Vietnam vet survived years as a POW thanks to memories of better times

“God, honor, country.”

A simple phrase, but at times these three words are enough to remind a soldier to continue to survive. Colonel John Clark, of Columbia, Missouri, used these words to reflect on his almost six years as a prisoner of war in northern Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Clark spoke as the second speaker of The Leadership Crucible series sponsored by the MU College of Engineering Leadership, Engagement and Career Development Academy and the MU Parent Leadership Council on Feb. 19, 2019.

Mary Paulsell, assistant director of the MU Engineering Leadership Academy, said that she wanted the colonel to speak in this series due to his unique experience of needing to become a leader in a very grim situation.

“Students need to remember who paved the way for their seemly comfortable lives – in comparison to engaging in international combat,” Paulsell said.

Clark built off this theme by reflecting on time in POW camps where he and fellow soldiers found ways to inspire each other to survive.

Clark described one of his methods to combat the illegitimate statements spoken to him by his captors during his time in solitary confinement. The colonel described his memories from home as being collected in an imaginative photo album which he flipped through in times where he needed to remember the true meaning behind those three special words – God, honor, country.

Through memories of growing up in Missouri with his sister and friends, images of his wedding day, and reflections of his time spent with friends and peers studying for their University of Missouri Engineering exams, the colonel spent his days remembering all of the reasons he needed to stay alive. He tapped into these memories to avoid succumbing to the misery and pain perpetuated by his grim cell in a war zone in northern Vietnam.

After the solitary confinement, Clark was placed in cells occupied by many POW soldiers from all over the world. These soldiers came together to teach classes on any subject they could instruct others on.

Classes ranged from music to advanced algebra to multiple foreign languages to architecture and engineering. The classes were meant to pass time and allow the men to experience mental growth, because most of their time was spent waiting for the next interrogation.

After his release in February 1973,  Clark came home to Columbia where he became a leader in the community through his church and career.

Even though he had spent much of his young adult years in a situation very few survive, Clark came home to continue his schooling through the University of Missouri MBA program. Now he is able to use his story to shape the lives of young adults.

For information on the next presentation in The Leadership Crucible series go to the College of Engineering Leadership Academy website.