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Col. Quincy Collins knows something about freedom.
Like most Americans, he knows what it’s like to live with it. But unlike most Americans, he knows what it’s like to live without it.
After being shot down over North Vietnam, the Air Force pilot spent the next seven and a half years of his life in prison cells in and around Hanoi.
Devoid of any freedoms, tortured and deprived, Collins said his time in Vietnamese prisons molded his future.
“This was the greatest growth period of my 77 years on this earth,” he said of his time imprisoned. “This was the closest I have ever been to the God that created me and sustained me, and maybe even kept me alive to be with you today.”
Collins speaks with deep admiration about the men he spent time with as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, most notably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican nominee for president.
“We had to help each other,” he said about the men with whom he was imprisoned.
“But when we couldn’t help each other, we’d throw out that lifeline to God, and you got close. We’ve exercised that lifeline a lot,” Collins said, “and still do.”
Their motto, while imprisoned, was “unity before self.”
“And we learned that besides having God as our co-pilot, we needed teamwork to survive. We also learned that value of always doing what is right regardless of the consequences,” Collins explained.
“What a platform to run your life on.”
Collins still carries this with him today.
Decades removed from his personal hell on earth, Collins now lives in Charlotte. He is married to his wife of 25 years and the two have 10 grandchildren. Collins ran for Congress twice—in 1974 and 1976—in Georgia’s 7th District.
He retired a decorated colonel in 1974, having received two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars, two Air Medals, two Purple Hearts, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the metal that perhaps defines him more than any other, the Prisoner of War (POW) Medal.
“A dear friend of mine, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Col. Leo Thorsness, and a fellow POW, recently had this to say, ‘If we could bring every American to this prison for just one day, without subjecting them to the torture, their appreciation for everyday freedom would soar.’”
Collins continued his friends’ words, “While looking at a guard through a peephole in my cell’s bricked-up window, I marveled that by chance I had been born an American. As if by the flip of a coin I had been given the most precious gift in the world—freedom–and a platter full of rights, opportunities and freedoms.”
When asked about another famous POW, McCain, Collins said his ability to lead “came from sacrifices and suffering we had to make because we’re Americans.”
Collins hasn’t been back to Vietnam, but he hopes to return.
He speaks on cruise lines as part of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. There’s an upcoming cruise on which he hopes to speak, from Bangkok to Hanoi.
He’ll likely see Hanoi in a different light this time around, but he’ll probably see America the same way when he returns—appreciating his freedom he lived for more than seven years without.
“To be born in freedom is an accident,” he said. “To live in freedom—a struggle. But to die in freedom is an obligation.”
‘One single and simple sentence’
Collins was in downtown Wilmington last week to celebrate National POW/MIA Day, which was Sept. 19, and Constitution Day, Sept. 17.
With the U.S.S. North Carolina behind him, Collins offered his thoughts on the U.S. Constitution to an engaged crowd.
“It is difficult for me to conceive of the events, meetings, debates and discussions taking place around James Madison and those delegates at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia in 1787,” he said.
“It outlined the framework for the organization of our government, and it has lasted 221 yearsee.And it all begins with one single and simple sentence.”
The first 52 words of the U.S. Constitution, to which Collins referred to as the “single and simple sentence,” he says, “have affected every life in this nation and which has been a model for most of the other republics in the free world.”
Across the river last Friday, members of the Calabash Veterans of Foreign Wars also celebrated National POW/MIA day.
“This is celebrated worldwide by the VFW,” Frank Richardson said. “We’ve been doing it ever since we were chartered in 1985.”
The Calabash VFW will host an upcoming tribute to World War II veterans at 2 p.m. Oct. 11 at the post. World War II veterans are admitted free and it’s $5 for all other guests.