Probably no American exhibited ‘mental toughness’ and ‘integrity leadership’ more than George E. Day, a US Air Force pilot and poor commoner from Sioux City, Iowa. He was awarded the ‘Congressional Medal of Honor’ in 1973, not for battlefield sacrifices, but for the example he set for other prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton prison in North Vietnam (1967 – 1973).
George Day is the 20th century version of Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary War POW, who valiantly fought for freedom. Colonel Day did not fight from the back of a Cowpens, NC horse as did Morgan (Morgantown, WV named after him, the movie Patriot based on his life), but from the cockpit of a supersonic fighter jet. Among Vietnam era Veterans, George Day is revered for his utmost courage and tenacity in the severest of trials in life, enduring brutal torture while encouraging his fellow P.O.W.s to resist the enemy.
George Day lived the life of Joseph, a man with dreams who suffered loss of all for the sake of his brothers (13 chapters in Genesis are devoted to Joseph’s remarkable life). The parallels between these two men are unmistakable.
Colonel Day, like many career military veterans, served the USA during three mid 20th century wars (WW2, Korea, Vietnam) before being taken prisoner of war, thus experiencing the medieval horrors of the Hanoi Hilton. As America’s most decorated military veteran, he continued resisting evil long after his release from the
Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed Hanoi Hilton by American Vets). George Day, like many others, remarked several times that he survived extinction after several death defying events in his life because…
“God must be saving me for some reason?”
What is the purpose?
Did George Day ever discover the reason God had for preserving him? If he did, his biographer (Robert Coram, American Patriot) did not mention it. Consider the hedge God put around Colonel Day that enabled him to avoid death, which teased him on several occasions:
1. He ejected out of a malfunctioning F84 Jet moments before it crashed, only to have his parachute not open. He survived. This story was widely told among Air Force flying men before Day volunteered for duty in Vietnam.
2. Ejecting from his F100 Super Saber Jet in August 1967 after providing covering fire for downed pilots, Day broke his arm in 3 places and tore ligaments in his knees. He also suffered damage to his right eye from the ‘wall of wind’ impact on his oxygen mask which hammered his skull while ejecting from the Jet (700+ MPH ejection). This event also gave him severe back and vertebrae injuries as the aircraft was hit by 37mm North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire.
Quickly captured by North Vietnamese teen soldier militia (VC), George Day was tortured and placed in an earthen pit for 5 days, his wrists wired to an overhang.
Genesis 37:24 And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.
Day escaped hobbling through incredible pain and injuries, walking 25 miles south over 15 days. His teen captors had lost all trace of him.
Subsisting on live frogs and foul wter, Day was nearly discovered numerous times by enemy patrols and solitary VC militia soldiers. Unexpectedly, he was wounded again by hissing shrapnel as US forces bombarded North Vietnamese positions Day uneasily forged through. Delirious with fever, Colonel Day stumbled south on gut and instinct.
On the 12th day of his escape from the teenagers, US Marines fired from a base south of the DMZ in South Vietnam. 9 shells landed within 10 – 20 yards of Colonel Day, yet none exploded; all were duds! He survived again miraculously.
“What did God want from Bud Day” he asked himself?
Colonel Day then grabbed a log alongside the Ben Hai river (a river partitioning North and South Vietnam) and floated past a solitary North Vietnamese soldier standing on the river bank. The soldier did not fire at Day and seemed to be blinded from seeing him, who was fully exposed on the log that floated closely by. Miraculously, Day had made it across the river onto the DMZ side that bordered South Vietnam.
Once in the DMZ, George headed South for the Marine fire base that had launched the impotent shells that didn’t explode. He was within 2 miles of firebase ‘Con Tien‘ when a Vietcong (VC) militia patrolling the DMZ, captured him again. They shot him twice.
Barely alive and severely injured from the new wounds, Day was transported on a stretcher by the VC back to the village from which he escaped. His viscious teenage captors reappeared, more brutal then ever, having lost face after his escape. They vengefully tortured him again after he arrived.
Like most captured American flyers, Day was abused by North Vietnamese villagers and militia who turned out at stopping points all along the 325 mile route to Hanoi.
