Why can some people bounce back from adversity while others languish? Why can some leaders help those around them find the path through the crisis when others can’t? To find the answers, I decided to study heroes–people who had overcome some sort of significant adversity and emerged healthy and hardy. I wanted to draw from their experiences in order to advise leaders about ways they can help themselves and others weather the storms that inevitably affect organizations. To find these answers and to better understand how resilient people handle adversity, in 1995 I moved to Pensacola to study the repatriated Vietnam Prisoners of War at the Robert E. Mitchell POW Center. I found answers–surprising answers.
February 12th marks the fortieth anniversary of the repatriation of 566 Vietnam POWs–Operation Homecoming. Researchers had reason to worry about this group because evidence from prior captivity situations indicated high incidences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: 50-82% among WWII POWs and 47-90% among Korean War POWs. Because of these staggering numbers, in 1976 the Navy began a study of 138 Vietnam POWs. In 1996, during the 20-year follow up, the researchers found that only about 6% of the Vietnam POWs in the study had received a diagnosis of PTSD. We expected better results–we didn’t anticipate how good.
The data are astonishing when comparing the Vietnam group to the other captivity situations, but the statistics held other surprises too. To give a frame of reference, at any given time, about 1-4% of the population in a metropolitan area is experiencing symptoms of PTSD caused by violent crime, natural disasters, or other traumas. In other words, this group of POWs, whom the captors imprisoned, tortured, isolated, and beat, had no significantly higher incidence of PTSD than average people in the average city in America. How can that be?
The study participants told me that four main forces in their lives helped them remain resilient:
- A belief in God
- Patriotism–a belief in America even as she fought an unpopular war
- Dedication to each other
- A sense of humor
These men personified the importance of never losing altitude, airspeed, and ideas at the same time. Even though their captivity indicated they had obviously run out of all three in a literal sense, in a metaphorical or psychological sense, they were able to sustain all three–to maintain their perspective, build relationships, and creatively solve unfamiliar problems.
Research tells us that we want power and authority over our futures. When we perceive control in our lives, we feel optimistic and secure. When we don’t, we feel persecuted. We start to feel undermined, overwhelmed, and immobilized–powerless.
Even though their captors victimized them, the Vietnam POWs weren’t victims and never developed victim mentality. Instead, they took control of the few things they could control. Their captors told them when, what, and if they could eat, when they could shower, sleep, and use the toilet. They had no authority over the everyday things we take for granted.
But they did have power in a few areas: their humor perspective, their commitment to one another, and their involvement in a well-defined structure. In short, they built a culture of honor and responsibility–a system influenced by their values and cemented through their behaviors.
We remember them today and thank them for their service and lessons. They gave their yesterdays that we might have our tomorrows.