Chapter reveal: Unexpected Prisoner, by Robert Wideman

coverTitle: UNEXPECTED PRISONER: Memoir of a Vietnam Prisoner of War

Genre: Memoir

Author: Robert Wideman

Website: www.robertwideman.com

Publisher: Graham Publishing Group

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About the Book:

When Unexpected Prisoner opens, it’s May 6, 1967 and 23-year-old Lieutenant Robert Wideman is flying a Navy A-4 Skyhawk over Vietnam.  At 23, Wideman had already served three and a half years in the Navy—and was only 27 combat days away from heading home to America. But on that cloudless day in May, on a routine bombing run, Wideman’s plane crashed and he fell into enemy hands. Captured and held for six years as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, Wideman endured the kind of pain that makes people question humanity.  Physical torture, however, was not the biggest challenge he was forced to withstand.  In his candid memoir, Unexpected Prisoner, Wideman details the raw, unvarnished tale of how he came to understand the truth behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.”

A gripping, first-person account that chronicles the six-year period Wideman spent in captivity as a POW, Unexpected Prisoner plunges readers deep into the heart of one of the most protracted, deadliest conflicts in American history:  the Vietnam War. Wideman, along with acclaimed memoirist Cara Lopez Lee, has crafted a story that is exquisitely engaging, richly detailed, and wholly captivating. Unexpectedly candid and vibrantly vivid, this moving memoir chronicles a POW’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, lost dreams, and ultimately, himself.

With its eye-opening look at a soldier’s life before, during and after captivity, Unexpected Prisoner presents a uniquely human perspective on war and on conflicts both external and internal. An exceptional story exceptionally well-told, Unexpected Prisoner is a powerful, poignant, often provocative tale about struggle, survival, hope, and redemption.

EXCERPT:

The POWs who landed in Hanoi’s prison camps can thank God

their treatment was as good as it was. I know some never saw it

that way. Only seven prisoners died in Hanoi: two stopped eating;

one died from a combination of ejection wounds, exposure,

and the Vietnamese rope treatment; one died during an escape

attempt; and one succumbed to typhoid. I’m not sure what happened

to the other two.

In America’s Civil War, thirteen thousand Union prisoners died

at the Confederacy’s infamous Camp Sumter near Andersonville,

Georgia. In World War Two, the Japanese chopped off two

American heads for every mile of the sixty-five-mile Bataan Death

March. Of the more than twenty-seven thousand American POWs

in Japan, between 27 and 40 percent died in captivity. In that

same war, Germany admitted that three million Russians died in

German prison camps. In turn, the Russians captured ninety-five

thousand Germans at Stalingrad and only four thousand returned

home.

With the exception of some of America’s prisoners in World

War Two, it may be that never in the history of warfare have POWs

been treated so well as we were in North Vietnam. Prisoners held

by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam were another story; I won’t

speak to that because I wasn’t there.

Although I suffered painful physical punishment, which some

call torture, I’ve always had a hard time calling what the North

Vietnamese did to me torture. It was a bad experience, but it could

have been much worse.

Although we successfully established communication at each

prison camp, it was not perfect or consistent. Many POWs later

talked about how we were always able to communicate despite the

North Vietnamese Army’s efforts to stop us, presumably because

of the “great leadership” we had. On the contrary. The NVA leadership

proved they could shut down our communications whenever

they wanted, which they did after the escape attempt. Some

key personnel did not communicate for two months.

It was clear to me that many Naval Academy graduates and

senior officers did whatever it took to please their bosses. Such

sycophants taught me one of the most important lessons I learned

from my Vietnam experience: there will always be people who

pursue power by ingratiating themselves to those in power without

pausing to assess the goals of those leaders. I came to understand

this as a POW, but I have witnessed it in all institutions

since: corporations, bureaucracies, schools, churches, you name it.

My sense is that most pilots had huge egos—me included—

which probably drove us to become fighter pilots in the first place.

The most hardline of the POWs had the most problems in prison.

The North Vietnamese forced them to make the most confessions

and visit the most delegations to feed the Vietnamese propaganda

machine.

It’s well documented that many American political and military

leaders knew we were fighting an unwinnable war but said nothing

because they feared jeopardizing their careers. Those same

leaders demeaned and discredited the courageous Americans

who publicly opposed the Vietnam War, especially big names like

Jane Fonda. When Fonda came to visit us in 1972, we were being

treated well, just like she said we were. We went outside several

hours a day, ate three meals a day, and received regular letters and

packages from home. The barrage of war protests put pressure on

the government to end the war. But for them, we would still be

over there.