After the removal of one DMZ bullet from his shoulder by an amateur North Vietnamese doctor, Day arrived at the Hoa Lo prison (Hanoi Hilton). He was immediately tortured in the building sarcastically labeled “Heartbreak Hotel” by resident American P.O.W.’s.
3. Over 3 years, George Day was repeatedly tortured by the warden and various sadistic guards, including a Cuban comrade sent by Fidel Castro. However, Day was known as a ‘hard resister’ and encouraged weaker men to ‘return home with honor’.
Although every tortured American soldier eventually broke and submitted verbally to their Vietnamese tormentors under torture pain, few willingly made recorded propaganda statements and videos scripted by the communists. Day continually reminded the other tortured prisoners of the ‘Code of Conduct’ American P.O.W.’s were expected to keep as their innermost core value. The phrase “Return with Honor” was his constant mantra, encouraging all men not to accept early release as a reward for propaganda collaboration. This aspect of the ‘Code of Conduct’ had been previously established by Admiral James Stockdale during Stockdale’s early 1965 Hanoi Hilton confinement.
Philippians 3:10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death
Looking at his own wounds and injuries, the thought occurred to George Day that he was suffering much like Jesus, after the vicious beating Pilate and his sadistic guards struck on him. It was the rare prisoner who would not cry out with screams as the pain flowed mercilessly throughout his body, animating the Vietnamese who used ‘the sadistic ropes’ to break them.
Isaiah 53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
4. After freedom in February 1973, George Day continued his Air Force career. He even hunted down P.O.W.’s who collaborated with the Communists, hiding in military promotions without telling the whole truth. Then another near miss event found Day.
On a practice strafing run at a combat firing range, a bullet ricochet from his aircraft’s 20mm canons returned to hit the oval glass of his plane’s canopy. Miraculously, the canopy stopped the round, embedding it within the glass, squarely aimed at Day’s forehead.
Time of Blessing
George Day like Joseph before him, was preserved by God for the ‘Time of Blessing’.
Genesis 41:41-42 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt. (42) And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck;
George Day was eventually exalted after his ‘honorable release’ from the Hanoi prison. From that moment forward, Day was admired and respected by Presidents and Vietnam Veterans alike.
President Harry Truman once remarked to a ‘Congressional Medal of Honor’ winner,
“I would rather receive a Medal of Honor than be President.”
Everyone knew the quality of character a man needed to win the ‘Congressional Medal of Honor’.
The Real Test in the Trial
George Day recognized that the Communists (Darwin’s Army) didn’t want information about airplanes and technology! No, there was something else they wanted. The enemy wanted high flying American soldiers to curse the USA for propaganda purposes. If Day cursed his country, it would prove that the Communist system was better than the American system. This is exactly what the devil wants when people leave the organized Church.
Realizing this, Day stiffened his resolve not to make a confession, a blasphemy of his country and comrades. 3,750 years prior in a dungeon of Egypt, Joseph like Job, never cursed God in his deepest darkness. Joseph came to realize that humility comes before honor, and honor is the Siamese twin of purpose. George Day would NOT curse his brethren or country. He would return with honor.
Proverbs 15:33 The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility.
Genesis 50:18-21 And his brethren also went and fell down before Joseph’s face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants. (19) And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? (20) But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. (21) Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them.
So now we come to George Day’s purpose for surviving. What did God have in mind? The answer: To preserve his brothers. Job, Joseph, and Jesus would say, “Amen”.
Philippians 3:17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.
Philippians 1:12-13 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, (13) so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.
Mental Toughness and 4 Core Values
How did George Day and other” noble P.O.W.’s and Veterans alike, acquire such ‘mental toughness’? ‘Sports psychologists’ are interested in this topic and it’s impact on winning. However, for ‘Medal of Honor’ winners, the list of personal attributes embedded within a hero have little to do with winning, but a lot to do with surviving with honor.
Here is the list of the 4 core values that sustained and motivated the majority of these honorable men under extreme stress:
1. Principle is greater than pain. Some call this ‘mind over matter’. This may be more of physiological characteristic, but George Day, like all tortured prisoners, screamed at the extremes of Communist brutality. However, on several occasions, he muffled his voice, not willing to give his persecutors the sadistic satisfaction of knowing they were succeeding.
