Ex-POW addresses Wisconsin's senior Guard leadership

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Joe Trovato
  • Wisconsin National Guard
Edward L. Hubbard, a retired Air Force colonel who survived being shot down over North Vietnam and endured six-and-a-half harrowing years in a Hanoi prison camp, shared a lesson in perspective and human potential with senior leaders of the Wisconsin National Guard.

"I want to show you the world through a different set of eyes and see if we can change the way you see the world, and as a result, maybe affect the way you deal with the world the rest of your life," he told senior Soldiers and Airmen from Wisconsin's National Guard force at the Wisconsin National Guard's Senior Leaders Conference on Nov 30 at Volk Field, Wis.

The ex-prisoner of war articulated a stirring message at the conference and argued that one's view of the world is based almost entirely on perceptions. Changing that perception can change how people view the world, he said. Spending more than six years in a Hanoi prison camp under horrific circumstances allowed Hubbard and hundreds of other American prisoners to see life from a whole new perspective.

"It's all a matter of perspective," the 28-year Air Force veteran said. "It's not what happens in your life that's critical. It's how you react or how you respond."

"By the time I had been sitting in a jungle in North Vietnam for a few hours, I had the worst attitude of anyone you ever met in your life," he said at the conference. "When I was milling around the jungle there, I ran out of resources. I had nothing left in my world, except that bad attitude."

For five months after his capture, Hubbard sat on a cold concrete floor in a cell the size of a closet and felt nothing but self-pity. He sat in a corner and stared at a blank wall and thought. Then one day, he remembered an old story.

"Did you ever hear the story about the man who felt sorry for himself because he had no shoes, but then he met the guy who had no feet?" he polled the audience. "Very, very simple story with a tremendous meaning. No matter how bad your day looks, look around. There's always somebody that has it a little tougher than you."

"I sat down on that ice-cold concrete, and I thought about that. In less than an hour, I was convinced that 99 percent of the people in the world had it worse than I did."

From that day forward his attitude and his whole outlook on life changed. And despite spending another five-and-a-half years in a prison camp with nary even a pencil, a notebook, or any other item to occupy his mind, Hubbard swears he has not had a bad day since.

"I made a conscious decision to get up, walk out of that corner, and never go back, and I never have. It was probably the most important decision I ever made in my life," he said. "That day in December 1966, I promised myself, no matter what happened in that prison, no matter how badly we were treated, no matter what happened when I came home, I would never ever allow myself to have another bad day as long as I lived. And I made that decision 46 years ago next month. I haven't had a bad day since."

Hubbard finally returned to the United States in 1973, where he spent another 17 years in the Air Force before retiring in 1990.

His message hit home for some of Wisconsin's senior military leaders at the conference.

Command Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Cullen, the Wisconsin Air National Guard senior enlisted advisor, said Hubbard's lessons can be applied to the state's Guard forces in the midst of change and uncertainty.

"So as I relate that to the Air National Guard, we have potential budget cuts coming up. We have potential mission changes. We're uncertain of the future, and regardless of that, it's still going to be OK," he said. "We'll make it through the storm, because if you relate to his message, one way or another it will be alright.

"We may not like it," Cullen continued. "There may be some things that get cut, but in the end we're still going to be the Air National Guard, and we'll be solid. And we'll rise to the occasion no matter what the challenge is, because it could always be worse."

Brig. Gen. John McCoy, Wisconsin's assistant adjutant general for air, said all Guardsmen can learn from Hubbard's message and challenge themselves to achieve their own human potential.

Said McCoy, "It's amazing how some people can go through little adversity and have a chip on their shoulder or a bad attitude, and others like Col. Hubbard, can go through extreme hardship and come through with a positive outlook and approach every day with a smile."

Life in the prison

When he and other servicemen arrived at the Hanoi prison camp, they faced unimaginable horrors. But one of the biggest problems they faced, Hubbard said, was keeping their health and strength. When Hubbard arrived, he weighed 175 pounds. Living on approximately 300 calories a day, Hubbard and the other prisoners ate nothing more than two bowls of rice and two bowls of unidentifiable soup each day. Within six months, he weighed 97 pounds.

Soon, one of the senior American officers in the prison began a physical fitness program and required every man to perform 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups on the first day of every month.

Naturally, competition developed, and before long, the captives had something for which to fight, and something that gave them a sense of purpose and direction.

"This guy had provided us an enormous opportunity," he recalled. "He had given us an opportunity to bring competition back into our lives, our very hollow, shallow lives."

Eventually, he and a naval officer got into a back and forth competition that ended in each of the officers doing hundreds of push-ups without stopping - feats neither man could have accomplished before. The competition moved to sit-ups, where Hubbard said he did more than 2,000. His naval counterpart did more than 2,700. When that competition was over, they jumped rope - a contest that continued for more than three years.

"When we started, 40 was a good number and 50 was unheard of," Hubbard said. "But over the long haul we got a lot better. The last day I was in captivity, March 4, 1973, I walked out of the prison in Hanoi, and I had jumped rope 3,645 times over the rope and not missed. It takes about an hour and a half."

The point of his story - never underestimate the power of human potential.

"I have said for years and years - human potential is nothing more than state of mind," Hubbard said. "It's controlled by what you think you can do and how hard you're willing to work to do it. And that's all."

Speaking of human potential, Hubbard - who at one point spent 28 consecutive days in solitary confinement - learned the Spanish language through universal tap code. He had never seen the written language but learned it all through code and eventually spent three years teaching it to a group of other prisoners.

He relayed horror stories of his captivity but recalled the unity and strength each man felt during the weekly church calls, during which the men would say the Pledge of Allegiance and recite the 23rd Psalm. Each night, before they went to sleep, they would softly sing "God Bless America" to remind themselves why they were there and why they continued on.

As he closed his speech at the Senior Leaders Conference, Hubbard tapped the letters "GBA," for "God Bless America" and then proceeded to lead the entire room in singing the song.

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