Support our mission
Officials pray Friday during a ceremony at the Pentagon on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Pictured, from left to right, are Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee, who was a POW during the Vietnam War.

Officials pray Friday during a ceremony at the Pentagon on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Pictured, from left to right, are Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee, who was a POW during the Vietnam War. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

Officials pray Friday during a ceremony at the Pentagon on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Pictured, from left to right, are Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee, who was a POW during the Vietnam War.

Officials pray Friday during a ceremony at the Pentagon on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Pictured, from left to right, are Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee, who was a POW during the Vietnam War. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

Retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee speaks Friday morning at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony outside the Pentagon. Coffee spent seven years as a POW in Vietnam after he was shot down on a combat mission.

Retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee speaks Friday morning at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony outside the Pentagon. Coffee spent seven years as a POW in Vietnam after he was shot down on a combat mission. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

The POW/MIA Flag flies over the Pentagon on Friday on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. It is viewed over the shoulder of Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The POW/MIA Flag flies over the Pentagon on Friday on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. It is viewed over the shoulder of Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

A color guard carries the national colors and flags representing each U.S. military service during a ceremony Friday at the Pentagon on National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

A color guard carries the national colors and flags representing each U.S. military service during a ceremony Friday at the Pentagon on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Jerry Coffee, a retired Navy captain, leaned on his cane in his left hand as he tapped on a podium with his right, slowly spelling out the words that have become a mantra for him and other former prisoners of war, “never forget.”

Those words emblazed on the United States’ official flag honoring the more than 140,000 American servicemembers who served in POW camps and the tens of thousands more who went missing, reflect the commitment the U.S. military maintains to them, the 83-year-old former Navy pilot said Friday morning during the Pentagon’s annual National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony.

“We never gave up, and we never gave in,” Coffee said of his seven years as a prisoner in infamous North Vietnamese “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp, where he was taken after his plane was shot down over Vietnam. “[This] means a really great deal to every single one of us.”

Tap codes, like the one he demonstrated, were important for POWs, Coffee recalled. When a prisoner was close to giving in, a tap of “God bless America” or “hang in there,” could help him find the strength to carry on.

“When you knew the guy in the cell next to you was down and hurting -- his feet locked in ankle cuffs at the foot of a concrete slab, his hands tucked tightly behind him, and he’d been like that for a week or a month – you get up to your wall and you tap to him,” Coffee said. “It was incredibly important.”

The annual ceremony on the Pentagon’s groomed, green parade field just outside its eastern wing is the Defense Department’s opportunity to honor past POWs and showcase its continued commitment to bring home all of the men and women who have served overseas, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.

There are no known American POWs today, but some 83,000 servicemembers remain missing in action from the world wars, Korean War and Vietnam War.

During the past year, 135 bodies of American servicemembers who had long been missing in action were recovered and returned to the United States through the work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Carter said.

“We won’t stop – I won’t stop – until we achieve the fullest possible accounting for our missing,” he said. “Right now, far too many families still have to wonder about the fates of their fathers and grandfathers, their husbands and daughters, their brothers and sisters.”

For today’s troops, that commitment means doing everything possible to keep from losing the body of a fallen soldier, said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We will forever honor our sacred duty,” he said. “We will never leave a fallen warrior on the battlefield…We will never forget.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

author picture
Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
twitter Email

Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up