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Captain Gerald Coffee    

Former Vietnam Prisoner of War and Inspirational Speaker

Born in Modesto, California, Gerald (Jerry) Coffee joined the Navy in 1957 after graduating from UCLA with a degree in Commercial Art.

In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis as an F-8 Crusader pilot, Jerry was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying low level reconnaissance missions over Cuba, taking the photos ultimately used by the United States UN ambassador to prove the existence of Soviet missiles there.

In February of 1966, while flying combat missions over North Vietnam, his RA5-C reconnaissance jet was downed by enemy fire. He parachuted safely but was captured immediately. For the next seven years he was held as a POW in the Communist prisons of North Vietnam. After his repatriation in February, 1973, Jerry returned to operation duties. He retired from active duty in the Navy after 28 years of service.

His military decorations include the Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars, the Air Medal, two Purple Hearts, and the Vietnam Service Medal with 13 stars.

For the past 20 years, Captain Gerald Coffee, has been considered one of the nation’s top speakers, addressing thousands of people a year  across a broad spectrum of corporate America and to international groups as well.

In his message of going “Beyond Survival,” Jerry draws not only from insights derived from the prison experience, but also from the perspective of his unique experiences since then: earning a masters degree in political science from Cal-Berkeley, studying at the prestigious National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Navy command and staff assignments, and his continuing interaction with hundreds of America’s corporations and associations as a professional speaker.

In a poll of corporate meeting planners, Captain Coffee was selected as one of America’s Top Ten Speakers. And, the prestigious Million Dollar Round Table selected him as one of its top twelve most popular, highest-rated, main platform speakers for the past 20 years.

He holds the National Speaker’s Association’s highest rating of CSP and membership in the Speaker’s Hall of Fame (CPAE).

His numerous civilian awards include the George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge.

Jerry is a highly respected commentator on current political, economic, and social issues, seeing most in terms of opportunities yet to be seized by heroic leadership. He has appeared on Larry King Live (twice), Talk Back Live, NBC News, and numerous radio and TV talk shows. His book, Beyond Survival, condensed by Readers Digest, is on audio-cassette by Nightingale-Conant, and was made into an award-winning play called The Prisoner.

Captain Coffee and his wife, Susan, a journalist, reside in Aiea, Hawaii.  Between them they have 6 adult children, 7 grandchildren and 2 yellow Labs.  Their lanai overlooks Pearl Harbor and is directly across from Camp Smith where a giant American flag dedicated to America’s POWs and MIAs waves 24/7.

Speech Topics


Overcoming Adversity: Beyond Survival

Teamwork: Partnerships to Win

Leadership: Empowering & Inspiring Others Time for Heroes

Beyond Survival

Captain Coffee gives a moving account of his incredible experience from capture to ultimate release. His faith - in himself, others, his country, and his God - was the key to turning an unbelievably difficult, potentially devastating experience into an opportunity for personal growth. Captain Gerald Coffee is an inspiring example of the power of the human spirit to survive and triumph over the most adverse circumstances. His story conveys a positive message that we each have the potential to survive any ordeal, overcome any obstacle, achieve any goal. After hearing him, those in the audience will look at their challenges and adversities in a totally different way.

Captain Coffee uses "tap code" to personalize his message. Prisoners were forbidden from communicating with each other, so they employed the centuries old prisoners tap code based on this alphabet matrix to tap out covert messages to each other on the walls of their cells. Captain Coffee demonstrates tap code to illustrate the importance of communication, both in prison as well as in corporate and personal lives.

HIS MESSAGE FOCUSES ON ...

COMMUNICATION Prisoners weren't allowed to communicate, but we still found ways to do it. We created a new language. Tap Code. It consisted of five rows of five letters each. By tapping on our cell walls, we passed information, poetry, even learned new languages.

LEADERSHIP We kept faith in the leadership of our senior officers, who taught us that commitment, courage and character really count. In solitary, I learned that leadership starts with self knowledge and understanding, accountability, and integrity.

MASTERING CHANGE I suddenly found myself thrust into a totally foreign, hostile environment with no source of strength except that which I found within me. Ultimately, that was enough.

TEAMWORK Our motto in prison was simple: Unity Over Self. Our very survival depended on it. It was based upon faith in and loyalty to one another. Unity over self...not a bad corporate motto.

HUMOR My first shower was in a dank, converted cell with water dripping down from a rusty pipe. Totally dejected, I looked up to let the water splash on my face and saw the words scratched on the wall by another POW before me: Smile you're on Candid Camera.

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY I walked several miles a day in my tiny cell - three steps and a turn. I vowed to find the purpose in my adversity and pain and come home better, tougher, and stronger in every way. Our mission in prison was to not just survive, but go beyond survival and return with honor.

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