When we came home, POWs who supported the war were encouraged

to speak out while those who did not were not encouraged

to speak out. That policy continues today, and is one reason

we have an inflated view of the importance of funding America’s

military might. We primarily receive the viewpoint of those invested

in maintaining power.

After the war, I talked to an Army colonel in Tampa, Florida

who helped plan the Son Tay Raid. He told me that the American

military knew the camp was empty thirty days before the raid, but

our leadership weighed the costs and benefits of going through

with it anyway, and the benefits won. They knew they would recover

no prisoners. Such was the American need to keep its own

propaganda machine running.

A Wartime Nation

Our armed services have not won a conflict since World War

Two, yet we keep waging war as if it were the national pastime.

One reason this happens is because so many of our military leaders

want to perpetuate their power.

Little has changed in the military since we lost in Vietnam.

We continue to pursue costly wars that yield questionable results.

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam, were monumental

blunders motivated by American hubris. Once again, we

have preyed on countries that we view as weaker than ours and

have tried to impose our will on them, only to discover that the

will of other cultures to chart their own course is stronger than

we anticipated.

 

In Vietnam, we supported a Catholic puppet regime even

though 95 percent of the Vietnamese population was Buddhist.

What made us think they would welcome us as liberators? Once

again, we have installed puppet regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,

only to see fringe groups like ISIS take advantage of the power

flux to inflame those disenfranchised by our interference. The

local populations of those countries now hate us just as the

Vietnamese did.

When I first returned from Vietnam, plenty in the military

refused to let go of the belief we had won, despite the facts.

They said things like: We stopped them…Our bombing campaign

brought them to the table…It was a victory for America. Many bureaucrats

and politicians do the same today, ignoring facts so they

can cling to claims of success in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What’s more, all of these wars have contributed to national

inflation and debt, as well as international economic instability.

President Johnson tried to initiate The Great Society and fight

the Vietnam War at the same time. He had enough money to

pursue one agenda, not both. President Nixon once admitted that

one reason the Vietnam conflict dragged on was because he didn’t

want to be the first American president to lose a war. The reason

we got out of that war wasn’t because the U.S. was ready to admit

defeat but because we couldn’t afford it anymore.

President Carter inherited the inflation caused by Vietnam.

Every economic crisis since has been aftermath. President Reagan

said he would increase employment and kill inflation, even though

economists said we couldn’t have it both ways. A lot of people

were impressed because he did it. How? He put everything on a

credit card. That’s when our debt started to skyrocket.

President Clinton made a dent in that debt, but President

George W. Bush went to war and ran it back up again, from five

trillion to ten trillion. Like the leaders who ignored the facts on

 

Vietnam, Bush ignored the facts on Iraq. Iraq did not perpetrate

the 9/11 attacks. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until after Bush

invaded. There was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction

in Iraq. Bush had an agenda to take on Saddam Hussein, so he

did, despite the facts.

Why would any thinking president take us into Afghanistan?

The British went there and got their butts kicked. The Russians

went there and got their butts kicked. Why did Bush ignore history?

Someone once said, “Afghanistan is a place where great powers

go to get humiliated.”

Some generals warned Bush he couldn’t win in Iraq with his

limited troops, so Bush sought other generals who toed the party

line and put them in charge. How else could General Casey have

become a four-star general with no combat experience?

Meanwhile, the housing bubble burst in 2008 and our debt

went up again. Today it has surpassed eighteen trillion dollars.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to this debt.

The United States spends more on military defense than the

top seven to nine nations combined, depending on which source

you consider. The problem is not Persian warships in Chesapeake

Bay. The problem is American warships in the Persian Gulf. We

just keep sticking our nose into other people’s business.

I’ve learned that almost every modern war is about lining pockets.

I’m all for capitalism, but I know who stands to benefit if we

convert the world to capitalism: big business. We had to kill the

commies because they were going to interfere with America making

money. Now we kill Muslims for the same reason. Nobody

talks about it because it’s not politically correct to ask people to

die for money. Instead, leaders put a spiritual spin on it and make

it a righteous cause.

 

In the military, the desire for money translates into the desire

for power. That thirst trickles down through the ranks. I saw this

firsthand in the POW camps.

It’s popular to talk about these wars as fights for freedom or

democracy, or as battles against political tyranny or religious fanaticism.

