Following six years as a POW at the famed “Hanoi Hilton,” Robert Wideman, a former Navy pilot moved with his young wife, a four-month bride who had waited for him back in the States throughout his imprisonment, to Monterey, California. In Monterey Robert attended the Naval Postgraduate School first earning his BA in International Business, and following that degree with an MBA. Robert, Pat and their two young sons were then stationed in Meridian, Mississippi where he served as a comptroller until retiring from the Navy in 1983.
Robert then moved to Florida where he first sold securities and later worked for Dunn and Bradstreet. In 1987 he was accepted into the University of Florida Law School, from which he graduated in 1990. After graduation, Robert was a prosecutor for two and a half years in Orlando, Florida. He practiced law privately until he returned to Meridian in 1996 to work as a flight simulator instructor for the next 17 years. He also took and passed the Mississippi bar. When Wideman relocated to Fort Collins to be closer to his sons following his retirement, he earned his Colorado Real Estate Broker license. In addition to following his grandchildren’s activities, Robert has written a book, regularly attends a prayer group, works actively with veterans and meets friends for breakfast multiple times a week. When I sought to interview Wideman about his experiences, our biggest problem was finding an empty space in his schedule when he could sit down with me.
Wideman was no stranger to the dangers of the military. His mother, a French Canadian and his American born father both served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The family returned to the United States where his father flew the Hump in India after America entered WWII. An uncle spent time as a POW in Germany during the war. Robert’s brother, Richard, a helicopter pilot, was the sole surviving son following Robert’s capture. He was about to be deployed when Robert was captured, but the army informed his father that Richard would not need to serve in ‘Nam. Although he could have skipped the deployment, Richard still chose to go to Vietnam in hopes of rescuing his brother.
Robert had flown 134 missions when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. He was captured in May of 1967 with only 27 days combat days left in his tour. Of his time as a POW, Robert told me little, sharing details instead in a book entitled Unexpected Prisoner that will be published in March of this year. Briefly, he explained that the first two months of imprisonment were a nightmare. The next two and a half years were an unremitting battle with boredom as he and 2-3 other prisoners were confined in a 14’ x 14’ room with absolutely nothing to do. Sartre’s quote, “Hell is other people,” aptly described his reaction to cramped quarters and disparate personalities forced together 24 hours a day. His last three years of confinement were far better. Robert describes them as a “country club,” using the term loosely to describe three square meals, regular showers, and 6-7 hours free of close confinement every day—conditions he describes as exceeding the Geneva Convention. Robert even commended the Vietnamese, teaching me that no more that eight prisoners had died while being held at the Hanoi Hilton.
While Robert’s education and career were highly successful, he explained that he returned from Vietnam with virtually no faith. Eventually, however, he sought out a protestant navy chaplain who recommended that he read the Book of John and visit different churches. Another friend recommended that he read the entire Bible. He continued to search, finally recognizing that while formal church services left him cold, Bible study was essential and became an integral part of his life. Robert realized he could forgive other people without faith, but he needed the Holy Spirit in order to forgive himself. He credits his spiritual experiences with giving him peace of mind.
Robert reestablished his VA connection after 9/11, a pivotal moment for most Americans but one even more critical in the lives of our veterans. Since then he has visited a VA counselor monthly and attends a group support meeting as often as his schedule allows. He considers his weekly acupuncture treatments at the Healing Warriors Program Clinic as treatment for PTSD and is interested in beginning the 6-Session Scrips Protocol offered at the clinic to continue to deal with the PTS that emerges from time to time in stressful situations.
Relocating to Fort Collins as a retiree has given him a chance to be closer to his children and opportunities to cherish his six grandchildren. This former POW has made up for lost time.