An alum and war hero spoke to the whole school for the first time today, giving harrowing details of his life as a POW. He also described how his SBP experience taught him how to survive.
George Coker, class of ‘61, came in during Convocation and talked about his experience as a prisoner of war of the Viet Cong for six and a half years in what was then North Vietnam in a period that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Cmdr. Coker, a retired Naval Commander, told the hundreds gathered in the Shanley Gymnasium that in every second of every minute of every hour of his imprisonment he thought about giving up because of all the pain. But something kept him from quitting.
In those treacherous moments, he said, he thought of his days at St. Benedict’s and its motto, “Benedict’s Hates a Quitter.” “I thought,” Cmdr. Coker said, “I can’t quit.”
Cmdr. Coker, a recipient of the Navy’s highest award, the Naval Cross, said he knew his perserverence had to go deeper than just the physical.
“They can kill my body but they can’t kill me,” he said, with emotion. “That spirit is there and it will never give up.”
He came close to death several times before the torture was over in the Vietnamese prison, but he never ceded. The whole theme of his presentation was that a person can’t quit in life and to always do one’s best in everything.
“Lots of people know him because of his bravery and determination,” said Headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy ’63, who has known Cmdr.. Coker for decades and introduced him to the school with remarks.
Cmdr. Coker attended St. Benedict’s with Fr. Ed during his junior and senior year. He also lived with Fr. Ed’s family in Woodbridge for a time. Cmdr. Coker was born in Texas and then moved to New Jersey.
Cmdr. Coker along with Fr. Ed played football together when St. Benedict’s had a football team. He was also good wrestler. The Coker Bell, which is presently in the Shanley Gym, was named after him. It is an esteemed tradition for students to toll the Coker Bell when they reach a great accomplishment such as graduating, having a 4.0 grade point average, or if a sports team from Benedict’s wins a state championship.
Cmdr. Coker was first a naval officer and an A6 pilot. During his time in Vietnam he was shot down in 1966. He was then taken as a prisoner of war in Northern Vietnam. Before he was captured, he did what he was trained to do. He had to use a parachute to land and check himself for injuries. When the Viet Cong soldiers from the North found him, he did not give out information to them. He was beaten very badly in the torture sessions and the one thing that he kept thinking was to not give up.
Cmdr. Coker didn’t stay in prison for the rest of his time in Vietnam. He escaped with a fellow prisoner. They were able to get 50 miles before they were re-captured. They were able to get as far as they did, he said, by using skills like navigation, stealth, and sailing.
After all his experiences from the war, he described Vietnam as a lonely place.
Cmdr. Coker came home in 1973. As soon as he reached American land, he wanted good food like ice cream, potatoes, and steak. Then he wanted to smoke a cigar.
In an interview after his talk, Cmdr. Coker said that his war experiences changed him, made him a different person. He developed post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrible event. He described his behavior initially toward his wife as being “like a jerk.” His wife tried to help calm him down by touching but He pushed her away so his wife had to help him from a distance. He maintained that, whatever you were before all that pain, you can’t be that person anymore. A person cannot be the same, he said.
Some of his classmates from St. Benedict’s have been in the military too. He was not sure about the total number but he guessed about 29 or 30 of his classmates have served. Cmdr. Coker said that when he attended St. Benedict’s, he felt the same way that any student would feel about it. But now he recognizes the value in his experiences. “In a very sneaky way,” Cmdr. Coker said, “they were building character.”