Character, courage, and commitment were three key teaching points of the presentations given to members of Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., by former Vietnam prisoner of war Lee Ellis May 2 and 3.
Ellis, a retired Air Force colonel, was on a bombing mission during the Vietnam War when his aircraft was severely damaged. He was forced to eject from the plane and landed straight into the hands of his captors. He now travels the country to share his experience and lessons he learned during his time as a prisoner of war from 1967-1973.
During his 5 1/2 years as a POW, Ellis suffered physical and psychological torture. Captors told Lee and other prisoners that they were criminals and subjected them to anti-American propaganda daily to confuse them.
Ellis was forced to live in a small cell with three other prisoners. He said each of them would take turns pacing back and forth because there wasn’t enough room for more than one person to walk at a time. He said they were always hungry, as they were only given small portions of soup twice a day. With little food and no socks, they were also always cold.
Despite all of the things that were lacking, Ellis’s dedication to his duties as an Air Force officer never lessened.
“One responsibility of a leader is to make a difference. In order to make a difference back home, we couldn’t quit,” Ellis said.
Ellis said even though the prisoners were suffering physically and mentally, their competitive spirits and positive attitudes remained intact.
“Being competitive can be a really good thing. People don’t like to lose. Our captors were our competition, and we believed that one day we would win the battle,” he said.
The prisoners also had push-up and sit-up contests to boost morale as much as possible. They learned their own language, using only a five-by-five matrix and their bare hands. Ellis said they also memorized several poems and recited them to each other.
“Somehow, amongst the fear, ambiguity, and uncertainty of our future, we had to stay positive and believe in a better day,” Ellis said.
Ellis said he enjoys taking the time to speak to young Airmen about the importance of being resilient. He says that even though it is an important lesson to learn, it takes time and life experience. He wants airmen to know that everyone suffers, but it will only kill you if you let it.
He hopes his story teaches everyone who listens that suffering is inevitable, but having courage and a positive attitude will always get you through it.
“You cannot live and lead an honorable life without courage, because your doubts and fears will take you out,” Ellis said.