Surviving an Upside-Down World – How the POWs Led Through Change

by Lee Ellis

What a week we’ve just had! Are you in shock? How could anyone ever imagine that the NCAA basketball Final Four would be cancelled, Major League Baseball would be shut down, cruises and college classes would be shut down (or go virtual), and the Masters would be postponed indefinitely. What we have seen in the last week is shocking. Almost beyond comprehension. Incredible as it sounds, I experienced a similar shocking life change at age 24.  

Today’s My Anniversary of Freedom

POW Group Release Photo (Lee Ellis shown on 4th row)

Today is my anniversary of regaining freedom. My group of POWs in Vietnam stepped forward on March 14, 1973 and ever since, the lock has always been on the inside of the door. At our 40th anniversary of freedom a few years ago, the consensus was that we would never volunteer to be a POW, but we would not change a thing. We came home better men.

Lee Ellis with friend Doug Condit (1942-1967) soon after arriving in Vietnam

But this story started on November 7th, 1967. Though I just 24 years old, I was combat experienced and a somewhat cocky fighter pilot—and then suddenly my aircraft was blown into several pieces.  Fortunately, my “James Bondesque” ejection seat worked and saved my life, but unfortunately, I was parachuting into enemy territory, communist North Vietnam. Floating down, I was so focused on an evasion plan that I hardly noticed the chaos of intense groundfire coming at our wingman and the bullets screaming past. But evading was not an option; as soon as I hit the ground, enemy soldiers surrounded and captured me.

Suddenly my life changed drastically. Much like this past week, it was shocking and beyond comprehension. I could not have imagined that I would be a POW for more than five years. But thanks to strong leadership and faithful teammates, most of us survived and eventually thrived. Reflecting back on this anniversary, there are some lessons learned there that can help us all get through this unexpected fall into an unexpected and unknown fate.

Treasuring the Trials 

For the POWs in the Vietnam War, facing serious trials became a way of life.  In that bleak existence isolated in communist prison camps for five, six, seven and even eight years, every day had its challenges. The POWs had to depend on our enemy for the meager food that kept us alive. The same sinister enemy used isolation, beatings, and torture in their attempts to exploit us and make us into propaganda pawns for the communist party. The diet was pitiful, and medical care was virtually non-existent. Yet the POWs emerged stronger, becoming successful military leaders, congressmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors, counselors, businessmen, and even a Senator and Presidential candidate. We learned to treasure the trials of hardship.

This week brought a similar shocking change in our lives. Suddenly we are facing a fierce enemy that will be deadly to some and will cause hardships and disappointments to all. When you’re in dark times or caught up in the chaos of a battle, it isn’t easy to see the treasure in your trials. 

Here are 3 tips to help you refocus toward not only your goals, but the true gold found in trials. 

  1. Go Deep—Find Meaning and Make Changes

Adversity builds character by forcing us to face our deepest beliefs and values. In the crucibles of life, when all the pretend stuff melts away it’s much easier to clarify what is really important and what is not. It’s a good time to zero in on these questions.

  • What is my purpose in life? What gives it meaning?
  • Who am I and what do I stand for?
  • Where is my life out of sync with who I want to be?
  • What changes do I need to make to correct back and be the person that I want to be?

The transformation that we most need isn’t very inviting in good times, but in difficult times our pain can give us the energy and motivation to change our attitudes and behaviors.

As the famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl put it, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

The painful struggles that we would never choose often afford the greatest opportunity for personal growth, and personal growth is the only path to become a better person and a more genuine leader.

  1. Go Long—Gain Wisdom and Experience

Leadership research confirms that the experience of overcoming difficulties is not only transformational, making us stronger, but it also makes us wiser and better suited for the challenges of leadership. Wisdom gained through the experience of hard times helps us better navigate future minefields. Persevering through tough times also increases our confidence, preparing us for future challenges that will surely come.

On the other hand, devoid of crucible experiences we are likely to be overly confident about our ideas, and surprisingly more susceptible to fears.

“Courageously facing our fears in the difficult times gives us both humility and real confidence.  The wisdom garnered in hard times about ourselves and life becomes the wisdom that guides us into a better future.” [Tweet This]

Additionally, the difficult trials generate strong emotional memories that stay with us longer and are more easily accessed—gold that we don’t have to search so hard to find.

  1. Don’t Go It Alone

When you are in a battle, you don’t want to be alone—you need supporters in your corner—people who care about you and have your back. They can provide encouragement when your spirit is down and your hope is sagging. Encouragement can provide vital energy for bouncing back and continuing to persevere. Sometimes a shared idea or a new perspective on a problem can make all the difference. Just knowing someone is near—that you are not standing alone—can provide the needed inspiration, courage, and energy to persevere, even when everything in you is saying it’s too tough to keep going. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine knows that it’s not good to fight alone.

The same is true for all of us.  We must stay connected to be resilient and bounce back from trials. The lingering treasure is that when you have gone through the fire with someone, usually a bond is formed that brings a special relationship for a lifetime. The Vietnam POWs remain very close after all these years; our organization is called NamPOWs.

Lee and his fellow former POWs at the 2019 NAMPOW Gathering

You have a choice. You can let your trials bury you or you can dig for the treasure in them. If you want to discover the gold in your current pit, then answer these questions:

  • How can I find meaning in my current trial?
  • What am I learning about myself?
  • What changes do I need to make now—in my attitude, mindset or behaviors?
  • What wisdom points am I learning in my current situation that will help me in the future?
  • Who is walking with me through this fire to provide support?

If you follow these tips, someday, looking back, you will see enormous value in your trials. That’s what happened to us and most who have suffered through such ordeals as we are facing now.  Hardly a week goes by that I don’t recall and find encouragement in this insight from another former prisoner of the communists.

After a few years in the Gulag of political prisons in  Soviet Russia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn discovered the treasure in his suffering, saying, …”I turn back to the years of imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me, Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”[i]

[i]Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

In this current crisis, I believe that if we go deep within ourselves, go long for wisdom and  and go long with our friends, we will look back someday and say, “Bless you Coronavirus.”

Let’s use this challenge to grow into the people we want to be.


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Lee’s award-winning book, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, shares more stories and principles from his Vietnam POW experience. Purchase Your Copy






2 Comments on “Surviving an Upside-Down World – How the POWs Led Through Change

Captain Len Sapera,SC,USN(Ret.)
March 17, 2020 at 3:05 pm

LEE you are a fantastic leader and your words of wisdom throughout these many years that I have known and followed your doings have helped me be a leader in my own right. God bless you Sir and thank you for your commitment to continue to lead and share your thoughts with us.
Sincerely, Len Sapera

March 17, 2020 at 4:52 pm

Len – thank you for the kinds words. It that was it encouraging, and GBU as you lead others. Lee


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