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You are in control of you - Admiral James Stockdale on surviving in stressful situations

This week's Weekly Leader column - You are in charge of you - looks at the stress that Stockdale reunion - Academy of Achievementcomes from losing one's job in the context of the story of James Stockdale, the highest ranking US POW imprisoned during the Vietnam War.

A long section from an excellent interview posted at the Academy of Achievement where Admiral Stockdale tells about how he managed the psychological stress of imprisonment, and the role that the philosophy of Epictetus had in his survival.

Admiral, how did you survive psychologically? The other men you mentioned perished under the same circumstances.

James Stockdale: I don't know. I didn't feel like I had more vitality than the next one. I had things to do. I was alone a lot, and I found ways to talk to myself and to bolster my own morale. I was getting occasional letters from my wife Sybil. And she would from me. She probably wrote 50 and I got six, and I probably wrote 20 and she got two or something like that.

After I came out of Alcatraz, we all came back to the regular prison. They tried to get me to go downtown. They tried everything. They would give me the ropes three times a week. One of my original breakthroughs was self disfiguration. I was given a lot of times in the ropes in room 18, which is the main torture chamber of Hoa Lo prison. It also serves as kind of a ceremonial chamber when no prisoners are in there. In that, the only room in the building, a great big building with plate glass windows, and they had big heavy quilts that they drew across it. I was in there and they were about at their wits end. Two officers were working me over. Pi Ga, my torture guard, was always there to take me wherever they wanted. It was about mid-afternoon and they said, "Okay, you've done okay, today. Now you want to get washed up." I knew what that meant. That meant we were going downtown that night.

On any day you could probably find a couple of international discussion groups somewhere in town and on some days probably five of them. And they would cajole Americans into going downtown. It's not so much the location, it's some place in Hanoi where you're going to talk about politics and nothing else. I never went downtown. In Heartbreak Hotel a lot of prisoners only had access to this shower head that was in a regular cell with two cement seats or beds. But this was dedicated to showers, they didn't have anything else to do. So you walked in and you went between these beds and then you saw the spigot and pretty soon the water started coming out and you were to take your clothes off and he handed you the soap and the razor and slammed the door because he had other errands to do.

As soon as I could I got my head wet and lathered up, I started with that safety razor, just cutting a track down the top of my head that I judged would make it impractical for them to take me downtown. He came back to the peephole and I ducked down, just showing him my behind, which is all he could see because I was stooped over, and then back up and again. I didn't realize that I was bleeding so bad. And then he came in and grabbed me, grabbed my arm and he knew he was in trouble, too. There was blood running down my shoulders and there were secretaries in the courtyard that we went by and they were looking. That was the headquarters prison of the whole country of North Vietnam so they had offices and they had everything you can expect. He took me back into this room and boy, those two officers, they said, "How dare you? How dare you?" I just got down in the position for the ropes and he said, "You have no right to take the ropes." I knew I was getting him screwed up. Finally they said, "I got it. We'll get a hat and we'll take you down to the press conference with a hat on." So as soon as they locked the door, I looked around for something else to do damage to myself with, and I saw the old toilet can that had been there for years, and I knew every chunk of it, but that was infection and one thing -- and then I said, "Well, what's wrong with this mahogany stool?" and bang, bang, bang, bang, and the secretaries across the hall wondered what the noise was and they started shaking the door. I didn't -- couldn't see them. But by the time they got back my eyes were closed and there was no question about it. They couldn't do anything and said, "What do you want me to tell the commissar?" I said, "You tell the commissar the CAG decided not to go downtown tonight." And they went out and then they gave me -- you know, then through that -- other times I'd used other devices. Stockdale MOH Citiation - Ceremony

They told me, "We think they're going to put you in the mint pretty soon." And that was kind of the end of the line. There was an old privy outside, and we had this signal system. You could take a vertical wire -- the outsider wouldn't even realize it was up there -- and if you moved it this way, that meant there was an old bottle under that sink. If you had a message for Stockdale he would know that he had a message in the bottle. If it looked like it was booby trapped you'd just push it back. There was even a position for if it was okay.

So I was down there and I was exchanging notes and getting things done and then I had kind of got a nice note from a guy and I -- but we were -- what we were using for paper and pen was tough toweling that was sort -- it was the idea of toilet paper and rat manure. You'd lick it and you could print right on it and get another piece. And so a voice said -- and I was careless on this. He sneaked up under the door, and it was kind of a complicated thing but he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm reading these letters my wife sent me," which was authorized. They would leave letters. And he said, "No, your hand was moving." Uh-oh, I knew it. Well, then he ran and he got the turnkey and they came in and they got me out and they told me to put my hands up -- this is the typical prison shake down position.

In the meantime I had had sense enough to put it in the crotch of my pants. I did that because I concluded -- and I think I'm right -- that there's a great connection between farm boys in Illinois and farm boys in rural Vietnam. They have a sense of propriety against intruding in other people's private parts. As far as I know that's true. I don't know, because I didn't have it up there well enough. As I was walking back it rolled out of my pant leg and then they had it.

There was something in the air. I don't want to make this too mysterious, but it was kind of a dark and dreary night. As they walked me over to the other side of the camp and put me in a little privy-like place I'd never seen before that's just full of cobwebs -- it would only accommodate one man -- and I think they were just doing something to get me out of that camp so that I knew I'd go in room 18 the next morning. And the man came in with leg irons and he put them on me and they were squeeze irons, built to put pressure points on your legs so you couldn't sleep that night. And I looked down there and he was, so help me, weeping, and not out of sympathy for me I'm sure, but I marked that down in my book. And then the next morning, when I was taken over to the other place to get the torture started for that day there was a couple of other people weeping. And I said, "Old Ho Chi Minh probably died last night."

