James Stockdale was an American and United States Navy Vice Admiral. He is one of the most decorated Navy officers who had been awarded the Medal of Honour in the Vietnam War where he was a prisoner of war for over seven years. He was a remarkable man, who commanded a fighter squadron, and flew over North Vietnam in 1965. One day his plane crashed, he ejected onto the ground with a back injury, and taken a prisoner of war in the infamous Hoa La prison, and was beaten and tortured for 7 years. These were brutal days of horror. He spent 4 years in complete darkness in solitary confinement. Malnourished, no medical care. He resisted and fought back, refusing to give in. He was released in 1973 and died in 2005. He was a hero, highly respected and admired.
In the prison, Jim Stockdale did all he could to help his fellow prisoners, thinking of others before himself. He survived somehow, while countless other POW’s died, never returning home. Jim was eventually re-united with his family. During an interview he said “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted that I would get out, nor that I would prevail and turn the experience into the defining event of my life. Many of my friends in the camp with me collapsed under a broken heart”. How many died of a broken heart, giving up all hope. So many sad and tragic stories from war time like this can be told.
So the question I ask myself is “Can you die of a broken heart?”. Many people have asked that question, if you give up all hope and the prisoners of war like Jim Stockdale who do return home, often have another battle with severe depression. When the war ended the men who had been through unimaginable suffering were expected never to speak of it again and to ‘get on with their lives’. That is how they became known as the ‘forgotten army’. But how could they? Many found this impossible. They may have recovered physically, but mentally they were fragile .. racked with guilt over the men who had died, tormented by nightmares of the horrors they had witnessed, becoming prone to dark moods, and long bouts of despair. I don’t think we will ever know the full extent of their feelings. Despair and suffering.
Today most of us are not called on to suffer like that. But there are some who have a broken heart.
- news of an unexpected death of a loved one
- a frightening medical diagnosis
- domestic abuse
- losing a lot of money
- natural disasters
- job loss
- physical stressors, such as an asthma attack, a car accident or major surgery. The list can go on.
Billy Graham tells the story of Author Barbara Johnson’s son who was serving with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam . He was killed. Five years later another son was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Grief compounded upon grief. The knife in her heart was so sharp that she thought she would die. She wrote, “I think I’m having a heart attack. I don’t know what you call it, but I think I’m dying. I can’t breathe, and I’m choking. It feels as if I’ve got a rug in my throat.”