Former POW shares reintegration tips with reservists, families

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs
Having spent more than five years in prisoner-of-war camps during the Vietnam War, Lee Ellis knows how difficult it is to reconnect with family and friends after a long military separation.

Ellis shared his experiences and tips for reintegration with about 450 Air Force reservists and their family members during a Yellow Ribbon event Feb. 25-26 here.

"War damages you," the retired Air Force colonel told his audience. "It damages you mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Except for anger, I know I totally shut down emotionally while I was a POW. That works great during war, but it doesn't work when you get back home. You have to reconnect with your emotions when you get home."

Ellis said there were some challenges connecting with his family and friends until he was able to reconnect with his own emotions.

"I was not always easy to live with," he recalled. "I was controlling. I was hyper-vigilant. I was hyper-sensitive to criticism. And I was also dealing with feelings of guilt because a lot of my friends never made it home. It took a lot of time to get a handle on all of the things I was feeling and to reconnect with the people who were closest to me."

Ellis urged the reservists on hand, all of whom are either facing a deployment in the near future or are just returning from a deployment, to be patient when they begin the reintegration process.

"Don't expect perfection," he said. "It's going to take some time for things to be the same way they were before you left, but you will get there."

Ellis also encouraged the reservists and their family members to have a support system in place.

"The Navy Seals have a saying that they never fight alone, and you shouldn't try to fight this battle alone," he said. "You need to have someone in your life you can tell anything to, someone who can help you deal with the emotions you are going to be feeling when you get home from your deployment or when your loved one gets home. And if you don't have someone like that, you need to know there are a lot of resources available right at your fingertips."

Like other Yellow Ribbon events held throughout the country each year, the event in San Diego was designed to let reservists and their family members know exactly what helping resources are at their disposal.

"Our main goal is to let our people know help is available and how to find it," said Mary Hill, the director of Air Force Reserve Command's Yellow Ribbon program. "We have chaplains, military family life consultants, psychological health advocates, (Veterans Administration) specialists and a host of other experts on hand at every Yellow Ribbon event to help reservists and their family members deal with any problems they may be experiencing.

"Things have changed quite a bit since Colonel Ellis came home from the Hanoi Hilton," she said. "We're doing a lot more to try and take care of those who serve and those who support."

Ellis was 24 years old and flying his 53rd combat mission over enemy territory when his F-4C was taken down by enemy fire. He spent the next 5 1/2 years in various prisons, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He spent his first year in a 6 1/2-by-7-foot cell with three other prisoners, surviving on a diet of either pumpkin or cabbage soup and bread.

"We had a strategy for resistance based on the power of honor," he said. That strategy revolved around being willing to take torture to resist; realizing that everyone can be broken; minimizing the enemy's net gain; bouncing back; and staying united through communications.

Ellis and his fellow POWs developed a tap code and a hand code so they could keep in touch with each other during long periods of separation.

"Communication was critical," he said. "Being able to communicate with the people in the adjoining cells helped us be more resilient and let us know we could get through most anything."

Ellis said another thing that helped tremendously during his confinement and in his reintegration into life back home was the fact that toward the end of his time as a POW he was moved into a large holding area with 55 other prisoners.

"During those last few months, the torture stopped, and we were grouped together," he said. "This gave us some time to decompress before we went home. Today, I don't think we get a lot of time to decompress, and it makes it a little harder to reintegrate into society."

After his return home from the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis went back to flying and assumed positions of leadership, including flying squadron commander. He was awarded two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with valor device, the Purple Heart and the POW Medal. He retired with 24 years of service.

Reservists who are facing a deployment or who have recently returned from a deployment are eligible to attend a Yellow Ribbon event. For more information, they should contact their unit's Yellow Ribbon representative.

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