Keynote speaker retired U.S. Army Col. Hal Kushner retold his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
In the Vietnam War, Retired U.S. Army Col. Hal Kushner bore witness to the death or serious injury to 13 of the 17 medics in his unit.
Kushner himself had been deployed in August 1967 to replace one of the doctors killed in action. The soldiers lived in tents in a landing zone and C-rations on the field. They burned their waste with the same heaters used to heat the outdoor showers.
The soldiers put Kool-Aid in their water to disguise the taste of iodine from the halogen water tablets. They communicated with family via letters or audio tapes. Sometimes they were mortared. Other times, they got to play Scrabble and Parcheesi with the Donut Dollies, combat nurses with the American Red Cross.
“I thought it was primitive and hard, but at the same time, it was exciting and fulfilling,” said Kushner to over 200 people at the Ormond Memorial Art Museum's Veterans Day Tribute on Monday, Nov. 11.
But, Kushner added, it was only when he got captured on Dec. 1, 1967, that he learned was hardship really was.
A platform for advocacy
Kushner, a local ophthalmologist who resides in Daytona Beach Shores, retold his account at the annual museum event, serving as the day's keynote speaker. For a long time, he didn't speak publicly on Veterans Day about his experience as a prisoner of war. He preferred to stay home and think of his memories.
"It was a day that was like Memorial Day to me — of somber reflection and retreat,” Kushner said.
However, he now feels it's important to tell his story, as he said the younger generations don't feel the patriotism like his did; a sense of patriotism that overwhelmed him when he saw the American flag for the first time on the tail of a C-141 airplane after five and a half years of capture.
His wasn't the only story told at the tribute event. Local Poet A.S. Minor performed a spoken word piece and recounted his struggles after leaving the Army, where he was a mortuary affairs specialist. He helped to process the personal effects of diseased soldiers, performed funeral ceremonies and assisted with autopsies.
He brought his dog Maxwell up on the stage with him. Maxwell struggles with standing upright due to hip issues, and is getting up there in age.
“Just like our nation’s veterans, [Maxwell] still remains vigilant, on-duty, with me despite his illnesses," Minor said. "That’s why I wanted to bring him up today — because I don’t think that we as a society show enough appreciation for our service dogs.”
Kushner's story is "inspiring, reassuring and amazing" to hear, said Nancy Lohman, president of the OMAM Board of Directors.
“His story is one of resilience and endurance — qualities that have allowed Hal to lead a full life and we're lucky it has been in our corner of the world," Lohman said.
'That was the hardest part for me'
The date was Nov. 30, 1967, and Kushner and his crew were flying a routine mission in terrible weather late at night. The next thing he knew, Kushner was hanging upside down in a burning helicopter. He was badly wounded and burned, and three days later, he was shot and captured 10 miles from the crash site.
The helicopter wreck was discovered the day after, and he was identified as being Missing in Action because he had splinted his co-pilot's leg before his co-pilot died. Four months later, he was confirmed as a prisoner of war. His son was also born, but Kushner wouldn't know that for another five years.
At the POW camp, they had nothing, Kushner recalled. They had poor shelter and were given little food. The soldiers were sick with jungle fevers, malaria and dysentery, and they never saw the sun.
Out of the 25 soldiers, 13 died in that camp. Ten died in Kushner's arms.
“It is a very sobering experience to watch the light go out of a man’s eyes when you’re holding his head," Kushner said. "That was the hardest part for me.”
He was moved to a prison in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 1971, three and a half years after being in the jungle camp. It took 57 days on foot for Kushner to reach the jail, where he would spend the remainder of his capture in a cell with six men.
It was better than the jungle, Kushner said. They were fed pumpkin soup, two cups of water and bread twice a day. They had morale and a leader they called Moses. Later, Kushner would learn his name was Lt. Col. Ted Guy of the U.S. Air Force.
Home at last
Kushner was released in March 16, 1973. In what he calls a "fundamental moment" in his life, Guy lined up the soldiers outside of the bus before entering the air field and told them to unzip their windbreaker one-third of the way, hold their bag in their left hand and march into the plane with dignity.
Soon after, that's when Kushner saw the American flag, which he said is a symbol of freedom and liberty, and a "beacon for the world."
“It was the first time I’d seen our flag in five and a half years," Kushner said. "And I realized how much I loved it, and how much it meant to me.”