McChord Field, Wash. — Only in America can a former convict become a brigadier general.
Former resident of the prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton, then Capt. James Sehorn never imagined a lifelong relationship with the United States Air Force or rising to the rank of brigadier general. Now retired and living a comfortable life in Georgia, he flew here to visit the Reservists of a wing he commanded from February to December 1990. Sehorn spoke at the 446th Airlift Wing’s commander’s call during the November Reserve weekend.
“This business requires a dedication that cannot be generated out of false loyalties,” said the former F-105 “Thud” fighter pilot. “Look first at yourself. Why do you want it? Do you believe in it? Commit yourself absolutely and don’t take a partial effort. Give it everything you’ve got.”
After 31 years of service and spending more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Sehorn knows what it means to give everything for his service. In fact, after being shot down, captured, and beaten by the Vietnamese, he still refused to disgrace his country.
“I realized that I had been broken,” he said. “That was humiliating enough, but that wasn’t the end of it. It was at that point it became clear and apparent to me that the battle of fire power had evolved into a battle of will power.”
He was never defeated in that battle, not even after 63 months. In fact, while he was locked up he noticed something remarkable about the dedication his fellow servicemembers had to their country.
“Out of 560-some prisoners I shared that experience with in Hanoi, less than a handful conducted themselves in a way that we as a group would have considered as less than honorable,” he said. “Less than 10 out of 560-plus. Now that says something about the military service of the men and women who wear the uniform of this great nation. Sense of duty. Sense of commitment. Sense of honor. That is the reason I take great pride in saying I’m an ex con from Hanoi. It was the best tour I ever served; the one I’d least like to repeat.”
The motto of what became the 4th Allied POW Wing, which originated in the prison cells of Hanoi, was “return with honor”, he said.
Sehorn did just that. Once he was released Dec. 14, 1967, he returned determined to stay dedicated to the mission and to his country.
“I came home with the realization that we’ve got a mission and it is real,” he said. “It is necessary and I will be a part of if, but it has its price.”
This price was paid by his family.
“When I left for Vietnam, I had a daughter two and a half years old and a daughter two and a half weeks old,” he said. “Five years and three months later I come home to a daughter seven and a half years old and a daughter five and a half years old. I came home with a commitment to the job, to the mission, and to our Air Force that was disproportionate. Sixteen, 18, 20 hours a day. Five, six, maybe seven days a week. The family took the brunt of it.”
The relationship with his youngest daughter was never fully mended, he said.
After he returned, he switched from fighters to airlift and eventually made his way to the position of commander at the 446th AW, his first ever position as a wing commander.
“You folks make it so easy to succeed,” Sehorn said. “Anyone who comes up here as a commander needs to remember one thing. Back off. Let them do their job. There’s an incredible sense of mission accomplishment in the Reservists in this wing. I’ve never seen it anywhere to the extent that it is here.”
The Vietnam veteran hopes to reinforce the value of the service and dedication Reservists feel when they put on their uniforms, he said.
“I don’t think we can forget that we are military force standing in defense of this nation,” he said. “You as Reservists stand in a critical gap maintaining force capability, skill, and the knowledge and experience that really adds a tremendous plus to who we are and what we are as a nation.”
Reinforcing that with the words of one of the men he spent those years in Hanoi with, Brig. Gen. James “Robbie” Risner, he said, “’To be born free is an accident, to live free is a privilege, but to die free is a responsibility.’ It is the essence of why you and I wore and wear these uniforms. To ensure that when we die, we leave a free nation.”