When Barry Bridger was a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, it was common to find rats, snakes and tarantulas in his cell.
He and other Americans suffered heat rash from the searing sun. When the temperatures dipped, they were denied blankets.
Bridger said that kind of abuse paled in comparison to the torture the soldiers endured from their captors, who were `breaking bones, ripping flesh.`
Bridger’s spirit, though, never was broken. In the face of such horror, he was struck by the way soldiers looked out for one another. They would do anything to help a man in need, even if it meant facing more time in the torture chamber. His time in Hanoi left Bridger deeply impressed by the strength of the human spirit, of what compassion and faith can do to sustain a man.
These days, Bridger travels the country spreading that message. On Tuesday, June 2, he will be in Saratoga Springs at 7 p.m. at the Saratoga Hilton City Center, sharing the story of his captivity and the lessons he learned. Admission is free.
Bridger was a 26-year-old pilot in the Air Force when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967. Moments earlier, Bridger had seen a missile heading for his plane and knew a second one could be following, since the Soviets often sent one missile to distract pilots, then hit them with another.
So as Bridger flew out of the way of the first missile, he stayed alert for a second one.
By the time he saw it, though, it was too late. He glimpsed the missile in his mirror just as it ripped through the back of the plane.
There was a deafening explosion. Chunks of the plane caught fire and fell off. The control panel went haywire.
`Every light in the airplane went off,` Bridger said.
Word would later reach Bridger’s hometown in North Carolina that the missile had scored a direct hit. Bridger would be listed as missing in action, with a note that he was probably killed.
Inside the plane, Bridger knew he had to act quickly to stay alive. Closing his eyes, he pulled the ejection lever.
The weather was bad ` so bad that he says it was a mistake to be in the air that day. But weather reports weren’t as sophisticated as they are today.
When Bridger bailed on his plane, he fell through several layers of clouds. When he landed, he couldn’t see.
I thought, `Great. I was shot down and now I’m blind,` he said.
It turned out that his helmet had simply fallen over his head. When he pushed it off, he saw chaos.
`They immediately started shooting at me as I came out of the clouds,` he said.
None of the bullets hit him. But the angry mob of Vietnamese who surrounded him did, beating him with shoes.
Bridger believes the initial treatment could have been worse if not for how he and his co-pilot carried themselves.
`I kept my head up,` he said, figuring that an air of confidence was his best defense.
Bridger had landed only 600 feet from Hoa Lo Prison, where he was quickly taken.
His time at the prison, which soldiers sarcastically dubbed the `Hanoi Hilton,` can be split into two parts, he said. As the war wound down, a `live and let live` policy pervaded the prison. Captors didn’t spend too much time bothering the prisoners, who gathered in small groups and talked.
Before that, though, the soldiers were subject to unspeakable abuse. Bridger said it would take the better part of a day to recount what exactly he and other prisoners ` one of his cellmates was future presidential candidate John McCain ` endured.
But the torture is not his lasting memory of Vietnam. Instead, he thinks back on how the soldiers pulled together. They would try to extend their time in the torture chamber to spare the next man. They found ways to communicate despite the Vietnamese’s best efforts to cut off communication, and they refused to give up hope even as their captors told them their country had turned on them and forgotten them. They leaned on their faith.
`I was amazed at how closely we shared values,` Bridger said.
When he was released from prison, he was 33. Upon his return to the United States, he quickly resumed his Air Force career, working hard to make up for the years of training and work he had missed.
`I put my head down and took off,` he said. `I never slowed down.`
He never considered leaving the Air Force, he said. The way he looked at it, the Vietnam War wasn’t about him.
`It was about liberty,` he said, adding that the Vietnamese `would love to be free.`
He said he’s immensely grateful for the freedom we enjoy in this country and for the example of those who fought for that freedom. Their resilience was never far from his mind when he was in prison.
`It’s a desperate type of environment that can crush your mind and spirit,` he said. `We survived because of those who had gone before us. The men and women who built this country endured a tremendous amount of tribulation.`
Bridger believes `the right values will take care of you` and hopes people will put more emphasis on living lives of integrity than on getting rich or climbing the ladder at work. If they do that, he predicted, they will live the kind of life he has enjoyed ` one `filled with peace and joy.`
Bridger’s trip to Saratoga is sponsored by two local businesswomen, Mary Becker of First Command Financial Services and Kimberly Harbour of Weichert Realtors Northeast Group.
`We want to give back to the community, to the military people,` Harbour said, noting that a large military crowd is expected.
Seating is limited, so Harbour encouraged people to call her at 727-2622 to reserve a seat. The Hilton is at 534 Broadway in Saratoga Springs. “