MCAS IWAKUNI, Iwakuni, Japan -- Retired Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee visited the air station Sept. 6, to talk with Marines and Sailors about his experiences as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
His speech focused on four different types of faith that helped him through his ordeal, and how it can be applied to everyday life.
"I realized that the key to my survival in prison was going to serve me just as well here at home on a daily basis," Cofee said. "The key to that survival was very simple -- faith."
On Feb. 3, 1966, Coffee and his crewman were flying a mission off the coast of North Vietnam when their RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. After turning the aircraft back out to sea, hydraulic pressure was lost and they were forced to ditch their aircraft in the Gulf of Tonkin. Coffee and his crewman were pulled from the water soon after by North Vietnamese. His crewmember was killed in the confusion on the beach as American aircraft fired on the Vietnamese boats. Coffee was taken to Hanoi to spend the next 7 years, and 9 days of his life in a three by six and a half foot prison cell.
Coffee said Marines could especially relate to faith through their motto "Semper Fi," always faithful.
The first Faith Coffee spoke of was the faith in himself he found while in the prisons of North Vietnam to simply recognize and pursue his duty as an American Naval officer to the very best of his ability.
The second aspect of faith, according to Coffee was the faith in one another, the people whom we work and serve with each day; in the people who we love and those fellow POW's in the cells around him.
"We never forget what a privilege it is for us to serve our country, to take advantage of the things it offers to us and how it allows us to be who we are and do what we do," he said about his third faith.
It is the institutions in place and the freedoms provided that give us faith in our country, he said.
Coffee said that early on in prison he thought, "Whenever I return home maybe there will be some opportunity to share something about this experience." He has been publicly speaking since Sept. 1985. Coffee retired after serving 28 years, and became a full-time speaker because he felt he had a responsibility to share what he learned about life as a POW.
The fourth aspect of faith Coffee talked about was having faith in God. When he first arrived in his cell there was a scratching on the wall that read, "God = strength."
Although Coffee's experiences have benefited his life, he said it doesn't take that kind of weird and bizarre experience in your life to benefit. He just happened to find it in this way.
"You know we all find ourselves, frequently, sometimes everyday trying to navigate through difficult and complex passages in our homes, personnel and professional lives," he said.
The professional life of service members sometimes challenges them beyond what they can do, and they sometimes fall short of their mission and they can feel they have let down those who depend on them the most.
"Think how unfortunate it would be if you weren't a member of a team to let down, and what a blessing to be part of an organization you feel so strongly about, that you feel badly if you let them down," Coffee said. "One of the most important things I learned in that experience that I talked about today, is that the most you can do is your best, and sometimes that comes up short, but you learn from that and do better next time."