Military/POW Advocate

"Freedom is not free."

Honoring Veterans

A Navy man himself, Mr. Perot never forgot his fellow service members. He traveled the globe to improve conditions for prisoners of war (POWs), help recover those missing in action and offer support to their families. He arranged medical treatment for wounded warriors and provided scholarships for the children of soldiers killed in action.

He honored veterans with donations to the academies and all branches of the U.S. military and funded research on war-related illnesses.

The Price of Freedom

"Freedom is not free," he said in a 2009 speech. "Many Americans don’t understand that. They don’t realize that freedom doesn’t come easy. That you have to earn it. That it is fragile. And that tough, brave men and women have to step forward and fight for freedom, and for all of us."

During the Vietnam War (1955-1975), Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured and imprisoned hundreds of American soldiers, who endured horrifying conditions and torture.

Families of POWs were desperate, wondering whether their loved ones were safe and when they would come home. Some reached out to Mr. Perot, who in 1969 organized a mission, dubbed "Peace on Earth," to deliver gifts and necessities to POWs in the North Vietnamese city of Hanoi. He planned to deliver the bounty personally and to bring along reporters and wives of POWs to ensure the trip received maximum attention.

"I would rather try and fail than not try," he said. "If the shoe were on the other foot...I’d sure want someone to help me."

"I’d rather try and fail than not try."

- Ross Perot

Leading the Charge

He chartered two Braniff 707s and filled them with 26 tons of gifts, food and medicine. The entourage set off on Dec. 21, 1969, from Dallas. The planes arrived a few days later in Laos, where he received word that the North Vietnamese would not allow him to land in Hanoi. He sought out secure landing spots elsewhere before having to scrub the mission and head back home to Dallas.

Still, the effort drew widespread attention to the cause of the POWs and was credited for improving their conditions. Some said they started receiving medical treatment, better food and letters from home, and many were moved out of solitary confinement into group cells.

"I was thinking about the men who had put their lives on the line and who were being neglected and abused by their Communist captors. I was thinking about their wives who would become widows. I was thinking about the little boy whose father had been a prisoner for so long that they had never met," Mr. Perot said.

He later flew POW wives to Paris during peace talks there, and in the spring of 1970, he embarked on another trip to Hanoi. Once again, he was accompanied by reporters and POW wives. They were denied access, but visited Laos and South Vietnam, where the group toured prison camps holding captured members of the North Vietnamese Army. He said that showed those soldiers were being held in humane conditions, highlighting the differences in how Americans were being treated.

In 1973, he helped underwrite a parade in San Francisco for former U.S. prisoners of war, staging the event at a time when anti-Vietnam fervor was at its height and some returning veterans were being shunned.

The one thing that always unified the American people during the Vietnam War was the plight of our POWs.

Flashback #6

Some veterans sent their own combat boots to him as a gift.

Strength Found in Unity

"The one thing that always unified the American people during the Vietnam War was the plight of our POWs," Mr. Perot told the Defense Media Network. "We had the biggest parade in the history of San Francisco, and we had only one demonstrator."

Veterans never forgot Mr. Perot’s tireless support, often sending him personalized gifts, medals, dog tags or even their boots worn while in combat.

In 1974, in recognition of his work on behalf of POWs, he received the Defense Department’s Medal for Distinguished Public Service, its highest honor for civilians. In 2004, the Business Executives for National Security honored his long-standing service to veterans with the Eisenhower Award, a presentation attended by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and many Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

"If we are going to send our young men and women into the theater of battle, we must do everything we can to take care of them during their service – and in the aftermath," he said. "I have always felt that it was the least I could do to recognize these soldiers and the brave sacrifices they have made for our nation."

After the first Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991, he funded research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center on neurotoxic brain ailments many soldiers were experiencing.

Most of the medical establishment assumed their problems were stress-related psychological issues, but Mr. Perot provided unrestricted research funds to look into it. The medical school identified the likely cause of the organic brain abnormalities as exposure to small amounts of neurotoxic chemicals while in the combat zone.

The Department of Veterans Affairs later recognized the ailment as Gulf War Syndrome, which led to federally funded treatment of those suffering its debilitating symptoms.

Mr. Perot’s efforts on behalf of veterans came in ways big and small. In an example repeated countless times over, Mr. Perot was there for Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, an Army Ranger from Pennsylvania who was blinded in 2003 in Iraq.

He had been guarding a dam near Baghdad when an artillery shell burst 100 feet away. A piece of shrapnel struck his face, slicing through his right eye and severely damaging the optic nerve of his left eye.

He was in a medically induced coma for more than a month. After he awoke, his parents told him he was totally – and irreversibly – blind. He spent part of his recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Mr. Perot later arranged for evaluation and treatment at UT Southwestern and Harvard Medical School.

Now retired, Sgt. Feldbusch said he remains honored for having served his country and will not let his injuries define him. He became the first spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project and pushed for federal legislation to aid severely wounded soldiers.

"For those who fought and almost died," Mr. Perot said, "freedom has a taste the protected will never know."