John Peters: How the stress and pressure of being a prisoner of war taught me valuable lessons

Stress can be an unbelievable bearer of bad news for the body’s mental and physical state. Often triggered by an extreme heightened state of emotion, it can affect people in many ways, leaving physical and mental scars.

So for those of you that were around then, cast your mind back to January 1991-the start of the Gulf War and imagine the significant and constant amount of stress inflicted on John Peters. As a pilot of a British Tornado bomber, in many ways he had one of the best jobs you could ever imagine. But in 1991, he came to the world’s attention when the plane he was flying was shot down over Iraqi territory during the first day of the war. John and his navigator were then captured, mentally and physically tortured for seven weeks and then made to appear in a disfigured state on national TV in the country to show the world that dictator Saddam Hussein had all the power he needed.

For most people, that would be enough stress to send then in a tailspin of emotions, induced at a level that could have result in fatal consequences. In was after all an intense time of phycological pressure and abuse. But he managed to cope, partly due to his training and support he had been given to prepare him for situations like this and in particular, the resilience element of it.

Speaking as part of the Jamie Talks series of podcasts, in association with Safer Highways member Amey, John has spoken about his horrific time as a prisoner of war.

Life flighting a fighter plane was ‘the best job in the world’ even though it was extremely hard work, according to John. But war would change his life forever. He was shot down by a surface to air missile and anti-aircraft guns. He and his co-pilot ended up in the dessert where they were shot at by soldiers and taken of the Bagdad and held under capture. A bomb that hit the building where they were being interrogated was a stark warning of the reality of the situation. What followed was torture. Physical and mental abuse, hair set on light, threats of gang rape…the list goes on and it got worse, with no signs it was going to get better. It was violence 24/7 and John feared for his life on several occasions.

“It was an extremely intense period. I was kept pretty much in a concrete box in the dark which was freezing cold. And then there more violence. So, I had two deal with that for seven weeks and then there was mass media attention. Both were about upholding your identity and integrity.”

“Every single second don’t have the capacity to be scared…you just move into another realm of training because there is another problem you have to deal with in your mind and that’s when the stress and pressure you are put under in training really kicks in. Your mind says either I am going to get killed or end up here for a very long-time but you just have to keep telling yourself you will not come out this a damaged person and I will see my children again. My idea of hope-which is often kept at arms-length because you cannot afford to be soft in these situations-is about dealing with the facts in your head and keeping on looking at the horizon. You learn a lot as you become a prisoner of war. Worse enemy in this situation is often yourself so I was planning future scenarios in my head and that helped me change my focus.”

“As a prison of war when they are trying to dismantle you mentally and physically. In this situation, you have to have a sense of reality believe in who you are and that helps create honesty and strength,” he said. “That’s why I say resilience is forged. In my situation, it comes from my family upbringing as well as the huge amounts of money and effort spent on my training. I look at the situation in the war as a post-traumatic period of growth for me. This is because everything I went through made me very resilience to different levels of fear and how to deal with those. And as you do, slowly but surely you become more resilient and that helps you cope with different situations in life after.”

He said, despite this, his advice is that the power of community in sharing a problem or challenge is still more effective than anything. “I might carry you for a while because you are weak but in a week’s time, you might need to carry me,” is his main message.

Now, he spends his time talking about coping through applying resilience techniques which he puts to good use as a business consultant teaching businesses and individuals about resilience, leadership and changing people for good.

John has talked about his ‘fortunate’ time in training to be a fighter pilot at the age of 17 that taught him some valuable lessons and led to him living his childhood dream, flying around the world making himself a better person because of the strict and intense training. “The Air Force spends a lot of money teaching you resilience and ability to cope with pressure and along with experience with failing so many times in my life, and the skill is picking yourself up and treating everything as a lesson rather than a life sentence. A good decision is a product of experience, and an experience is a product of bad decision. I think that is all of us. We are built to learn. The difference is with tragic or extreme events. That often elicits an extreme emotion response or a freeze situation-where some people do nothing. That means we often assign a meaning to adversity and the wrong meaning can create a belief that can label us or others which means we can’t move forward from it. That is almost the definition of trauma and not having the ability to move on from something that may have happened years ago.”

The approach, he says, is to treat all events, good or bad in equal measure. “Just because you are successful something doesn’t mean you are stunningly better than anyone else. Equally, when you make a catastrophic error in life, it doesn’t make you a catastrophe as a human being, it means at that time at that place may have not lived up to expectations, you may have been vulnerable, or just didn’t you do what you wished you had done. But you take it, learn from it and move forward. Even the most successful people in life have made the worst mistakes but what they have done is learnt from it and reapplied a new way of doing things.”

This podcast and others dealing with mental health and wellbeing can be found here as well as other podcast platforms.

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