You might remember the incident in April 2009 when a band of Somali pirates hijacked a container ship off the east coast of Africa, then escaped with a small lifeboat, taking the vessel’s captain as a hostage.
The pirates beat Captain Richard Phillips and held guns to his head, carrying out mock executions over several days before Navy SEAL snipers killed three of the four pirates and rescued Phillips from almost certain death.
Phillips later wrote a memoir and Tom Hanks portrayed him in the Academy Award-nominated movie “Captain Phillips.”
Looking back, I’m thinking, man, there must be an easier way to get to meet Tom Hanks.
When I got Rich Phillips on the phone the other day, I mentioned that after reading his book and watching the film and knowing now in great detail what he went through, it was good to talk to him — and, at this point, it must be good for him to still be able to talk to anybody.
“It’s always good to talk to people,” he said with a laugh, noting the movie actually underplayed the abuse he experienced, saying it was “a lot worse” than what you see on the screen.
“I was very lucky. Thank God for the military, that’s what I say. Something I get to do is shine a little light on how great they are and how well-trained and capable they are.”
Phillips will be in Richmond on Thursday evening as the featured speaker of the Boy Scouts of America Heart of Virginia Council’s annual Friends of Scouting fundraising dinner at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
Tickets remain available. A contribution of $300 is requested to attend the dinner, an amount that will support one Scout in the program for a full year.
Phillips said he was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout and the sort of preparation he learned in those organizations, as well as their emphasis on the importance of being “an overall jack-of-all-trades and knowing a lot of different things,” have served him well throughout his life, including during those harrowing days almost a decade ago.
“It’ll be 10 years in April,” he said. “With the daily news cycle the way it is, I’m amazed people still remember.”
Phillips, 63, is still on the speaking circuit, telling his story and talking about the lessons he learned through it all.
“The main point is that we’re all stronger than we know and we can take more than we think,” he said over the phone from British Columbia, where he was traveling. “The only time all is lost is when we choose to give up.”
He also noted: “Teamwork can overcome most obstacles.”
Yet, in the moment, he wasn’t overly optimistic he would survive. Or, as he put it, “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d make it out of there.”
He drew comfort from sayings his parents used to utter over and over when he was growing up.
“My mother would always say, ‘This too shall pass.’ I kept that in mind, no matter how bad it was. My father told me, ‘You just do the best you can.’ If you fail, you did the best you could. That’s all you can do.”
Phillips spent 30 years as a merchant mariner and was captain of the Maersk Alabama, ferrying food, among other cargo, when it was hijacked. Remarkably, despite what he went through, Phillips returned to captain future cargo ships around the world, including some in the same waters around the Horn of Africa where the hijacking occurred.
He only took about 14 months off, and he said he would have been back sooner had he not been sidetracked by things like starting on his book and visiting the White House to meet with President Barack Obama.
Physically and emotionally, he bounced back quickly, saying he “never dwelled on” what happened and didn’t even experience nightmares.
He’s retired now, though he remains involved with his former work by, among other things, raising money for scholarships for students aspiring to a maritime career.
He still lives in Underhill, a small town in northern Vermont.
And despite the brief role he played in a life-and-death drama on the world stage, he believes nothing has really changed.
“I was a regular guy before, and I hope I’m still regular,” he said with a laugh.