April 15, 2011

‘Lord, I forgive them’: Faith led POW to humility and peace in Vietnamese prison camp

Catholics from central and southern Indiana fill Priori Hall at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis on March 30 to listen to Guy Gruters, right, tell his story of how his faith in God helped him endure nearly six years of confinement as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Catholics from central and southern Indiana fill Priori Hall at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis on March 30 to listen to Guy Gruters, right, tell his story of how his faith in God helped him endure nearly six years of confinement as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Hell on Earth.

That is how Guy Gruters described the nearly six years he spent as a prisoner of war (POW) in North Vietnam from 1967 until 1973.

He could have easily described it as purgatory on Earth, for it was in those camps that he said God stripped away the pride which had so filled him before his Air Force fighter jet was shot down in 1967.

After being transformed by grace-inspired humility, Gruters believes that the communist prison camps that were his home for so long eventually became something like heaven for him because at no other time before or since has he felt so close to God.

Gruters recounted the torture, deprivation and loneliness of his life as a POW and how his faith in God helped him endure his own personal Way of the Cross on March 30 during a session of Spaghetti and Spirituality, the Lenten speaker series at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis.

Hell on Earth

Gruters flew more than 400 missions over North Vietnam before he was captured.

At that moment, his world changed forever. He was taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and subjected to inhumane abuse that is almost beyond imagining.

Gruters shared a cell with one other POW. They had no recreation time outside their windowless cell, and were given two meals of bread and water a day.

“The bread was hard as a rock,” Gruters said. “It had weevils in it. It was full of rat excrement.

“You’re thirsty all the time with only two quarts of water a day, especially in the summer. You had devastating thirst. You’re hungry all of the time. You’ve got hunger pains until you lose 60, 70, 80 pounds.”

Many of his fellow POWs died of dysentery or were afflicted, as Gruters was, with various parasitic diseases.

Then there was the mistreatment that he received from the guards.

“The guards are constantly … trying to catch you doing something wrong, like communicating with the cell next door by tapping on the walls—which we did all the time,” Gruters said. “In which case, they were delighted because they could get you into the torture room for three days and three nights.

“Guards come into a communist prison camp as normal people like everybody here,” Gruters said as an aside. “Three months later, with that kind of power, they are cruel maniacs. Watch it if you ever get [to wield] power. It can really mess you up.”

The torture rooms were just 10 feet from his cell. He always could hear his fellow POWs screaming in agony. He knew that it would eventually be his turn, too.

And always, there was the hell of the forced inactivity and the loneliness of the camp.

To have his listeners imagine what it was like for him, he recommended that they sit in a bathroom with the window shuttered for six hours with nothing at all to pass the time—no telephone, TV, radio, reading material, etc.—except the thoughts that went through your head.

“We get hit with that year after year,” Gruters said. “And it looks like it’s going to be the rest of our lives. It took a year to come out of that despair of no activity.

“The fact finally gets into your consciousness that you’re not necessary to this world. And everybody is doing fine out there without you.”

Purgatory on Earth

The painful dawning of that awareness was a doorway through which God came into Gruters’ life to strip him of a deep-seated pride and implant in him an equally profound humility.

Still, it came slowly.

As his friends were tortured and killed just feet away and he was unable to do anything to stop it, a maddening rage began to well up inside him that he said was the fruit of his pride.

“Great anger started to grow in me,” he said. “And I didn’t know enough to stop it. I had never been angry at anybody in my life, really. But now I’m really angry. And it developed into a terrible hatred.”

This anger and hatred didn’t result in Gruters lashing out at his guards—an action that would have led to a slow and cruel death. Instead, he considered turning on himself.

He was tempted to starve himself to death. That would be the way to beat his guards. They couldn’t get at him anymore if he was dead.

The Catholic faith that had been instilled him from childhood, however, kept him from giving into this temptation.

Indeed, looking into the abyss of despair led Gruters to turn toward God.

When he first arrived at the prison camp, he thought that God could not be anywhere near a place filled with such evil.

Later, instead of looking at the evil that surrounded him, he repented of the evil that was within him.

“I just said the Act of Contrition over and over again,” Gruters said. “And I started saying the rosary even though I didn’t remember the mysteries.”

This finally led him, grudgingly, to forgive his captors.

“It took me at least three months before I could even form in my mind the words, ‘Lord, I forgive them,’ ” Gruters said. “But I didn’t mean it. But I kept saying it.

“After six months, I would say, ‘Lord, I forgive them and I hope you get them to heaven. I understand that they’re your children. And I understand that you love them just like you love me. I’m with you on this. I want to love them. And I want to forgive them. I’m counting on you—obviously, I don’t have the strength.’ ”

Such was the prayer of a humbled man.

“God converted my heart from total pride to being able to see through the pride and overcome the hatred and to start praying,” Gruters said. “Once that happened then there was the chance of living through the experience.”

Heaven on Earth

This transformation from pride to humility didn’t just allow Gruters to simply live through his experience as a POW.

It helped him to thrive—spiritually, if not physically.

After being stripped of his pride, Gruters said that life as a POW “became a relative piece of cake.

“It became a really good experience for me,” he said. “I accepted the punishment. I understood [God] was in charge of it. Anything that he wanted to send to me was fine.”

When Gruters forgave from his heart the brutal guards that seemed to be sent to him, he felt closer to God than at any other time in his life.

“When I would pray for those people, I had this tremendous warmth in my heart. It was wonderful. It was great joy and peace,” he said. “The greatest joy and peace I’ve ever had in my life was in prison camp. Since I got back, … I’ve never had that time that I had with God up there.”

Back to plain old Earth

Gruters and several hundred other POWs were finally released in 1973.

Adjusting to life back in the U.S. was difficult.

Because his guards lied to him on a daily basis for years, Gruters found it hard to trust even his own family members.

“I wanted to go out and never see another human being again,” he said.

But Gruters was cognizant enough of this problem that when IBM offered him the choice of three jobs—two engineering jobs in which he would have worked alone or a sales job—he opted to work as a salesman.

“I had to take the sales job because [it] would force me to talk to people every day and get over it,” he said.

But after experiencing the cruel deprivation of his prison camps, Gruters couldn’t stand it when people complained about discomforts that were nothing in comparison.

“I wanted to pick the people up and throw them through the window,” he said. “I never hurt anybody. But I wanted to pick them up and shut them up.”

It was his faith, however, that led Gruters to find peace back at home, something that he said, with emotion, would have been impossible “without God, without daily Mass.”

Many veterans were in the audience.

Sal Viscuso, a 77-year-old member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Korean War.

“It disturbed me all night long, really,” Viscuso said of the presentation during a phone interview the next day. “I couldn’t get to sleep thinking about some of the poor conditions and the torture that those poor guys went through.”

Yet Viscuso found some comfort when he heard about the importance of faith for Gruters during his time of trial in the Air Force and how that resonated with his own experience.

“There were a number of times where I turned very much toward the Lord in my prayer in different circumstances that you encountered in the service, whether you were pulling a guard duty late at night or you got into an accident that required some type of surgery,” Viscuso said. “You just heavily leaned on your prayers toward Christ to help you get through it.” †

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