I sent my recent guest perspective on Independence Day to a few Vietnam veteran friends of mine. Their reviews were mixed. “What’s a parade?” one buddy asked. Several just replied, “Welcome home, brother.” In addition, I received some statistics I would like to share with my readers.
During the Vietnam War 2,709,918 military personnel served in Vietnam, which represented 9.7 percent of their generation. According to the 2000 Census, the number of Americans falsely claiming to have served in-country was 13,853,027.
I find that amusing. When I got out in 1969, it was not healthy to claim to be a Vietnam veteran. Now it seems everybody wants to be a veteran. It does show, however, how much our military has risen in the esteem of our fellow citizens, and that’s a good thing.
Honoring our veterans is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., built in 1982 and now containing 58,272 names of the fallen. Names are added if a service member returned from Vietnam with serious wounds and then died later as a result of those wounds.
Approximately 1,027,000 Vietnam Veterans are estimated to be alive today. About 390 die every day. Compare this to about 5 million World War II veterans still alive, and about 1,135 die every day. The Wall and the newer World War II Memorial are able to honor those still with us, and for that, I am grateful.
That’s enough morbidity for one day. I want to leave you with some upbeat information a friend of mine sent me. He is a Marine pilot shot down over North Vietnam and who spent six years and four months as a prisoner of war.
The war ended in 1973, the POWs came home in March. A year after their return, Dr. William H. Sledge was asked to interview each of the POWs and evaluate their mental health. His study was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 1980.
Dr. Sledge was provided access to the classified debriefings the POWs received upon their release. He was shocked at the accounts of brutality and torture.
After nearly 80 interviews, an unusual pattern began to emerge. He had interviewed other pilots regarding their wartime experiences. The fighter jocks had a distinctive swagger. But the POWs who were shot down were different. There was less swagger and more grace. They were more humble and grateful.
They described their lives as improved because of their experience. The changes included more self-awareness, increased optimism, renewed political or religious values and a reprioritization of the relative importance of family and career. The POW experience seemed to bring more clarity and perspective to their lives.
They talked a lot about the close bonds they had formed in prison. Several said they had never had such intense relationships as they had with their fellow prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton. One POW seemed almost wistful when he admitted he missed prison.
Dr. Sledge requested a more comprehensive study. This time he used a control group of aviators who had served in Vietnam. He discovered the POWs reported more benefits from their wartime experience than did the control group. Sixty-one percent indicated “favorable significant mental changes,” while only 32 percent of the control group felt the same benefits.
They were the longest-held POWs in our nation’s history. The POWs remained unified and strong throughout years of tortuous captivity. Incredibly, they defied what is known as “prisoner’s dilemma” — selling out their fellow prisoners in hopes of bettering their own chance of survival. How were they able to accomplish this? In a word — leadership.
The POWs’ leader, Cmdr. James Stockdale, made it his mission to prevent that. The North Vietnamese routinely tortured Stockdale and placed him in solitary confinement, but he never broke.
Against all odds, and despite extreme torture and extended isolation, the POWs built a civilized culture using their brains and their tin cups. They communicated with each other using Morse Code and tapping on prison walls.
With Stockdale’s leadership, his POWs remained unified in their resistance to the enemy and in their loyalty to their country. They managed to keep alive the sense of purpose and meaning they created from their experience.
The POWs returned home with honor. For his leadership during capture and imprisonment, Cmdr. Stockdale won the Medal of Honor.
If you would like more information on our POWs and how their imprisonment transformed their lives, you might wish to read the new book, “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High Performance Teams” by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland.
Chuck McDougald headed the Veterans Coalition, first for California, then for the Western Region, when Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008. In 2010, he served as Statewide Volunteer Chair for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He is currently the Western Region director for ConcernedVeteransforAmerica.org. He lives in South San Francisco with his wife and two kids.
NOTE TO READERS: This article has been corrected. The number of Vietnam veterans alive today is approximately 1,027,000.