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Remembering former Prisoners of War

MOUNTAINHOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --  April 9 marked "National Former Prisoner of War Day", a day to celebrate those who have returned from captivity.

I was unaware of this observance until I happened to look at my calendar and see the note in bold lettering. That immediately made me curious to find out about experiences that former POW's had. I chose to research testaments and what I took away from them will stay with me for a very long time.

I have, in the past, heard a few firsthand accounts of men who have returned from their capture and imprisonment. These stories were heart wrenching and nearly brought tears to my eyes. I remember as a tech-school Airman listening to the guest speaker at a commander's call as he recounted the six years he spent as a captive. What I walked away with was a profound sense of respect and awe at his sheer mental strength, and amazement at the unspeakable conditions he endured.

I liken that experience to hearing former POW Elie Wiesel speak to my high school in 2002. He spoke about the terrible atrocities the Nazis committed against those held in the internment camps. Naked bodies stacked up frozen in the snow, unburied and the shoes of thousands piled only a few hundred feet from them. When I sit and think about both men's experiences, it's hard for me to understand how a person can hold up under such oppression. Both had to stand by and watch as many were slaughtered right in front of them.

Often, those who came back from POW camps returned with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as "A type of disorder that is triggered by a traumatic event." One can develop PTSD when they experience or witness an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror. Those who have been exposed to such events often have a period of difficulty acclimatizing to their environment and coping with the trauma.

"Starvation reaped a terrifying harvest throughout the prisons," wrote Russell A Grokett, Sr. in his journal of events that he experienced while surviving captivity in Camp O'Donnell a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

He went on to write, "Survivors suffered ill effects from vitamin deficiencies and the doctors believed they would continue to be affected for years to come and years later, those who managed to survive still could not erase the nightmare of O'Donnell from their minds."

Russell's biography and others' stories of fear and survival during the Batann Death March and years in prison camps left me feeling empty and truly weary of man's capability to be cruel.

"Men were buried alive, often by other prisoners forced at bayonet point to carry out this task. The Japanese seemed to get 'animal pleasure' out of beating men. Sometimes the men were allowed to assist the weaker ones and sometimes not. The Japanese also looted constantly. Thirsty, dehydrated men drank from bacteria filled pools, polluted streams and muddy rice paddies. They held their noses to seal off the sickening odor but they drank all they could."

Russell's biography can be found by simply searching for his name on the Internet. I highly recommend you read about these men, and others like them so that April 9 can be a day of meaningful remembrance.