Five Vietnam War POWs Honored at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference
September 21, 2023 | By Patrick Reardon
The Air & Space Forces Association recognized American prisoners of war during its 2023 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, as part of the association’s ongoing commemoration of the end of the Vietnam War.
Of some 170 individuals who appeared on stage throughout the three-day conference in National Harbor, Md., five were Airmen who collectively endured 6,697 days as prisoners of war.
- Col. Michael Brazelton spent 2,402 days in captivity;
- Col. Bob Certain spent 101 days in captivity;
- Col. Lee Ellis spent 1,955 days in captivity;
- Col. Tom Kirk spent 1,964 days in captivity;
- and Lt. Col. Tom Hanton spent 275 days in captivity.
The group suffered torture, isolation, and unimaginable conditions in various North Vietnamese prisons until 1973, when Operation Homecoming brought them home along with 320 other Airmen and 266 other American POWs. AFA honored all five prisoners of war on Sept. 11 for their heroism, resilience, and sacrifice in front of a standing room-only crowd.
“A generation ago, our Air Force emerged from Vietnam affected by the lessons of that long conflict. The technological achievements that followed—stealth, true precision bombing, advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—were born out of lessons from that war,” said AFA Chair of the Board Brig. Gen. Bernie Skoch, USAF (Ret.), during his opening remarks. “So, it is with awe and gratitude that we reflect now and thank and honor those who sacrificed then, those still with us—including some who survived years of inhumane treatment as prisoners of war—and those who gave their very lives.”
Following their recognition, the POWs and their families gathered for a private luncheon hosted by Gen. David Goldfein, USAF (Ret.), the 21st Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, USSF (Ret.), the 1st Chief of Space Operations. The company shared the mental strategies they used to endure imprisonment, stories of repatriation, and their personal experiences of returning to Vietnam decades after the war ended—trips which, for some, involved meeting the Vietnamese pilots and children of the pilots they had fought against more than 50 years ago.
A representative from the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, a Congressionally authorized commemoration established under the Secretary of Defense and launched by President Barack Obama in 2012, also attended the lunch to present the former POWs with official commemorative lapel pins and certificates of honor.
Two of the former POWs later appeared on stage again for sessions throughout the conference. Ellis gave a keynote called “Leading with Honor” on Sept. 11, speaking to a crowd of hundreds on what he learned about community, comradery, and connectivity while serving more than five years in the Hỏa Lò Prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton.
“You gotta have a community,” Ellis said. “This is a community today, and that’s why we’re all so happy being here together, because we’re all one community.”
During the Q&A portion of Ellis’ keynote, an Airman asked for lessons from the Vietnam prison camps that Air and Space Force families can learn from as tensions between the U.S. and its pacing threats continue to rise. Again, Ellis emphasized the importance of staying connected as a community.
“The most important thing that you can do in any situation is to let people know you care about them and listen to them,” Ellis said. “When the League of Wives formed, and then became the National League of POW/MIA Families, their connection really helped them endure those years that we were there. Being connected to somebody who’s been through this before, going through this kind of thing now, that’s what’s so important.”
Certain, who flew combat missions in Vietnam as a Navigator-Bombardier on the B-52 Stratofortress, appeared on a panel called “B-52: Past, Present, and Future” on Sept. 12. He shared his perspective on air power capabilities of more than 50 years ago.
“When we went over Hanoi, it was predicted we’d lose 20 percent of our airplanes, and none of us figured that was good odds,” Certain said. “We flew over 700 strikes against Hanoi in 11 nights and lost 10 airplanes over the city, damaged five more to the point they had to eject over Thailand, but 15 airplanes on the ground was under 2 percent. So the airplane has proved itself to be very resilient in a very hostile atmosphere flying against surface-to-air missiles.”
The 2023 Air, Space & Cyber Conference was one of the biggest events in the Air & Space Forces Association’s 77-year history, with more than 18,000 registered attendees. AFA’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War is continuing, as AFA Chapters are gathering around the world to honor the heritage of Vietnam veterans and heroes to tell their stories and properly thank them for their service 50 years ago. To read about their events, learn about upcoming gatherings, and submit your own stories, visit www.AFA.org/Vietnam50.