It really isn’t about religion or democracy. It’s about rich

versus poor. Of course, if we’re talking about the soldiers on the

front line, then it’s simply poor versus poor. Those are the people

fighting each other.

For Vietnam, we had a draft, but if a draftee’s family had money

he could get around that. We tried to stop that problem with

the volunteer army. But who volunteers? The poor, who have few

opportunities besides what the military promises. Different path,

same result. The poor are the people we fight, and the poor are

the people who fight for us.

Torture, American Style

We’re all aware of the Bush administration’s approval of the

CIA torturing suspected terrorists at black sites around the globe.

According to the Associated Press, the Congressional Record,

Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. military’s investigative documents,

as of 2006, at least 108 POWs from our wars with Iraq

and Afghanistan died in American custody. At least thirty-four

of those deaths were either suspected or confirmed homicides.

That’s more than four times the number of the American POWs

who died in Hanoi.

Bush’s attorneys lined up experts who said that the CIA’s “enhanced

interrogation techniques” were not torture. Those techniques

continued under President Barrack Obama. In 2015, the

Senate Intelligence Committee commissioned a report on the

CIA’s interrogations and concluded that much of what had been

approved does indeed constitute torture.

 

Here are just a few instances of torture that the report identified:

One prisoner froze to death after being left to sleep without

pants on a cold concrete floor. Another was forced to stand in a

“stress position” on broken bones. Others were placed in isolation

or were sleep-deprived until they suffered symptoms of psychosis

such as hallucinations, paranoia, and self-mutilation. Some prisoners

were forced to go through rectal hydration or rectal feeding,

in which water or food was forced into the anus, which can leave

the kind of damage associated with sexual assault. And of course,

we’ve all heard the debates over waterboarding.

I agree with Senator John McCain’s assessment of the report

on two counts: 1) those techniques are torture, and 2) those techniques

do not work. I have a problem with our country torturing

war prisoners, both because it is morally wrong and because it

creates more enemies for America. We call what our enemies do

to their prisoners torture while asserting that we’re a kind, just

people who don’t do that sort of thing. I find it offensive that

some POWs have supported the torture of prisoners in the Iraq

and Afghanistan Wars after whining about their own treatment

by the North Vietnamese.

In any case, there’s no need to go so far. The Vietnamese got all

the information they needed by bringing people to a certain point

of pain and holding them there. Beyond that point, people will

say or do anything. That’s when information becomes unreliable.

Our country has inflicted prisoners with torments well beyond

anything I suffered in Vietnam.

In my opinion, the people who order the sort of torture described

in that Senate Intelligence Committee report are war

criminals, Bush and Obama among them. I consider the subordinates

who carried out those orders guilty too. I believe we must

each take responsibility for the morality of our actions. We need

to try all of them for war crimes.

 

Divorce Epidemic

Not two years after the North Vietnam POWs returned, the divorce

rate among our ranks soared to 85 percent. This high number

was likely a result, at least in part, of post-traumatic stress and

the long separation of husbands and wives.

Pat was 19 and I was 22 when we married. We were just too

young. A few weeks after I returned home and we took our vows

again, we visited another couple. The wife pulled me aside to say,

“Don’t be so critical of Pat.” She was right. I was very impatient

with my wife.

Excessive arguing is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic

Stress Disorder, which I didn’t know much about at the time, but

which soon became a household word surrounding the subject of

Vietnam War veterans. Pat and I argued so much that our seventy-

pound Doberman Pinscher hid behind the sofa. More importantly,

we had two sons: Eric, born in 1974, and Derek, born in

  1. What did those arguments do to the minds of a two-year-old

and a four-year-old?

In 1976, we left our home in the beachside town of Monterey,

California for Meridian, Mississippi, where I became a Navy

comptroller. The arguments escalated. Neither Pat nor I wanted

to hurt our boys. We soon separated, and in January of 1978 we

divorced.

On My Knees

From long before Vietnam until long after, I didn’t believe in

God. I considered God an imaginary crutch for people too weak to

handle their problems. I realize now that toughing out imprisonment

without any spiritual support inflated my ego.

After I separated from my wife, I knew I needed to talk to

somebody. I thought I had two choices: a minister or a shrink. I

remembered that Thomas Eagleton underwent psychiatric treatment

before he ran for Vice President as McGovern’s running

mate in 1972. The media got wind of that and crucified him as if it

meant he were crazy. That stigma convinced me to avoid psychiatrists

and psychologists. I didn’t want any chance of this difficult

period coming back to bite me. I talked to the base chaplain.

