But on the other hand if they didn't repent and show "progress," then they were demonstrating a "bad attitude," and were therefore hardened criminals and subject to the severest punishments.
This was when the torture began. And this was also when leadership stepped up.
Among those present is retired Capt. Charles Plumb. The day before the ceremony, he spoke to the chief petty officer's mess and wardroom of USS Stockdale, telling them about his experience.
"The first prison cell we were all introduced to in Vietnam was eight feet long and eight feet wide," said Plumb, who spent nearly six years as a POW during the Vietnam War.
He could remember perfectly the dimensions of his cell. Three steps in one direction before he ran into a wall, and then having the opportunity to turn around and walk three more the other way.
"Inside my new home I had nothing to do, no books to read, no window to look out, no TV, telephone, video, Blackberry, Bluetooth- I didn't have a pencil or piece of paper. For 2,103 days. And I was a short timer," he said.
When he first communicated in prison with another prisoner, he was already in immense physical pain from the harsh treatment he'd received. But he was in worse pain mentally.
Plumb wondered if he could ever go home. He felt that he had besmirched his country. He could never face his fellow fighter pilots, who must have been stronger than him. Could he even face his family?
A small wire was poking through a hole of his tiny desolate cell, scratching and demanding attention. He knew it must be another American. He desperately wanted to speak with someone, but at the same time, the shame was so overwhelming that he just wanted to sit in squalid isolation in the corner.
He remembered thinking: I bet that guy is tougher than I am. I bet he didn't spill his guts. He didn't want to face that, to compare that with his own experience, and how weak that would make him.
Eventually, he broke down and reached out. The need for human contact was too strong. But he still felt the guilt, and as he communicated, slowly and tediously in code, the guilt finally overflowed and overwhelmed him.
"I have a confession," Plumb said to the other POW. "You may not even want to speak to me after I tell you what I've done. I broke. I spilled my guts. I wasn't nearly as strong as I wanted to be."
From the other end, expressed laboriously and determinedly through the same code, came a reply that split through his guilt like lightning.
"Hell, everybody's spilled their guts. None of us was as strong as we thought we could be," said the other POW.
He told Plumb there was good news in the camp. They had great leadership. Guys like Stockdale and Lawrence. They weren't prisoners. They were still fighters. It was a new, redefined mission, but they were not on the defensive.
"We're still fighting this war."
Stockdale and Lawrence:
At the ceremony, Alvarez is trying to put into words what it was about their resistance that strengthened their spirits as it also broke their bodies.
In his earlier days, Stockdale had studied the writings of those who'd survived the gulags of the Soviet Union. He understood the importance of physical resistance.
"We had to try by making them hurt us, because we learned soon enough that compliance that is extracted by brute force is in no way damaging to the human spirit," said Alvarez.
Those hurts may have physically broken their bodies, but their spirits remained unharmed by not giving in to mere threats.
In this new theater of operations, their heroes included many of the former POWs in the audience, he said.
“Ordinary guys who made the prison guards torture them for submission one day, and then come back and make them start all over again the next time, and again the next, and this went on for years.” Alvarez said.
He said that in his opinion, for this situation at least, it was the right tactic.
"It enabled us to return home with the important elements of our personal character intact. Our self-respect, integrity, loyalty, patriotism, and honor," he said.
And he said they were able to do this because of leadership. These were men who put the best interest of others ahead of themselves.
"Men who would themselves do first what they asked others to do," he said.
Men like Stockdale, who came perilously close to dying in the struggle of physical resistance.
"He was the rock," said Alvarez. "As the senior naval officer he accepted full responsibility and he never wavered."
Men like William Lawrence. Athlete, scholar, aviator, and poet, he composed a poem about his home state, "Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee," while in solitary confinement. It was adopted by Tennessee as its official state poem in 1973.
He not only memorized the rank and name of every POW, he also developed the "tap code" that they used to covertly communicate without the knowledge of their captors.
"One of the finest persons I have ever known. In my view, he was the model of what a Naval officer-and a gentleman- should be," Alvarez said.
After the war, both Stockdale and Lawrence stayed close to all of those who were held captive.
"They never forgot us, and they were always there to help," he said.
"There are ceremonies being held all over the country today," said Alvarez. "It is a demonstration of the gratitude and the respect that we as a nation have for those who served and sacrificed under the most difficult circumstances."
For the crews of the two vessels, Alvarez wanted them to know that their ships bear the names of two of the finest and ablest leaders in the history of the Navy.
Alvarez said that there was nothing particular about himself that made him more qualified to speak at the ceremony than any of the other former POWs present.
"I think we had many heroes, some that are sitting out there in the audience," he said. But he qualified that statement.
"Our heroes were not John Waynes," he said. "They were ordinary guys, just like yourselves." And they endured years of horrific treatment, fighting their new war, maintaining their integrity and sense of self through it all.
All ordinary guys. All heroes.
But for Stockdale and Lawrence, there were no qualifications. For them, Alvarez required only three words to describe their stature and significance:
"Giants among heroes."