This past weekend, the nation received the word that Jeremiah Denton, former fighter pilot, Vietnam veteran, POW survivor, and one-term Senator from Alabama, had passed away. His story is one that will be told for generations yet to come not only for its indomitable courage in the face of the most difficult wartime experiences conceivable, but also for his ability to overcome the damaging consequences of his experiences as a POW and to be a true man of character for his family, for the people of Georgia, and for the nation.
This is a great loss for my generation of Vietnam veterans. Jeremiah Denton was one of our best. All who are combat veterans know the fears and the terrible demands of combat, but none of us can imagine the fears and the loneliness that Jeremiah Denton and the other POWs held by the NVA in Hanoi knew as captives under those unimaginably inhuman circumstances. All of us feared capture more than anything else. All of us worried about our own ability to endure such a thing. But Jeremiah Denton showed us what real courage looks like.
“In that seemingly simple act of resistance, he risked his very life for the truth and for the good of his fellow prisoners.”
In a single, public, courageous act he revealed to the world what he and his fellow POWs were enduring in their captivity. The North Vietnamese paraded him in front of international journalists, telling him that he would be treated better if he cooperated and made those journalist believe that he and the others were being treated humanely. Instead, with his eyes, he blinked the word “torture” throughout the session, which was caught on film. With that he revealed the truth to the world, that he and the others were, in fact, being tortured by their North Vietnamese captors. In that seemingly simple act of resistance, he risked his very life for the truth and for the good of his fellow prisoners. It was an act of defiance in the face of his tormentors. That is the kind of man he was. Both in his military service to the country and in his life after the war as a family man and as a U.S. Senator, he was a man for others.
Living for the Moment
Jeremiah Denton was a POW for eight and a half years, and half of that was in solitary confinement. I cannot imagine what kind of inner strength it took for him and his fellow POWs to endure even one day of that captivity, but eight and a half years! This is why I say he was an example of real moral character. One really finds out who one really is in such circumstances. The inner strength and the physical stamina that they displayed is beyond our imaginations. When asked how he did it, he responded with humble clarity: “I survived the very worst by living for the moment.” That is something we can all learn from this great man. We can survive more than we think we can, if we learn to live each and every moment purposefully.
Though Jeremiah Denton has gone home to his maker, he has left all of us an example of courage and humble grace to be emulated. We thank him for his heroism and for the sacrifices he made in service to this country. Rest in Peace Jeremiah Denton. You fought well. Rest.
Image: Former POW and U.S. Navy CPT Jeremiah Andrew Denton (Captured 18 Jul 65) stands at the microphones and talks to the crowd of well wishers and press upon his arrival on the C-141 Starlifter from Clark Air Base, Philippines. In the background MGEN John Gonge, 22nd Air Force Commander and MGEN Daniel “Chappie” James look on. CPT Denton was in the first group of POWs released on 12 Feb 73 by the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi, 02/01/1973. Photo by SSGT Porter, retrieved from National Archives.Whizzco