Attitude of a POW

In my newsletter last week I told the story, “You Get What You’re Looking For.” The point of the story is that we don’t see things as they are. We see life through a filter and that filter (not reality) determines how we experience life and, eventually, our destinies.

I want to share the story of a man I became acquainted with some years ago. This is a man who had to step up to a pretty significant challenge and radically change what he was looking for. His very survival depended on his ability to shift how he viewed his life and the choices he made about the harsh reality of spending six and a half years as a prisoner of war.

Charlie Plumb grew up in a small town Kansas town.  He attended the Naval Academy, following high school where he learned to fly the F4 Phantom jet, a high altitude supersonic interceptor. This jet flies more than 1400 miles per hour and weighs more than 60,000 pounds at takeoff. During the Viet Nam Ward, Charlie flew 75 missions off the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.

Five days from the end of his tour of duty and return home to his loved ones in Kansas, Charlie and his co-pilot were in their F4 Phantom south of Hanoi when they were hit by a surface to air missile. The plane turned upside down and plummeted towards the ground. Charlie knew they were in serious trouble. Not only were they hurling towards the ground but the plane was upside down making it impossible for him and his co-pilot to safely eject from the aircraft.

With incredible effort, Charlie was able to get the plane righted. He and his co-pilot ejected and parachuted safely to the ground. Their good fortune did not last long, however. They were immediately captured by the Vietcong. Charlie was stripped of everything he owned. They took his flight gear, clothing and personal possessions. They even took his name and gave him another from their own language.  He was taken to Hanoi and tortured for military information and then imprisoned for a total of five years and nine months.

In his words, “The first night was grand. I found myself wrapped in the corner of a cell like a human pretzel. I was bleeding through four places on my body, my face was so swollen I couldn’t see out of one eye and everything was a blur out of the other. I wished I was dead but that was not an option.

“I peeked through my good eye and saw in a corner some English, scratched with a piece of wire or nail by a former prisoner of war. I couldn’t make it out at first, but the longer I looked, the more visible it became.

“I pieced together a letter at a time until I finally figured it out. ‘Smile, you’re on candid camera.’ My first thought was ‘what a sick joke.’ What poor miserable guy had written that just before he died? My second thought, quick to follow, was ‘wait a minute, somebody wrote that on a wall just as he figured out, ‘I’m alive.’

“It occurred to me that some guy, maybe the night before or weeks before faced the same dilemma as me—a prisoner of war, a long way from home. He probably hadn’t eaten. He was probably hurting and didn’t know whether he would live or die. Yet somehow this guy found some humor in it all and passed it along to me. ‘Smile. You’re on candid camera.’

“When you come to a fork in the road, you have a scenario that you can cry about or smile about. I’ve learned it’s a whole lot healthier to smile about it.”

Charlie had believed that if he were taken prisoner he would not be able to tolerate being incarcerated for any length of time. But he said, “Then I found within me, as did each prisoner of war, the hidden strength to rise to the occasion and meet the challenge. It’s in each of us. We don’t know how great we are until we’re tested.

Speaking later, Charlie said, “I don’t mean to minimize the size of your problems by my story. All I mean to say is that just like any other major problems, they are going to be about as big or small as you make them by the choices you make.”

One of Charlie’s POW buddies said this to him. “It doesn’t make any difference where you are. You could be in a Penthouse in Miami Beach, on a sailboat in San Diego Harbor, back home in Kansas or a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It doesn’t make any difference. You’re happiness or sadness, your life or death, your success or failure depends not on what’s around you but your attitude and choices about what’s around you. “

More than 592 POW’s returned home from Vietnam. The doctors told them that they were healthier mentally and physically than the guys who didn’t get shot down. Isn’t that fascinating? The guys that went through the greatest hardship and trauma were the healthiest. Why? They rose to the occasion. They had to take responsibility for their response. Circumstances required that they make deliberate decisions about  how to respond.  And with backs to the wall they accessed an inner resourcefulness and made good, healthy and empowering decisions.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

3 responses to “Attitude of a POW”

  1. Ben says:

    This article is extremely inpsirational and uplifting. We tend to think that the environment has a lot to do with how we deal with situations and yet the power is in us to change every adversity. I have learnt a lot from this story. I will surely recommend it to my friends who have given up in life blaming government, their parents and everybody else for their misery.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ben. I agree. If we’re to be happy and effective then we have to take responsibility for our circumstances.

  2. […] trauma or loss and yet survive? In many cases, not only survive but thrive. Like Charlie Plumb in my last post. Upon being captured, tortured and tossed in a small cell, Charlie wasn’t sure he’d […]

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