Many athletes through repetitive training, push themselves beyond the mental cliff that says “just quit, it hurts too much”. Overcoming the physical voice of defeat is a ‘wavy line of the will’. Endurance to physical pain is the only similarity that athletes share with warriors as it relates to the topic of ‘mental toughness’.
Isaiah 53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed…(8) He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
2. Faith to die. In reality, this is the mission of ‘compassion for a friend’. It is the ultimate source of courage that propels one forward into battle or pain, solely to preserve a comrade. This greatest of core values motivates one to sacrifice all.
Scripture defines this motivation with three words: 1) joy (faith) 2), hope (endurance) and 3) love (sacrifice).
Hebrews 12:2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Honor for your people. The values that you hold about your community are ever present in your character before a difficult trial. George Day and the P.O.W.s of the Hanoi Hilton, wanted to return to their community with HONOR. The integrity not to ‘blame God’s people’ versus individual bad apples in the body, is a key characteristic of Joseph. It wasn’t his father who put him in a pit and sold him into slavery, it was a few of his jealous brothers. Turning jealousy into salvation of the unworthy is the truest definition of love. God excels at this.
Job in his prison of suffering, refused to ‘curse God’ or his friends as he scraped his boils. George Day never cursed the USA even though anti-war activists spit on Vietnam Veterans in airports and cursed them for serving their country. This was a matter of integrity for Bud Day.
Job 2:3 And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.
Job 2:9-10 Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. (10) But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.
Many who leave the Church end up cursing ‘organized religion’ as an expression of inward bitterness brought on by the ‘bad apples’. Jesus never agrees with oppression or abuse, just as Jacob was not party to Joseph’s injury. However, enduring the hypocrisy of religious leaders and group thinkers, Jesus never cursed Judaism. Really, it’s not about the offense and the offender, but the FAITH to rise above offense and reconcile with imperfect people (Luke 17:1-5). This is the love that does not wax cold.
George Day’s mantra was ‘Return with honor’. For those who have left the body of Christ from offense, the door is still open to return with honor. Let us all ‘Resurrect on the Lord’s day with honor’!
4. Communication, the lifeblood of encouragement and unity. In most trials, the tormentor attempts to isolate the prisoner, amplifying his misery. Airforce flyer Leo Thorsness in his book, “Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey“, tells of his Hanoi Hilton captivity as being divided between two equal 3 year periods:
- Isolation and Brutality
During his 3 year period of isolation, Thorsness was repeatedly beaten by the communists any time a sound was heard from his small windowless cell. Being cut off from his fellow P.O.W.’s made Thorsness’ captivity even more maddening. To circumvent isolation, the prisoners of Hoa Lo utilized a 5 x 5 matrix of the english alphabet, tapped gently on the concrete walls of the prison, in a shorthand form of texting. Thorsness relates that on most nights, the code GBU was tapped to conclude messages with ‘God bless you’.
Joseph himself spend two co-equal periods in Potiphar’s house and Pharaoh’s prison. In these two year periods, Joseph’s wisdom and humility qualities were co-created, recognized and utilized by his captors. In Job’s case, his spiritual friends heaped the retribution phrases of ‘backslider’ and ‘sinner’ upon him. Cut off from his ministry, prosperity, family and friends, Job found a new calling; ‘praying for his condemning friends’.
Job 42:10 And the LORD turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends: also the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.
In ‘turn the other cheek’ fashion, Leo Thorsness recalled the frustration of torture.
“One of the worst things about being tortured is not being able to fight back.”
