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Captive Heroism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A hero or heroine is: "a person who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through impressive feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing his or her own personal concerns for some greater good."  

My dad, James Shively,  was captured in Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war in the same camp as John McCain.  He endured six years of extreme brutality and starvation on behalf of his country. Upon his return, he was lauded and celebrated as a hero by his country, by the press, and by everyone who knew him - and rightly so. To suggest that a hero is not really a hero because they were captured is not only arrogant - it is ignorant.

After graduating at the top of his classes from the United States Air Force Academy, Georgetown University, and combat flight training, James Shively went on to become one of our nation's highest-ranked fighter pilots.  He flew the F-105D Thunderchief,  the ultimate supersonic aircraft of its time and the largest single-seat, single engine fighter-bomber in United States history.  There were only eight F-105 assignments out of flight school, so in order to get one a pilot had to be lucky, or really good. Jim Shively was good.  He was confident in the air, he was smart, and he took just the right amount of risk.

In December of 1966, the Air Force assigned him to fly missions over North Vietnam from the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand.  He was twenty-four years old. He flew combat against Russian MiGs - dodging enemy missiles, anti-aircraft fire, and flak.  On one occasion he flew blind in monsoon-like weather, and when the plane in front of him was downed, he initiated rescue procedures.  He flew back into hostile enemy territory at great risk to himself, knowing that the chances of rescue were slim to none. For this action, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Jim Shively was tough, he was an incredible fighter pilot, and he put other people's lives ahead of his own.

My dad represented the highest level of aptitude and skill, but even his elite skills couldn't help him on the day his F-105 Thunder chief was shot down over Hanoi. 

 On May 5, 1967, he was flying, per government orders, at an extremely low altitude in the middle of intense enemy fire. His aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile, which exploded into the back of his plane.  He was injured upon ejection and landed chest-deep in a rice paddy.  There was nowhere to run or hide, and he was captured almost immediately by the North Vietnamese Army.  He was stripped, beaten, and transported to the Hanoi Hilton, a torture prison camp built by the French in 1896 to hold and debase North Vietnamese rebels.He refused to renounce his own country, so he was starved, tortured, and held as a prisoner of war in Hanoi for almost six years. He withstood unthinkable suffering on behalf of America. For his service, he was awarded two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, one Bronze Star, one Distinguished Flying Cross, four Air Medals, and one Legion of Merit.

My dad was a hero.  The fact that he was captured doesn't make him any less of one. He was captured not because he lacked some heroic quality; quite the opposite. He was captured because he had the guts to fight in the first place.  We do not all possess the inner strength, the humility, the daring, the selflessness needed to make the kind of brave sacrifice that fits the definition of a hero. But if we truly love our county, and want to make it great, we will not disrespect or demean the soldiers who do.  The Bible, in Philippians chapter two, gives us a picture of what a servant-leader should be.  It is someone who sets aside selfish ambition and vain conceit in order to give honor to others.   Someone with the humility and strength of character to value and recognize the achievements and sacrifices of other people. America is not made great by treating her heroes disrespectfully. America is made great by valuing the sacrifices of the heroes that made it great. 

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