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OGTA DEBRIEF #6 - COLONEL ROBERT G. CERTAIN (RET.) 'the unchained eagle'

Debrief #6 with Col. Robert Certain

On 28 August, 2021, The DFC Society and Old Guys and Their Airplanes conducted their 6th “Debrief” —  film + live Q&A + Educator’s Kit — with Vietnam War B-52 Navigator and POW, Col Robert Certain.

The questions on the TXT line came in at such a rate that many were unable to be answered.

Col Certain answered those questions below (and please also refer to the Educator’s Kit at the link at the bottom of the page).

Q: What did you do (on an average day) in prison?
A: In the first few weeks, not much. I had a cellmate, so we could talk, but the cell was very small, precluding any kind of exercise. With time, we were moved to a larger cell with more cell mates. Then we tore up the rice paper toilet paper to make playing cards. Someone was always looking through the cracks in the doors to discover what was going on outside.

In mid-January we were moved from the Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton) to the Cu Loc (Zoo) prison and given additional “freedoms” … time outside, volleyball, propaganda magazines and clippings from Stars And Stripes glued to cardboard.

Q: While in seminary, you referenced a questionnaire to examine ‘moral awareness and acuteness of combat aviators and chaplains.   Can you discuss your thoughts about this questionnaire as it applies today?
A: The questionnaire had to do with topics that are always of concern to war fighters. I still hold the position that properly trained chaplains can help war fighters identify and resolve the moral and ethical issues raised by combat – destroying property and killing people.

Some people believe things ‘just happen’ and other people believe in ‘reason/purpose’ for what we experience.  Has your perspective on this changed over the years?  Does this perspective help guide your responses to challenges?

History does not interpret itself. I have never believed that each event is directed by Divine purpose; but I have always believed that we can find purpose, growth and meaning as we review those events. The question is not “Why did God cause the event?” but rather “What
was God doing in the midst of events caused by us?” and “What can I learn from those events?”

Q: Do you think the response style that made you a good Navigator (less reactive and more problem solving) helped you as a POW, in the expression of your faith, and in your responses to past and ever-present stressors/challenges?
A: Absolutely. I tried to understand just how that played out as I wrote my book, “Unchained Eagle” (available as an e-book on Amazon)

Q: What was your food like in prison?
A: Mostly bland and boring. A typical breakfast was a half loaf of French bread and a cup of reconstituted powdered sweet milk. Lunch and dinner were a bowl of cabbage soup, another half loaf of bread and weak hot tea. On special occasions (Christmas, New Year’s Day, Tet) we would receive eggs and rice. After the treaty was signed we began to get canned pork, beef, and fish.

Q: What are your thoughts about all this attention?
A: I’m never overly fond of it, but have learned to take it in stride.

Q: What role did your family play in your decision to join the military and in your return and after care during the rest of your career
A: That influence was fairly minimal. My parents encouraged each of their five children to do our best and to pursue our dreams. One brother was in AFROTC at a different university and became a USAF pilot. He and I are the only two to serve.

My decision to pursue ministry after my return from NVN was supported by my wife and nuclear family.

Q: Do you have any thoughts to share about the recent pullout from Afghanistan?
A: Many thoughts, but they’re still a bit muddled. Our 20-year undeclared war in Afghanistan and the events of the ragged withdrawal and evacuation are strongly reminiscent of the swift and ignominious fall of Saigon in 1975. Even though American fighting men and women successfully turned back evil forces and held them at bay in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, American diplomats ultimately tired of the conflicts and called us home without thinking through or planning for our honorable exit and for the stability of the nation we left behind.

Q: What parallels do you see between Vietnam and Afghanistan?
A: Only a few. Warfighting efforts were constrained by political/diplomatic considerations. Military men and women conducted themselves with honor and courage, and treated the native population with dignity and kindness. But Vietnam was a civil war and Afghanistan
has always been a territory of tribes that don’t get along and no outside force (Rome, Great Britain, Russia, the USA) has succeeded in bringing stability to the region. Vietnam did not continue to threaten the world with terrorism. It is too early to make that judgment about

Q: Expand on your idea that PTSD is not a Disorder unless it stops you from living your life…
A: Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, people grow in insight and personal response following a traumatic event (war, car wrecks, hurricanes, earthquakes, physical abuse). In other circumstances they self-limit adverse reactions by personal reflections. At other times,
family and/or friends intervene and assist. But when it becomes dysfunctional, medication and counseling are needed to make a breakthrough.

