Heroes and Mr. Trump

Donald Trump has decreed that an American Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine who is captured is “not a war hero.”  He couldn’t be more wrong.

Any man or woman who willingly goes i​n​to harm’s way because they believe​in protecting this nation trumps the mere gathering of assets, sound bites, or wall plaques. This is what capture and resistance look like...

It is sobering enough to take off and land on the rolling deck of an aircraft carrier, let alone fly into a hornet’s nest of Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and MIG interceptors. To reach that point, John McCain, one of the objects of Mr. Trump’s “ready-fire-aim” style of bombast, was in his aircraft on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal on 29 July 1967 when an on-deck aircraft accidentally fired a rocket into those awaiting takeoff on deck. Lt. Cmdr. McCain’s aircraft was one that burst into flames. Rolling out of the cockpit, he was on his way to rescue another pilot when he was sent reeling by another explosion.

Staying with this one naval aviator’s experience for a moment, with the Forrestal now out of commission Lt. Cmdr. McCain then led his A-4E bomber squadron from the WWII-era USS Oriskany into some of the fiercest SAM and anti-aircraft fire around Hanoi. Any pilot who flew 23 missions into that inferno is a hero, but on that 23rd mission his number was up. Imagine, if you can, the terror of having your right wing blown off as you start to pull up from a bombing run, careening into a low-level vertical inverted spin, and ejecting upside down from a burning aircraft with enough force to shatter your right arm, your left arm and your right leg, and are on your way to 5 ½ years in the hell-hole known as Hoa Lo Prison (dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by its insuppressible American POWs.)

I have the honor of knowing the longest-held US Air Force POW from the Vietnam era (along with two fellow crew members,) then Airman and now Major (Retired) Arthur ​Neil ​Black, U.S. Air Force Pararescueman. I was also a guest instructor at the USAF Survival School where, during one too-short week, we did our best to show military aircrews the living hell of beatings, torture, starvation, deprivation, solitary confinement, and untreated injuries and illness they might expect for months or even years. 

First, about Major Black, a volunteer in one of the most dangerous special operations jobs, who Mr. Trump might disparage as “not heroic.”  Neil and the crew of Duchy 41, an HH43B helicopter, were on a rescue mission to find and return an American pilot whose F105 had been shot down in North Vietnam.

Flying a helicopter into the jaws of the waiting enemy, risking five lives to save one, is what our American military is all about. It confounds our enemies who can’t comprehend that math -- or the fact that if those five go down, five more immediately volunteer to take their place. We’re Americans -- to us, every life is precious and every American not returned home is an assault on us all. On this day, however, the ground fire was withering. The chopper went down in low-visibility conditions and the crew members were captured. Neil Black was at Hoa Lo to greet John McCain when he arrived.  Like almost every POW there, it wasn’t only what these men withstood, it was what they gave.

Of course, they gave each other comfort, hope, faith, camaraderie, rations, and medical care. But they also gave America intelligence. It typically takes 40 years before classified information is available for consideration for declassification. This story, previously seen only by those with a “need to know” and told by former POWs at select survival courses, can now be told. 

Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale was another of those whom Mr. Trump might cast as non-hero, since he spent the Vietnam War from Sept 20, 1965 forward as a captive. One of the primary organizers of prisoner resistance, Jim Stockdale, recipient of the Medal of Honor, was also there to greet John McCain, his old shipmate from the Oriskany.

It was Jim Stockdale who organized the intelligence ring ​in which these men participated ​within Hoa Lo. To begin, he wrote a letter to his wife Sybil, who realized this strange letter was not the way he spoke. She informed Naval Intelligence and the CIA. Her return letter was specially written by members of the Intelligence Community. 

From that moment forward, American intelligence knew every man who was at Hoa Lo, knew of the torture and the beatings, knew when the bombings in Hanoi were effective, and even received recommendations for bombing targets from within Hoa Lo. Microfilm, microdots, even covert radio communications with high-flying aircraft came next, including essential intelligence for the Son Tay raid intended to rescue POWs from another site. How much courage does it take to be a spy in the enemy’s midst? 

​More than most comprehend. Prisoners might live, but spies are executed.

There you have it. Three men from different backgrounds, none with an inherited head start in life. Three who “got captured.” Three who lived like men before, during, and after their capture.  

There are those who merely talk the talk and there are those who have walked the walk. When asked by reporters if he might apologize for his remarks about American prisoners of war, Mr. Trump instead diverted the conversation, calling Senator McCain  “yet another all talk, no action politician who spends too much time on television and not enough time doing his job.”  If the shoe fits…

Retired Brigadier General Shaefer is a published and speaking member of the National Security Forum and a senior geopolitical consultant for think tank Omnis Inc.​