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Life As an American POW Part 1/3

It wasn’t a thunderous clap of an epiphany when I realized I was a prisoner in my own land last year. Instead, it crept up on me without a conscious thought as I stood in the checkout line in my local grocery store. I was simply standing there, my eyes softly touching upon all the candy bars and celebrity gossip rags lost in my own blank mind when I looked down at the newly installed decals providing the ‘proper and scientific’ social distancing spots we were all instructed to stand upon. Sure, I had seen them before, but this time was different. This time the dots connected, and it all became clear in an instant.

You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Those ubiquitous circular decals on the floors of so many of our local businesses? They all have some variation of the ‘for your safety, stand here’ theme and they are all precisely laid out exactly six feet apart. These stickers are about as subtle as a Communist speech writer from the 1930's.

It was in that moment as my eyes touched upon the bright yellow sticker at my feet that, without thinking and by pure instinct alone, I moved off the sticker to stand literally anywhere but that sticker. This was not a conscious decision of noncompliance but rather a return, an unconscious recollection, of my POW training so many years ago during my military service. In that moment, in that small act of unconscious and instinctive defiance, I carved out just a little more freedom for my already-greatly diminished circle of Liberty and in so doing, made a hard and unavoidable conclusion.

What I am describing may likely need a little context, so please let me provide you that background now:

In general, the military trains its people in their chosen specialty and then ships them off to the ‘field,’ whether it is Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. However, for some military specialties that carry a special risk of capture by our enemies, these individuals are provided just a little extra training; that training is called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Rescue and Escape).

The purpose of this training, at its core, instructs a potential Prisoner of War how to survive his capture (presumably in a POW camp) and return with honor. Again, the purpose is not to dig tunnels like in Hogan’s Heroes, nor is it to calmly tell his interrogator, “I ain’t tellin’ you nuttin, you red commie bastid.” I can think of no quicker way to not survive captivity than these Hollywood-inspired tropes. It also doesn’t teach you the Hawaiian sign for ‘good luck’ (but that’s another story).

No, the purpose of SERE training is to survive the un-survivable and return with honor. Keywords here are: ‘survive,’ ‘return’ and ‘honor.’

The need for this type of instruction was identified after the end of the Korean War (if memory serves) when the North Koreans allowed (some) American POWs to return home. These former POWs were not only in a state of shell shock, but they had also endured extreme and inhumane treatment that only illiterate North Korean communists could dream up. This included things beyond ‘simple’ torture to also include brainwashing and other psychological torture.

The American military of the 1950’s and ‘60’s discovered that many former POW’s were committing suicide after their return home. These men had endured unspeakable horrors only to pack it all in after they were safely home? Why?

Guilt. These men felt unresolvable guilt for having succumbed to torture and gave up information that they felt obligated to protect and not divulge. Such was the state of mind of a 1950’s military man.

So, after hundreds if not thousands of interviews and studies, the military developed the SERE training program. It was intended to give potential captives the tools to survive inhumane conditions and captivity the best they can while at the same time maintaining their self-respect, dignity and honor after they broke from the torture (everyone breaks). I personally went through this training. Trust me when I tell you: a lot of self-learning happens in that training.

One of the small tools the training gives you is the concept of ‘little wins’ in the face of insurmountable obstacles. In a POW situation, you are not John Rambo, and you will not defeat the entire North Vietnamese army by yourself with a belt of bullets hanging over your shoulder. So, instead of unrealistically fighting making a ‘last stand’ that will surely end up with you dead, the prisoner is instead trained to carve out little freedoms for himself where he can, if even just a little bit and if even for just a short while.

For example: If a rule is made by your captors that you must eat with your left hand, you eat with your left hand. That is, of course, until they aren’t looking and then you immediately switch to your right hand. This tiny act of non-compliance is in fact a HUGE victory psychologically. These tiny acts reinforce the individual’s inner strength even when beset upon all sides by injustice and cruelty. Do not underestimate the cumulative power and strength of the little wins.

Returning to the grocery store and my instinctual move off the little sticker (the idiomatic megaphone on an Orwellian street corner) imploring me to stand exactly here, it was in the moment that after I moved off the sticker I realized why I moved off that sticker: I was implementing the little win strategy taught to me as a survival technique as a prisoner. That was when my slow realization took hold: I was a prisoner in my own country.

My move off the little sticker was the unconscious move to resist a soft tyranny. Right there, standing in the checkout line of my local grocery store, I carved out just a little bit of freedom for myself and chalked up one little win which, later, would later build to yet greater wins (more stories to come!).

There is a time and place for everything. But all the while, just remember: It all begins with the small wins.

Yours in Victory

R. A.


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