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In Memory - Classmates

William Cooley

08-08-05, 02:54 PM
Tribute to a Vietnam Veteran
By Robert Cooley, August 8, 2005

In the spring of 1947 a boy was born to a loving couple in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He grew and matured in a modest home in Maryland surrounded by family and friends. His accomplishments in school were worthy of envy and his athletic ability was one to emulate.

The boy became a man in the spring of 1964 graduating with honors from his high school bringing great joy to his family his future looked bright. 1966 saw the young man follow in his fathers footsteps and he enrolled in college in North Carolina intent on a degree he felt would one day help him in life.

In the late fall of 1968 he received the letter everyone dreads from the Selective Service Board, but the call from “Uncle Sam” was not ignored nor swayed from for the young man answered his countries call by his enlisting in the infantry of the United States Army. 

Months of training passed and the young man excelled in all areas of military life. He was rewarded for his hard work by acceptance into Officers Candidate School and in late March 1969 he graduated in the top ten percent of his class as a new Second Lieutenant.

Weeks followed graduation while he awaited his assignment, but it was soon apparent that his destination would be Vietnam. Soon all to soon his orders to the war zone came and he landed in Saigon on his 22nd birthday. 

The young man became part of the 25th Infantry Division and was assigned the command of a platoon. He meshed well with the other young men and his leadership abilities shown brightly as he practiced several techniques, which would bring his platoon into immediate action when the call to arms arose. The techniques so impressed his brigade commander he was awarded a citation for his efforts. Promotion soon followed and the young man was now a 1st Lieutenant in command of a company.

Months past and the young man wrote dozens letters to his family from the battlefront carefully omitting the perilous experiences he had faced in combat. Then the long distance telephone came, “I’m in a Saigon hospital, I’ve been wounded in combat.” The young man told of the firefight he and his men became embroiled in and the rescue of a young man from the “kill zone” on the battlefield. It was during his attempt to rescue a second wounded soldier from his company that the young 1st Lieutenant was shot in the leg and crumpled to the ground, quickly carried from the field by his comrades.

Weeks and weeks past as the Lieutenant was nursed back to strength and finally he came home to Washington, D.C. to take up as a resident of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the infamous “Snake Pit.” Many surgeries and rehabilitation followed, but not without setbacks, but the young Lieutenant persevered. The wounded leg began to heal and he set goals for himself that he vowed to keep and keep them he did for after a year he was ready to come home to Maryland.

Before his discharge, from the hands of the Commanding General of Walter Reed three medals were pinned to his uniform; the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star with the Combat “V” for Valor and his most coveted award the Silver Star. The young Lieutenant beamed with pride as the citations were read and the medals pinned to his chest, but the joy soon gave way to sorrow as he remembered the men he left behind in the jungles of Vietnam. Most returned home, but many had not and a feeling of guilt began to form in the young Lieutenants mind.

Many more months of rehabilitation passed and the young Lieutenant worked diligently to bring his body back to “fighting trim.” He retired from the army with the thanks of the service and a disability pension. His new goal was clear a resumption of college and the long sought after degree. That degree was awarded bringing him great satisfaction, but the feeling of guilt was still there.

After college the start of a new career, which were followed by eleven years of hard work rewarded with bonuses and advancements bringing a sense of satisfaction that his career path had taken, but the feeling of guilt was still there.

Set backs to his condition minor ones at first began to creep into his life and the failure of his marriage only added to the feeling of guilt that was still there. Working hard to regain control of his life he began to pursue other avenues of employment, but he met failure after failure and his condition began to worsen the problems more becoming complex.

More than thirty years have passed and the young Lieutenant has now grown older, the problems of health more severe, and the feelings of guilt are still there. He tries to remain upbeat, but complications caused not only by his body against him, but him against his own body have finally taken their toll and he returns to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Frantic calls from his second wife to his brother come on the evening of his brothers 50th birthday. “Your brother is dying, his condition is critical he may not live out the week.” Stunned his brother seeks out his parents and gives them the news and plans are made to go to his side. Before his family can react the Lieutenant rallies and calls to say “don’t come, I don’t want you to see me like this.” So acceding to his wishes those plans are put on hold and prayers are started for his recovery.

Several weeks go by and the Lieutenant improves, but it’s still touch and go so the prayers continue unabated. Then one evening the telephone rings and it’s the Lieutenant and he wants to talk so a conversation ensues, which lasts more than three hours. We talked about everything, marriage, careers, money, cars, girls we dated and the war. He spoke of the feeling of guilt he has carried for more than thirty years since the war and a light “dawns” in his brother’s mind. His brother now understands the “feelings of guilt” carried by the Lieutenant and tries to bring the conversation back to a happier state, but alas it is not to be. The Lieutenant is tired and wants to sleep, but his brother persists not wanting to let go because he knows the Lieutenant is in pain. “I will come visit you” the brother tells the Lieutenant “and help you through this crisis and we will both face this world together.” “No” says the Lieutenant “I don’t want you to see me like this. Lets wait until I’m out of the hospital and you can help me get back to my fighting trim” he says with a laugh. So the conversation ends with a promise of more phone calls.

