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A Few Thoughts on Courage and Patriotism (Dr. James Sutton)

Since John McCain passed away last Saturday, I’ve been wanting to share my thoughts of my respect for him, but really couldn’t put them into words. I’m still struggling with it, I suppose.

Especially as a Vietnam vet, I was always moved by what he and the other POWs went through during their captivity in Hanoi for all those years. But it took on new meaning to me when Bobbie and I became friends with retired Navy Captain Jerry Coffee. We met as members of the National Speakers Association.

Jerry was a POW in the Hanoi Hilton for seven years and nine days. His book on that experience (“Beyond Survival,” published by Putnam), and what he learned from it, was a real eye-opener. Jerry has shared his story from the platform, but, more than that, his message always became personal to everyone in the audience. As he shared many, many times, “We all face adversity at some point; how we handle it matters.”

While in prison in North Vietnam, the POWs followed the chain of command. This was strongly against prison rules, so the senior officers had to be discrete while setting policy and issuing orders. Because of their seniority, these men were set aside for additional punishment.

One of them was Brigadier General Robbie Risner, the most senior POW at the Hanoi Hilton. He was a celebrated hero and top ace in Korea; he had been featured on the cover of Time magazine. That bought him a lot of pain and misery in prison, including ten months of solitary confinement in complete and total darkness. (He later said he held on to his sanity by exercising.)

The highest ranking naval officer was Vice Admiral James Stockdale. He and his wife, Sybil, wrote a book about their experiences at the time, “In Love and War.” It was made into a movie; James Woods played Stockdale.

Stockdale set a model for resistance. On one occasion, when told he would be interviewed by a film crew the next morning, he beat his face with a wooden stool until he was so disfigured he could not be used for that propaganda film. In defiance of the severe and sometimes fatal torture POWs were receiving, he inflicted a near-mortal wound on himself. He was revived by the enemy before he bled to death, but he had made his point. Things weren’t exactly easy for POWs after that, but the treatment of prisoners did improve. Stockdale ultimately was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Gerald Ford. Fitting.

I realize that, in all his years of service, McCain’s five and a half years in captivity were but a small part of what he stood for and accomplished. But I do believe experiences like those five and a half years can serve to help us discern who we are and guide us to a purpose that can live long after we are gone.

August 28, 2018 Posted by | adversity, Communication, Compassion, courage, family, Human Interest, Inspirational, patriotism, Resilience, Self-esteem, veterans | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment