WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — Retired Army Colonel Tony Nadal remembers a single-minded focus as a child: like his father, a Puerto Rican immigrant, he wanted to attend West Point Military Academy and serve his country.
“There’s a history of guys graduating from the military academy and doing the right thing,” Nadal said.
For him, that meant using special forces, paratrooper, pathfinder and Ranger qualifications to lead troops in Vietnam.
After his first tour in Nam Dong, not far from the Laotian border, Nadal’s superiors wanted to send him to Korea.
“I was adamant that I wanted to go back to Vietnam,”” he said. “We have a war going on in Vietnam and I’ve been there, I’ve been in those jungles, I know how to fight there.”
Nadal got his way and became a company commander under Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore.
He hadn’t been in command long when the company began a battle against North Vietnamese troops that would result in dozens of casualties among Nadal’s 95 soldiers, including 17 deaths.
“You’ve got to be worthy of your soldiers,” he said. “I had to prove to them that I was worthy of their trust and loyalty.”
To prove himself to his soldiers early on, Nadal put himself at risk during a firefight to recover the body of a lieutenant who had been killed in a creek bed.
“I had said that we won’t leave anyone behind,” he said. “When I’m in the creek bed, I find that there’s another soldier and he’s still alive.”
As North Vietnamese soldiers threw hand grenades toward the creek bed, Nadal and his radio operator rescued the wounded soldier and recovered the lieutenant’s body.
Over four days in Ia Drang, 234 American soldiers were killed and 250 were wounded, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Nadal still doesn’t know why he survived, when so many others did not.
During one assault, three soldiers standing beside him were killed by machine gun fire as they discussed their plan.
“Why the Lord spared me on that given day, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not hard for me to talk about, but it’s hard for me to think about at one in the morning, which happens frequently. I wake up and I think particularly about those three guys.”
Another death is a particularly painful memory, because the soldier had turned down another assignment so he could work under Nadal.
“Because of that, he died,” said Nadal, who was next to the soldier when he was shot in the head. “Every time I talk about it, it hurts.”
Still, Nadal continued to lead from the front, in order to prove to his soldiers that he lived his principles.
He expected that they, too, lived and fought with principle.
“I told my soldiers, ‘We will not abuse people. […]If we capture someone, that person becomes my responsibility as much as you are,” he said. “I told them that early on, and we never had any problems.”
When he returned to the U.S., Nadal worked to modernize what he called an antiquated system of leadership in the Army.
Of particular concern to him was the long-term effects of the treatment of incoming freshman at West Point, called Plebes.
“The model was to abuse and pressure the incoming Plebes to see who would quit,” he said. “It was the worst example of leadership, what we did with the Plebes, shouting at them and punching them. You couldn’t treat a soldier like that and gain any respect.”
As the director of research for West Point’s psychology department, Nadal was tasked with studying the Plebe System.
“We wrote a study that just devastated that system,” he said. “The West Point you see today and the way they treat incoming freshmen is derived from that study.”
During the combat and intellectual phases of Nadal’s Army career, he strived earn trust and respect by showing his superiors, subordinates and even his enemies that he cared about them.
Decades later, he sees those values eroding in the country for which he fought.
“It’s a tough time, we’re divided by inequality,” he said. “What we don’t have in this country now is a sense [that] we are responsible for each other. There’s too much ‘me’ in our political discourse.”
In this digital extra video, Retired Army Colonel Tony Nadal talks about preventing war crimes in his unit: