MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- Retired Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee, a Vietnam veteran held captive as a prisoner of war for seven years, visited Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni to talk to servicemembers about his experiences and give a motivational speech at the Sakura Theater Aug. 20, 2013.
The professional military education opportunity lasted for an hour and included a meet and greet at the conclusion of Coffee’s speech.
“I feel it’s important because so few of us have an experience like this,” said Coffee. “When I left Vietnam, I felt a definite responsibility to capitalize on that experience and to share the insights that come with going through it, but most importantly, to explain that we all have the power, not just to survive like that, but to make it work in our favor.”
Coffee started his speech by telling servicemembers about his life in the Hoa Lo Prison and how it was important to stay physically fit, despite the inadequate diet.
“I ended up walking miles a day in that tiny little cell three steps at a time,” said Coffee. “I would start exercises early in the morning before it got too hot outside.”
Coffee then spoke about some key factors that helped make his survival as a POW possible.
“I began to realize, while I was in prison, that my survival would be dependent on my faith, when I say that people tend to think it’s spiritual faith and that’s part of it, but I mean faith in myself, faith in my fellow prisoners there…and faith in our country,” said Coffee.“I never gave up the hope. I always knew that I would be a free man. I never lost faith that I would come home and that made a huge difference.”
Coffee said that the experience made him a better person. When he finally did come home, he met his seven-year-old son for the first time, completed his master’s degree in political science and even wrote a book to elaborate on his experiences.
“I get really positive feedback from my book,” said Coffee. “My wife just told me that I got another email from a young female in the military who said that it’s the most inspirational book she’s ever read. That makes me feel really good, but it’s also a feeling of accomplishment, that all those years in a communist prison weren’t just for nothing.”
Coffee’s wife, Susan Page, is a journalist who writes a column for a newspaper in Hawaii, where she and Coffee currently live.
“I’m a story teller, and I have a great story,” said Page. “I think my role is to help him tell his story and encourage him.”
Telling his story is something that Coffee said he feels obligated to do and enjoys doing.
“It’s my way to give back,” said Coffee. “The information that I want to impart today is that even though we may not be tested often, when we are tested we can pass. We can pass with flying colors. We can do far more than just pass. The fact is that we all have it in us to survive horrendous circumstances. If I can plant that seed of belief somewhere in your mind that had it been you with the little rubber tired sandals all those years, you could have survived and gone beyond survival for the very same reasons that I did. There is nothing special about me. I want to help people to understand that there is good reason to have faith in themselves, and that you can overcome obstacles that you couldn’t even imagine.”