietnam share in the same belief that was first demonstrated to me by my students in the classroom, and that the idea of the constantly reaching out to one another in order to create unity is purely common knowledge.
In regards to myself as a future leader of the United States Army, I can see the variety of benefits that could arise from adopting this mentality into my own methods of leadership. First, by becoming a leader who constantly cares for my subordinates, I gained a new level of respect since my soldiers will have the reassurance that I’ll always be there for them. Secondly, my actions will promote some of my Soldiers to follow in my footsteps and begin their own quests of providing a lending hand to all those they can. Finally, once this has become a common practice between me and my subordinates, like it has been in the country of Vietnam for so many years, the unity and mutual respect we will share will allow us to accomplish any mission or obstacle ahead of us.
In conclusion, my experience with CULP during my time in Vietnam was a memorable one, which gave me an in-depth look at the people, their culture, how they play into to one another. Also, it gave me a fantastic opportunity to assist with the Vietnamese Army’s future deployment by providing English education to their officers which will prepare them to meet mission requirements in South Sudan in 2018. Through it all, I learned many ways in which I could refine not only myself as a leader, but also as an individual with the relationships and bonds I make with others every day. It was both an honor and a privilege to be accepted on this mission. There were numerous benefits for both me and my Vietnamese counterparts.