Q: Do you know the status of Richard Johnson?
A: Dick and Caroline are alive and well (for someone of their age) and living in Memphis TN.

Q: What role did your faith play in your incarceration, and the role, if any, your incarceration played in becoming a priest?
A: My faith never wavered in prison. When we moved to the Zoo, the men in my cellblock asked me to serve as their chaplain. I had been resisting the idea of going into ordained ministry for a decade; and when I returned, the USAF agreed to send me to seminary on
active duty. In that way, the prison experience facilitated my quick entry into training for ministry and the chaplaincy.

Q: What would you do differently in military service? Post war?
A: While I have some regrets about events, I would not do anything differently. Every decision and event is part of who I am today. Change one thing in the past and you change the complete outcome.

VIETNAM WAR FORMER POW TO GIVE LIVE Q&A INTERVIEW ON CRUCIAL BATTLE - Schools, museums and groups are encouraged to hold Watch Party of event

(Sioux Falls, SD) —On Saturday, 28 August, 2021, Vietnam Veteran and former Prisoner of War (POW) Col Robert Certain, USAF (Ret) will be featured in a live, streaming Q&A.  The moment is part of the award-winning historical documentary series produced by Old Guys and Their Airplanes (OGTA) and the Distinguished Flying Cross Society (DFCS).

On 18 December, 1972, Certain became the first American to be captured after his B-52G Stratofortress bomber was shot down on the opening night of Operation Linebacker II, the code name given to the successful (but costly) bombing of strategic military targets near Hanoi, North Vietnam.  

Linebacker II played a crucial role in bringing the Vietnam War to an end for American forces in that it convinced North Vietnamese leaders to resume stalled peace talks.  Perhaps the greatest affect of the peace treaty was the release of nearly 600 American POWs, some whom had been in captivity for over eight years.

Col Robert Certain will describe his POW experiences as well as how he leveraged them to overcome PTSD and establish successful careers as a military leader, minister and author.

Certain is a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), an award given for heroism in aerial flight.  DFC Society Chairman Woody Gilliland explains, “Our members have seen history up-close and personal in startling ways.  These OGTA events are a great way for us to promote these stories of U.S. airmen in combat, their dedication, courage and professionalism.   Bob’s story is especially important because it ties directly into the campaign that many people believe to have brought the POWs home.”

OGTA Producer and host of the Debrief event John Mollison stated, “The Vietnam War is valuable in its practical lessons and powerful stories. Every generation can look, listen and learn; Col Certain experienced powerful history but also has shown that the human condition can find peace in chaos.”

Museums, Educators, Group leaders and Veterans groups are encouraged to host “Watch Parties” to view the moment live and discuss.  Educator’s Kit resource materials featuring Certain’s life, service and Linebacker II will be available for download prior to the event.  Viewers who participate via the Military Tales YouTube channel and South Dakota Public Broadcasting streaming service will also have opportunity to send questions to Certain during the interview.

The event will be hosted and stream-sourced from Blue Skies of Texas retirement community (formerly known as Air Force Village). 

LOGIN INFORMATION [regularly updated]: https://www.dfcsociety.org/pages/certain

For more information on Old Guys and Their Airplanes or the event itself, please contact:  John Mollison, 605.261.6070 or John@JohnMollison.com

For additional information on the DFC Society and archived OGTA productions: please contact Woody Gilliland, 325.660.8333 or wgilliland@dfcsociety.org.  -   https://www.dfcsociety.org/pages/ogta-debriefs

Colenel Robert G. Certain (ret.) Educators Kit

The Colnel Robert G. Certain (ret.) Educators Kit is provided HERE.

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Artifact of History: “Grace. Under Pressure," reflects Col Robert Certain’s extensive training, exacting service and triumph over challenging times.
Artifact of History:  “Grace. Under Pressure,
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