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Naval Academy hosts POW Remembrance Challenge for 50th anniversary of Vietnam War prisoners returning home

POW Remembrance Challenge (U.S. Naval Academy/Released)

The United States Naval Academy and Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership have brought to life stories of Vietnam prisoners of war thanks to an interactive exhibit called the POW Remembrance Challenge.

The “Returned with Honor” exhibit went live at the Naval Academy on Feb. 12 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of prisoners returning from the Vietnam War. It will remain open to the public through August. The combined scavenger hunt and walking tour spans the academy campus and offers insights into the service and sacrifice of the 591 American POWs who returned home from North Vietnam as part of Operation Homecoming, which began Feb. 12, 1973.

To complete the challenge there are 19 QR code locations around campus that allow audiences to engage with the history of Vietnam prisoners of war, including text and videos that tell the individual stories of the nearly 600 POWs. Each of the 19 installations takes a deep dive into the lives of some of the prisoners during the war.

“What we’re doing … is bringing new technologies into the teaching of a very complicated subject matter,” said Michael Sears, director of leadership innovation at the Stockdale Center, which conducts research and hosts conferences on ethics in military leadership.

“Leadership, ethics and character are very hard to teach, you have to experience it,” said Sears, a 1958 Naval Academy graduate who served in the Marines. After his time in the corps he headed to Silicon Valley where he worked for technology companies for almost 30 years.

“My team and I are bringing artificial intelligence, virtual reality, that kind of stuff into the teaching of ethics and that’s how we arrived at creating this challenge,” Sears said.

Notable soldiers on the tour include former midshipman and U.S. Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five years in a POW camp in North Vietnam. McCain’s installation is near his burial site in the academy cemetery, where he was laid to rest in 2018.

“I think the McCain site over by his grave is cool because you get personal insights to him not wanting to be a political prop and choosing to stay captured with his men,” Sears said. “They’re all great stories.”

The ultimate goal of the exhibit is to help midshipmen and civilians alike develop a closer understanding of what POWs went through, a message that resonated with Midshipman 1st Class Krista Wheelock.

Wheelock has spent close to three hours navigating the exhibit in between her studies, taking time to read and listen to the videos.

“Just before this exhibit kicked off some real POWs came to campus to speak with us,” Wheelock said. “We had Cmdr. [Everett] Alverez and Adm. [Robert] Shumaker and Capt. [Charlie] Plum talk to us, so hearing their testimony firsthand accompanied with this great curation of facts, I think it just hit home for a lot of us who have participated.”

There are perks for midshipmen who stop bya certain number of locations. Those who finish 14 of 19 unlock a 10% discount at the coffee shop. Civilians who find at least eight locations receive 20% off at the gift shop.

Wheelock has finished all 19 locations and says she enjoyed every one, but the most memorable stop was at the Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale statue outside the Stockdale Center.

“We have probably heard his name the most during our time here with his statue being up and him being in the cemetery, too, but during this challenge I learned that his wife, Sybil Stockdale, was contacted by intelligence employees to send coded messages to her husband while he was being held,” Wheelock said. “I never knew how much the wives were a part of the effort, so that was very cool to me.”

Remembering those who serve abroad is important, Sears says, recalling how the war effort was heavily scrutinized at the time. But Sears also wants to recognize the tremendous sacrifices made by service members’ wives and families.

“Sybil Stockdale was raising four boys in California in 1967, when a knock came to her door and a squadron leader told her that her husband had been shot down and they didn’t know where he was,” Sears said. “Can you imagine that? And she just jumped to handling whatever business was next. So we want to celebrate the wives and the families who endured, too.”

The exhibit isn’t just for midshipmen, Sears said, it’s for anyone who visits the Yard.

“We want everyone to be a part of this and everyone gets a gift,” he said.


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