Sterling Grogan, Santa Fe

When the French left Indochina in 1954, having had their asses handed to them by General Giap at Dienbienphu, they left behind every dumb idea they had tried, including the strategic hamlet. More than a decade and several inept South Vietnamese governments later, the Americans were eager to put our own stamp on these old failures that the CIA thought of as new ideas.

Surreal. That was the only way to describe it. We went up in a chopper, with our 1,000-watt loudspeaker system and Kuril Sok, a young Koho Montagnard man raised in a missionary school. He spoke to his family on the ground, urging them to leave our free fire zone and come to the “safe” strategic hamlet.

Barbed wire topped with rolls of concertina, and a dozen wooden barracks like a prison far from the forests and farms that sustained the hill people. One gate in and out, manned by Nung guards paid by the government to protect the residents and paid a little extra by the Viet Cong to disappear at night when the VC came to visit. We destroyed the lives of 20 Koho families. Their land became a free-fire zone, where anything moving is killed. People, animals — doesn’t matter. General Westmoreland called it a success.

The Army provided a platoon of infantry to stay in the hamlet overnight, for security. My PSYOP team was assigned to visit the hamlet for a few days, show movies, play music, hand out leaflets (“The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam is your friend”), win hearts and minds. A desperate, sick joke. We got stoned on the drive out.

Charlie did not appear the first night. The following day, our PSYOP team arrived early, set up the movie projector to show on the screen on the side of our truck. I heard Spanish being spoken, so I walked over to introduce myself. Ricky had asked one of his sergeants something about chow, and I heard the sergeant’s reply in the Spanish he had learned in high school. I grew up in Mexico, went to Mexican schools, so I asked Ricky if I could help. He was surprised. I was the first person he had met in the Army who spoke Spanish he could understand.

He had been drafted the month he turned 18. Did not finish high school. Spoke almost no English, because he never had to in the barrio of El Paso where he was born and raised. He had no idea if his letters home to his mother reached her because she was illiterate. He had no idea where he was because he never found anyone in the Army who spoke enough Spanish to explain to him what was going on. Where are we? Why am I supposed to kill these Chinos?

I began with a little geography, South East Asian history, Ho Chi Minh, the Cold War, the domino theory, the French and why they left, the VC, the NVA. He was amazed, confused, very unhappy. Started shaking when I got to the part about the VC coming at night. Before leaving at the end of the day, I promised that tomorrow I would bring chocolate bars.

Next morning, we toked up and headed for the hamlet. As we approached the big gate, I saw a half dozen body bags lined up outside the fence. Parking the truck, I looked for the old sergeant who led the security platoon. Sure enough, the VC had come last night, catching our platoon off guard, killed six of our guys, including Ricky. I was speechless, more pissed off than I had ever been — ashamed, helpless. We may have killed one of the VC, so we could count him as KIA, even though we never found his body.

I didn’t know what to do with the chocolate bars, so I slung my M16 and went for a walk in the hamlet, looking for someone to kill. When the woman walking toward me, dressed in black pajamas and conical straw hat, reached into her basket, all I could imagine was that she would pull out a grenade to toss my way. Took me a second to unsling the M16 and pull the cocking lever back to chamber a round. But she saw what I was doing and pulled her hand out of the basket to show me a ball of rice. Didn’t shoot her. Didn’t find anyone to kill that day.

For ten years in art therapy, I painted watercolor images of the woman with the ball of rice and cried every week in co-counseling with other vets. The PTSD no longer has a grip on me, but I still think about Ricky. ◀


Victor LaCerva, M.D., Santa Fe

I am ignorant. I am biased and racist in ways I do not yet realize. And I am open and willing to evolve my understanding. I am listening deeply, like one does at night in unfamiliar territory, with great attention. I hear your impatience, your frustration, your anger — and deeper below that, your pain. I cannot imagine what life is like for you, to be both invisible in terms of social justice and at the same time be seen only as a threat — ignoring your genius, intelligence, creativity, or humanity.

I grew up in a working lower-middle-class neighborhood on the edge of the ghetto in Brooklyn. I often helped my grandfather with his second job delivering telegrams by walking up the many flights of stairs in tenement houses. Broken street lights, messy empty lots, rundown buildings, garbage strewn about, smelly hallways, dark and dingy apartments, bars on the windows, and closed double locked doors. The school buildings we passed on our delivery route often looked the same. People there were definitely not starting on the same playing field that I was. Back then, I didn’t verbalize that reality as White privilege, but it was clear that I was witnessing a lot of poverty and human suffering.

My large extended Italian family was, in general, very accepting of everyone. I did have one uncle who angrily used the N-word. He was a barber who was often robbed, one time at gunpoint when, despite his begging, his Black assailants roughly stole his wedding ring off his finger. His only contact with Black people was negative. When I started medical school at the young age of 19, I began to encounter many more people who were different than me. Not just Blacks and Puerto Ricans but East Indians, folks from the Philippines and Middle East — who were often my instructors. My training was in a city hospital that covered most of Spanish Harlem and some of Harlem itself. As an intern, one of my best teachers was a Jamaican nurse who would roll her eyes whenever my inexperience was leading me off course. Eventually, I became an attending physician in that same pediatric emergency room. All the ravages of poverty and lack of social justice showing up in my face every day: rat bites, chronic asthma, infants in withdrawal or malnourished, more than once attempting to resuscitate a dead baby that had been abused.

