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Altman: Former POWs honed courage, leadership at 'Hanoi Hilton'

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:20 PM

Forty years ago this Thursday, Ken Fisher of Westchase and Lee Ellis of Atlanta were released from the "Hanoi Hilton," the infamous North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp that also housed a future senator named John McCain.

Fisher, an Air Force colonel at the time, was the commander of an F-4 Phantom. Ellis, a 1st lieutenant, was with him when the jet crashed Nov. 7, 1967.

Not because of the enemy, but because of a faulty fuse on one of the jet's own bombs.

"It blew the aircraft silly," recalled Fisher, now 76.

But there was nothing silly about what happened to the two men over the course of the next 62 months. During the 300-mile forced march to Hanoi, "I wore the skin off the bottom of my foot," Fisher said.

Fisher and Ellis were initially stuck in a 7-by-9-foot cell with two Marines.

"We had a bucket to use for peeing and crapping," he said.

As the senior ranking officer in the prison camp, Fisher was singled out by his captors.

But try as they might, the Vietcong couldn't get Fisher to make a propaganda video. He was awarded three Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars with V for Valor, two Purple Hearts and a POW Medal for his service.

Ellis, 67, was awarded two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with Valor device, the Purple Heart and POW Medal. He went on to be a leadership consultant and coach and recently wrote a book called "Leading with Honor: Life Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton."

"The most important lesson was about courage," Ellis said. "There is something about realizing you are going to get knocked down and bouncing back up. If you get knocked down in life you have to get back up."

Fisher said he got back up. And he plans to celebrate the anniversary of his freedom by taking Margaret, his wife of 48 years, to dinner at Fleming's.

The same day Fisher and Ellis celebrate their release from the Hanoi Hilton, Congress will bring up the issue of base closures, always a topic of concern here in the home of MacDill Air Force Base.

At 3:30 p.m., the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Readiness will hold a hearing on "Is Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Appropriate at this Time?"

Fear not, Tampa, says Chip Diehl, who served as the MacDill base commander from January to August 2001. Diehl says BRAC shouldn't scare a community that has come to rely on the billions of dollars the base pumps into the economy every year.

Diehl, now vice president of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, points out the usual reasons why MacDill is well-positioned to survive another round of base closings. They include hosting U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command and MacDill's geography, with good access for missions in Latin America, Africa as well as the Middle East.

And he credits Gov. Rick Scott and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn for being forward-looking when it comes to keeping the base viable.

"We might look with an encouraging eye at BRAC," says Diehl. "We might get new or more missions, maybe more KC-135 tankers. We are in an outstanding position for this country."

Stay tuned.

March 19 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. If you served in that war, or lost a loved one or friend who did, I'd like to hear from you. Send me an email at haltman@tampatrib.com.

The Department of Defense announced the death of a soldier in Afghanistan last week.

Spc. Cody D. Suggs, 22, of West Alexandria, Ohio, died March 7 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, as a result of a non-combat incident that remains under investigation. He was assigned to the 1487th Transportation Company (Piqua, Ohio), which is part of the 371st Sustainment Brigade (Springfield, Ohio).

There have been 2,164 deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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