Ted Triebel wasn’t even supposed to be on a mission the day he got shot down. But the aircraft carrier was short on pilots, so Ted was sent back out with his radar-intercept-officer, Dave Everett, to provide protection for a bombing run over North Vietnam. The date was Aug. 27, 1972, and it was the 327th combat mission that Ted had flown.
By the time they parachuted out of their F-4 Phantom, Ted and Dave were near the hamlet of Ha Tan, 65 miles south of Hanoi. This area had been the consistent recipient of bombing attacks for the last several years, and they didn’t receive a friendly welcome. Stripped of his flight suit and boots with his hands tied behind his back by local militia, Ted was led into the village where, he says, “a gantlet of angry villagers awaited.” It was not a good night. The next morning Ted was transferred to the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he stayed until the last American prisoners of war were released in March 1973.
Almost 40 years later, Ted returned to his place of capture with Dave and their families. As Ted says, “I wanted to know firsthand if the passage of time had altered attitudes, feelings, and perspectives. How might former enemies engage and react, given the intensity and pain of an air war that had lasted over eight years? Might our grim experience have wider implications and lessons for others – some enduring relevance?”
Though the landscape was virtually unchanged with its rice paddies and small huts, time had marched on in Ha Tan. In a formal ceremony under a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, Ted and Dave sat across from the militiamen who had led them into brutal captivity. But this time, anger and guns were replaced by smiles and friendly gestures of recognition. After the ceremony, they introduced their families, exchanged stories of the past and present, and even embraced. Looking back on the experience, Ted recalls, “our previous captors were genuinely happy to have us back, this time as friends. We discovered much in common, most importantly a willingness to forgive and a desire to move forward in peace.”
Today, Triebel is a retired U.S. Navy captain. He channels his belief in reconciliation through volunteering with Durham’s St. Luke’s faith team that works with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.
Established 10 years ago to address violence in Durham’s communities, the coalition holds prayer vigils for those who have been slain as well as supporting those who are perpetrators of violence through a Reconciliation and Re-Entry program. With the philosophy of “restoring wholeness through acts of mercy, compassion and forgiveness,” the coalition pairs recently released prisoners with a faith team of four to six trained individuals for a year of mentorship and support. To date, 36 former prisoners and two adjudicated young teens have been partnered with 15 faith teams. Only four adults have re-offended (an 11 percent recidivism rate versus upwards of 60 percent national recidivism rate according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics).
Celestin Musekura, who founded African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries after his father and other family members were killed in the Rwandan genocide, and Duke University Divinity School’s Greg Jones wrote “Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace.”
“We are, each of us, broken people. In every community we bump into each other, and our sharp edges wound others – even those we love most. Whether our daily focus is international affairs or raising children, each of needs to grow in the practice of forgiveness,” the two write in the book.
Acts of forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy – especially when there is a deep history of mistrust. But across North Carolina, there are communities where people take an intentional approach to healing division through reconciliation, ranging from the Episcopal Church’s forum on Racial Justice and Reconciliation of North Carolina to Murder Victim’s Families for Reconciliation in Raleigh to the Lee Institute’s work in Charlotte focused on race, racism and public health.
In declaring The Truth and National Reconciliation Commission in South Africa a year after he was elected president, Nelson Mandela declared, “Reconciliation … does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict … (We must) free ourselves from the burden of yester-year not to return there; but to move forward with the confidence of free men and women, committed to attain the best for ourselves and future generations.”
As we go into the New Year, perhaps we too can open up our hearts and attitudes toward each other, forgiving and being asked for forgiveness, to realize the best for ourselves and our community.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.