Phil Zimmer: A buck sergeant drives home a point - The Buffalo News
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Phil Zimmer: A buck sergeant drives home a point

The U.S. Army sergeant paced quietly as we were herded into the open-air amphitheater. We recruits quietly nestled on the ground as the buck sergeant quickly came to life, jumping on the wooden platform.

“Good morning,” he announced in a large, pleasant voice to the 160 of us before him. “During the next 50 minutes of instruction we will be covering first aid.”

I tugged on my green cap as my eyes drifted out from Fort Ord, Calif., and over the blue waters of Monterey Bay. “I’m an Eagle Scout,” I told myself. “What is this fella going to tell me about first aid that I don’t already know?”

Well, he left an impression that remains to this day, more than four decades later. He quickly painted a verbal picture of a platoon crossing a rice paddy during that Vietnam era when a sniper takes down the point man. “What do you do?” he asked.

Someone shouted to go out and get the wounded trooper. “Oh, that’s good,” he said in a deadpan voice, “and now there are two of you wounded out there, crying for your mothers!” We shifted nervously. Other comments were then tossed his way, until one recruit suggested dealing quickly with the sniper before going to the aid of the wounded man.

“That’s riii-ght!” shouted the sergeant, who appeared to pull a candy bar from thin air and tossed it to the recruit. We perked up. Lunch was still two hours away and we had not seen a candy bar in weeks. This guy was OK.

We should forget the John Wayne movies, he explained. The first rule of first aid is to take care of yourself first. Period. Having a second fellow injured only compounds the problem, he explained. He was right. The Eagle Scout and the others took note.

I’ve often reflected on the scene as it unfolded that day. The “bucky” was either well-trained or perhaps had been a theater student before winding up in the Army.

He certainly knew the value of what I’ve come to call the “PHD approach” to learning: personalize, humanize and dramatize. He brought the training to life and perhaps over the course of his work he made a very real – and significant – difference to those who wound up in combat.

I would later use that PHD approach in my civilian career, conveying potentially dry scientific and financial information to others in a lively, easy-to-understand manner.

It’s amazing how other life lessons are presented to us when we are open and receptive.

The family dog taught me the importance of taking a quick nap when tired and the joy of taking a walk down the block to get the blood flowing before tackling a big project. The smile and gentle giggle of a small child and the call of a blue jay cascading through the early morning mist taught the importance of taking time to enjoy the wonders all around us. Love of history taught me the importance of objectivity and perspective, and the need to check motives as well as sources.

But it is the first rule of first aid that is vitally important in nearly all endeavors throughout life. We need to take care of ourselves first – physically as well as psychologically – before we can truly help others.

That crucial lesson was learned years ago, and the buck sergeant would be proud.

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