By Laurie Paolicelli
On June 4, 2022, North Carolina Military Appreciation Day, a ceremony will be held to honor Ted Triebel and seven other individuals the Advisory Committee of the Military Hall of Firsts has selected for induction into the inaugural class of the North Carolina Military Hall of Firsts.
A resident of northern Orange County, Captain Ted Triebel, USN (Ret) was a naval aviator whose F-4 Phantom was shot down over North Vietnam by a surface to air missile in August 1972. Triebel, along with his radar intercept officer Dave Everett, was captured by local militia and imprisoned in what POWS ironically called the Hanoi Hilton. Many POWs were tortured there during years of captivity — including John McCain. (Beginning in early 1967, a new area of the prison was opened for incoming American POWs and was dubbed “Little Vegas”, with buildings named after Las Vegas Strip landmarks, such as “Golden Nugget”, “Thunderbird”, “Stardust”, “Riviera”, and the “Desert Inn”. These names were chosen because many pilots had trained at Nellis Air Force Base, located in proximity to Las Vegas.)
“I had completed a third combat deployment and was halfway through the fourth when I ejected over North Vietnam and was captured,” Ted says. “It was 27 August 1972. I was released on 29 March 1973, a day which still burns bright in my mind.”
Companionship and communication with others is what kept his mind and soul intact while he was there. “As far as this business of solitary confinement goes,” he says, “the most important thing for survival is communication with someone, even if it’s only a wave or a wink, a tap on the wall, or to have a friend put his thumb up. It makes all the difference.”
His message for us today is how important it is to weather life’s hardships without letting them define who you are or who you’re going to be. It’s tempting to subscribe to the “why me?” philosophy of life; Ted urges us to endure the tribulations and indignities with strength and faith, things he learned in the most difficult way possible.
When viewing photos of Ted and his partners flying the F4 Phantom fighter aircraft, one can’t help but think of a young, smiling Tom Cruise in Top Gun and his friendship with “Goose.” Their relationship illuminates the importance of sensitivity, of feeling, of retaining a connection to your own humanity. Maverick and Goose are bonded for life through their shared passions; they make each other better people. Their example is a reminder that tenderness isn’t gendered.
But how do you cope when you lose your comrades? How does a prisoner of war pull himself together in the aftermath of war and face new realities?
“Many thoughts took form and perspective while I was in solitary confinement and confronted with the unknown,” says Ted. “I will not try to give a dissertation here or endeavor to sum up diverse thoughts with a few platitudes. I do suggest that all Americans periodically partake of some introspection; they may find some truths or answers to questions which had before evaded them. One thing I came to comprehend fully was the meaning of Freedom. We Americans experience it daily, many people do not. Freedom is the life blood of human society. It deserves our commitment to its eternal preservation.”
Ted and Dave went back to Vietnam in 2012 (see photo below) and reunited with former enemies in the village of Ha Tran – including some of the same militia men who captured them in 1972.
“It was curiosity more than anything else that led me to want to visit the village where I was captured. They weren’t happy to see us the first time and we didn’t know how they would react the second time, 40 years later! But we talked and found a common thread. We were parents, we wanted to see our children thrive, we wanted to be part of the solution in life, not the problem. I left Vietnam this last time with the belief that, in many ways, we are all more alike than we are different.”
Veterans deserve our thanks and respect.
In a time when we are viewing scenes of war daily on our television screens, when freedom is fighting yet another battle, it’s important to acknowledge those who have sacrificed so much for us. Please join us on Monday, May 30, at 9 a.m. for a Memorial Day Service at the Orange County Veterans Memorial site 2501 Homestead Rd, Chapel Hill, where Ted will speak.
Let’s thank veterans and the power of communication for moving us forward, our souls and hopes intact.
Ted doesn’t like to be called a hero, but he is one, nevertheless. “The toll of war is indescribable and the effect it has on millions of innocent lives is the greatest devastation of humanity. No doubt we all can agree that goals of peace and justice are things most worthy of our time and efforts.”
For more information about the Orange County Veterans Memorial and Memorial Day events, visit: https://ocveteransmemorial.com
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.