This year marks the 30th anniversary of Rolling Thunder. Each year, its Ride for Freedom is an inspiring reminder that we must do all we can to ensure a full accounting for American forces who remain missing in action (MIA). It is a call to action, and as a 29-year Air Force veteran and former POW, I speak from personal experience when I say that taking action can change lives — it can even save them.
It was during the 25th combat mission of my second tour in Vietnam that my co-pilot and I were shot down over North Vietnam. We were flying low to the ground when we took on enemy fire, but when we tried to shoot back, our guns jammed.
Our engine caught fire and we were forced to eject. The North Vietnamese quickly captured us and moved us to the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. Translated, it means “Hell’s Hole,” and I can assure you that it lived up to its name. I spent the next nearly seven years of my life there — 42 months of that in solitary confinement.
Our captors blatantly disregarded the Geneva Convention and we POWs endured torture, starvation and grossly unsanitary conditions. The North Vietnamese also worked hard to make us POWs feel forgotten and alone. We had to lean on each other and our faith in God to carry us through.
I know my wife Shirley and other POW wives also struggled during the Vietnam War because of the lack of support they received. They were told not to talk about their loved ones’ imprisonment … but that didn’t last long. Many brave POW wives found each other and banded together to bring about action.
Even though the country was divided, they were able to get people to rally behind the cause of the POWs. The media started to take notice. Pressure was put on the North Vietnamese, and gradually conditions in the camp started to improve. Ultimately, we POWs were brought home in 1973 because of the determination and hard work of these fearless women.
Today, I remain committed to carrying on that same hard work and bringing home fellow servicemembers who were left behind in previous wars and conflicts. These efforts are part of a promise my POW buddies and I made to ourselves — a promise that when we got out, we would stop just griping about our government and instead work to make things better.
As the U.S. congressman for my home district in Texas, part of this promise includes supporting a strong military and ensuring our troops and veterans have the resources they need, both on the battlefield and when they return home.
I’m also pleased that last year my bill to allow for the inclusion of a Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Memorial was signed into law. This wall will list the names of all members of the U.S. Armed Forces who gave their lives in support of freedom during the Korean War. It will also list the total number of all American POWs and MIAs from the Korean War.
As we honor the 30th anniversary of Rolling Thunder, I hope you will also be encouraged to know that earlier this year I introduced a resolution (H.Res. 129) that calls for intensified efforts to recover and repatriate every American troop who remains unaccounted for. Sadly, there are about 83,000 unaccounted for American troops to this day.
Our Armed Forces swear to leave no man behind, which is why I have vowed I will never stop fighting for our defenders of freedom — just like our POW wives did for us.
My commitment to this country and those who fight for it will never end. Thank you to all the brave men and women in our Armed Forces, past and present, for your service and sacrifice to the greatest nation in the world — the United States of America. And thank you to the military families who support your loved ones — it means more than you could ever know. God bless you and I salute you.
• Republican Rep. Sam R. Johnson has represented the 3rd Congressional District in Texas since 1991. He serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, where he is chairman of the subcommittee on Social Security. He and co-author Jan Winebrenner chronicled his years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” in “Captive Warriors: A Vietnam POW’s Story” (Texas A&M University Press, 1992).
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