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Interview with COL (Ret.) Ian "Red" Natkin

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Colonel Abe Derry is a commander whose style and leadership is valued by Jaime Richards. What does it take, in real life, to gain that kind of respect from your subordinates and your peers?

The following interview is with one such leader, Colonel (Retired) Ian "Red" Natkin.

  Meet Red Natkin, Colonel (Retired) Medical Service Corps officer, whose service included combat tours in Vietnam and Somalia. In the interview below he shares a very personal look inside the life of a young officer in Vietnam and later a commander whose years of experience and caring attitude toward soldiers earned the respect of all those under his command.
Red Natkin and his chaplain, B.K. Sherer, attend a Passover Seder service in Mogadishu, Somalia.
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When did you first know you wanted to be an Army officer?

I first decided to make the Army a career in high school, and to be an officer when I was awarded an ROTC scholarship my senior year in high school.

What made you choose Medical Service Corps?

I originally wanted to be a physician; my major in college was Biology. However, I spent too much time enjoying college and fraternity life at the expense of my studies. I was turned down for entry into all of the Medical Schools to which I applied.  Based on my being a Distinguished Military Graduate, I could choose my branch. I knew I was going to try to get into Medical School again, and I felt that being in the Medical Service Corps would offer me experiences that could possibly increase my admission chances. I was wrong, but am forever glad I chose the best corps in the Army!

You served in combat in Vietnam and had to return home to a country that did not treat its war veterans very well at that time, yet you stayed with it and continued on with a military career, retiring as a Colonel. What made you stay?  Are you glad you did? 

My experience upon my return from Viet Nam reinforced my beliefs that I could be a leader and be a part of the Army’s transformation. Although I had friends and family that did not support the war, I was always able to convince them that the military was just an extension of our Government, and that the warriors should not be the ones receiving any wrath; the elected officials were the ones that needed to be intensely scrutinized for any decisions to put our warriors, and our great Country, in Harm’s Way. I knew the Army, and our Country, needed leaders who cared, and who could successfully interface with those who did not support our military. I did not want to argue the Army’s case from the outside; I wanted to contribute to the rebuilding process as a leader. I wanted to ensure that no soldier would have to endure what I and my comrades endured-having a large number of my countrymen not honor those who protected their collective freedom.

When the soldiers I commanded returned from Somalia, my emphasis was placed on providing a positive, appreciative experience for my soldiers. I think I was successful. For that reason, and the knowledge that I was able to mentor and help develop future leaders, you bet I am glad I stayed in.

When you think back to your time in Viet Nam, what are your most vivid memories? 

I have two knee-jerk first answers. One: the memory of one night having to go to the makeshift morgue at the 45th Surgical Hospital in Tay Ninh to identify one of my medics who lost his life in a battle.  His body was positioned with one hand raised as if to acknowledge someone or something. About 8 years ago, I posted a memory to him on the Viet Nam Memorial website. Through that post, I was contacted by his widow. It was traumatic for both of us initially, but I was able to give her insight into her husband and how he was a hero and role model to us in Viet Nam. I correspond with her, his brother, and his father to this day; it has been cathartic for me.

My second memory was having to identify, tag and place in a body bag the remains of my best friend near the end of my tour, during the incursion into Cambodia. He had been hit with an RPG. I remember having to start the tag over many times, because my tears would not stop, and I had smudged the tag to make it unreadable. After I helped one of his fellow platoon members load his remains into a helicopter for transport, all I could do was cry. That stopped abruptly when a small helicopter approaching our Fire Support Base crashed about 20 minutes later, and I had to rush to the scene to assist survivors.

My persistent overall memory is the beauty of the country, the friendliness of the people, and how surrealistic it was that I was actually a soldier, a medic, and a leader in a country so far from my home in Chicago.

What was the most rewarding aspect of your career? What do you miss most from your time on Active duty?

My most rewarding aspect was after Somalia-being able to bring home all the soldiers that deployed from my unit. I made a vow that I would do everything possible to protect my soldiers; we were able to complete the mission with no KIAs.

I miss the camaraderie most of all, and being able to hear someone say “I will do it”, and actually do it! I still work for the government, albeit in a civilian capacity. My strongest relationships tend to be with those who have served, or are serving, in the military.  There is an assumed trust that you can only have with someone who is/was willing to give their life for their country.

As a leader whose faith background is different than the majority of your fellow officers, having grown up in the Jewish faith, did you find it difficult to remain faithful to your traditions while surrounded by others of different backgrounds?

If I were an Orthodox Jew, or one who strictly observed all of the requirements of my faith, maintaining my faith would have been problematic due to mission and military requirements that may have not presented the best opportunity to practice my faith. However, I was able to practice what I believed was required of my faith to be a “good Jew”. The prophet Micah said: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy G_D. I remember those words, because I had to memorize them as part of my Bar Mitzvah speech. By believing in, and following, those words, anyone can be faithful to their religion.

Why is the Chaplain Corps important to the Army?  What service does a good chaplain do for his or her Soldiers?

A chaplain has to be many things to a multitude of soldiers who may or may not believe in a Supreme Being or Power. I wanted my chaplain to provide a spiritual presence for all of my soldiers. I felt, and still feel, that having a chaplain available to soldiers offers a calming, supportive environment, a role model, and someone who can try to make sense of a profession that may ask a soldier to take the life of another human.

As a commander, what do you need most from your chaplain? What do you believe a chaplain needs from you? 

The most important thing I needed was a chaplain that recognized the importance of respecting the faiths, or lack of faith, of all the soldiers. My chaplain, when asked to provide a public invocation or benediction, had to remember that there are those that do not believe that Jesus was the son of G_D, nor is their Savior; as such, the public prayers were to be spiritual, but non-denominational.

As a commander, my chaplain had to be certain that he or she knew:

  1. I valued my chaplain as a key member of my staff. He or she had to know that the chaplain had my trust, respect, and support.
  2. I would never ask my chaplain to be a spy or be a tattletale; I was ALWAYS available if the chaplain needed me, but I may not always agree with what the chaplain recommended or did.
  3. My chaplain had to have dedicated ground transportation, even at the expense of my primary staff.
  4. My chaplain had to have protection in combat; I always personally met with the chaplain’s assistant and stressed that the CA’s primary job was to protect my chaplain, and that I held the CA personally responsible for the chaplain’s safety.

Now that you’ve read Chasing Eden, what do you think of Jaime Richards as a chaplain? As a staff officer?

Interesting question. I always had B.K. in my mind whenever I envisioned Jaime. Since I could not separate the personas, my answer refers to both “characters”. As a chaplain, she is the best; no commander could ever hope, dream, nor ask for a better role model. As a staff officer, she always means well, may try to do too much, and would always eventually bring a smile to my face with her goals and actions.

 

Thank-you, Red, for your dedicated service to this country, and for sharing your story with us!

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