A public health job in New Mexico brought new levels of understanding. Because of widespread poverty, the levels of violence in our state were extreme. Poor people suffer more from any form of cancer or chronic disease, including the diseases of child abuse, homicide, suicide, and domestic violence. And since more minorities — Hispanics, Blacks, Native Americans — are poor, they are the same communities experiencing adverse violent health outcomes. Although present at all socioeconomic levels, poverty was the defining factor, not race or ethnicity.

I had become interested in “men’s work,” a route to expand what I term “emotional fluency,” since most of the time men perpetrate violent behaviors. With some Black, Hispanic, and Native American friends, we started a men’s multicultural group, trying to understand what separated us as men. The heartfelt stories shared only reinforced the generational, early-life trauma, and ongoing abuse many have suffered. My awareness continued to grow, my first baby steps in learning to be your ally in the context of social justice.

We are all oppressed, just in different ways. The response of many White people to Black Lives Matter is a form of wanting their sense of subjugation to also be heard. The “all lives matter” refrain — of course, they do — is not helpful because it shifts the focus away from the loss of Black young men to gun violence and police misconduct, which is what is front and center at the moment. I feel your pain whenever there is an incident of brutality or a Black church mass shooting. Not in the same way you do, but I do feel it because I have been sensitized and informed. And those incidents are not acceptable.

I have been blessed to have ongoing connections with people different than me — especially Black people who, at their core, held similar values and aspirations. And that exposure to one another is what will produce needed changes to benefit all of us. What I want you to know is that I will march with you, work shoulder to shoulder with you, that I have your back, that I see your beauty and your promise, and we need first and foremost to keep you safe so you can offer your gifts to all of us. Together, we can find ways to really see each other, and fertilize the ground of our joint deliverance. ◀


France Anne Cordova, Santa Fe

Every year at this time, we celebrate the new winners of the Nobel prizes for science. I was thrilled to hear that two U.S. women — Andrea Ghez and Jennifer Doudna — won the Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry. Both women were among only a few in history to win Nobel prizes in the physical sciences.

I am frequently asked about overcoming challenges as a woman leader, and taking risks. In a recent web meeting with students, this question came up: “How can the culture of U.S. science be changed to have more women at the top leadership roles?”

Many organizations are wrestling with how to drive culture change to achieve gender equity. Here are a few thoughts from my own experience working with others across government, academia, and industry.

It is clear that numbers matter. Students recommend appointing more women in all areas of the university to assist one another and assist students, making them feel welcome and supported.

Students offer that when you see an example of bias (e.g., a woman speaks and is passed over at a meeting), counter it by repeating her idea and giving her credit.

They recommend that the staff who mentor students for career placement should not be biased about what a student can do. For example, many women and minorities who have an interest in science are turned away from pursuing science courses because of bias about what a scientist “looks like.” The students’ advice: Take time to mentor the mentors.

Industry has studied the dearth of women in senior positions. A male executive at a prominent pharmaceutical company told me he was charged by management to look into this and recommend strategies to change the situation. He noticed that male employees formed support groups, helping to promote other males to leadership positions. He said that women also formed groups within his organization, but these were principally for social contact and to share stories of home challenges. He recommended women organize to promote women for advancement and for significant awards. You can’t win a prize unless you are nominated. And prizes become “messages” to the wider community that women are significant contributors.

What helps to make change is collecting the data that demonstrate unequivocally that there is a problem. There are striking examples of where this has been effective, starting with a 1999 MIT study of the status of women in its School of Science. They found dramatic inequities in office space and salaries for women, compared to those of their male counterparts. The evidence clearly showed a bias against women faculty, and this was addressed swiftly by MIT’s administration. Similar studies followed, most recently, at Princeton where, again, gender bias was demonstrated by the data.

There is an old Chinese saying: Women hold up half the sky.

I realized early on in my career as a scientist and administrator that science has failed to hold up its share of the world because it is lacking vital participants: women and minorities. I had an opportunity to address this when in 2014 I was appointed by the president as the 14th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

For decades, NSF has attempted to combat the exclusion of women in prominent positions in science through programs to encourage and support the upward mobility of women. Such programs require that senior leadership in an organization be actively involved and committed to change.

But there was another quite different problem in science that was looming, and the media brought it to public attention. Science was being harmed by the misconduct of a few scientists. Widespread stories of abuse of women scientists by peers and supervisors came as unsettling news. When you lose a young woman to science because of abuse, particularly from a person respected in science, you have lost the potential of science itself.

Imagine if any of our current female Nobel prizewinners had given up because of harassment from those in their own workplace. Imagine the loss to discovery.

We realized at NSF that we needed to find new ways to fight what was a cultural and social issue through policy. But instituting new policy, we discovered, was harder than instituting new programs.

We revised and published codes of conduct for all of our field sites. We funded the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to study this issue and, in 2018, they published a report called “Sexual Harassment of Women.” It uncovered systemic, widespread explicit and implicit bias against women in science. This became the most downloaded report in the Academies’ history; its revelations about gender harassment were eye-opening and disturbing.

Then we made a policy change. Through study and teamwork, we devised a carefully worded policy change to the terms and conditions of our awards that would require universities to notify us of potential harassers on campus if there was any administrative action against them. The agency could then decide whether the university’s NSF grant could be retained under different leadership. It was a big change for the agency and took months to get through various hurdles, including responding to hundreds of queries. Yet it is already having an effect. In truth, it was a change in policy that moved toward changing culture.

Recently singer Helen Reddy died. In the early 1970s, she wrote a song that became the anthem of a movement that energized my generation, “I Am Woman.” It is a half-century later. It is time for our voices to sing, “I am scientist. I am engineer. I am doctor. I am woman.” ◀

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