Self-Made Prisons: How to Go Beyond Survival

Self-Made Prisons: How to Go Beyond Survival

The other side of getting shot down and how to change your mindset to overcome adversity

How to Shift into Resilience

It’s not every day that a well-known retired Air Force Captain calls you on the phone to ask if you have time to meet for coffee at the infamous Breaker’s Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. I knew Captain Coffee lived in Hawaii and had traveled a long distance, so I rearranged my schedule and made time!

Soon I was driving up along the winding, picturesque A1A road, with the Atlantic Ocean on my right and the impressive mansions on my left. I had actually never met Captain Coffee, but I had interviewed him by phone for my radio show, “Triumphs of the Human Spirit”, just a few months prior. He had flown here to be a keynote speaker at a business convention being held at the Breakers. I knew that crowd was about to be touched by an unbelievable, inspiring story by an amazing man.

Captain Gerald “Jerry” Coffee was a Navy pilot who was deployed to Vietnam with RVAH-13 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. In 1966, while flying a reconnaissance mission, his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. He was a POW for over seven years and for most of that time, he was in isolation at the prison they called the “Hanoi Hilton”.

Getting through Hard Times and changing mindset to overcome adversity

Captain Coffee had to endure absolutely horrific conditions and unimaginable torture. The results of that experience, and how he was able to get through those gruesome seven years in prison, is beautifully written about in his book, Beyond Survival, and Jerry Coffee immediately became one of the top ten requested speakers on the motivational speaker circuit.

“How did you handle that length of time in prison like that, Jerry?” was one of the first questions I asked him during my radio show.

“A day at a time, Nancy.” he said. “I know that sounds trite, but honestly, it was a day at a time. There was a real crossover point when my prayers changed after about the first three or four months. And you can bet I was doing a lot of praying during those first several months I was there. I quit saying, ‘Why me, God?’ You know the victim role. And I started saying, ‘Show me, God. Show me what I’m supposed to do with this.’

“And I knew that I was being prepared for something, but I would pray, ‘Help me to know how I’m supposed to use this experience. To use it in a positive way somehow. To go home, whenever that might be, a better, stronger, smarter person in every possible way that I can.

To go home as a better Naval officer, a better American citizen, a better Christian, a better husband and a better father.’

“And that was truly the crossover point, Nancy, because then my mindset was directed towards some purpose. If I could believe that the whole thing was counting for something positive, and not just some kind of void or a vacuum in my life, it made every day much more manageable. And it was easier to endure the things that I had to endure because I knew there was some higher purpose.”

“Jerry, how were you able to maintain that commitment and that incredible attitude, day after day, when you were in complete isolation?” I asked him.

“Well, when I speak to various audiences around the country, I pinpoint the concept of faith being truly the key to my survival there. And as it turns out, it was for most of my friends {in prison} as well. When I say faith, I know again, that sounds trite as well. Automatically when we hear the word faith, we think of religious or spiritual faith.

“But I’m talking about four kinds of faith, really.

  1. Faith in myself.
  2. Faith in my fellow man … starting out with the men in the other cells around me, because we really depended upon one another. We communicated with each other by tapping on the walls in code.
  3. Faith in my country and her purpose and cause at any given time.
  4. And of course faith in my God.

“And that was truly the key to my survival. And the longer I was there, the more I was able to use faith in a positive way. Honestly, I never really realized I was doing that while I was in the prison circumstances.

Shirting your mindset to get through tough times and to overcome adversity and feeling trapped in prison It didn’t occur to me until I was repatriated, finally, and came home and had a chance to look back in retrospective to realize that that had truly been the key to my survival. And the beauty of it is, it works for us in our daily lives just like it did for me in prison.”

Jerry continued, “And you say, ‘I don’t know if I could have possibly done that.’ And of course, none of us know until it happens. And yet we’ve all, for the most part, gone through and survived adversities in our lives that we never would have guessed would come our way. We can look back and say, ‘Yes, I survived that.’

And as we build up these small victories in our lives, they all accumulate to the realization that, ‘Hey, I’m pretty damned tough! And I can really get through these things.’ And not just survive them, but to go beyond survival, to emerge from them a better, more capable person than I might have been otherwise.”

