PENSACOLA, Fla. – On Mar. 1, the Robert E. Mitchell Center (REMC) for Prisoner of War Studies held their observance for the 50th anniversary of Operation Homecoming on Corry Station.
REMC invited guest speakers, retired Cmdr. Everett Alvarez, who served as a pilot during the Vietnam War and is the second longest held POW in U.S. history, and Cmdr. Michael Margolius, director of operations for the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), to speak to naval aerospace medical professionals who will be a part of the medical detachments responsible for the medical aspects of personnel recovery operations.
When organizing the event, Albano felt this was an opportune time to celebrate 50 years of freedom with the longest held aviator, while allowing him to share his experiences and lessons learned both from captivity and reintegration with aeromedical professionals deploying to support fleet and line forces in the Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility.
Albano gave a succinct overview of the Vietnam conflict and Operation Homecoming, which brought home nearly 600 service members held as POWs in Vietnam, as an introduction for Alvarez, who was one of those returned service members.
Alvarez began by discussing the Tonkin Gulf incident, which led to his participation in the first U.S. air raid into North Vietnam, during which he was shot down and started his captivity. He spoke briefly about his time in captivity, before relating his experience exiting Vietnam and going through the reintegration process of Operation Homecoming.
Alvarez said he vividly remembers, on Feb. 12, 1973, he and a group of service members he was confined with were released. He remembers the pilots and air crew being released in the order they had been shot down, with him being the first. He and the others boarded an Air Force plane and flew to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where his experience with Operation Homecoming began.
“Operation Homecoming was extremely well-organized and well-planned,” said Alvarez.
He said the effect of a well-run program is key to supporting recovered personnel and those held captive, and that it is crucial to the reintegration process to know what is important to those personnel and to meet those needs.
The event also offered an opportunity to increase understanding of the importance of JPRA codifying personnel recovery operations to provide a standard for care and reintegration, and how conducting those efforts well affects the force.
Albano explained that during the recovery and reintegration of POWs from Operation Desert Storm, the lessons learned from the Vietnam POW Cohort’s Recovery and Reintegration model had yet to codified. During this process, Tom McNish, a U.S. Air Force Vietnam-era POW (fighter pilot), who later became the Air Force flight surgeon tasked to lead the recovery and reintegration of Operation Desert Storm POWs, found out that the plan for recovery and reintegration was not on the shelf, ready to execute, so he had to draw upon his personal experiences to facilitate the process.
Margolius spoke about how JPRA has been employed during recent recovery efforts, and how he sees JPRA being employed in the future fight. He expressed concern about the need to build, not only their own warrior resilience as Sailors and military service members, but also the need to build the resilience and the will of the American public for a fight against a peer or near peer opposition.
“The 50th anniversary of Operation Homecoming is something we can’t forget,” said Margolius. “It was something we got right.”
He addressed the need to reintegrate recovered service members back into the fight, as well as the need to properly reintegrate those service members, who will have the inherent challenges that come from those experiences, back into society after completion of the conflict, or at the end of their service.
“I believe the naval aeromedical professionals who attended received a significant benefit from hearing, firsthand, from a U.S. Navy recovered POW and the JPRA Operations Director,” said Albano. “They can now apply what they learned as they turn into the wind to launch their support to line and fleet forces as they address the great power concerns looming over the horizon.”
REMC for POW Studies is the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute (NAMI) special program that provides follow up evaluations for repatriated prisoners of war (RPW) from Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, to study the mental and physical effects of captivity and addresses those findings' applicability to current military operations. REMC for POW Studies is fundamentally linked to Operation Homecoming, which began on Feb. 12, 1973, and in less than two months brought home 591 American POWs from North Vietnam.