Several days go by, but no phone calls and the Lieutenants brother becomes concerned and he tries to call the Lieutenant only to have a new strange voice answer the phone. “Who is this?” the brother says with alarm “I’m Don Jackson I’ve just been put in this room this morning.” Panicked the Lieutenants brother hangs up and calls the hospital administration and learns that his brother has suffered complications and an emergency surgery was performed. His brother is now back in Intensive Care. “He’s stable, but it will be rough for the next several days, but he came through the surgery just fine.” Relieved, but concerned his brother asks, “When can I speak with him?” and is told not for several days yet “He’s still very weak and needs to rest.” 

A feeling of guilt comes over the Lieutenants brother; guilt at not going to see him regardless of his appearance; guilt at not having kept in touch with his brother more often than holidays and birthdays; guilt at only being a small part of his brothers life.

A few days pass and a telephone call, a weak voice on the line almost unrecognizable, but it is the Lieutenant and he wants to talk. “I want to be buried in Arlington” are his first words and tears begin to form in his brother’s eyes. “Buried, what do you mean buried, you’re going to get well you got to keep fighting. Don’t give up now you gone through so much, please don’t quit now!” “No, I’m tired and I know I have only a little time left so I want you to be strong for me and help our family through all this.” 

The conversation ends with promises made and even a small laugh or two, but the feeling of guilt sweeps over the Lieutenants brother even stronger than before. Plans are made to leave the next day for the hospital, but before anything can be put in motion the Lieutenants brother must make many calls to change his schedule at work.

The next morning comes and the Lieutenants brother is at work waiting for the court offices to open so he can cancel his appearances when the phone rings. It is his father; in a very hollow voice heavy with emotion he says “Your brother is gone Bob.” Stunned the Lieutenants brother sits staring at the phone and the feeling of guilt comes crashing down.

The man I have written about is my older brother Bill; 1st Lieutenant William F. Cooley, 1st Battalion, 25th Infantry Division serving in Vietnam from April 2, 1969 to August 6, 1969 when he was wounded in combat during a firefight with the Viet Cong near the village of Cu Chi northwest of Saigon. The guilt my brother felt was because he was not able to save the second soldier he had crossed the “kill zone” to try to rescue and at having to leave his men behind on the battlefield that day. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of his life along with many health complications because of the gunshot wound he received and alcoholism.

***I hope the members of Real Police will understand this posting because I feel that they are all members of my extended law enforcement family; I hope the advice and experiences that I have added to many topics and discussions has been a benefit to anyone reading them because it was due to the admiration of my older brother and the example he set that gave me the courage to do this job. I will never stop admiring his courage and I will miss him dearly.*** 

Bill, I couldn’t help you in life the way I should have and I will live with that for the rest of my life, but I hope you will forgive me. God grant you the peace in your life after death that you so richly deserve and joy in the knowledge that we will be together again some day.

William F. Cooley, April 2, 1947 to August 4, 2005
From Bruce Arthur:

My name is Bruce Arthur.  To Mary Jane, Bill, Bob and Karla my mother and brother cannot be here but send their love. I confess that I don’t know Karla as well as I would like as our first conversation took place only last week.  I can only hope that aspects of my recollections about Bill will resonate with her and her family as having some semblance of truth.

A quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll as Alice talks to the Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to walk from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where---------“ said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.

“-----so long as I get somewhere” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat “If only you walk long enough”

It was my privilege to be one of Bill’s closest and dearest friends for 54 years and I believe that despite the fact that he died young by my own standards (we are the same age) from my perspective, and as I hope you will see, he walked long enough in his own way to get to where he needed to be.

Bill and I certainly knew how to have a good time along the way:

There was the time we got out of a day of school to try out for the BCC golf team even though we didn’t play golf. It was quite a sight as we shared one set of clubs and bounced from one side of the rough to another. I made the turn at 70 but R J Killen, the golf coach, knew something was amiss at the first tee. We were in some trouble as he was also in charge of discipline at the school.  Fortunately for me he blamed Bill as he knew I wasn’t clever enough to come up with the idea.

Bill was a good student and was a starting offensive lineman on a decent team.  He got into University of North Carolina where he got his degree but I get ahead of myself.

We had the usual right of passage teenage trips to Ocean City with the big 4.  Ken Spriggs, Gordon Ritchie, Bill and I, but despite Bill’s radiant smile and easy southern charm, nothing much ever happened.

