Army soldier believed dead in Vietnam War reunited with brothers in arms 52 years later

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:

A Southwest Florida veteran is reconnecting with old Army friends after being separated from his brothers in arms for more than 50 years.

It took this long because Jim Coffey’s friends thought he died in Vietnam and today, they said it was like seeing a ghost.

Coffey, in the Army 4th Infantry Division at the time, was sent to Vietnam in June 1968. He was just a scared kid, determined to serve and survive.

“I knew this was going to be a year of tremendous sacrifice and keeping my head up,” Coffey recalled. “I wanted to make it through the 12 months.”

Also serving with him was 19-year old Don Woodruff, known by his friends as Woody, and it didn’t take long for the two to bond.

“Jim and I just hit it off,” said Woodruff, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. “It worked. It worked. He was a great guy. I loved him.”

Nine months into his time in Vietnam, Coffey’s life changed forever.

While working in the field, his infantry engaged with the enemy, they took enemy fire.

“They said, ‘Coffey, let’s go!’ I was the first to go.” Coffey recalled, but as he raced into battle, he got shot in the head. “I get hit. It just came. I don’t know… And that’s the last I remember.”

An Army medic declared him dead, after what appeared to be his lifeless body lying on the ground in the middle of a firefight.

Woodruff asked the medic for help, “He said I can’t do anything for him. He’s gone.”

The firefight continued.

Woodruff couldn’t live with the thought of leaving his friend’s body there so he threw Coffey over his shoulder and rushed him to a supply chopper while getting shot at the entire time.

Woodruff yelled, “Take him! Don’t wait for a medevac, he has to go now!”

He put him on that chopper and thought that was the end, and possibly the last time he would see his friend.

“I looked at him as the helicopter… I said goodbye … Honestly, I thought he was dead.” Woodruff added.

Thanks to Woodruff, his helmet, numerous surgeries, and seemingly endless physical therapy,  Coffey survived that gunshot wound.

He ended up working for 40 years with the Department of the Treasury, before retiring to Southwest Florida.

Coffey’s platoon members didn’t know any of that until this year.

The men he served with noticed he wasn’t in the Vietnam casualties database.

They quickly realized he had been alive this whole time.

After Coffey’s old brothers in arms found and reconnected with him, it wasn’t long before he found a phone number for his old friend – Don Woodruff.

“I’ll never forget this,” Coffey said, emotionally, recalling the phone conversation. “Hello, is this Woody from Vietnam?” Who’s this? Jim Coffey – It went silent.”

“I really don’t have the vocabulary to express what it felt like or how to describe it,”
Woodruff said, “In a lot of ways I’d felt guilty. You know, like when you feel you should’ve done more.”

After weeks of talking on the phone, the two reunited at Woodrufs home.

“I gotta compose myself,” Coffey said about the reunion. “He came out and he was crying. Grabbed me, hugged me. The most emotional time I’ve ever had in my life. I’ll never forget that. I owe my life to him.”

To help paint a picture, Woodruff said, “Imagine having a brother or a parent that passed away, and then you meet them again someday.”

Veterans Day does have special meaning to Coffey, a man whose friends still lovingly call him a ghost.

But rather than reflect on his own journey on a day meant to honor the armed forces, his mind goes to others who have served. “There’s a lot out there that are heroes too. But people say thank you for your service, so I just say thank you. I don’t know what else to say.”

Jim Coffey says he hopes for two things on Veterans Day – respect and recognition for all who serve.

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