Johnson POLITICO Op-Ed: Remembering Sybil Stockdale

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Washington, December 29, 2015 | comments


They say behind every great man is a great woman.  With the Stockdales, it would be more accurate to say, "Beside Jim was Sybil."  She was a great woman, wife, mother, and patriot, and her efforts during the Vietnam War continue to benefit every American military family today. 

The first time I met Jim Stockdale was my first night in the infamous Prisoner of War (POW) camp, the Hanoi Hilton.  It was April 1966.  I had just been put in a cramped cell after spending time in the torture room.  He was on the other side of the wall, along with Jeremiah Denton.  They immediately introduced themselves and taught me the "tap code."  (These two men and I, along with eight others, would eventually be kicked out of the Hanoi Hilton and moved into solitary confinement at "Alcatraz" for several years for being "diehard resistors.")   Jim and I became fast friends that night, but I would not meet Sybil until we finally returned home in February 1973.  Sybil played a pivotal role in that return.

While her husband and my fellow POW Alcatraz brother, then-Commander Jim Stockdale, fought against the North Vietnamese in the Hanoi Hilton, Sybil fought her own battles at home for seven and a half years.  She fought to keep her family together. She fought to support her four boys.  And she fought against the country’s and Washington’s indifference if not downright animosity toward its servicemen. 

As a 29-year Air Force veteran and now a United States Representative, I have seen my fair share of war.  I can say, unequivocally, that Vietnam was unlike any other war we have fought, particularly in terms of the treatment of our troops.  I hope and pray that we have seen the last of our own country diminishing, dismissing, or degrading the service and sacrifice of our servicemen and women.  It was not our finest hour.  The treatment of troops during that time not only hurt those returning home, but their families as well.  It was also incredibly discouraging to the POW and MIA families like Sybil's that were waiting in limbo. 

To make matters worse, at that time the Department of Defense (DOD) instructed POW families to "keep quiet" about their loved ones' condition.  The reason given for this practice was the Johnson Administration's belief that negative publicity for the Vietnamese could impact the treatment of American POWs.  Therefore, word that the Vietcong wasn't abiding by the Geneva Convention - in fact they were viciously torturing POWS - hadn't hit the mainstream public.  Yet.  All that changed in large part due to the patriotic activism of Sybil Stockdale.

In 1966, a year after her Navy pilot husband had been shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese, Sybil organized a lunch with other POW wives she had made contact with against the DOD's policy.  From that meeting and under the leadership of Sybil, these heroic women, including my wife Shirley, formed the National League of P.O.W. and M.I.A. Families.  They fought honorably for our Great Nation: they put pressure on the Administration to demand the Vietcong follow the Geneva Convention, and they also brought public awareness to the plight of POWs. 

Sybil in particular demonstrated remarkable gumption.  At great risk, Sybil worked with the DOD to send coded letters to Jim in order to solicit information about the Hanoi Hilton as well as the status and treatment of American POWs.  She also bravely confronted a North Vietnamese delegation at peace talks held in Paris.

It was only the efforts of our brave wives back home that brought about change for the better in the Hanoi Hilton.  The country was divided, but they were finally able to get people to rally behind us all.  Because of the pressure our wives put on the Vietcong, Jim, me, and our other Alcatraz brothers were finally removed from solitary, integrated back with our other POW buddies, and ultimately brought home.

For her patriotism, Sybil was justly awarded the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest award given by the Department of the Navy to a citizen.  But her work didn't stop there.  A hard worker and an educated woman with a master's degree in education from Stanford, Sybil continued to speak out on behalf of military families with missing loved ones.  She also volunteered as a "pink lady" at the Stanford hospital, and even penned a memoir with Jim, In Love and War.

Sybil and Jim's life legacy should remind us that no matter the odds, you can persevere when you work together.  And no matter the circumstance, faith, family, and a supportive community can make all the difference.  It can even save lives.

Though God - Sybil Stockdale, my wife Shirley, and the other POW wives - saved my life and the life of every other Vietnam POW who returned in 1973.  They are my heroes, and our nation is forever indebted to them.  As we remember Sybil's memory, we should ask ourselves what we are doing to give back to our country that has so blessed our lives.  She worked tirelessly to make our Great Nation greater, and we should all seek to emulate that legacy of service.  God bless her, and I salute her. 

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