There were the road trips: Bill, Muzzy and I crammed into Muzzy’s corvette going from one North Carolina road house to another. 

The trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras which I hope my children never find out about.

The trip to NYC and the Cape: eventful in many ways not the least of which was our narrowly missing the end of the Beatle’s concert at Shea Stadium as we ran through the NY Worlds Fair.

There were the great parties at the Arthur house which is why, when Bill’s mother didn’t know where he was, she really knew where he was.  Our dear departed friend Bo Mc Millen called it “The Summer That Was”

And, of course the fabled pig roasts at Shadyside.

Bill loved sports: We played endless games of playground basketball, touch football and softball.

He loved the Redskins and watching tennis.  He believed that Leroy Neiman was a great artist and cherished his autographed Larry Brown lithograph. I recall he favored Sonny over Billy.

He loved Motown and had all the 45s ever cut.  He even taught me the Myrtle Beach shuffle and the shag basic in anticipation of a glorious spring break on the Carolina coast.

But aside from the good times there was this amazing friendship.  The kind where you can never manage to offend each other no matter how long it lasts. He was an usher at Sarah and my wedding 20 years ago this month and rejoiced in our happiness over all these years.  He was with us in spirit through the birth of our children and even through my son’s bout with cancer. And so the frivolity gave way to the seriousness of life.  And no matter how hard you clung to the past, adulthood took over.

The truth about Bill, to me,  was that he cared more about me and others even at his lowest ebb than he cared about himself. 

As he was becoming sick he called me out of concern for me and my job at the Capitol.  There were the slain officers, anthrax, and 9-11. 

Our last conversation, when he was very ill, was about his fantasy that had I made the BCC football team as a wide receiver that we would have been unstoppable as I was as fast as Jimmy Austin and had better hands.  I knew this wasn’t true but there was something very true about the conversation, Bill was building up a friend’s memory while not considering his own dire situation.

But at no place  and at no other time can it be said was there a better example of Bill’s selflessness than 29 May 1969 1500 hours near Cu Chi Vietnam where Bill was badly wounded and won the Silver Star for valor in combat.  This is why we are here at Ft Meyer.  To honor a fallen hero who put himself in harms way to protect his platoon.

But that doesn’t begin to tell the story.  Bill and I went into the service at about the same time.  He went to Officer Candidate School and I  enlisted.  When I told him that I was going to join the Green Berets in preparation for Vietnam he said I was nuts and tried to steer me to clerk typing and drafting schools.  It was ironic that, fully trained, I was sent to Panama instead, and Bill, after his attempts to pound sense into me, left the boredom of Ft Sill, Oklahoma to go to Ft Polk, Louisiana and then Vietnam.  This might have been relatively unremarkable except that he didn’t have to go.  You see he was nearly blind without his glasses and had to sign a waiver for combat. His sense of duty won over but put him in that ambush as well.  So I conclude with the thought that Bill truly walked long enough that day and was certainly a hero to his friend.  Here is the photograph (with words one never forgets) Bill sent to me after he was shot:

The Chesh (cheshire cat) down but not out flashes the famous smile and the traditional “V” symbol of RVN returnees and short timers everywhere.  USAH Camp Zama, Japan.

And finally, to Mary Jane, you should know that there will always be a place in my house for Bill.

Thank you  

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03/08/14 09:21 AM #2    

John Smeby

 Although I knew Bill briefly at B-CC, I can fully relate to the trauma of military combat and the mental health issues associated with the horrors of war, and getting wounded as a "non-combatant" Seabee. Today, 47 years after I was wounded in Vietnam at Con Thien at the demilitarized zone, I am undergoing VA treatment for PTSD to include drug therapy.  And Jack Mallory, thank you for assisting military veterans at the VA. I truly believe that everyone exposed to those horrors has some degree of anxiety disorder and depression. Some are able to hide it (denial and avoidance) and some are more reactive (serious behavioral issues, flashbacks, drug/alcohol addiction), but everyone suffers.

03/08/14 11:18 AM #3    

Deborah Pellington (O'Hara)

Well, I had a more personal relationship with Bill as he was the boy who told me all the girls shaved their legs!!! Ha ha....and he wasn't being mean....just a friendly heads up!

03/08/14 11:21 AM #4    

Joanie Bender (Grosfeld)

Robert, your tribute to your brother is so moving and so loving. I'm sorry you too feel guilt as your brother did.  You can see he saved troops but only focused sadly on the one he couldn't save. You kept trying to come to see your brother but he didn't want you to see him the way he was. I think he built a wall around himself that even with more visits would have been impossible to penetrate. He had to forgive himself even though he did nothing wrong and instead did such valiant things. His calling you to ask you to carry out his last request shows how close he felt to you. He knew you loved him so that is what counts...So sorry he wasn't able to recover physically or emotionally but he had experienced great trauma's.  Again, your tribute is so moving about your brother.

