Sitting in his favorite rocking chair in the sunroom of his home in Auburn, Ala. (pop. 42,987), Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, 89, is surrounded by a dozen young students hanging on his every word—how a small-town Kentucky boy managed to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., flew through the air as a young paratrooper when his parachute snagged on the tail of an airplane and, most notably, led his troops in the first major battle of the Vietnam War.
In that historic battle in November 1965 in Vietnam’s rugged Ia Drang Valley, Moore’s boots were the first on the battlefield and the last off as he and his 390 men, outnumbered by 4-to-1, killed an estimated 750 enemy soldiers during a fierce three-day shootout. Seventy-nine of Moore’s men died in the firefight.
“Never once did it cross my mind that we would fail,” the retired general tells the youngsters during a lesson on leadership.
“When you’re up against a tough problem, never quit. There’s always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor. And then after that, one more thing again. Never give up.”
Moore’s tenacity is grounded in experience.
At age 15, he set his sights on attending West Point to become an Army officer, though he was unable to secure an appointment through his own senators and congressman. Undeterred, he moved to Washington, D.C., at age 18, working days in the Senate Book Warehouse and taking evening classes to finish high school, all while knocking on doors on Capitol Hill to get his foot in the door of West Point.
More than two years later, a Georgia congressman nominated Moore for an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy—with permission to swap if he could find a willing West Point candidate. He did.
“In the game of baseball, three strikes and you’re out,” Moore says. “But I learned that in the game of life, three strikes and you’re not out.”
As a member of West Point’s Class of 1945, Moore struggled with calculus, chemistry and “anything with numbers in it,” often using a hallway restroom illuminated by a 40-watt light bulb as his after-hours study hall. “It was tough, but I’m proud to say that I graduated at the very top—of the bottom 20 percent of my class,” Moore quips.
In the Army, he quickly distinguished himself as a studied leader. Moore served in Japan, the Philippines, Norway and at the Pentagon; jump-tested more than 300 experimental parachutes; led combat troops in the Korean War; and taught infantry tactics at West Point. He completed study at the National War College and received his master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University.
LINK: Hal Moore's 17 Leadership Lessons
As a lieutenant colonel at Fort Benning, Ga., he commanded the 1st Batallion of the 7th U.S. Cavalry in the famous Vietnam War battle chronicled in his 1992 book and depicted in the 2002 movie We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as Moore.
Throughout his career, including after his military retirement in 1977, Moore has studied leadership, frequently speaking on and teaching the topic. “I think I’m more interested in bad leadership than good leadership,” he says, “because bad leadership teaches you why leaders fail—what they did or did not do that kept them from influencing the situation in their favor.”
A new mission
Age and injuries have not dampened Moore’s belief in the tenets that made him successful. Now in constant pain due to injuries sustained during a helicopter crash and parachuting mishaps, he uses a cane and occasionally a wheelchair.
“But I can read, I can pray, I can do limited exercises,” he says. “I can speak about leadership. I can remind myself, ‘Hal Moore, there’s always one more thing you can do to improve your situation.’”
In 2004, after the death of Julie, his wife of 54 years, he believed God had a new mission for an old soldier but groped to find it. Then, in 2008 at age 86, Moore began working with Auburn City Schools to develop the Hal Moore National Youth Leadership Academy for Honor. Admitting about 70 students each year across grades 6 through 12, the extracurricular character-building program is designed to reinstitute honor as a major value among teens and young adults.
“Kids in school today take a lot of tests, but none of these cover the four most important values of life—honor, respect, service and humility,” says school superintendent Terry Jenkins, 63. “We have to make sure that we in education don’t lose the values that this great nation was built on.”
The academy centers its curriculum on leadership principles that Moore developed during his 32 years of military service and 30 years as a businessman and speaker. Supporters say the program is unique and effective because it incorporates the virtues of a world-class leader residing in their community.
“Our students can actually meet and connect with General Moore as a person,” says Cristen Herring, 39, assistant schools superintendent, who helps oversee the academy. “His home is like a museum, and he opens it up to us and shares his life with all of us.”
Lessons for life
Educators and supporters want the academy to be expanded to other communities and to maintain its mission forever. Participants say the values instilled in young people now will yield benefits in the future.
“It’s helped me with everything—sports, school, being a big brother, life,” says Rashaan Evans, 15, a ninth-grader at Auburn Junior High School.
“I’ve learned that to be a great leader, I have to be willing to listen to the opinions of others,” says Eliott Player, 13, a student at Drake Middle School.
Academy alumnus Kasi Davis, 20, who now attends Auburn University, says Moore’s example of “being the first boots on and the last boots off the battlefield” made an impression on her. “In a battle, he was selfless. True leaders put the needs of others before themselves,” she says.
Retired Maj. Gen. Lou Hennies, 75, is a frequent speaker at the academy and says students are hungry for such lessons.
“I think this generation is crying for positive leadership and a value system beyond themselves,” says Hennies, a businessman who lives in Destin, Fla.
“And here you’ve got General Hal Moore, who truly epitomizes the soldierly values of courage, competence, commitment and candor, and at age 89 he’s still making major contributions to society. How can you not love a man like that?”