It's been 30 years, but Wallace "Moe" Newcomb still can't shake the memory of being blasted out of the sky from his F-105 fighter jet.
He can't shake the memory of the 5-1/2 years he spent locked in dank cells at the "Hanoi Hilton" and other North Vietnamese prisons.
But despite his time as a prisoner of war, Mr. Newcomb and many of his fellow comrades have led remarkably successful lives, a fact that challenges persistent stereotypes about former Vietnam POWs.
Some of the more accomplished POWs are now US senators, college presidents, prominent businessmen, and vets like Newcomb, who went on to earn a master's degree in business administration, work for an accounting firm, and fly F-16 fighter jets for the Air National Guard.
"The thing that I noticed was that guys were shot down at a critical point in their careers," says Newcomb. Consequently, he adds, many of his contemporaries carried extraordinary drive into life after captivity.
"The thing you notice is how normal the vast majority of them are," says Capt. Michael Ambrose, a Navy physician in Pensacola, Fla., who recently released a study about the commonalities of Vietnam POWs. "The same traits that allowed these folks to survive captivity have allowed them to do well outside captivity."
Captain Ambrose is part of a research team that has examined the physical and mental well-being of Vietnam prisoners for two decades. The Navy began looking at its former POWs, most of whom were military pilots, in the 1970s. Recently, the Air Force and Army have begun paying their POWs' expenses to travel to a Navy research center for yearly examinations.
Although American servicemen from World War II and Korea were tracked and studied following those conflicts, the exams were not nearly as detailed as those given the nation's 660 Vietnam POWs. Some from Vietnam spent more than six years in harsh conditions that included profound isolation, brainwashing, and torture.
"You adjust to the deprivation in prison," says Newcomb, captured during his 83rd mission. "What you don't adjust to is the cultural removal. I would have given anything for a Sunday New York Times."
Age and rank make a difference
The rigorous pilot screening helps explain the mental well-being and career success of many Air Force POWs, says Steve Nice, a psychologist at the Naval Research Center in San Diego, Calif.
Pointing to men like US Sen. John McCain, former Citadel President James Stockdale, and Jack Van Loan, a well-known motivational speaker, Mr. Nice surmises that age and rank at the time of capture also helped the former captives survive and then thrive. (Vietnam POWs were on average older and carried higher rank than their counterparts from previous wars.)
"These really are extraordinary people," he says. "They really are a select group."
Two years ago, Nice published a study of former Vietnam prisoners in the Journal of the American Medical Association. While his research subjects reported a range of ailments, they did not have increased morbidity and mortality rates, as did many World War II prisoners.
Heightened problems among Americans in Asian prison camps during World War II led to the Vietnam study. Perhaps their most important finding, Ambrose and Nice say, is that age and rank are important variables to predict the response to war captivity. In the case of the Vietnam POWs, many were mature enough and confident enough to withstand the severe deprivations.
"They had a chance to examine life's priorities," Nice says, noting many people "don't do that very often."
An unusual education program
Bill Baugh, an Air Force pilot who spent six years in North Vietnamese jails, has his own theory about why his buddies thrived.
During their long imprisonment, Mr. Baugh recalls, American prisoners created an unusual education program. To pass the hours, they taught one another courses on architecture, foreign languages, and history.
"We took all that brainpower we had and we put it to use," says Baugh, who today edits a newsletter for Vietnam POWs. "We held courses in everything you could think of. Our motto was, 'Return With Honor.' "