Former Vietnam POW shares inspiration with junior leaders

Former Navy pilot and prisoner of war (POW), retired Capt. Jerry Coffee, spoke with service members from across Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other regional commands during an Aug. 1 presentation at Sharkey Theater. U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Jason Swink

08/08/14

By MC1 Steven Khor, Pacific Submarine Force Public Affairs

Former Navy pilot and prisoner of war (POW), retired Capt. Jerry Coffee, spoke with service members at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other regional commands during an Aug. 1 presentation at Sharkey Theater that was organized by local junior officers.

Coffee, who spent seven years as a POW in North Vietnam, shared his key message of keeping the faith before an audience of Navy, Air Force, Marines, Army, civilian personnel and families and friends from the local area.

For the past 20 years, Coffee has used his experiences as a POW to help inspire thousands across the nation and to deliver his life lessons of leadership, resiliency and determination in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Lt. Matthew Beaudette, foreign engagement officer at Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet and one of the event co-organizers, noted that a chance to hear from such an inspirational speaker was invaluable, as Coffee explained in detail the events that shaped his life and what it meant to be an American.

“All those years, the communists tried to break my spirit, my confidence and my faith, and they couldn’t,” said Coffee.

“The reason they couldn’t do it? Believe me, a great part is right in front of me today,” he said, recognizing the hundreds of service men and women in the packed auditorium.

Coffee thanked the audience and stressed the importance of their leadership.

“Who you are and what you represent, what you symbolize that is what came through to me every single day and has helped me survive day-to-day. Who you are and what you do— thank you for that commitment, thank you so much for volunteering to take good care of our country, and thank you for the sacrifices that you have prepared to make.”

Coffee divided his key message of faith into four aspects: keeping faith in one’s self, keeping faith in one another, keeping faith in America, and keeping faith in God. Coffee used these aspects of faith as his key to staying alive as a POW.

Coffee first talked about the faith in one’s self and discussed using humor as a tool to get him through his long days in prison, to survive, and to return with honor. He urged the audience to adopt an atmosphere of humor in their daily activities at work and at home. One way Coffee used humor to aid him in his struggles was by writing poems in his cell. He had the audience chuckling with his first poem about biting off the head of a bug in his sandwich while in prison.

“It was awesome, pretty inspirational, how he survived,” said Navy Chief Hull Technician Ryan Cooper, assigned to the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.

Coffee spoke of keeping faith in one another and the challenges of communicating with fellow captives without actually talking to them. One of the main ways he and his fellow POWs communicated with each other was by using tap code. Using a series of knocks, and random sounds they made, the former POWs were able to communicate and help each other get through years of confinement in the infamous Hanoi prison. Coffee believed that faith in one another and being able to communicate with each other while incarcerated was vital to survival.

The former POW talked about the value of keeping faith in America. He said that despite hearing a lot of bad news about America through loudspeakers in prison every day, he kept faith in the country and used the “America’s fighting man” code of conduct to live by. It is these words that helped Coffee never give up hope.

“I will always remember, I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles that made my country free. I will trust in my God and the United States of America,” said Coffee in referring to the code.

The most personal aspect of his presentation is his faith in God. He talked about seeing the first two English words written on the wall in prison with an equal sign between them. It meant “God equals strength.” Coffee drew strength and inspiration through those words because it meant that he was never ever totally alone.

Every Sunday, two knocks echoed in the prison walls early in the morning which meant church call, and every man stood in his cell and recited to himself the Pledge of Allegiance of one nation under God. Coffee said faith in God gave him the courage and strength to continue every day.

Capt. John Russ, chief of staff for Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, said it was great for Coffee to take time out of his schedule to talk to the military here in Hawaii.

“To get leadership training like this from a person who had this kind of experience is fantastic,” said Russ. “I know all the junior officers, like I did, learned some great lessons, and it is a great way to look at life.”

Midshipman 1st Class Adam Shamma, in Hawaii on temporary duty from the U.S. Naval Academy, said this was his second time hearing Coffee speak.

“He always does a good job of summing up his experience and making it relevant to the people in the audience,” said Shamma. “He makes his experience applicable to us and especially to someone like me in the Naval Academy.”

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