What does courage look like?
Dozier writes about the spiritual core that helped him withstand captivity
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Repeatedly over the past month—in the wake of the exodus from Afghanistan, a resurgence of COVID and tragic storms across the U.S.—I have heard people raise the question: What does courage look like?
That question was raised again this week by author Larry Buxton in his Leading with Spirit video, where he explains that this is a question frequently asked by “supervisors, spouses, pastors, parents, managers and bosses.” In the daily stress of our turbulent times, Buxton says that all of us want to know: “What can we do to be more courageous in our lives and in the roles we play everyday?”
Those questions are answered with inspiring true stories in the new memoir by retired Major General James Dozier, Finding My Pole Star. Forty years ago, in late 1981, Dozier’s name and photographs circled the globe as he became the public face of European terrorist groups’ rage about America’s global power.
Dozier’s book begins with a scene that takes us right back to those suspenseful weeks in 1981. A terrorist group called The Red Brigades shocked the world by overpowering him and his wife in their apartment in Italy. At the time, he was the deputy Chief of Staff for NATO’s Southern European land forces—the highest-ranking American ever to have been captured in such a terrorist raid.
Chapter 1, called Ride of Terror and Beginnings, starts with this scene:
The Fiat hatchback made its way through the early evening, transporting me from Verona, Italy, to an unknown destination and to an equally unknown future. I was in the back, jammed into a steamer trunk, lying on my left side, knees to my chest, handcuffed with my hands behind my back. Each time I moved to make myself a little more comfortable, the handcuffs would tighten.
So, what does courage look like?
In reading Dozier’s new memoir, you will find out that it looks a lot like the values millions of us learn from our families, from our teachers (in Dozier’s case at West Point), from weekly attendance at our houses of worship and from public-service organizations such as Rotary International, where Dozier is an active member. While that may sound like an anti-climactic answer to the question of courage, Dozier weaves together the significance of all these everyday lessons into the rock-solid wisdom—the pole star—that led him to take a daring and ultimately successful approach toward his kidnappers.
Fortunately for all of us, he lived to tell this remarkable story.
What’s Your Life’s Calling?
For thousands of years, a pole star has been a key to celestial navigation. For Dozier, finding one’s own spiritual pole star is the quest of a lifetime.
“I start with the firm belief that all of us who live on this earth are here to serve some purpose. God put us here for a reason,” Dozier, 90, said in an interview about his new book and his hope that it may inspire readers, especially the young people he works in Florida JROTC programs, near he lives.
He continued, “Then, if we believe there is a reason we’re here, it becomes our life’s work to figure out what that reason is—and to pursue that purpose with all our energy, even though it might take years to identify that purpose. We have to search for it. And we have to do that to the absolute best of our ability.”
Like most of the world’s great quest stories, one’s personal vocation—one’s pole star—is not always easy for a person to discern. This truth is echoed in another memoir of a famous West Point graduate, retired Col. Cliff Worthy, whose story of emerging as one of West Point’s first Black graduates is told in The Black Knight.
“Yes, I think this was true for both Cliff and myself—our ultimate purpose wasn’t obvious to us for years,” Dozier said in our interview. “You might think that a military career was always my career goal from the very start of my life—but, like Cliff, my life unfolded as the result of many fits and starts. Like Cliff, friends and mentor were vitally important to me all the way along this journey.”
Why is this such an important point?
Because many young Americans don’t develop a sense of vocation, researchers tell us. A sense of vocation can transform our lives, give us purpose and even help us to stay healthier longer in life, research shows. One particular group of men and women struggling with that challenge today are veterans who are trying to transition out of military service, writes military sociologist and Florida Gulf Coast University professor Christine Wright-Isak in her endorsement of Dozier’s new book.
“In my ten years of assisting young U.S. combat veterans from the 21st century Middle Eastern conflicts, I have learned from them the critical importance of their developing a personally important vision for their lives as they returned. Therefore, it is very important that the latest generation of Americans have the chance to hear this story,” she writes.
Dozier on the Importance of Truth
One of the earliest values Dozier learned from his family and his church was truth—a value that he immediately recognized and embraced when he learned that it was central to West Point’s Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” That pledge is supposed to be part of the bedrock undergirding West Point’s motto of “duty, honor, country.”