I told the chaplain that I had long ago given up on the idea of

God. He recommended I try a few different Protestant churches

and advised me to read The Gospel of John, a gentle introduction to

the Lord after being away from Him for some twenty years.

I read John, but he made no sense to me, not then. On the advice

of a friend, I added the writings of Carlos Castaneda to my

reading list. Castaneda made me aware of how much the ego is

in charge of our lives, via the constant refrain: “I want.” I not only

studied the Bible, but also read about Buddhism, Judaism, and

philosophy. I saw that everything came down to ego. I noticed

the word “I” rarely appeared in the Jewish teachings of the Pirkei

Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, one of the texts in the compilation

of rabbinical wisdom called the Mishnah. This brought to my attention

that the Jewish people I knew did not use the word “I”

very much. I sought to reduce the use of the word “I,” and found

that my boss and others listened. It was a transformation.

I ultimately landed in a Southern Baptist Church. I knew I

could never toe the entire party line of any organization, but the

Southern Baptists and I were on the same page about focusing

less on “self” and more on “we”—on community.

One day in 1991, I had an epiphany about The Gospel of John: I

could forgive other people’s sins but I did not have the power to

forgive my own. I realized only Jesus Christ had that power. The

day I understood that, I dropped to my knees and forgave everyone

I could think of who I felt had ever wronged me. That had a

huge impact on me.

Among the people I had the biggest beef with were a few of my

fellow prisoners from Vietnam, particularly our leadership. In my

prayers, I forgave all of them, even the ones who wrongly accused

me or humiliated me. Forgiving the North Vietnamese was never

an issue because I always thought they could have treated us so

much worse.

My trials as a POW did not bring me to God. Getting divorced

did. It surprises some people when I tell them getting divorced

was more stressful for me than being a POW.

A Bad Reputation

I first attempted to write a book about my war experience in

the mid-1970s, but I fictionalized it as a novel. I sent a manuscript

to the Naval Investigative Service, because the Navy required me

to get their approval. It turned out that the mere act of seeking

approval was enough to get me in trouble.

Several months later, the Naval Investigative Service sent the

book back, not to me but to the superintendent at the Naval

Postgraduate School. The cover letter called my book inaccurate,

immature, and demeaning to fellow POWs who deserved to be

lifted up. I had done nothing worse than paint all of us POWs as

people instead of saints. What upset me more was that my pages

came back in complete disarray. I had accorded the Navy the respect

of requesting approval, and in return I had received a slap

in the face.

I called the Naval Investigative Service to ask what the letter

meant. The person I spoke to informed me that if I published the

manuscript it would only serve to publicly discredit me.

“According to whom?” I asked.

He said, “We didn’t know what to do with your manuscript, so

we sent it to your roommates and to Stockdale.”

“You did what?!” I had sent my manuscript to the Navy in confidence,

and someone had published it to other people without

my consent.

A few years later, I was passed over for promotion to commander.

When I inquired to learn why, my detailer in Washington

said, “You need to call Stockdale. He told the board you had a bad

reputation.” Stockdale was the head of the promotion board.

“A bad reputation for what?” I asked.

He said Stockdale gave no specifics. I was stunned at the abuse

of power this implied: that the board listened to him despite not

having evidence against me. This was all the more suspicious because

shortly after I had returned from Vietnam, Stockdale had

submitted a fitness report in which he recommended me for promotion.

His change of heart came after I submitted my manuscript

to the Navy.

Years later, in 1996, I called Stockdale and asked if there was

something I should know. He told me that the promotion board

was just a “paper push” and that he said nothing detrimental

about me. He claimed he had never seen my manuscript.

Stockdale and other POWs wrote books about their prison experiences,

but their books painted the military in a more glowing

light. The Navy never sent their manuscripts to me for my

response even though someone sent my manuscript to Stockdale

and my roommates for their comments and approval. The double

standards of my POW days continued.

About three or four years ago, when I was in Pensacola, Florida,

I told the head of the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of

War Studies, “I got passed over for commander because Stockdale

told the board I had a bad reputation.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “I can promise you, you don’t

have a bad reputation among the five or six hundred prisoners

from North Vietnam.”

Years later, I talked to a doctor from the Mitchell Center who

was a friend of Stockdale’s and who made it clear he truly liked

the man, and he told me, “Stockdale would do something like

that.” To this day, many senior leaders are big on protecting their

turf and their reputations and not averse to tearing other people’s

reputations apart to achieve that.

