This Emotional Life: My Life As A POW

During the Vietnam War I was imprisoned for eight years. Three of those years were spent in solitary confinement. I am often asked how I and my fellow POW's in Vietnam were able not only to survive the experience, but go on to resume normal lives.

"Weren't you depressed during those long years?"

Yes, we had our periods of ups and downs, but we developed coping mechanisms which helped us during those long years. Many of these techniques have applications to ordinary citizens who are dealing with stress and often feel depressed.

I was on top of the world one day and at the bottom the next. My F8 Crusader was hit by ground fire, my back was broken in the ejection and landing, I faced a firing squad, torture, and isolation in a filthy cell. I was lonely, hungry, scared, and sick -- but I was proud: Proud to be an American, proud of my Navy, proud of my family.

I had been married for just one year and had an infant son when I was captured. My constant thoughts were of returning home, but returning to my wife and son with Honor. I could have thought "Why me, God, why me?" But I didn't.

The worst thing I and my fellow POWs could have done under the circumstances would have been to clam up and withdraw. That would have been easy because our captors kept us in four by nine concrete, windowless cells; they imposed a no communication policy on us. But we thwarted them by developing a "tap code" which allowed us to clandestinely communicate with our neighbors a foot away through a concrete wall using coded knocks that spelled out words.

What did we talk about? It really didn't matter. We just knew that there was a fellow American sharing our own experience. We built houses in our minds -- tapped out French and music lessons, computed the 12th root of the number two, relived pleasant past relationships and even had elaborate breakfasts each Sunday (all in our imaginations). We were focused on supporting each other, trying to make life a bit more bearable, and dreaming.

For most of us, our dreams came true. I earned my Doctorate in electrical engineering, progressed in military rank to become an Admiral, am held in respect by my peers, nurtured my son to become a brain surgeon, built an airplane and, yes, even built that house I envisioned. Life is good! When things look bleak for you my advice is to talk over your problems with your family and friends, seize control over as much of your circumstances as possible, and dream of a better tomorrow. It worked for me. And if you learn the "tap code" you and I might even support each other no matter how thick the barrier between us.

God bless our nation, and those who serve it.

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