What do you have in common with a decorated fighter pilot who spent six years in a Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam? More than you might think, Charlie Plumb would say.
A Wednesday interview with Plumb revealed a man with the same essential doubts and worries as any of us. And it was through taking risks, including telling his story the first time, that he was able to understand the choices facing him and how to take control of his own life.
“I came home from Vietnam after spending 6 years in a POW camp, I was ready to put it all behind me and never think of it again,” Plumb said, adding he was ready to move to a strange town and change his name.
But while in a hospital in Chicago, Plumb agreed to do the opposite and told his story at a press conference with 150 reporters and photographers.
He told his story of six years in a POW camp, hungry, in pain and lonely, not expecting to give anybody hope.
He thought it was “dark and black and painful and will never be of value,” but a young reporter managed to get Plumb alone and, crying, changed how Plumb viewed his experience.
Plumb recalled the young man’s words, “Mr. Plumb, I just listened to you describe what you went through and it made me feel very small. I’ve been through a lot of challenges in the last months and years, even wondered if I wanted to go on living... you’ve given me hope.”
Plumb was surprised, but began to realize there was value in his experience. He’s now told his story nearly 5,000 times in 40 years and he said a person needn’t be military and needn’t have experienced war to relate.
Teenagers are an audience Plumb addresses regularly, he said, “And these students know nothing of Vietnam, war, military ... but I can relate my experience to them and talk about the biggest problems I had in the POW camp. They’re the same problems these kids are having.”
Loneliness, lack of communication and support, a lack of confidence — those problems that can plague anyone in so many situations were the major challenges for this Navy fighter pilot.
“The techniques I learned in POW camps to overcome challenges, to turn adversity into advantage — they’re the same techniques people can use for everyday life,” Plumb said, adding that adversity really does make one stronger.
When Plumb’s aircraft was shot down and he was taken to the POW camp, he said he experienced feelings of anger and of embarrassment — feelings that stuck with him for a while.
“I didn’t think the enemy made a gun big enough to shoot down my airplane. I was pretty cocky,” Plumb said. “I was really mad, mad at the war, mad at the president, mad at the mechanic. And embarrassed because I had given in to the torture.”
Name, rank, serial number and date of birth are the only things he was told he could give under torture, and Plumb said he didn’t think they could hurt him badly enough to make him talk, “but they did make me talk and I did give more than that.”
After several months in a prison cell, completely alone, he said he heard a sound like a cricket. Upon investigation, it turned out to be a piece of wire being scratched against the floor by someone in another stall.
“It has to be another American fighter pilot trying to communicate with me,” Plumb thought. But at first, he said, he was too embarrassed to tug on the wire and let the other man know he’d found another person.
“Oh boy, I hadn’t talked to anybody for months. I was really hurting and needed someone to talk to ... but I didn’t want anyone to see me like this, didn’t want anybody to know that I gave in to the enemy — whoever that guy is, I bet he was stronger.”
He said he made the choice to continue living in his misery.
What he eventually learned was, he said, “When things are really going bad for you.... the solution is to take another risk. That’s the last thing you think of in a situation like this. The last thing you want to do is get further outside your comfort zone, to get into deeper water, to hurt more. The human response is to fall back and seek safety.”
Finally, he said, he decided to take the risk and communicate with the other pilot.
“I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes and tugged on the wire,” Plumb said. “He was embarrassed too, he had not been as strong as he could be, he had given more than he was supposed to, he wanted to crawl in a hole — we immediately became each other’s support group.”
They managed to communicate with other prisoners and, it turned out, nobody had been as strong as they thought they were, everybody had given more than they should have.
What he said he learned in that POW camp was that, “I can still control my attitude, I can still choose to laugh or to cry, I can choose to be positive or negative... to choose to be negative is to give the enemy control over my destiny.”
The same mechanisms he developed to persevere through the POW camp are applicable in his current life, living in California, speaking for a living, having raised four children.
“If I start blaming other people for my problems — of course my kids have heard my story a million times, and now that they’re all in their 20s, they remind me — if someone cuts me off and I start yelling, they’ll say, ‘Dad, you’re giving away your choice,’” he said with a laugh.
“It’s a bit of a generality to say you can be anything you want to be,” Plumb said. “It isn’t really fair to say you can just think your way to great success ... it’s more the case that people don’t do as much as they can do.”
There are opportunities people never take advantage of, he said, one’s choices make a difference in the outcome.
When Plumb first told hist story, he had no idea where it would take him, and he said he’s told his story so many times because of his ability to connect with people and get them reflecting on their own decisions.
He said there have been numerous occasions of people hearing him speak and telling him later their favorite part, the part that most touched them, and sometimes, he said, there were stories heard and internalized that he didn’t tell.
We think of listening to a speaker as something passive, but Plumb said he considers it a success “when I can get people to reflect on themselves, not my story.”
“Even though I’m telling a story about myself, the real story is not about me,” Plumb said, “It’s about you.”
• Hear Charlie Plumb speak May 8 at Centennial Hall as part of the Pillars of America series. Plumb is a decorated Navy veteran, a speaker and the author of “I’m No Hero.”