U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) -- A prisoner of war held in
the "Hanoi Hilton" for five and a half years shared his compelling
story of imprisonment and success with U.S. Air cadets Feb. 21-22
during the 2013 National Character and Leadership Symposium here.
Retired Col. Lee Ellis, a prisoner of war who spent five and
a half years in the "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War, spoke at
the Air Force Academy's National Character and Leadership Symposium
Feb. 21-22, 2013. (Courtesy photo)
Like Sen. John McCain and others, retired Col. Lee Ellis was
held captive after his plane was shot down Nov. 7, 1967.
Ellis spoke to the NCLS crowd just one month shy of the 40th
anniversary of his March 14, 1973 release from the infamous prison
on the leadership lessons he learned during his confinement.
"The story is so powerful, it doesn't matter whether you're a cadet,
four-star general, CEO or grandmother," Ellis said. "Courage was the
most outstanding quality during that experience, put together with
character and authentic leadership."
The 14 lessons, featured in Ellis' book "Leading with
Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton," include
knowing yourself; being authentic; guarding your character;
confronting your doubts and fears; and staying positive,
"Until you know what your strengths, struggles, passions
and purpose are, it's hard to have the confidence to
actually have courage, because you might be worried somebody
will see the real you," Ellis said.
definition of courage is "leading into the pain of your
fears to do what you know is right," he said.
"I've coached CEOs who didn't want to give positive
feedback because they said they felt uncomfortable, when really it
was their fear of looking stupid, hokey or being too soft," Ellis
said, who coaches Fortune 500 senior executives. "I've also coached
people on how to fire somebody because they didn't have the courage
to do it. It's not just about courage under fire but courage in your
As an Air Force officer, Ellis ran an
ROTC program and served as vice commandant of Maxwell Air Force
Base's Squadron Officer School.
"Most of my last 20 years has
been dedicated to helping people and developing leaders," he said.
Ellis entered the Air Force in 1965 after receiving his
commission from the University of Georgia's ROTC program as a
distinguished graduate. Ellis then attended flight school and F-4
Phantom combat crew training with Capt. Lance Sijan.
Vietnam, we weren't 18-year-old kids," Ellis said. "I had been
through ROTC, flight school, combat crew training and had already
flown 53 combat missions. We were pretty seasoned warriors, and had
a real commitment to follow the code of conduct and be a good
Faith in God, the U.S. and his fellow Airmen
brought him hope amidst continual torture and seclusion in North
Vietnam, he said.
"Even though we were isolated, we still had
covert communication and camaraderie," Ellis said. "We were in it
together and it was us against them.
"Pilots often like to
think they're in control, even when they're not," Ellis said. "We
were mostly pilots and aircrew who believed that someday we were
going to leave," Ellis said. "I personally believed that when they
didn't kill me, and I made it through my ejection and capture, that
God had a purpose in my life and I was going to somehow walk out of
Despite the hardship, there was a hidden
treasure to be found among the trials of being a POW, as the
experience gave many who survived the experience the strength of
character to overcome difficulties and achieve success.
"There are 16 admirals and generals that came out of the POW camps,"
Ellis said. "Out of 400 to 500 people, there have been two U.S.
senators, one of them a nominee for president, a number of
congressmen, CEOs and two or three presidents of universities after
the experience. I think we all, in a way, never want to do it again,
but benefited from the hardships we had there. We learned lessons
that have stood us well throughout the years."
other awards, Ellis is the recipient of two Silver Star Medals, the
Legion of Merit Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart Medal
and the POW Medal.
By Amber Baillie, Academy Spirit
Air Force News Service
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