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Priest Who Was POW Hopes to Counsel Families of New POWs

February 10, 1991

HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) _ A former Vietnam POW who now serves as a military chaplain says families of Gulf War prisoners may benefit from hearing about the inner strength that helped him and other captured Americans survive.

They need ″to be able to sit down with a real, live human being who can say, ’Yes, there is hope,‴ said the Rev. Robert Certain, who spent three months in a North Vietnamese prison camp near the end of the war.

″That things can be put together, that people can be returned to leading healthy, wholesome lives,″ he said in an interview.

Certain, 43, is an Episcopal priest and chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He is one of two former POWs who are now serving as chaplains. The other is Col. Keith Lewis, based at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.

Certain has sought active duty since the Persian Gulf War broke out because he believes his personal experience can help families of POWs held by the Iraqis.

He said that for families back home, knowing that a loved one is being held captive may be worse than the suffering the POWs themselves are underoing.

″The demons of the mind wreak havoc on the families,″ said Certain. ″In that regard, the prisoners are in better shape than their families, because the prisoners will know moment by moment where they are and what’s going on. And knowing is easier to cope with.″

Certain said he was beaten during his captivity in December 1972, but not tortured. His family did not know that, though, and they imagined him suffering unbearable atrocities.

″The big part was the unknown,″ Certain said. ″They had heard stories of torture. I think they imagined that those stories were true.″

Certain said photographs and television images of the prisoners in Iraq reminded him of pictures he has of himself from the time he was taken prisoner.

″When you’re captured, they don’t say, ‘You’ve had a rough day. Take a nap.’

″They take you directly to where they want to take you and interrogate you,″ Certain said. ″To the enemy, it’s to their advantage to deprive you of everything from bladder relief to sleep.″

Prisoners with him shared their collective memories and learned they could remember extensive passages from movies, plays and the Bible. Before he arrived at the prison, others had developed a secret language made of tapping sounds. One man designed a house and built it after gaining his freedom. They also retained a sense of humor and found their religious faith strengthened, Certain said.

″The ability to adapt and the ability to survive,″ he said, ″to maintain a sense of humor and to have the kind of drive to stay alive I consider to be ways in which God made himself known to us.″

Certain’s decision to become a priest, though, came long before he was taken prisoner.

″This was not a battlefield conversion,″ he said. ″It might have made a better story that way, but it wouldn’t have been true.″

While he awaits a call-up to active duty, he keeps a daily prayer list of the Persian Gulf POWs and MIAs, and prays that the list never gets too long.

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