One hundred years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending World War I. Reflecting on today, I think about the many patients I’ve taken care of who have fought for our country—veterans of World War II (who, sadly, I’m seeing fewer and fewer of), Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And they’ve taught me many things over the years.
One Korean War veteran taught me about “best effort.” I narrated his story some months ago here: “Best Effort.” His words and his wisdom, meditating on what was truly important to him in life, were powerful and insightful.
I once took care of a Vietnam veteran who was a member of the elite 101st Airborne Division—the “Screaming Eagles.” We got to talking about his experiences there, and he told me there were four words they used when facing a new or unexpected situation while out on patrol or in the battlefield. “Remember this, doc,” he said to me, “Whenever you face any problem at all—a tough case, a life problem, whatever—remember that you assess, then you improvise, then you adapt, and then you overcome.”
Assess. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
I’ve thought a lot about those words since then, and it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
Assess. Learn about your obstacle or your adversary. Understand it. Know what you’re up against. Don’t kid yourself. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t think you already know what’s going on. Don’t fool yourself. Be smart and be brutally honest about what you’re facing.
Improvise. The field manual doesn’t tell you how to deal with every situation. Your parents didn’t prepare you for every conflict in life. School doesn’t teach you the answer to every problem. What they’ve taught you is the foundation, the basics that you can use to apply to a new problem. Use what you know, and be creative. Think on your feet.
Adapt. You don’t deal with the problem you want to deal with. You deal with the problem you have. Be willing to change. If your old method of doing things isn’t working, pick a different method. Different situations require different strategies. Apply your resources to the problem at hand.
Overcome. Do everything above, and then win.
Don’t merely thank a veteran today. Don’t make this day about meaningless platitudes. Learn from our veterans. Learn from our elders. Use what they experienced to shape your own life.
Thank you, to all of the veterans I’ve met over the years, and who I’ve had the honor of taking care of, for the things that you have taught me. And thank you for your service.