I LOVED my conversation with Charlie, and found myself partly taking notes for Beyond the Uniform, and partly taking notes just for myself. As a Prisoner of War, the lessons that Charlie shares in this episode are hard earned. We talk about mindset, finding your purpose, resilience, and more. I left our conversation inspired and uplifted and hope that you do as well.
Charlie Plumb is an author and motivational speaker. He started out at the Naval Academy, and served in the Navy for over 31 years. A pilot of the F-4 Phantom Jet, Charlie flew 74 successful combat missions over North Vietnam and made over 100 carrier landings. On his 75th mission, just five days before the end of his tour, Charlie was shot down over Hanoi, taken prisoner, tortured, and spent the next 2,103 days in an 8-by-8 foot cell as a Prisoner Of War. During his nearly six years of captivity, Plumb distinguished himself as a pro in underground communications. He was a great inspiration to all the other POWs and served as chaplain for two years. Since his return home, Plumb has captivated more than 5,000 audiences in almost every industry around the world with stories that parallel his POW experience with the challenges of everyday life.
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#76 - Charlie Plumb podcast - 3 hour, one of most popular podcasts
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining us from Santa Ynez, CA is Charlie Plumb. Charlie Plumb is an author and motivational speaker. He started out at the Naval Academy, and served in the Navy for over 31 years. A pilot of the F-4 Phantom Jet, Charlie flew 74 successful combat missions over North Vietnam and made over 100 carrier landings. On his 75th mission, just five days before the end of his tour, Charlie was shot down over Hanoi, taken prisoner, tortured, and spent the next 2,103 days in an 8-by-8 foot cell as a Prisoner Of War.
During his nearly six years of captivity, Plumb distinguished himself as a pro in underground communications. He was a great inspiration to all the other POWs and served as chaplain for two years. Since his return home, Plumb has captivated more than 5,000 audiences in almost every industry around the world with stories that parallel his POW experience with the challenges of everyday life.
How do you explain what you do for a living?
I do a lot of fun things. My primary income comes from motivational speaking and writing. I live life to the fullest. I fly airplanes and sail sailboats.
I have a hangar in Santa Ynez, California. I ride my mountain bike along the ridgeline between Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara. It’s about a 3000 foot incline. I’m not fast but it’s fun.
What can you share about the importance of mental attitude?
It’s everything. It was my baseline for survival in a prison camp for six years. And now it’s the baseline for my enjoyment and productivity in life. You don’t have to look very far to find people with negative attitudes. But those people really don’t enjoy their lives.
I grew up in a poor family. But we were rich in unity and love. My dad taught my discipline and my mom taught me a lot about forgiveness. I needed both of those things in the prison camp.
My mom used to tell me that in any situation, there is good and bad. Your job is to find the good and act on that. For the first few months in the prison camp, I was very angry and bitter. But I realized that my attitude was going to determine the outcome of that situation.
One of the things in the prison camp that helped me was the leadership we found. I was really depressed and physically I was in really bad shape. I wasn’t eating much or have much water to drink. I also couldn’t communicate with anybody. Eventually, I established communication with another Navy pilot and he told me to get over it. He said, ‘We’re not victims. We’re warriors and we’re going to persist until our last breath’. That really turned things around for me.
You mentioned Ken Falke, who is the founder at Boulder Crest. It’s a retreat space for war veterans to go and learn how to overcome the challenges they’ve faced in the military. At Boulder Crest, they tell you that you can’t always control your situation but you can control your own reaction to that situation.
When you’re speaking to a group of people, how do you adapt your own experience to challenges they’re facing?
I believe that you don’t have to be in a prison camp to experience deep fear or guilt. Everyone has challenges in their lives.
What can people do to handle challenges in their lives?
The first thing you have to convince yourself is the value of that situation. That’s the way I felt at the prison camp. I struggled to find any value in that experience. It would be similar for someone going through a divorce or other difficult time. So the first thing you have to do is turn your thinking around and find some sort of value in that adversity. Adversity is a horrible thing to waste. A lot of people will pity themselves or blame other people in those difficult situations. But I encourage you to really take on and accept that adversity in your life.
I actually had an advantage in the prison camp because there was no distraction from the adversity. I had no choice but to face it head on.
How did you approach the process of forgiving the people that were holding you captive?
Prison guards are not the finest and the best. They were idiots. One of them came in with his girlfriend to show her how tough he was. He beat me up with his rifle butt and I had so much bitterness.
James Stockdale was our senior officer there. He was the one that told us we were warriors rather than victims. We would pass around quotes and Bible passages to one another. Shortly after I had been beat up by that guard, I received a quote that said, “Acid does more harm to the vessel where it is stored than to where it is poured.” To me, that meant that all the resentment and bitterness I was holding was doing more harm to me than anyone else.
Stockdale’s motto was “Return with Honor”. That’s how he set the tone for us during that time.
What advice do you have for people about finding their purpose?
I think the high suicide rate amongst veterans is the lack of a sense of purpose. You’re working for a higher calling during your time in the military but then you can often lose that after you get out.
After you get out, I think you can continue to find purpose in your life. Your job is one way. Philanthropy is another great way to find a higher purpose. Get involved in the community and you will find that sense of belonging and purpose.
How can people build their resilience?
You need to start out with a belief in yourself and your team. Resilience comes when you have a conflict but continue to persevere.
It’s tough to be resilient when you’re feeling sorry for yourself and blaming other people. On a daily basis, you have ups and downs. At each turn, you have a choice of whether to smile or frown.
Were you married during your time in the prison camp?
I married my high school sweetheart the day after I graduated from the Naval Academy. She ended up filing for divorce three months before I came home from Vietnam.
I spent a lot of time in the prison camp thinking of my wife and planning our future together. I would think about the day that I would go home and get to see her. But when I came home, she was engaged to another guy. I’ll never forget lying in my bed in the Naval hospital feeling sorry for myself about that situation. But that didn’t last long. I realized that the prison camp would be one of the greatest challenges I would face in my life. If I could overcome that, then I could overcome this situation as well.
I ended up marrying a wonderful women. We have four kids and three grandkids. Life is good.
Do you have any habits that help reaffirm your resilience?
I’m Christian and I pray a lot. I also read and listen to podcasts quite a bit. I try to fill my brain with positive nutrition. I just don’t know how I could live life with a negative attitude.
I’m sure there are a lot of your listeners that might be down on their luck. I certainly have setbacks in my life as well. It’s normal life to face challenges. But you can also make it normal in your life to face those challenges with a positive attitude.
Are there any resources you would recommend to listeners?
I read the Bible quite a bit. I also like Jocko Wilinick’s podcast. He read my book I’m No Hero and then did a podcast episode focused on it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
I’m really a simple guy. I try to live my life very simply. The thing that I would try to drill into people’s heads is that you have a choice of how to live your life. One of the secrets of life is knowing you can fail and then making the choice to succeed despite that.