MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - Rice mixed with rocks, bug-infested
bread and boiled pumpkin soup for dinner. Communicating through taps
on the wall. Alone in a cell, not knowing if you would ever see home
again. These were just a few of the hardships retired Navy Capts.
Gerald Coffee and Jim Hickerson recounted while visiting Wounded
Warrior Battalion West — Detachment Hawaii, March 27, 2013. The two
former prisoners of war were invited to speak with the wounded
warriors on the 40th anniversary of their release from Hanoi.
Retired Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee re-enacts a time when he
taught a new prisoner how to communicate via tapcode while visiting
Wounded Warrior Battalion West — Detachment Hawaii, March 27, 2013.
Coffee, a former prisoner of war who was held captive in Hanoi for
seven years, has spoken to many audiences and written a book about
his experiences. (U.S. Marine
Corps photo by Kristen Wong)
“Gentlemen, I would just like to say thank you for your
service, and thanks again for coming out and speaking to our
Marines and sailors,” said Lt. Col. Burl Hudson, officer in
charge of the detachment. “We really appreciate it, and it's
an honor for us to have you here.”
Coffee and Hickerson, who both served in the Vietnam
captured and held prisoner — Coffee for seven
years, Hickerson for five. The two were among more than 500
service members who endured torture, pain and filthy
conditions under the watchful eye of Vietnamese authorities.
Coffee, who currently lives in Honolulu, was born in
Modesto, Calif., and served more than 20 years in the Navy,
earning various military awards including a Silver Star, two
Bronze Stars and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Coffee was a POW in North Vietnam from February 1966 to
1973. He wrote about his experiences in “Beyond Survival:
Building on the Hard Times – A P.O.W.'s inspiring story.”
Coffee has been a guest speaker at countless venues,
including “Larry King Live” and NBC News.
who also currently lives in Honolulu, was a POW from
December 1967 to March 1973. Raised in Atlanta but calling
Lenoir, N.C., home, Hickerson was commissioned in 1956.
Among other decorations, Hickerson was awarded the Silver
Star, Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Members of the detachment, their families and additional
guests gathered in the wounded warriors' lounge to hear the
former POWs share their story. Coffee and Hickerson took
turns sharing personal experiences, including being captured
and days in the prison.
The prisoners at one point
even developed a system of communication called the “tap
code.” Each prisoner would knock on the wall a certain
number of times to spell out a message to the prisoner next
door. The tap code came in handy as prisoners heard and
spread U.S. news from the prison television. Prisoners also
used the tap code to offer tips that made cell life a little
easier and to wish each other good night.
the close of the talk, both men had words of wisdom to pass
on to the wounded warriors.
“Be honest about
yourself, what you've been through,” Coffee said.
“Understand that it's going to take some time and some
specific effort, some very specific effort to recover from
that sometimes but that doesn't change the fact that you
guys are very special and America loves you.”
Hickerson also offered words of encouragement to the wounded
warriors as they continue to recover.
“We are not
dealt the deck of cards that we like all the time,”
Hickerson said. “But if you have a foundation (you can
achieve your goals). I have the utmost faith and confidence
in you as Marines, especially as Marines, that you can do
it. I'm very proud to be with you here today.”
Hickerson and Coffee then opened the floor to questions.
Hudson presented them with plaques of appreciation, and
various members of the audience approached to shake the
hands of the guest speakers.
“I feel as if I could
relate to them in a way,” said Cpl. Aaron Metheringham, a
recovering Marine at the detachment. “I feel a camaraderie
there, a deeper camaraderie than a normal service member
Metheringham said he liked the way Coffee and
Hickerson presented their story with a positive perspective
despite the negative situation of being a prisoner of war.
“I feel privileged that they spoke with us,” said Capt.
Joe Elder, a recovering Marine at Wounded Warrior Battalion
West — Detachment Hawaii, who was among those attending.
Elder said even though the wounded warriors may have a
“long road to recovery,” listening to the former POWs speak
reaffirmed the idea of human resiliency. Hickerson, for
instance, remembered a fellow prisoner who still walked
despite a broken leg that healed in the wrong position and
commented on how much human bodies can endure. Coffee also
spoke about how prisoners supported each other, which helped
them leave prison in a stronger condition than one would
“It's about overcoming, not just surviving,
but rising above it all,” Elder said.
By USMC Kristen Wong
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