03/08/14 12:18 PM #5    

Jack Mallory

John--somebody once said, about combat and PTSD, that nobody who wades that river comes out with their feet completely dry. Partially through avoidance, mostly because PTSD wasn't even recognized (this time, for this war) until 1980, many of us put off beginning to deal with it. Unfortunately for outselves, and those who had to deal with us. Welcome home to you, and belatedly to Bill, and all the other B-CC Vietnam vets.

03/09/14 04:01 PM #6    

Elena Jurgela

Robert, thank you for your beautiful, loving tribute to your brother.  It certainly brought tears to my eyes.  All of us who knew him will miss him, and it's nice to know he was so well loved.

03/09/14 04:40 PM #7    

Donald Megby

I sympathise with the Cooley family, I as a Marine Corps Sergeant, spent my Viet Nam tour on the DMZ , which wasn't a very good place during the 67 - 68 phase of the war.  Like most veterans I dealt with my demons, and will never forget attending the University of Maryland, following my Marine Corps years, and watching the American Flag burned during anti war protest, and all Viet Nam Vets refered to as "baby Killers". Only a few close friends knew of my military background, and we kept it as a secret.  PTSD wasn't identified then, and thankfully the veterans of todays military have more help psychologically and physically.  I am still dealing with the effects of agent orange today. I know what Bill went thru, and he was not alone.   

03/09/14 04:57 PM #8    

Jane Cosson (Souzon)

Bruce Arthur's note about Bill at the bottom mentions US Army Hospital, Camp Zama, Japan.  I've never forgotten my brief visit there at Christmas, 1969.  My husband Jay was a naval aviator, and we were stationed at Atsugi NAS near Camp Zama;  his squadron alternated between flying out of Atsugi and going down to their detachment in Da Nang.    The Atsugi Officers' Wives Club made a Xmas visit to the patient wards at Camp Zama, bringing probably tea and cookies or some such, and supposedly some Xmas cheer, tho when i saw those guys I couldn't believe anything could cheer them up, their wounds were so horrific.   Tho Jay died 3 months later in a plane crash at Da Nang, i've always been grateful that it was over so quickly for him; I can't even imagine the horrors of being on the ground.

03/09/14 07:32 PM #9    

Jack Mallory

Jane--being in-country in Vietnam and waiting at home for the return of those in-country were both awful in their own ways. For those at home who lost their loved ones, it must have been a tragedy comparable to anything those of us in Vietnam knew. Thank you for your own form of service.

03/10/14 10:21 AM #10    

Joanie Bender (Grosfeld)

Jane, so sorry you lost your husband Jay during the war. Thank you for sharing. So many paid the ultimate price and they are all true heros.

03/11/14 02:48 PM #11    

Jane Cosson (Souzon)

Jack and Joanie, thanks for your thoughts, and to paraphrase one of the preceding messages, i'd say

'no one who stepped into the river of the Viet Nam war came out completely dry'.   I have a friend from my 15 years in Port Townsend WA who was in the infantry, came home in one piece, went back to school in forestry and became a horse logger--he's basically a very sociable, outgoing guy, life of the party, so I've always wondered if it was being in the war that  made him want to spend his days alone in the quiet woods with big gentle animals.    Anyway, we were in a marimba band together, and rivals to play the one bass instrument, so really didn't get along very well for the first couple of years we played together.  Then on one band gig it happened that I went into an otherwise empty ferry boat cafeteria for breakfast, where he was already sitting by himself.  It would have been too blatantly unfriendly if I did not sit down with him, so i did, and we both attempted to be cordial.  For the life of me i can't remember how the conversation so quickly turned so personal, given our less-than-friendly relationship,  but within a couple of minutes we disclosed our connections to Viet Nam, and from that moment on, we had a bond--all i could think was, "you want the bass parts, jerry, you got 'em."   We didn't talk about it again, but maybe 10 years later the band was preparing to play somewhere on Memorial Day and another band member said something about  "our one veteran", meaning Jerry, and he instantly replied, "no, Jane's our other one..."  In all that time, i never heard him refer to "Viet Nam", just occasionally to 'being in the service'. 

Postscript: the logging industry here went bust in the recession, he lost his house, sent his horses to his brother's ranch, and  joined Doctors Without Borders as a logistician.  He was first sent to S. Sudan, lucky to get out of there in one piece, then sent to the Phillippines, and on the side there  is now soliciting money for, and modifying wheel chairs for kids.   He's never stopped being 'in service'.  (If anyone wants to contribute for these wheelchairs, let me know.)

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