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Shepperd: When freed, POWs need help

Retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd
Retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd

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(CNN) -- Seven U.S. troops held as prisoners of war returned to the safe hands of American forces Sunday, continuing a trying emotional journey.

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, a CNN military analyst, discussed the trauma of dealing with captivity and liberation during war.

SHEPPERD: I have many buddies and squadron classmates who were POWs. They all say the same thing: It's a significant emotional experience.

There is joy and elation at being freed. There is also guilt, of leaving buddies behind "Could I have done better? Did I do the right thing?" It just takes time to decompress. These things are well-known, well-practiced, and the freed POWs will be given a lot of help as they recover from both their wounds and psychological trauma.

Some of the bravest men I have ever known in my life say that they were scared to death, and I think that's a natural reaction. I know I would be. You are totally helpless, probably being mistreated and being beat up, at least in the initial stages of captivity. It's a terrible, terrible experience.

After being freed, they will run the full range of emotions. Some will say, "Get me back to the homeland, and I want a malt and hamburgers." Others will say, "Get me back to my uniform." For one who wants to go back, a leader will look that person in the eye and say, "While I understand your emotions, you're not going back to the fight. You're going home."

The POWs are interrogated by their captors, and then they are interrogated immediately by their rescuers. Central Command wants every piece of information it can get about the captors: where they held the prisoners, what questions they asked, whether they took care of POW injuries, and more. That information is passed to all levels of command.

I've talked to people soon after they have been released as POWs. They all wanted to talk. Again, it was the full gamut of emotions. They were really dealing in their minds with going over this trauma time and time again: "Could I have done better? Is there any information I've forgotten to pass along?"

It is a trauma experience; you need help getting through it.

Retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd was in the U.S. Air Force for almost 40 years and flew 247 fighter combat missions in Vietnam. He served at the Pentagon as the Air National Guard commander and was directly involved in planning the use of Air National Guard forces during the Persian Gulf War. Shepperd runs a defense consulting firm called The Shepperd Group. He is one of CNN's military analysts, along with retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Grange. Their briefings will appear daily on CNN.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.


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