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MY HERO: My Father Fought in the Gulf War. His New Mission Is Saving My Life

When cancer struck his son, 15, a Gulf War veteran drew on his Army training and experience

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Tom Coffin and his son Micah at their home in Manquin, Virginia.
Greg Kahn

When Tom Coffin’s wife, Tisha, called his mobile to tell him that their 15-year-old son, Micah, had brain cancer, the Gulf War combat veteran, who was driving his truck to a work site, nearly veered off the interstate.

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“It seemed like the whole world imploded on us at first,” he recalled, his voice breaking. “I didn't deal with it very well.” But then his military training and experience kicked in.

After that shocking day last December, Micah witnessed in Tom a determination to do whatever it took to get his son through this nightmare — the Army side of him making sure things got done. In addition, he saw a new emotional dimension to his father that mattered just as much.

“My dad is very forthright,” Micah told AARP Veteran Report. The teenageer is now on the road to recovery after multiple surgeries and grueling chemotherapy and radiation to treat germinoma tumors. “He speaks his mind and he pushes for what’s best for me, but he is very caring too.

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“I saw a different side of him.” He paused, fighting back tears, before adding: “There was one time when I was just done getting a shower and dad was helping me out. And he told me he loved me.”

Tom Coffin, 51, became his son’s hero. Truth be told, though, there was plenty of bravery in all three members of the family, who live in Manquin, Virginia.

“There were firefights,” he said. “We had to clear bunkers. We were 25 or 30 kilometers in front of any support from the 24th Infantry Division. We were mechanized artillery and our mission was to move deep and fast.”

After retiring from active duty, Coffin, now a heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineer, went on to serve in the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, of the Virginia National Guard — a total of eight years in uniform. He believes that it was not just combat but also regular military life that helped prepare him to deal with Micah’s illness.

“The routine part of the military has always been deeply set into my life,” he said. “Part of it is work ethic. You have a structure and you just make a plan and get things done.”

Teamwork and drawing strength from each other is also a major part of military life, and Coffin is the first to highlight the role played by Tisha, a librarian, who kept a journal on Caring Bridge detailing Micah’s treatment. “She absolutely is the field general of this whole operation,” he said.

“My wife’s a little more diplomatic than me. But she's able to make a mountain move. It’s her strength and her gift to us. She will walk to the end of the earth to make sure that this child gets everything he needs to get to be healthy and live a long life. It became our joint mission.”

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It turned out that Micah had some orders of his own to give. “I told them that they couldn’t cry unless it was happy crying,” he said. “But I knew they cried when they weren’t around me.”

He also urged his father to keep coaching the soccer team, the Sabers of Mechanicsville United, on which Micah had been a defender. Coffin, who’d been coaching for three years despite having been a lacrosse rather than a soccer player, embraced this.

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Micah’s teammates raised money not only for their friend but also for other children with cancer through Virginia charities Connor’s Heroes and the ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation. Donations for Micah’s treatment, which has left the Coffins swamped with medical bills, are still being received via GiveSendGo.

Poignantly, before he was diagnosed, Micah had cut his long hair off and donated it to Wigs for Kids. Now, he’s content to be bald for the time being. “I like it,” he said, grinning. “It's breathable.”

Micah’s prognosis is excellent, with a greater than 90 percent chance of his being cured, and he’s now finding time to volunteer with Mason’s Toy Box Foundation. During his treatment, he and his father were able to visit Arlington National Cemetery and the National Museum of the Marine Corps, where a young lance corporal presented Micah with a challenge coin from the guard unit for Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

A cadet in Junior ROTC, Micah’s ambition is to study at the U.S. Air Force Academy and become an aerospace engineer and perhaps a pilot. He said: “I just love the military and what they do for our country.”

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Tom Coffin brushes aside any suggestion he’s a hero. “I used to try not to show the softer side of me,” he said. “But this, this has changed that. The outpouring of love from friends, family, church and community is something I'll always be grateful for.”

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Tom Coffin and his son Micah in matching costumes
Courtesy Tom Coffin

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Do you have a veteran hero whose story might be a MY HERO story in AARP Veteran Report? If so, please contact our editors here.

Toby Harnden in the senior editor of AARP Veteran Report. A naturalized American citizen who was born in Britain, he spent almost a decade in the Royal Navy before embarking on a career as a journalist. During his career as a foreign correspondent, he reported from 33 countries, including extensively as a war reporter in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a recipient of the Orwell Prize and the author of three books, most recently First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11. More about his work can be found at www.tobyharnden.com.

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