Wrong Answer!

I'm returning to Vietnam later this month—for the first time in 41 years. Hence my mind drifts occasionally to the 4-decade-old events that marked the beginning of my professional career.

One rather strange occurrence crossed my mind while driving home to VT from Boston last week.

I was out in the field, deep in the jungle, in fact, building a camp for a U.S. Army Special Forces team. I was choppered back to Danang in a rush for a brief meeting with the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General Leonard Chapman, who was paying a visit to I Corps, the northern part of South Vietnam, which was under USMC command—more specifically under the command of General Lew Walt.

What the hell was a LTJG (very junior officer) doing visiting with a 4-star general? Simple. My uncle, General H.W. Buse, was USMC Chief of Staff back in D.C., and my aunt had insisted that General Chapman see me in the flesh. (Aunts are like that, even, or especially, at the Mrs. 4-star general level.) (Also, her son, my cousin, was in Vietnam as well—a USMC captain.)

When I got back from the field, covered with mud (it was rainy season), I was sent directly to the Commandant with no time to change into a respectable uniform—a great embarrassment. General Chapman engaged in all of about 15 seconds of chitchat, and having done his duty to my aunt, sent me on my way. As I was literally walking out of his temporary field office, he summoned me back, and said, out of the blue, "Tom, are you taking care of your men?" (I had a little detachment, about 20 guys as I recall, doing the work described before.)

Yup, 40 years plus later, I remember his exact words—which is the point of this Post. I replied to the General, "I'm doing my best, sir." To this day, with a chill going up my spine (no kidding—as I type this), I can see his face darken, and his voice harden, "Mr Peters, General Walt and I and General Buse are not interested in whether or not you are 'doing your best.' We simply expect you to get the job done—and to take care of your sailors. Period. That will be all, Lieutenant."

The line echoes to this day—as you can tell. You are there to "get the job done"—not just-merely "do your best." I recall many years later seeing a Churchill quote that was much the same; more or less this: "It is not enough to do your best or try as hard as you can—you must succeed in doing what is necessary."

I guess it was all this stuff that, about a year ago, caused me to more or less lose it during a Q&A session at a healthcare conference. We were talking about medical errors and patient safety. And people kept saying, "We're understaffed." "This is a 'caring profession'—and everybody cares despite the stress." "We're doing our best with the resources available." "The docs resist this, that, and the other." Etc. Etc. Yup, I lost it, and sang the General Chapman-Winston Churchill song: "It really doesn't matter how much everybody cares, or that you're doing your damnedest—you must get the job done and stop unnecessarily wounding and killing patients." The response gave new meaning to the term "stony silence."

And so the lesson sticks, on this, the 43rd anniversary, of my first "visit" to Vietnam. The lesson sticks, and the voice and demeanor of General Chapman are as clear and commanding and unequivocal as they were four decades ago.

I'll conclude with a simple "thank you" to the late General Chapman. I think I can say with some certainty that the story of my life would not have unfolded as it has, had the General not made his views on success and failure so succinct and so crystal clear.