Okie Doke and the Anti-War Enemies
When Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell, mystical pacifist and child of one of England’s foremost aristocratic families, formed his anti-American ‘War Crimes Tribunal’ in Stockholm, Sweden (1966), the Communists stepped up ‘Hanoi Hilton’ tortures to provide Russell’s commission with CONFESSIONS. They chose two men, a tandem Navy flyer team, Nels Tanner and Russ Terry. Here are the stories these two patriots brilliantly concocted for Russell’s anti-war tribunal:
1. Ben Casey, a Lieutenant Navy pilot, was so afraid of flying over enemy territory that he flew over rice paddies, dropped his ordinance, then used his after burners to deliberately drain his jet of fuel so he could return to his aircraft carrier. The Communists liked this story as it pointed toward atrocity of innocent villagers. But there was just one problem, Ben Casey was the name of a fake TV doctor on American television.
2. Clark Kent, another Navy carrier pilot, was so afraid of flak guns that he dropped his bombs repeatedly early in the Gulf of Tonkin so he could return to his ship. Again, Clark Kent was the secret name of Superman, a comic book character invented before WW2.
It was the tap code that enabled these fictitious confessions
(Clark Kent, Ben Casey) to be created for Russell’s maniacal tribunal. When these stories made hilarious headlines, Tanner and Terry were mercilessly tortured, with Terry being held in solitary for 18 months with his arms handcuffed behind his back. Betrand Russell and his communist atheist backers didn’t say a word about their ruse nor plight.
Hebrews 11:35 … and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:
When Richard Nixon began the bombing of Hanoi one week before Christmas 1972, treatment of the P.O.W.’s improved dramatically. Knowing the bombing would bring the Vietnamese back to the peace table, the communists moved their prisoners to large rooms able to hold 45 men. Verbal communication was allowed and the men began to hold educational classes, teaching subjects they could recall from memory, pre-captivity.
Developing Mental Toughness
As Christians, are we mentally tough enough to persevere? Do we have the spiritual skill to recover from mistakes and failure quickly, using Biblical strategies to tackle tough situations? Can we adjust each circumstance and crisis by collaborating with Jesus and our team (the Church), celebrating successes without becoming overconfident? Can we keep positive in our faith before, during and after the situation that ‘God means for good’?
Christine M. Riordan, dean and a professor of management at the Daniels College of Business, University of Denver, states on mental preparedness and toughness in Forbes magazine that people that are mentally tough…
“don’t rely only on knowledge, skills, ability or past success to traverse difficult situations. They draw on an attitude, a toughness that allows them to push through hard situations and face adversity with confidence.”
Definition: Mental toughness is having a mature spiritual and psychological edge that enables me to cope with the many demands placed on me as a Christian. With God’s help, I can be more consistent and better than my adversary in remaining determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control, under pressure.
Mental toughness can in fact be improved. With God’s help through His word and Spirit, we can develop the right psychological characteristics needed for mental toughness. Qualities such as…
Self-Belief: Having an unshakable belief in God’s love for me and the faithfulness of His promises. God believes in me and so do I.
Motivation: Having an insatiable desire and internalized motivation to do things “God’s way”, the way of honor.
Resiliency: This is the ability to come back from setbacks with an increased determination to succeed next time.
Focus: Remain fully focused on God and His calling, ignoring the enemy’s distractions. My only enemy is the devil, not people he uses to attack me. There is a blessing for praying for my enemies. I must keep my spirit pure during trials of my faith, not giving in to worry, negative mind chatter, and hopeless despair.
Composure/Handling Pressure: To be able to regain psychological control following unexpected events or distractions, seeing pressure as moments to pray and overcome. I accept that anxiety is an aspect of my flesh that can only be overcome by God’s Spirit.
The key aspect of mental toughness is learning how to condition our Spirit and mind to think positive and thereby overcoming frustration/self-critical condemnation.
“I will not allow frustration to undermine my confidence in God’s love for me or to un-focus me from my calling in serving Him and others.”
Importance of Being Positive
We can condition ourselves to be positive. Being Positive is a Christian discipline … and the more adversity we face, the more positive we must become.
We can do this with goal oriented statements starting with
“God will, God promises me, Jesus loves me, I will, I can, I am going to…”.
We must focus on those things we believe will occur, rather than things we are afraid might go wrong. We must visualize and script success, seeing ourselves the way God sees us…victors, overcomers, anointed, confident, energized, mighty, and powerful in love.
Mental toughness starts with the right attitude and state of mind, knowing that God is ‘for us, not against us.’
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.