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Vietnam veteran talks about leadership lessons from war

POW says communication is a key asset

POSTED: May 1, 2012 11:30 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Lee Ellis speaks to the Gainesville Kiwanis Club about his book "Leading with Honor - Lessons Learned in Hanoi Hilton", based on his personal experience with exceptional leaders in Vietnam prisoner of war camps Tuesday afternoon at the Gainesville Elks Lodge.

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Many Vietnam War veterans are forever haunted by their combat experiences or, perhaps worse, years as an enemy captive.

Lee Ellis, a retired Air Force colonel, was able to turn his POW experiences in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” into a positive force for living.

The Commerce native, now living in Cumming, described his journey in a talk Tuesday at the Gainesville Kiwanis Club.

“Leadership always makes a difference,” Ellis said. “If you lead something, you need to make a difference, because nobody else has the power and opportunity to do it.”

Ellis has written a book, “Leading with Honor,” about his experiences and philosophies emanating from the war.

The book, with a foreword by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is divided into “lessons” rather than chapters, with such titles as “Guard Your Character,” “Stay Positive,” “Confront Your Doubts and Fears” and “Bounce Back — Be Resilient.”

Ellis, who dreamed of flying since childhood, graduated from Air Force flight school in 1966 and went on to serve as a fighter pilot, flying 53 combat missions over North Vietnam.

He recalled in vivid detail being shot down in 1967 in enemy territory, where he ended up surrendering.

“I started to collect myself, but yet the shock was sinking in,” Ellis said. “I also knew that I had to start thinking about what was going to happen.”

He was taken to the Hanoi Hilton, a POW camp that would become a house of horror for its captives, mainly American pilots shot down during bombing raids.

“We found out you couldn’t say yes to everything they wanted,” Ellis said. “You had to say no (sometimes), and that meant you were going to have to take torture.

“We realized that everyone could be broken. They could do it. They had the power to do it, and they were good at it. But you had to bounce back ... and that’s a reality in life today.”

Ellis didn’t go in detail about physical abuse he experienced during his five years as a POW, but he talked about the sufferings of other prisoners, including McCain.

He also talked about how the prisoners communicated with each other through a “tap code” developed in the prison.

“We didn’t have much to do, so we got pretty good at this,” Ellis said. “... We passed a lot of information that way.”

After the war, Ellis continued his career in the Air Force and went on to start Leadership Freedom, an Atlanta-based organization that provides leadership management services.

Among the key attributes of a strong leader is communication, an asset that kept POWs “alive and together, and helped us build our culture,” he said.

“If you’re a leader, I can’t stress how important it is to build a culture, to build it around your values and the way you think things need to be.”

He said courage and faith in God, country and family are also important.

“You have to believe you’re going to succeed,” Ellis said. “We believed very strongly that our country wouldn’t leave us there and we would do our part and come out of there.”



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