As an Air Force prisoner of war in the rat infested "Hanoi Hilton" in North Vietnam, the Rev. Robert Certain recalls Ash Wednesday 1973. The prayers that day would be answered and he would be free by Easter.
"As a chore, they would bring in a load of coal dust in a bin, and we POWs had to add water to it, form it into briquettes or coal balls about the size of a grapefruit, and they would set them out to dry to use for the kitchen stoves to cook," said Certain, former assistant rector and later interim rector of St. Barnabas on the Desert Episcopal Church in Paradise Valley.
"We used that coal for our ashes on Ash Wednesday," he said.
An Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, in the hands of a fellow prisoner, provided the Scripture that Certain used in leading the Lenten rite.
The war in Iraq conjures memories for the veteran Episcopal priest and retired Air Force chaplain. Near the end of his second tour of duty in Vietnam, just before Christmas 1972, his B-52 Stratofortress was shot down during a bombing mission.
The navigator-bombardier, then a second lieutenant, parachuted and was quickly captured. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973, however, led to Certain’s freedom after nearly 3 1 /2 months in the so-called "Heartbreak Hotel" and freedom for the other POWs in the other filthy, primitive Vietnamese prison compounds.
Certain, who has been nominated as a candidate for Episcopal Bishop of Arizona to succeed the Rt. Rev. Robert Shahan upon his retirement next year, has served as the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., since Easter 1998. After 30 years in the Air Force, Certain, 55, retired as a colonel in 1999. His final appointment was senior reserve chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Certain tells his story in a newly published book, "Unchained Eagle: From Prisoner of War to Prisoner of Christ."
It’s a frank and personal book that explores Certain’s faith journey, including challenges trying to balance family, far-flung military chaplaincy demands and parish ministry. He chronicles his POW experiences, Episcopalian and Air Force politics and decades of posttraumatic stress disorder from Vietnam that triggered depression, alcoholism and emotional outbursts with colleagues.
Certain has served as rector or assistant rector in six parishes since his ordination in 1976.
Born in Georgia and raised in the United Methodist Church, Certain felt a call to ministry as a teen and had that goal in his scopes during his early years in the Air Force and while a POW.
After Certain’s capture, he endured threats and grueling interrogation by the North Vietnamese. He would soon be taken to a Hanoi hotel where his captors, with propaganda in mind, let international photographers take his picture. At the same time, Certain had many questions fired at him.
"I had no intention of compromising my integrity and sense of duty by speaking to these people," Certain wrote. "More threats would mean nothing because the North Vietnamese would never allow an identified POW to be killed or lost."
His photo would appear in an article in The Washington Post titled "Flier Captured on Eve of Visit Home."
"I looked awful in the photo," he recalled. "After all, I had been up for about 30 hours and had been traumatized and interrogated for about 18 hours and had stuffed every emotion I felt as far down into the recesses of my being."
For years, Certain would feel guilty that three from his flight crew died, while two others survived.
"The sense of survival guilt is part of the equation of having been in combat," he said in an interview during a recent visit to Scottsdale. "Why does your buddy die and you live — especially if the buddy had more reason to live and had more investment in life?"
Certain was a newlywed without children, while the pilot had five children, the co-pilot had two youngsters and the gunner was just 15 days from retirement.
Certain would serve on national panels to help determine policy regarding government payment for Agent Orange injuries to servicemen. He coordinated training of Air Force Reserve chaplains and attended the Air War College in Alabama, where he wrote a critique of reserve chaplain employment during Desert Shield/Desert Storm for the Air Force chief of staff.
In his book, he noted, "In the academic setting of the War College, I was finally able to reflect upon some of my own post-war emotions and upon some of the dysfunctional behaviors that formed the cultural caricature of the Vietnam veteran. Was there a spiritual problem that manifested itself in nightmares, domestic violence, withdrawal from society, ritualistic behaviors and even murder and suicide?
"War by its very nature is uncivilized and lies in the gray boundary at the edge of the western ethical conscience," he wrote. "Theologians and philosophers remind us of the evil we engage in war and have given us the intellectual tools to plan our methods of making war so that we do not venture too far into the evil. Governments have articulated the purposes of war and set the rules of engagement, usually in conformity with just war theory."
Certain said that governments then train soldiers in "acceptable war practice and send them out to destroy the evil threat using admittedly, though restrained, evil force."
Chaplains’ role in that is to help keep "combat more humane, soldiers more human and peace more redemptive."
The Iraqi execution of American POWs has been painful to follow, Certain said.
"To see them apparently executed by the enemy after they have been captured alive is totally against international law and the treatment of captives."
While the current presiding bishop of the national body of Episcopal Church has been outspoken against the war in Iraq, it’s not a position uniformly embraced by clergy, including Certain, and larger portions of the denomination.
Certain writes extensively of his 2 1 /2 years at the 3,000-member St. Barnabas parish in Paradise Valley, where he was able to focus on pastoral care of members, followed by serving as interim rector for seven months.
St. Barnabas member Roland Petak is a strong advocate for Certain to become the next bishop for Arizona.
"He has the full life experience," said Petak, praising Certain’s "total honesty" in his book, his skills at preaching and his devotion to Episcopal orthodoxy.
"He really believes in the canons and articles that exist in our Prayer Book," Petak said. "I think a lot of our Episcopalians sorely ignore them."