When I was young, I thought it important to always be my own man.
I was born into a military tradition. As far back as the American Revolution, my forebears had worn the uniform of the United States. My father and grandfather were navy admirals, and at 18, I followed them to the United States Naval Academy and began my own career.
I have no regrets about having been raised to embrace the traditions of my family. I know I'm fortunate to have had imposed on me conventions that emphasized honor and patriotism and courage. But as a young man, I was intimidated by my family history and struggled against it. I feared that were I not careful, I would become indistinct, a uniform and not a person to be taken seriously.
So as a midshipman and a young navy officer, I took care, whenever possible, to assert my individuality. I rebelled against some of the customs and expectations I had inherited. I made fun of some forms of authority, bent more than a few rules, and developed a reputation for being, in navy parlance, less than regulation. I enjoyed my occasional nonconformity and prided myself on my self-reliance.
In 1967 I was shot down over the city of Hanoi and made a prisoner of war. In the beginning, I tried to approach my captivity with the spirit of independence that had become so important to my self-respect. I was as uncooperative as I could manage to be under the circumstances, confident that I was strong enough to accept whatever punishment my independence earned me.
I soon discovered that I was not as self-reliant as I had believed. I had been roughed up by my captors and suffered no more lasting effect than hard feelings. But on one occasion I was abused very severely, and, after a time, I consented to make a propaganda tape.
The experience took a terrible toll on my self-respect. I doubt I would have survived psychologically but for the men I was honored to serve with. They sustained me. They emphasized that my failure in this instance would bring lasting shame only if it made me less willing to resist in future. They encouraged my recovery and reminded me I wasn't fighting by myself or for myself. I was fighting with them and for them and our country.
It was then I discovered that, more than I'd ever realized, I was dependent on others and on the traditions in which I was raised. But neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, there is nothing in life more liberating than to fight for something more than yourself. That was the faith my comrades taught me. It was my father's and grandfather's faith. It was all I had left of my dignity, and it was enough.
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 5, 2013