Retired JAG Colonel stresses professionalism

For the last 4 1/2 decades, retired Judge Advocate General (JAG) Col. William Eckhardt has witnessed the impact of the decisions that are made on the battlefield.

He has noticed the professionalism of some leaders, but he has also witnessed horrific decisions.

Retired JAG Col. William Eickhardt was onthe University of South Dakota campus to give a lecture about professionalism on the battlefield. (Photo by Justin Rust)

Eckhardt was at the University of South Dakota's campus on Monday to share his thoughts on professionalism on the battlefield.

He said military officers have the toughest job in the country because of all the aspects they have to look at when they are given orders from the United States government.

"When we are talking about what they are doing, it's a combination of law, national policy, ethics and common sense; all of that comes together," he said. "The poor commander has to exercise this power through others, and it's more complex than other professions."

The key is that the national government sets the policy, Eckhardt said.

"The policy has to be executed, and how it's executed and the professionalism of how it's executed is the key," he said.

He added it's the government's responsibility to protect its citizens.

Eckhardt became a part of the military in the mid-1960s when, just 90 days after he finished college, he was sent to Vietnam. He later became a legal advisor in the first Gulf War.

Currently, Eckhardt is a professor of Law and Director of Urban Affairs Outreach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

USD professors Greg Huckabee and Chris Hutton contacted Eckhardt to have him share his experiences.

"Both of them worked for me at one time," Eckhardt said. "I have been here before. I like this place, and I chose not to turn down any invitation."

In talking about professionalism on the battlefield, Eckhardt pointed to one instance in which a bad decision turned into tragedy: the My Lai Massacre during Vietnam, during which American troops were accused of killing up to 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and elderly.

"Tragedies can be mighty teachers," he said. " Sometimes it can get so bad that they catch an entire institution's attention. … My Lai was just that."

Eckhardt said it's always good to take a look at what happened at My Lai in order to prevent it in the future. The events affect not only the military but also the country, he said.

"Most people don't understand the amount of people who were outraged when Congress blocked the prosecution of those behind My Lai," he said. "It was an event that the United States sort of lost its innocence."

Eckhardt also discussed what he sees as a changing battlefield from what it was 20 to 30 years ago, and he calls it a post-9/11 battlefield.

"We are talking about your backyard, your computer, your health and your safety when flying on airplanes," he said. "If we go to war tomorrow, what would you rather have �" a colonel or a computer nerd or a person from the Centers of Disease Control?"

Eckhardt added that even at the state level, the battlefield has changed.

"If the war were to come to South Dakota, is the National Guard and law enforcement ready?" he asked. "That can be anything from a nuclear explosion to hoof-and-mouth disease."

Before 9/11, Eckhardt said, the country didn't worry about an enemy at its doorstep.

"Before, we had two oceans, and we didn't have to worry about some of these things," he said. "We don't like it when our telephone has to be tapped, or when we are groped when we get on an airplane."

Because of all the potential threats, the government can't always tell you why all of the preventative measures are in effect, Eckhardt said.

"The government is supposed to protect you, but can't always tell you because of all the classified information," he said. "They can't defend what they are doing because they have one hand tied behind its back."Since 9/11, Eckhardt said, Americans are becoming more aware of the dangers that are out there.

"(We) have to be practical and can't stick our heads in the sand and be so terrified," he said. "You just have to go about life sometimes."

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