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If you like James Stockdale's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
David Halberstam,
Daniel Inouye,
William McRaven,
David Petraeus,
Colin Powell,
Fred Smith,
Michael Thornton,
Norman Schwarzkopf
and Neil Sheehan

Related Links:
Medal of Honor
My Father the Spy
Stockdale Center

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James Stockdale
James Stockdale
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James Stockdale Interview (page: 5 / 9)

Medal of Honor

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  James Stockdale

Did you want to die, Admiral?

James Stockdale Interview Photo
James Stockdale: No, I don't think so. I just knew I had to do something, and I had kind of a hunch that there might be some opening here. I went unconscious. I had a feeling that ever since I'd started this self-defacement they had a suicide watch on me. About two in the night somebody screamed "Eow," and I think that was the suicide watch. I think he looked through a peephole and saw me in that pool of blood in front of my chair.

I was groggy and I really had to be slapped awake, but the room filled up with soldiers and the doctor and some officers and a lot of guards. They were cleaning the room. They were like they were ashamed of it and they were sweeping the floor and putting fluid on it that smelled like something in a funeral parlor. The guards took my clothes out and washed them. The officers were nasty, but they couldn't figure out what to say. Finally -- I don't know the time of night, maybe 3 or 4 in the morning -- they brought in a cot and then they brought in a chair and they put a soldier in the chair and he put the rifle across his knees and they let me lie in the bed with a pillow and I passed out. "Boy, this has been a day!" I looked up at those walls and they're all covered with geckos. You see them on all of the walls in Southeast Asia and they're moving around and they snipe at one another but, God, I looked up there and to me all the gekkos were bisecting their friends! I knew I was hallucinating. I almost laughed.

The next morning the door squeaks open and I look out and it's the commissar himself. He sat down and he said, "Stockdale, do you want a cup of coffee?" I said, "Yes." I don't think I had leg irons on. I went over and sat down across from him and he said, "What happened last night was a catastrophe." And he said, "You know I sit with the general's staff. A report will be written. It may adversely affect me. It might even adversely affect you. I can't say. But..." he said, "You will not stay here. We will put you back in that little place where the doctor will attend you until all traces of bandage and scars as best we can arrange it are gone." Well I was out there from September to almost Christmas and then I went back. Things had happened. I was completely out of communication there. I found out two things. One, nobody had ever been in the ropes since I cut my wrists, and secondly, the commissar had been discharged. So from then on the life was never the same. It wasn't happy, but I shut down that torture system and they never wanted it brought up again.

That was reflected in the Congressional Medal of Honor, wasn't it?

James Stockdale Interview Photo
James Stockdale: It's just two paragraphs. They always start out the same. "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." Then it explains what happened, and it says, "The highest traditions of the Naval Service were upheld."

You truly suffered for your men.

James Stockdale: I thought I owed it to them. I was the senior guy there. That night was not like any other night except some of the thoughts and some of the mental state. I don't think that was an exception. I guess you can say it's just dumb luck, but you never know. I gave them a problem like they'd never had before and they solved it by backing off.

You've spoken a lot about Epictetus and stoicism. What role do you think your knowledge of that philosophy had in your survival?

James Stockdale: I think it had a lot, but I never mentioned that name or stoicism, it never left my lips. I'd had experience; sometimes there'll be a man in good communication with you, and you had some sort of a -- maybe a religious experience, maybe an inspirational thought -- and you get on the wall and you start giving that stuff to him, tapping him on the wall. After he sees what you're up to, his "twos" -- which he does each time you finish a word -- get less and less enthusiastic.

What does the "two" mean?

James Stockdale Interview Photo
James Stockdale: That means "Received. I've received the message. I've received the letter. I know what letter came in." So I gave myself a lesson, I said, "The last thing this guy wants to hear from you is your personal philosophy about important matters. He's got his ducks in line. He's all alone, and he's got certain procedures that he alone has invented to live in that predicament and he just doesn't want to get into your skin." So I think if I had started using the word Epictetus or stoicism it would have been bad for the camp because you can't explain it through the wall. So I just never said anything about that.

What are you most proud of, Admiral?

James Stockdale: Never betraying a friend in prison.

If you were to give advice to someone who was going through terrible adversity, how would you tell them to survive?

James Stockdale: I was just looking at a quotation in a book about hardship: "Men can stand anything, if they just will not give up." I think that's one good way to define a man or a person. We pretty well can stand anything. And the worse thing that can happen is death, and that's not the worst thing in the world either.

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This page last revised on Feb 07, 2008 13:35 EST
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