Every year for the past five years as our new class of Army Psychology Interns arrives for orientation at Brooke Army Medical Center, we have them watch the film “Return With Honor” by filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders. This is not a new film, being made in 2001 by Public Broadcasting Services. Despite this, two successive active duty training directors have considered it important enough that our new intern officers should watch. I agree with them. This year as I was helping organize the orientation schedule, someone asked me why it was so important. What is it about this video that we want our new officer to see? So I sat down to watch it again with a critical eye to see if I could identify why we feel this film is so important.
“Return With Honor” is part of the PBS “American Experience” documentary series. It tells the story of 462 American POWs held in North Vietnam during that war. Specifically, 26 of the POWs and their family members tell their stories in their own words, from the start of the war and training to their release and reunions. A linear progression is given, which is very real and raw as these men and women give their memories of their experiences, thoughts, and emotions during captivity. While the POWs do not give overly graphic details of torture or more painful memories, the impact of these experiences are clearly etched on their faces as they brush over those moments. The men also share heartening glimpses of moments of positive humanity, both from each other and the enemy.
So why do we have young officers who are new to the military watch a film specifically about what it is like to be a POW? The answer is because of what is clearly underlying every aspect of this story. Ron Bliss, one of the POWs profiled in this film, stated when overviewing part of his experience “all we had left of what we were was our name and our honor.” These men, when stripped of everything else, found that what remained strongly intact are those same strong values that we work to embed in every service member. Courage. Honor. Integrity. Strength of Mind and Character. Perseverance. Never giving up hope or faith in each other. These themes come through strongly in this film. It demonstrates clearly all those things military service members hold most dear. Too often, I hear people using these value words as cliché. In truth, they are what the military live and die by. They are what keep us tied together when things are tough. Service members don’t go to war necessarily because of any specific political cause – they go to war for each other. They fight for the man and woman on either side of them. The proud values that are held so dearly are shared by those they fight with, as well as for those that came before and those that will come after.
So, next week, we will once again be sitting down with a new generation of officers to watch this documentary. We are hopeful that the messages behind the story start to be taken to heart as these young individuals begin their military journeys. We hope that they begin to understand.
I highly recommend this film to anyone working with the military. As you watch it, listen not only to the story but to the strongly held ideals behind the story and you will have a glimpse into the heart and mind of some of the strongest individuals you will ever have the privilege to know.
Dr. Debra Nofziger is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist at Brook Army Medical Center.