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March 01, 2019

Yes, and . . . It’s a Matter of When

Alexandria Hien McCombs, Humana, Irving, TX

In a previous column, I recommended developing a SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely—plan to pursue a new goal instead of reciting disingenuous New Year’s resolutions. Easier said than done. The archrival to any bold goal is self-doubt. When we take on any new challenge, we often engage in limiting self-talk such as “I don’t know what to do,” or even worse, “What if I fail?” Although certain physical, economic, cultural, or societal forces may perpetuate our hesitation, it is important to acknowledge them and then to adopt a “Yes, and . . . ” mindset.

At a micro level, my running journey evolved from merely aspirational to actual. I was the unlikely runner. Underdog would be a generous understatement for someone who excelled as the penultimate benchwarmer through middle and high school athletics. In fact, I could not even run a full mile at any point in my life until I turned 40. Working for a company dedicated to improving patient and employee health inspired me to change my fitness trajectory. I committed to running four to five days a week, competed in 5K races every weekend for the next nine months, and recalibrated my SMART goals by half-mile increments. At month nine, I completed 30 races including 10Ks and my first half marathon with a respectable time of 2:09. Not bad for the penultimate benchwarmer. 

Five years later, I continue to run. It’s never easy. Unlike my elite runner husband and chief motivator, Scott, my success as a runner comes from consistent training and commitment, not innate talent. When self-doubt resurfaces, Scott reminds me of my most powerful weapon: my mind. I engage in positive self-talk and envision each step as one step closer to the finish line. Whether on a treadmill or at a race, each run reaffirms my commitment to health and confidence to take on new challenges.      

At a macro level, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage embodied this mindset to operationalize the largest humanitarian rescue mission during the Vietnam War. Days after his 30th birthday, Armitage returned to South Vietnam on April 24, 1974 with orders from the Department of Defense to destroy or recover U.S. intelligence and assets, including naval vessels. He connected immediately with his South Vietnamese counterpart and friend, Captain Kiem Do, Deputy Chief of Staff for Naval Operations. 1 As Armitage shared with me during our in-person meeting in 2017, he orchestrated an unofficial evacuation plan: to lead a flotilla of 30 or so of the largest ships to Con Son Island, the rendezvous point southwest of Saigon. Do stated that the navy servicemen would not abandon their families. With that, neither Armitage nor Do spoke explicitly about the 30,000+ refugees who would ultimately board those ships to freedom. Rather, Armitage’s eyes gleamed with resolve as he told me he assured Do, “I’ll wait for you at Con Son Island.”

The days leading up to the evacuation injected every possible wrench into Armitage’s plan. Towns surrounding Saigon were systematically under siege by the North Vietnamese, Armitage narrowly escaped the air raid over Tan Son Nhut Air Base where he landed on April 28, and hysteria dominated the streets of Saigon. My parents remembered the streets littered with thousands of military uniforms from every branch of the South Vietnamese military foreshadowing the fall of Saigon. The iconic photograph of U.S. citizens and at-risk South Vietnamese ascending a helicopter from the rooftop of an American embassy apartment building evoked desperation.

My father, a commander in the South Vietnamese navy, continued to watch for the signal to evacuate the naval compound in Saigon. He previously offered sanctuary in our small house to all of our relatives; however, most of them declined for fear of capture during this risky escape plan. Capture would mean execution or years of harsh labor and punishment in the re-education camps. On April 29, my father and uncle kept watch the entire evening to make sure that the ships did not leave without us. It was past midnight and into the early morning hours of the 30th when they observed our neighbors—one of whom was a high-ranking official in President Thieu’s administration—heading to Hai Quan Cong Xuong (naval shipyard and dock). It was about a 15-minute walk. Because I was not yet two years old, my father carried me. My mother remembered looking back at thousands of people desperately trying to scale the barricaded walls. We were incredibly lucky, she thought. If the navy, local police, and volunteers did not guard those gates until every ship left safely, the mob would have overtaken us. We boarded a ship designed to accommodate less than 300 people but directed to hold several thousand. Just a few hours later, Saigon surrendered to the North Vietnamese. And the following day, my family, along with over 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees, arrived safely at Con Son Island.

I asked Armitage what gave him the resolve and courage to pull off this mission. He replied solemnly, “Sadly, war was part of it. I had served two combat tours in Vietnam by the time I was 25.” He also attributed some of his discipline to his time at the Naval Academy where he was a classmate of Superbowl champion Roger Staubach. “But for me, it was never a question of whether I could do something; it was just a question of when,” he reflected.

Those words resonate with me every day, especially coming from the man who saved my life. Instead of doubting our ability to tackle the next challenge, we can invest our energy into planning the timetable for its launch.

  1. The full account of their symbolic exchange is captured in Jan K. Herman’s “The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk. Naval Institute Press, 2013.