Christmas in the Hanoi Hilton

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Editor's note: Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis was a Vietnam prisoner of war along with such American heroes as Sen. John McCain, Orson Swindle, and Vice Adm. James Stockdale, as well many others, for five years. He describes here his first gift from home.

I had been in captivity already for two and a half years by the time I received my first package from home at the Hanoi Hilton. The guards spread the already opened, thoroughly searched contents of the prescribed "six-pound package" before me on the table. I stared longingly at the food items, vitamins, warm socks and pictures of my family.

It had been so long. Naturally, I was tingling with excitement and anticipation.

This package from home promised to be better than the best Christmas present I'd ever received. The experience was only slightly tainted by the smirk on the camp officer's face, as he affected an attitude of kindness and concern, as though he were my favorite uncle. As I started to pick up my stuff, he told me I must first sign a receipt.

I scanned the document hurriedly and noticed the following sentence: "In accordance with the humane and lenient policy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [DRV], I have been allowed to receive a package from my family."

I had heard through our covert communications that there would be a receipt of some sort, and that it would probably be OK to sign it. But now I felt trapped in an agonizing ethical dilemma. I coveted that package; it was the first connection with my family in more than two years. However, only a few months earlier, we had been through some very harsh treatment, during which two of my cellmates had been singled out for torture. The statement on the receipt wasn't true. I feared that if I did sign it, it would be used as propaganda. I had to make a choice between my comfort and my conscience.

When I refused to sign the receipt, the officer picked up the package and told the guard to take me to my cell. Many of the men in the camp, including my cellmates -- whom I considered to be exceptionally brave and honorable men -- did sign their receipts. Their actions were within the policies and boundaries of our culture, and I didn't judge them.

Besides, I had seen them sacrifice often for the team, and I totally trusted their commitment. My next package arrived six months later with goodies similar to the first one. But this time there was a special, unexpected bonus: The receipt that I was asked to sign no longer had a statement about "the lenient and humane treatment" of the DRV. How sweet it was!

Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis is the president of Leadership Freedom. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Legion of Merit and the POW Medal. To learn more about Ellis, visit

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