I'd been unsuccessfully accosted to give them information. I could hold it back from the particular crowd that was working with me that day, they were kind of halfway friendly people. Something was wrong. The whole country was going bananas. Later that afternoon, I was just lying down on my roll, assuming that the day was over, and this guy named Bug, who was a snotty officer, he said, "Get on your feet! Tomorrow is the day we bring you down." That meant I would succumb. And he said, "This country is in mourning. There will be dirge music in the streets tonight. Ho Chi Minh died last night and we're in mourning." Well, I'd anticipated that. And then they didn't let me lie down. They put me in a chair. They said, "Put him in a chair with ropes on his arms and traveling irons for his feet." Traveling irons were what you got so you could go to the bathroom in the night. I was depressed. I said to myself, "God, maybe I'm the problem here instead of the solution. I had said, "Here's my orders. Remember: B-A-C-U-S: BACUS." It could be tapped out. "B" means do not bow in public. "A," stay off the air, never talk into a tape recorder or a microphone. "C," don't kiss them good-bye when we go home. "U-S" might be seen as United States but what it really means is "Unity over Self." That was the first order. I put out dozens of them but that was the instruction. I said, "Maybe I'm the problem, because there had been people who were killed in the ropes." And then I just said, "I do know one thing. I've got to change the status quo because I'm going to be dealing with a different country tomorrow than I was yesterday. And who knows what's going to happen? They may go bonkers."

And so I said, "I've got to change the status quo," and with that I got off from my traveling irons and went over and shut off the light, pulled back these blankets, and exposing the plate glass window, using the palm of my hand, which was relatively free -- I had enough freedom there, to get the long shards, pull the curtains back, turn on the light, get back in my chair and sit down and just start going like this. And, first of all, I started getting blue blood and I said, "Where is the blue blood coming from? We've got to get some red blood." And so I said, "I don't..." I said to myself, "Is this right? I don't know but I know I've got to..." my hands -- I had run out of ideas and I had to explore the future. You wouldn't think I had a future if you saw me. I passed out in a pool of blood.

Did you want to die, Admiral?Stockdale press conference

James Stockdale: No, I don't think so. I just knew I had to do something, and I had kind of a hunch that there might be some opening here. I went unconscious. I had a feeling that ever since I'd started this self-defacement they had a suicide watch on me. About two in the night somebody screamed "Eow," and I think that was the suicide watch. I think he looked through a peephole and saw me in that pool of blood in front of my chair.

I was groggy and I really had to be slapped awake, but the room filled up with soldiers and the doctor and some officers and a lot of guards. They were cleaning the room. They were like they were ashamed of it and they were sweeping the floor and putting fluid on it that smelled like something in a funeral parlor. The guards took my clothes out and washed them. The officers were nasty, but they couldn't figure out what to say. Finally -- I don't know the time of night, maybe 3 or 4 in the morning -- they brought in a cot and then they brought in a chair and they put a soldier in the chair and he put the rifle across his knees and they let me lie in the bed with a pillow and I passed out. "Boy, this has been a day!" I looked up at those walls and they're all covered with geckos. You see them on all of the walls in Southeast Asia and they're moving around and they snipe at one another but, God, I looked up there and to me all the gekkos were bisecting their friends! I knew I was hallucinating. I almost laughed. The next morning the door squeaks open and I look out and it's the commissar himself. He sat down and he said, "Stockdale, do you want a cup of coffee?" I said, "Yes." I don't think I had leg irons on. I went over and sat down across from him and he said, "What happened last night was a catastrophe." And he said, "You know I sit with the general's staff. A report will be written. It may adversely affect me. It might even adversely affect you. I can't say. But..." he said, "You will not stay here. We will put you back in that little place where the doctor will attend you until all traces of bandage and scars as best we can arrange it are gone." Well I was out there from September to almost Christmas and then I went back. Things had happened. I was completely out of communication there. I found out two things. One, nobody had ever been in the ropes since I cut my wrists, and secondly, the commissar had been discharged. So from then on the life was never the same. It wasn't happy, but I shut down that torture system and they never wanted it brought up again.

James Stockdale: It's just two paragraphs. They always start out the same. "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." Then it explains what happened, and it says, "The highest traditions of the Naval Service were upheld." Stockdale telling a story

You truly suffered for your men. James Stockdale: I thought I owed it to them. I was the senior guy there. That night was not like any other night except some of the thoughts and some of the mental state. I don't think that was an exception. I guess you can say it's just dumb luck, but you never know. I gave them a problem like they'd never had before and they solved it by backing off.

You've spoken a lot about Epictetus and stoicism. What role do you think your knowledge of that philosophy had in your survival?

James Stockdale: I think it had a lot, but I never mentioned that name or stoicism, it never left my lips. I'd had experience; sometimes there'll be a man in good communication with you, and you had some sort of a -- maybe a religious experience, maybe an inspirational thought -- and you get on the wall and you start giving that stuff to him, tapping him on the wall. After he sees what you're up to, his "twos" -- which he does each time you finish a word -- get less and less enthusiastic.

You don't have to be a military officer to exhibit this sort of resilience under pressure. All you must do is determine within your own mind that "you are in control of you." That you well-being begins with your attitude, not with the conditions of your life.
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