FARMINGTON — He hesitates before answering the question.
His words come slowly.
His voice is soft, as it has been throughout the interview, and you know what he says is going to be well thought out. And meaningful.
“I guess a lesson I learned was just never, never, never give up,” he said, “and freedom is for those willing to defend it.”
Jay Hess was one of those sent to defend freedom.
After an LDS mission to the western states and several years of college, he enrolled in the Air Force ROTC.
“I thought, gee, I’d rather fly than walk, so I enlisted in the Air Force and then got into the pilot training program and just hung around for 14 years,” he said.
He became an Aviation Cadet in 1953 and earned his wings in 1955.
Hess served in the Korean war and was assigned to Germany at one point, then later to Vietnam.
“We were trying to blow things up and they were trying to keep us from doing it, and sometimes they were successful in stopping us,” he said.
Hess flew high-performance jet fighters. On one trip in 1967, he was flying to help recover downed pilots.
His plane was hit and he was forced to eject at 7,000 feet. Some panels in his chute blew out and he hit the ground hard and lost consciousness.
He was captured and ended up in the hands of the North Vietnamese.
“They were mad enough to kill us when we were shot down and captured,” he said, “but the policy was that we were worth more alive than dead.”
For five and a half years, Hess was held captive in places the prisoners nicknamed the Dog Patch, the Zoo, the Prison Camp, the Plantation and the Hanoi Hilton.
Though he didn’t know John McCain, the two were released at the same time and came home on the same flight.
Starvation and torture were constants for prisoners, as their captors tried to weaken them and then exploit them for propaganda.
“That was the battle every day, to try to maintain some honor and not be tortured into betraying your country,” he said. “You just take it a day at a time.”
Life is full of ups and downs, but the day of his release was something incomparable, he said.
“Just to be free,” he said, was an incredible high.
Hess said it was two years before he “got normal.”
During those years, he’d wake up and think, “Wow, I’m not hungry anymore, wow, this is a soft bed, wow, that shower’s not cold,” he said.
“After a couple of years I was completely normal, just taking everything for granted again,” said Hess.
After his release from Vietnamese prisoner of war camps, Hess left the service and spent 22 years as a JROTC instructor, teaching aerospace and science.
Even then, he would dream about ways to rescue people who were shot down, or about trying to save people.
Softly and slowly, he shares a few more thoughts that came from his experience:
“We ought to be really careful about getting into armed conflict because it’s pretty hard to end,” he said. “It’s just so costly in terms of money and people’s lives.”