“Jerry,” I asked, “you wrote in your book that you felt a lot of guilt and shame when the North Vietnamese were torturing you and had been able to get out of you information other than your name, rank and serial number. How can you possibly feel a sense of guilt and shame in such inhumane circumstances?” 

“You know,” he answered, “you come in there as a young Navy pilot (I was 32 when I got shot down) and you just think that you’re invincible. And you’re trained to abide by the code of conduct, which stipulates you only give them certain information. And you go popping into the prison experience thinking that that’s all you’re going to do. It doesn’t take very long to find out that there are people willing to pull all the stops and that they can make you do almost anything that they want you to do.

Then the key becomes to try to minimize the game that they can achieve by having you there at their mercy for such a long time. I learned to become a good actor, how to lie well and to divert their attention and those kinds of things.

“But early on, you know, I felt guilty about my crewman being killed, I felt guilty about getting shot down and I felt guilty about what I was putting my family through.

“I felt guilty about not being as tough as I thought I was going to be. It was a classic set up for guilt and shame. And you begin to realize you’ve got to get a hold of things here and put things in perspective. And ultimately you realize that you can only ask yourself to do your best.

“And that generally, even out in the real world, we’re so hard on ourselves. We don’t give ourselves any slack. We try to meet other people’s expectations and live up to those. And then we put further harsh expectations and conditions on ourselves as well. We set ourselves up for guilt and shame. Those feelings are just as counterproductive as hatred and bitterness.”

To clarify, I said, “We don’t allow ourselves to be human.”

“Exactly,” Jerry confirmed. “We deny our humanness.”

“And what I have found, Jerry,” I added, “is that we then don’t allow other people to be human either. We kind of set those unrealistic expectations that we have on ourselves on to other people. And of course, we are usually disappointed by them … as we are with ourselves.”

“Exactly. Yeah,” he agreed.

As I was sitting outside under a palm tree, enjoying the breeze coming off the ocean while Jerry and I enjoyed coffee, I couldn’t help but think how amazing it was that he had gone from seven horrific years starving in isolation in the Hanoi Hilton to now being one of our country’s top speakers, totally free and enjoying coffee on the patio of the Breakers Hotel!

He could have given up. He could have committed suicide or just allowed himself to starve to death, but just when he thought his life couldn’t possibly get any worse, he was released from that prison and his life became an unimaginable success! 

“So, Jerry,” I said with a smile, “How does it feel to be sitting here right now? I mean, you’ve gone from the Hanoi Hilton to the Breakers Hotel?”

“I can’t even find the words to express to you, Nancy, how magnificent this feels!” he said with a huge smile on his face. “You just can’t even begin to imagine. I mean, just to take a sip of this wonderful, hot coffee in total freedom here in the beautiful USA! My experience has given me the precious gift of tremendous appreciation for all the little, simple things in life!”

“So, what is your speech about today? I mean, how will you use your unique experience so that it will relate to the average businessman and woman in this audience today?” I asked.

“Well, you know, Nancy, a lot of us are what I call Prisoners of Woe. We all need encouragement, hope and advice to help us out of our own self-made prisons of hell. That is the essence of my speech today.”

Self-made prisons; the prison of an unhappy marriage, a miserable job, caring for aging parents, stuck at home raising kids, addictions, overeating, sporting accidents, diseases from not taking care of ourselves, etc.

The list is endless and we can all stay stuck as Prisoners of Woe, or we can shift ourselves deep inside by changing the language we use, re-framing the meaning of the situation, keeping faith that the experience will have a purpose and choosing to go beyond survival.

Gerald Coffee – Liberty University Convocation


Nancy Dye is a breakthrough mindset coach and resilience trainer helping people to transform the quality of their lifestyles. Nancy trained with RMT (Robbins-Madanes Training) and has over 30 years as a weight loss, peak performance, and sober coach. She specializes in “jumping over” adversity, addictions and diseases, and transitioning through life stages.

With a career in sales and marketing, and having been coached by the top sales trainers in the corporate world, as well as by some of the most elite coaches in the world of sports, Nancy redesigns the inside lives of executives, entrepreneurs, veterans, and athletes.

Nancy is married to Jack Miles, a former Olympian gymnast who is inducted into four athletic Hall of Fames. For one-on-one coaching or information on her “Mindset to Walk on Fire” workshop, Nancy can be reached at