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Captain Charlie Plumb returns to Viterbo University  

Noah Nelson
Captain Plumb

Click, click, click. 


The unmistakable sound of boots placed one over the other send echoes through the silent Fine Arts Center Main Theatre. 


The spotlight rises on Retired U.S Naval Capt. Charlie Plumb, pacing the length of his first prisoner of war cell in Vietnam. Eight feet long by eight feet wide; three steps one way, three steps back.  


Capt. Plumb spent almost six years imprisoned in various such prison cells in North Vietnam – 2103 days from age 24 to 30. Plumb was shot down on his 75th mission and parachuted into enemy hands just five days before his scheduled return. He was captured, tortured, and imprisoned by Vietnamese soldiers.  


On Oct. 11, Plumb made his return to Viterbo University for the first time since 2012. The theme of the presentation was ‘Who Packs Your Parachute’ and was centered on an interaction Capt. Plumb had after returning from the war. A man came up to him at a restaurant, identified Capt. Plumb, and told him that he was the man who had packed his parachute in the cockpit. “I’ll tell ‘ya this, for this guy that runs around the country making speeches, I was speechless,” Plumb said. 


Capt. Plumb would spend the evening trying to thank him, but the man brought up all the other members of Capt. Plumb’s life who had ‘packed his parachute’ for his whole life: teachers, parents, community leaders. He said, “I just did the physical job; all those other parachute packers in your life were the ones that really saved your life.”  


“The first thing you learn in a prison cell is pain,” he said. The second thing, Plumb learned was, “You get used to this.” In such a solitary situation, how could anyone ever acclimate? He suggested that it’s a mindset: “It’s not the eight feet between the walls, it’s the 8 inches between your head.” Capt. Plumb’s mindset has applications far beyond his prison cell, and his presentations have been lauded for their authenticity and relatability. But he has not always been so mentally strong. 


Cri-cket, cri-cket, cri-cket. 


A wire had appeared through a rathole in Capt. Plumb’s cell and was scraping the wall, chirping like a cricket. He knew it was a fellow soldier, but he was paralyzed by the insecurity and guilt he felt for giving the enemy information. Eventually, he pulled the wire, which retreated through the hole. An hour later, it returned with a secret code which he memorized, “The essence of life is validating other people,” Plumb says, and he credits it with saving his life. 


Capt. Plumb and the fellow fighter pilots communicated through the wire’s code for years, and the team connected over a strong sense of belief in each other and faith in a higher power. Plumb served as the chaplain in his camp for two years and lived through the Bible verse Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to those that love the Lord.”  


All worked together for Capt. Plumb, who, after being released in early 1973, went on to release his autobiography and start a family while telling his story to thousands of people.  


Plumb has spoken to over 5,000 audiences and is renowned across nearly every industry. In 2010, the National Speakers Association inducted Capt. Plumb into the Council of Peers Award for Excellence Speaker Hall of Fame – a lifetime achievement award for professional communicators.  


The full presentation can be found here, Plumb’s website can be found here and the D.B Reinhart Institute of Ethics in Leadership’s upcoming events can be found here. 


Capt. Charlie Plumb pulled greatness from his trauma, giving an incredible lesson in the power of framing: “Adversity is a hard thing to waste. Getting blown out of the sky can be good for you if you make the right choices.” Plumb became the ultimate optimist; he found value in the pain and understood that it would not last forever.  



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About the Contributor
Noah Nelson
Noah Nelson, Editor
I’m the Editor for the Lumen. My major is Sports Management and Leadership with an English Writing minor, and I also compete for the Men’s Golf team.
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