Former POW visits Vail Mountain school
VAIL – Tom Kirk, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, recently told high school students at Vail Mountain School about being imprisoned in the notorious Hanoi Hilton.Kirk, a Vail resident who appeared as part of the private school’s “Brown Bag Speaker Series.” joined the military in his early 20s and flew 50 missions in the Korean War. In 1965 Kirk volunteered to go to Vietnam but could not get a position there. But he was determined to serve in the war. “I was a pilot and if there’s a war, you want to be there,” he said. While he was stationed in Japan, he decided to spend his leave time volunteering to fly missions in Vietnam. “I’m probably the only pilot who volunteered to fly during my leave,” he said. Eventually he was sent to fight in the Vietnam War and flew 166 missions in North Vietnam. He “wasn’t as lucky on [his] 167th mission,” he said, and was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He was shot down outside of Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, and captured by Vietnamese soldiers who took him to Hoa Lo prison, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Kirk spent the next five years there, part of that time in solitary confinement. He told the students how the North Vietnamese tortured him and put in solitary confinement for two years after he struck a particularly abusive guard. In solitary confinement, he live a cement cell 6 feet by 6 feet by 7 feet with only a cold slab for a bed and a cotton blanket. He filled his hours and days of solitude with very deliberate mental exercises – building houses board by board, calculating amortization tables for a 30-year mortgage, playing imaginary flutes and saxophones, and tapping out messages on the cinderblock walls to communicate with other American prisoners, he said. At the end of his talk, Kirk urged the students to remember four important lessons he learned during his captivity. The first was to be thankful for the freedom and liberty that we enjoy in the United States, he said. The other lessons were to have faith in themselves and faith in others, to take responsibility for one’s life and to develop mental toughness through challenges, he said.Kirk has lived in Vail for the 12 years with his wife, Ann. He has been a ski instructor for 11 years, owns a financial planning business and often plays saxophone with the Tony Gulizia Trio.Vail, Colorado
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