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Public Affairs : Former Vietnam POW addresses Class of 2014 on leadership

Former Vietnam POW addresses Class of 2014 on leadership

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor


WEST POINT, N.Y. (Feb. 6, 2013) — He shared with the Class of 2014 the thrill of being a pilot and the sensation of flying 500 miles per hour no more than 500 feet off the ground.

There were probably more than a few future aviators in Robinson Auditorium Feb. 4 taking in retired Col. Lee Ellis and his adventures in flight. But it was what happened to him on the ground that proved most absorbing.

Ellis graduated out of the ROTC program at the University of Georgia in 1965 to pursue his lifelong dream of being a pilot. Fresh out of Air Force training, Ellis was bound directly to southeast Asia for the Vietnam War.

"...Which meant that as quick as they could get us trained, we were going to war," Ellis said. "The war in 1966 was building up and we were headed there."

During an armed reconnaissance mission on Nov. 7, 1967, Ellis ejected from his aircraft which had been hit and exploded into several pieces. No sooner than he parachuted to the ground, Ellis was surrounded. The enemy was shouting at him "Surrender. No die."

"I figured that was the best advice I was going to get all day," Ellis said.

Stripped to his shorts, Ellis said it took two weeks to arrive to the prisoner of war camp. His thoughts immediately turned to escape. Captivity, he said, is the single worst personal and professional nightmare.

It became a new war, a defensive one, for the prisoners of war, Ellis said. The infamous Hanoi Hilton, a maximum security complex, would become his battleground for the next five years. The enemy had its objectives, to induce compliance, gather intelligence and indoctrinate the prisoners. The POWs had theirs, live up to the code of conduct, minimize loss and keep faith. Additionally, the goal wasn't simply about returning home. It had to be with honor.

"To lead and live honorably, you have to have courage, and you have to lean into the pain of your fears," Ellis said.

Life in a POW camp strips a person down to his or her core values and character. There is no hiding from yourself or pretending to be anyone but your true self, Ellis said, and it is important to keep character guarded.

"We are all one step away from violating our character," Ellis said. "You have to wrestle with character issues every day if you're to be a good leader. I have friends I go to test my ideas and decisions because I know they can be close to the line and I don't want to go over that line."

Among the occupants of Hanoi Hilton with Ellis were Robinson Risner, Jeremiah Denton, John McCain, Ken Fisher and Jim Warner. Ellis told the story of James Bond Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient, who refused to make a filmed statement by beating his own face with a wooden chair so as to be unpresentable for camera. Warner was placed in solitary—the Tank—for seven months. He emerged having composed a thousand-line epic poem in iambic pentameter which he recited to his cellmates.

"Leadership always makes a difference and it made a difference for us," Ellis said. "Communication kept us alive—you have to always be communicating."

Ellis told cadets that leadership is not only hard, but it's a full-time challenge.

"You're always facing challenges as a leader. You have to accomplish the mission and you have to take care of people. And underneath all of that you have to guard your character and integrity," Ellis said.

Perhaps the greatest lesson he could impart, Ellis said courage enables honorable leadership.

"There is no honor without courage," Ellis said. "You have to learn to lean into the pain of your fear to do what you know is right. You know what is right ... but it's scary sometimes to do it. That's courage and that's how you keep your honor and live with honor. You do your duty. You keep your word."

Leadership lessons such as these are reinforced often at the academy, and the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic provides a speaking engagement to each cadet class every year through the Professional Military Ethic Education Program, or PME2.

Class of 2014 Cadet Chase Pedron, a member of the Combat Weapons Team and Company I-2 Sandhurst Team, had a copy of "Leading with Honor" signed by Ellis afterward and said he was interested to learn more about the author's experiences and methods on how to maintain character and honor in times of hardship.

"I appreciate opportunities such as this because the advice given by Col. Ellis is such a wealth of knowledge to learn from," Pedron said. "It makes a world of difference when someone has events and stories to back up the advice they give because it shows that advice has been tried and validated."
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Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis addresses the Class of 2014 on leadership lessons learned as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

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Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis , following a lecture in Robinson Auditorium Feb. 4, signed copies of his book "Leading with Honor" and met cadets from the Class of 2014. Leadership lessons such as the ones Ellis presented to the cadets are reinforced often at the academy, and the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic provides a speaking engagement to each cadet class every year through the Professional Military Ethic Education Program, or PME2.