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Former POW teaches integrity first

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Lt. Col. (Ret.) Barry Bridger addresses Team Buckley on POW/MIA Remembrance Day. Bridger was a POW in Vietnam from 1967-1973. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Marcy Glass)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Lt. Col. (Ret.) Barry Bridger addresses Team Buckley on POW/MIA Remembrance Day. Bridger was a POW in Vietnam from 1967-1973. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Marcy Glass)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Team Buckley observed POW/MIA Day on Sept 16, just a week after remembering 9/11.

Col. Daniel Dant, 460th Space Wing commander, noted that originally POW/MIA Day was placed in mid-September because there were no other remembrances or holidays at that time. "It is in some ways really fitting that this day should come just after our annual September 11 remembrance," said Dant. "We will never forget our duty to bring home all POWs and MIAs, nor relent in our efforts to do so."

"We're gathered here today to remember those who served our nation as heroes. They are those who served our nation as POWs and we're here to remember the families of those who went to war and never returned their fate mostly unknown," stated Dant.

"We can never really adequately express our gratitude to those who have served our nation as POWs and really to their families who've experienced such anguish during years of separation. But today, and throughout the year, we can and we should and we will pay tribute to those extraordinary American patriots, thank them for their extraordinary service, their sacrifice and honor them always in our hearts," said Dant.

The solemn ceremony was highlighted by a POW/MIA Table Ceremony, attended by Naval Operations Support Center personnel. Guest speaker for the event was Lt. Col. (Ret.) Barry Bridger, occupant of the famous Hanoi Hilton from January 1967 to his release during Operation Homecoming in March 1973.

Bridger is the recipient of the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with "V" Device, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters and the Prisoner of War Medal.

Bridger demonstrated military bearing while describing life as a POW. A commanding speaker with a deeply resonant voice and carefully chosen words, his address was succinct and powerful, as much for what he said as for what he didn't say. The colonel did not once mention his own treatment while a POW; yet spoke admiringly of his fellow prisoners.

"America's re-patriated POWs know full well that we are the fortunate ones because we came home, so our greatest debt of gratitude must go to our missing in action, who served faithfully, yet remained unaccounted. To fully appreciate the magnitude of the sacrifice of our POWs and our MIAs, it is helpful to know that there are approximately 88,000 American warriors still missing in action from all of our nation's wars, and an additional 50,000 ex-POWs living among us today," said Bridger.

"But America's prisoners of war will also tell you that the lessons we learned in our long, dark night of terror can be helpful in unlocking any prison door. I want to share with you two of the most important lessons we learned. First of all: Integrity. What is the role of integrity to help you and me to overcome our greatest trials and tribulations? When you become a POW you quickly discover you have two choices. You can take the easy path, make your own deal and turn off the pain, and leave the team. Or, you can stay and fight and remain on the team. Life would have been much better for us if we had simply cooperated with our captors. But, cooperation would have destroyed our integrity and placed the well-being of our fellow POWs at significant risk," continued Bridger.

"Integrity is your moral compass, and if you give it up, recovery is not possible. Forgiveness is; recovery is not. It is therefore a preeminent moral value that should be kept at the very top of every American's conscience," advised Bridger.

Bridger quoted Vice Admiral James D. Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer held as a POW during the Vietnam War, "Integrity is one of those things that many Americans keep in the bottom drawer of their life, labeled 'Too hard to do.' You cannot buy integrity. You cannot sell it, but it gives you something to hang on to when the winds of life begin to howl, and you're faced with the tough choices of right and wrong, all alone."

"Our second lesson: selfless service. So, what is the role of selfless service in helping you and I handle tough times? In the surreal environment of a POW camp, where everything that happens is highly magnified, the giving and the receiving of help is fundamental to surviving. For example, in the prison camps of North Vietnam, we created our own culture, our own family and our own set of laws. Every day was combat, and our survival required relentless, tenacious planning. We quickly learned not to focus on the final score, but only on the play at hand. That you could not be a POW of one, and that our physical well-being could only be met by the help that we received from one another."

"Conversely, our spiritual well-being, our sense of inner peace and personal contentment, was not dependent on the help we received, but the help we were willing to give. We then embraced these principles as an important part of our POW culture, because their faithful execution best assured the inspired behavior and support we owed one another," stated Bridger.

Bridger then related his first-person account of Sen. John McCain's capture, torture and subsequent refusal to be transported back to the U.S., leaving his fellow POW's behind. "In other words, the soul of the American warrior is not for sale. Ladies and gentlemen, if this great land of ours is to endure, indeed to prosper in the future, it must be blessed with citizens like our POWs and MIAs and veterans who rise every day and place their families and communities and their nation ahead of their own personal ambitions. This is devoted work, a true labor of love, and none know better than they that the cost of freedom is high, but the blessings of liberty, priceless. I conclude my remarks by joining you in deep respect for the valor and the sacrifice of our POWs and MIAs and veterans, and indeed all Americans who stand in the name of liberty," closed Bridger.

The first-person account of the author of this piece: "I was thirteen, and glued to the television with the rest of the country. In that time television consisted of ABC, CBS, NBC, and public TV, so the coverage of Operation Homecoming was universal. From Feb. 12 to April 4, 1973, 54 C-141missions flew 591 American POWs from Hanoi to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and then on to Travis Air Force Base, Calif. The giant transports would stop in the middle of the tarmac. The re-patriated prisoners stepped down out of the planes and your breath caught in your throat. Their clothing hung on them, no spare flesh on their bodies. Some walked with difficulty; others were helped off the planes. As they stepped onto American soil, they seemed to hesitate, as if it might not be real. Their wives and children raced across the tarmac to the husbands and fathers that had finally come home. My own father was career Air Force, so it resonated deeply with me. I remember being enormously proud and deeply moved at their return. Thirty-eight years later, I shook hands with Col. Bridger and blurted out, 'I watched you come home back in 1973.' This American hero proved his innate humility by answering, 'I'm sorry I put you through that!'"
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