When I talked to the base chaplain about my divorce, we also

talked about the war, and he called me a conscientious objector. I

had never thought of myself that way, but he had a point: I didn’t

believe in the war anymore. I had heard our leaders distort facts to

make themselves look good. I never publicly protested—it was too

late for that—but I got demerits for not agreeing that we achieved

“a fabulous victory against communism.”

In the end, Stockdale’s pursuit of power took him all the way

to vice admiral. Meanwhile, he claimed I had a bad reputation. All

he had to do was say the words, and because he was one of the

highest-ranking officers in the military, people on the promotion

board believed him.

A Changed American Dream

The Navy sent me to the Naval Postgraduate School to get an

undergraduate degree in International Relations. After that, my

superiors urged me to get back in a cockpit, saying that was the

route to make command. The military had not been my dream, so

I pursued a master’s degree in finance. With that, the Navy wanted

to send me to Washington as an auditor. I didn’t want that.

Instead, I went to the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi

to become a comptroller for seven years.

I retired from the U.S. Navy in 1983 and went to Florida to

work as a stockbroker. I never got over the feeling that prison had

cost me years of time and opportunity, so I went on to earn a law

degree at the University of Florida. I became a prosecutor in 1991,

and a few years later went into private practice. However, the sedentary

nature of that career sent my blood pressure up. Then, in

1996, the Navy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: I moved back

to Mississippi to become a flight simulator instructor. Flying for

 the Navy had landed me in prison and stolen years of my life, but

training other pilots turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever

had. I worked as an instructor until I retired in 2012. I was 68.

Perhaps one attraction of training pilots was that I never completely

got over my frustration at not becoming an airline pilot,

the dream I had held onto during my six years as a prisoner of

war. Being rejected by Eastern Airlines was more devastating than

anything the North Vietnamese could have done to me.

The Test of a Man

When I consider how capable we all are of perverting the truth,

and when I remind myself that I was a voluntary participant in the

Vietnam debacle, I can only ask: what does it take to be a man?

I submit that a real man is not a sycophant, but is someone who

pursues the truth in service to his values. It’s easy to support the

status quo when self-interest is at stake. It takes character to stand

up for the truth when it’s not in your self-interest—such as opposing

war in the face of threats to destroy your reputation.

It also takes character to apologize when we’re wrong, which is

something the U.S. has yet to do for Vietnam. We invaded their

country and killed more than two million Vietnamese because a

majority of them did not want us to tell them what kind of government

to support.

Best I can figure, humans point their fingers at others when

they need a scapegoat. Usually they point at someone with less

power because that’s easiest, to draw attention away from their

own shortcomings. Once the finger pointing starts, honesty is the

first casualty. When honesty goes, everything goes. To me, this

was not only the dynamic between the leadership and the subordinates

among the POWs, but also the dynamic between the U.S.

and Vietnam. We saw them as less powerful, so we thought they

were an easy target. We were wrong.

 

Despite the pitfalls of ego I saw many military leaders display

in Vietnam, I find it important to remember the exceptions, men

who provided a standard for honest reflection on right and wrong

action, and who were not afraid to engage in criticism—of authority

or of themselves—when honesty called for it. I have tried

to introduce some of those men to you in these pages. Perhaps

some in our POW leadership felt justified in attacking men who

believed in following conscience first and orders second, but what

really made such men targets was that they had no rank and no

power and seemed easy to suppress.

Studying the teachings of Jesus has taught me the importance

of placing truth above pride. Wars go on, but I have found peace

in this: “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love

your neighbor as yourself.” This has been and continues to be

my journey, and it is one reason I’ve chosen to share with you

the sometimes-painful story of my experience as a prisoner in

Vietnam. I hope my story helps open your heart to the challenge

of getting to know yourself, your fellow humans, and the people

who share your world.

Soldiering On

I still think about war and imprisonment, their causes and consequences.

It’s part of being an informed person, and my experiences

have helped to make me an informed person. But my life

has also been filled with blessings: two children, six grandchildren,

true friends, education and the opportunity to pass it on,

fruitful labors, the freedom and means to travel, good health, and

a relationship with the Lord.

Sometimes it’s painful to remember my six years of lost freedom,

being isolated from loved ones while at the same time discovering

the truth behind Jean Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other

people.” Most of the time, those memories remind me to be grateful

for my life now.

 

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Categories: Memoir, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Chapter reveal: Unexpected Prisoner, by Robert Wideman

  1. thedarkphantom

    Reblogged this on As The Pages Turn.

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