Christmas in the POW Camps and Clarifying Your Culture

Lee Ellis POW Camp

During this special season of gift-giving, today’s post is an excerpt from leadership consultant and former Vietnam POW, Lee Ellis’ latest book, Leading with Honor in the chapter on “Clarifying Your Culture.”

We wish you a peaceful and joyful Christmas season from Linked2Leadership –

“The day I received my first package from home is a case in point. As the guards spread the already opened, thoroughly searched contents of the prescribed ‘six-pound package’ before me on the table, I stared longingly at the food items, vitamins, warm socks, and pictures of my family. I had been in captivity for two and a half years, so naturally I was tingling with excitement and anticipation. This package from home promised to be better than the best Christmas present I’d ever received. Yet the experience was tainted by the smirk on the camp officer’s face as he affected an attitude of kindness and concern, as though he were my favorite uncle. As I started to pick up my stuff, he told me I must first sign a receipt. I scanned the document hurriedly and noticed the following sentence: ‘In accordance with the humane and lenient policy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [DRV], I have been allowed to receive a package from my family.’

I had heard through our covert communications that there would be a receipt of some sort, and that it would probably be okay to sign it. But now I felt trapped in an agonizing ethical dilemma. I coveted that package; it was the first connection with my family in more than two years. However, only a few months earlier we had been through some very harsh treatment during which two of my cellmates had been singled out for torture. The statement on the receipt wasn’t true, and I feared it could be used for propaganda. I had to make a choice between my comfort and my conscience.

Our POW mission statement captured the essence of our culture in the three simple and powerful words: Return with Honor. This short phrase provided both a vision and a bond that kept us aligned toward one goal.”

When I refused to sign the receipt, the officer picked up the package and told the guard to take me to my cell. Many of the men in the camp, including my cellmates—whom I considered to be exceptionally brave and honorable men—signed the receipt. Their actions were within the policies and boundaries of our culture, and I didn’t judge them. Besides, I had seen them sacrifice often for the team, and I totally trusted their commitment. My next package arrived six months later with goodies similar to the first one. But this time there was a special, unexpected bonus: the receipt no longer had a statement about ‘the lenient and humane treatment’ of the DRV. How sweet it was!

Our POW mission statement captured the essence of our culture in the three simple and powerful words: Return with Honor. This short phrase provided both a vision and a bond that kept us aligned toward one goal. Framed by the Code of Conduct and shaped by wise leaders, our culture guided and protected us through the dark and difficult years, until we could emerge into the light of freedom at the end of the war.”

Listen to a recent radio interview where Lee talks about this point in his life of celebrating Christmas in the Vietnam POW Camps here:


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Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | Book | Facebook | Twitter

His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

Image Source: FreedomStar Media

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