“Truth is a very tough standard to live with,” he said in our interview. “And I’m so embarrassed that West Point has just gone through another cheating scandal.” A cheating scandal in 1976 shocked the nation and the Army—then more than four decades passed without incident. The disruptions of COVID isolation are largely credited with the 2020 scandal. West Point officials discovered that dozens of cadets cheated on a math exam that they took remotely due to the pandemic.
“That’s why I think we have to keep reminding ourselves: There is no excuse for not telling the truth,” Dozier said.
Clearly, the reminders in his book are more timely than ever. Too many Americans—even some West Point cadets—have become un-moored from the pillars of community life that reinforce such basic values as truthfulness.
The Rotary Test: ‘Is it the truth?’
Just as Dozier felt right at home when he first encountered West Point’s emphasis on truthfulness, later in life he recognized that same moral pillar in the century-old service organization Rotary International. At that point in his long life, Dozier was transitioning from the military to become a leader in Florida agri-business.
“You could call me a turn-around specialist,” he said. Initially, he was asked to tackle a management shakeup in a company that ran 30,000 acres of citrus groves. Among his other leadership roles, Dozier worked with a nonprofit that provides transportation for needy families.
“The business and nonprofit worlds are the same as the military in a lot of ways: Your word had better be your bond,” he said. “That’s why I included Rotary in my book.”
As an active member of Rotary, he explains the group’s ethical code. That includes the famous Four-Way Test that Rotarians agree to use in their personal and professional relationships. That test now has been translated into more than 100 languages and is recited at meetings around the world. According to Rotary, the test is:
Of the things we think, say or do:
Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
“Truth develops trust and, throughout my entire life, truth and trust have been intermingled—even when the Red Brigades held me captive and decided to put me into a kind of public trial they wanted to stage to try to show what they thought were American war crimes,” Dozier said. Even though his life was at stake, Dozier told his captors: “You can put me on trial, but you may not like what I have to say. I will not lie to you.”
“And there was something else about trust that I had to remember in that situation,” he said in our interview. “I was trusted not to disclose any information that was classified. And I told my captors that I would never disclose any classified information while they held me captive. I held to that. I never did.”
Dozier on the Importance of Church
As Dozier tells his story in Finding My Pole Star, he shows how that pole star is most clearly visible through the lens of his faith. And that faith depends on a lifetime of involvement with churches from his childhood until today. Currently, he attends Edison Congregational Church in Fort Meyers, Florida, which is coming up on its own centennial in 2025.
In the section of his book on attending West Point, for example, he explains how he carefully weighed his own religious commitments in light of the diversity of other cadets’ faiths. “As I talked with my friends about their religious commitments, and as I thought about religion in new ways, I began to realize why my mother had emphasized certain things in my early religious education. And I think that’s a common experience. We may start with a faith we grow up with at home—but then all of us go through this process of questioning and learning what makes sense in our own lives. It was really at West Point, talking with my friends about the choices they were making, that I really began to nail down the beliefs that I would follow.
“Like the values of truth and trust and West Point’s ‘honor, duty, country,’ my faith really has shaped my whole life,” Dozier said.
Plus, public health research around the world now shows that active involvement in a congregation contributes to health, wellbeing and longevity.
“I certainly agree with that,” Dozier said. “Our church has a wonderful minister who inspires us. We have wonderful church organizations in which we stay active and we reach out to help other people. Since I’m 90 years old right now, I’m living proof of how important it is to remain sociable every single week. I can tell you: The longer you can maintain your social and religious relationships in life, the better off you are.”
In fact, Dozier says, he took the time to write this memoir—assisted by his friend Commander Douglas Quelch—to share this kind of valuable life lesson with others.
“You could call a lot of what I have learned ‘common sense values’—values that a lot of us grew up with and then develop further throughout our lives—but the truth right now is that we’ve got millions of young people who have not had as much opportunity to learn those values,” Dozier said. “Today, one of the most important things I do in my life is work with young people. So, if I had to describe an ideal reader for this book, I hope it would be young folks who might pick up through my stories how my pole star developed.
“We all face disappointments, setbacks and failures in life. How we respond to those fits and starts is what builds our character,” he said. “No one starts out in life with a clear-cut pole star. That vision develops throughout your life through the influences of people we encounter along the way. I am hoping that, through this book, I might be one of those positive influences in the lives of readers.”
Care to Learn More?
Watch this brief video about Dozier’s memoir, Finding My Pole Star: