All Things Soldier: Plumb and PTG, Part 2

Last edition I introduced you to an extraordinary man by the name of Charlie Plumb, who was in the Hanoi Hilton for six years during the same time as Senator John McCain. He came back with no discernible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rather, his survival journey laid the foundation for the fact that it is possible to “suffer” instead from something called Post Traumatic Growth, or PTG. As I said in the first article, my purpose is not to minimize the struggles of anyone who experiences flashbacks or the rest of the nasty travelers typically associated with PTSD; it is simply to give proof and hope that you can indeed go from coping to conquering by, as neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf says, “growing a new brain.”

I don’t believe in very many coincidences, and as I was recently shopping for some age-appropriate shorts in a thrift store in Florida, of all places, I happened to spy a book called, “I’m No Hero.” It was Charlie’s first work, published in 1973 not long after he came home from Vietnam, and I snapped it right up. It didn’t hurt that it was autographed in Charlie’s beautiful handwriting, something I am guessing he improved while in prison, and this book has become one of my treasures. I was “in love” with Charlie before, but now I am “over the moon.” Why? Because of the complex community, educational society, and support structure he and his fellow inmates were able to put in place, literally under the most tortuous of long term circumstances.

By way of background, beginning after the Korean War and during Vietnam, there was a training program developed known as SERE that was taught to those who stood to have the greatest chance of being captured. It stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, and we had to take the entry level training (without the torture, of course), when the kidnapping of contractors spiked in Iraq during 2005-2006. We also had to do re-certification until things calmed down, and the training we received was invaluable.

In the last article, the focus was on the power of faith and community as to its impact on Charlie’s high level of functionality when he returned. In this one, we’ll talk more about how they ran their micro-society.

Not surprisingly, much of their strength came from structure. The gong to awaken them would go off at 6:30am. Charlie would spend the next 30 minutes in prayer and meditation, focusing on some sketches of his bride, and asking God to make him into the husband and father that He needed Charlie to be. At 7am, Charlie would “practice the piano” for an hour. He had scratched out a total of three octaves on one of the boards of his bunk, and would work on scales and chord formations. Eventually, (and as a musician I find this most interesting,) after a few years he got to the place where he could “hear” the notes while he was playing.

At 8am, they did functional fitness exercises and running in place, with someone keeping watch so as to avoid the wrath of the guards. He says, “Our imaginary school bell rang at 9:30am.” They had no books, paper, pencils or chalkboards, yet studied history, geography, math, biology, and foreign languages. By the time Charlie was released, he could speak some French, Russian, German and Spanish.

They sang hymns when the guards were out of earshot, “took” each other to the movies at night time by describing their favorite films scene by scene, Charlie “taught” photography, and through the tap code they traded their favorite family recipes.

What was the net result? Because they had to focus so intently on everything they were doing, their brains were too occupied with the acquisition of knowledge, communicating covertly, and the building of their unique community to have as much room or capacity to store trauma effectively as victims who endure trauma in isolation. I think the lessons speak for themselves, and I am planning on continuing to “plumb the depths of Charlie Plumb.”
I hope you join me. Charlie’s book can be purchased on Amazon for a penny. I’d love to hear the thoughts that come out of that one-penny expenditure.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner