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No ordinary TDY: former POW returns to Grand Forks AFB after 51 years

The POW/MIA flag waves in the wind as Capt. William “Bill” Robinson, United States Air Force retired, speaks with Airmen August 18, 2016, on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Robinson spent nearly eight years as a POW in Vietnam, which is the longest time spent as a POW by any enlisted member. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Sparks/Released)

The POW/MIA flag waves in the wind as Capt. William “Bill” Robinson, United States Air Force retired, speaks with Airmen August 18, 2016, on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Robinson spent nearly eight years as a POW in Vietnam, which is the longest time spent as a POW by any enlisted member. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Sparks/Released)

Capt. William “Bill” Robinson, United States Air Force retired, smiles for the camera during an interview August 18, 2016, on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Robinson is the longest recorded enlisted Prisoner of War and returned to Grand Forks AFB for the first time in 51 years to speak with Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Sparks/Released)

Capt. William “Bill” Robinson, United States Air Force retired, smiles for the camera during an interview August 18, 2016, on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Robinson is the longest recorded enlisted Prisoner of War and returned to Grand Forks AFB for the first time in 51 years to speak with Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Sparks/Released)

Tech. Sgt. Daniel Cary, 319th Contracting Flight contracting officer, shakes hands with Capt. William “Bill” Robinson, United States Air Force retired, August 18, 2016, on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Robinson signed copies of his book after speaking with Airmen about his time spent as a POW. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Sparks/Released)

Tech. Sgt. Daniel Cary, 319th Contracting Flight contracting officer, shakes hands with Capt. William “Bill” Robinson, United States Air Force retired, August 18, 2016, on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Robinson signed copies of his book after speaking with Airmen about his time spent as a POW. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Sparks/Released)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --

Capt. William A. Robinson, United States Air Force retired, was an Airman 1st Class when he deployed from here. In 1965, he was on a deployment assignment to join the 38th Rescue and Recovery Unit in Thailand. While originally a short-term assignment, it became something else entirely when Robinson and his crew were shot down while flying their HH-43B Huskie helicopter over North Vietnam during a rescue mission on September 20, 1965. The crew was captured by enemy forces, and they became POWs.

Robinson returned to Grand Forks August 18, after 51 years, to speak with Airmen and serve as the guest speaker during the Senior Non-commissioned officer Induction Ceremony.

Robinson, one of two longest surviving enlisted POWs in U.S. military history at nearly eight years, spoke with a booming voice and looked intently as he shared his story with the Warriors of the North.

 “One time, someone said to me, ‘You don’t look like someone who was a prisoner of war',” said Robinson. “I said, ‘Good, that wasn’t my goal.’”

While he shares a positive outlook and laughs now, he witnessed and experienced torture for the sake of North Vietnam’s propaganda agenda, including beatings to the point of torn ligaments and nearly being executed.

“We survived on what I refer to as full faith,” said Robinson. “Faith in ourselves that we had the tools to accomplish the mission that was at hand; faith in each other that we stand with each other, and we would come home together; faith in our nation that it would not abandon us; and, most of all, faith in our God that he would give us the strength to see us through.”

Many Airmen attended Robinson’s speech to hear him share his first-hand account of the trials and triumphs of POWs in North Vietnam. Airman 1st Class Steven Shelton, 319th Comptroller Squadron financial analysis technician, described what he learned.

“I learned to never give up, always have hope and to be resilient,” said Shelton.

 Master Sgt. Jarod Cappon, 319th Security Forces Squadron flight chief, was a part of the team who brought Robinson to Grand Forks AFB.

“His story is amazing; every word that comes out of his mouth resonates and is humbling,” Cappon said.

While Robinson was deployed from Grand Forks AFB for rescue missions, the B-52 Stratofortress aircrafts that were also based here at the time aided in his rescue and return to the United States.

“I guess you could say that Grand Forks had a part in sending me to North Vietnam and that Grand Forks had a part in bringing me home,” said Robinson.

After Robinson returned to the United States, he and two other enlisted men who survived being POWs received direct commissions to lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force by President Richard Nixon. Robinson also received the Air Force Cross for valor in service. He continued to serve for 11 more years as an aircraft maintenance officer.

Robinson said he is constantly thanked for his service, but he would like to see people thank him and his fellow servicemembers in a different way.

“The best way that we as Americans can honor our veterans is to go to the polls and vote,” said Robinson. “You can find a bronze plaque in a cemetery and write that name down; take him or her with you to the polls. When you exercise that right to vote, just pull that name out and say ‘thank you’ because that’s what we are all about.”