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Terry Cole: No Yellow Ribbons for a Vietnam Vet

Terry Cole, Choctaw, a Vietnam War veteran remembers how unpopular he was upon returning home to the United States, though he never saw action in Vietnam. Cole, Native American, recalls the difficult task of trying to transition into a normal way of life and the downward spiral he took before turning to the Creator to turn it all around. One Native veterans tale of getting his life back after hitting rock bottom.
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We sometimes forget the Vietnam War was so unpopular in the 1970s that simply trying to come back home to the United States could be a challenge, even the veterans who never saw any action. Terry Cole is the example of a veteran who had a difficult time when he came back, though he never set foot in Vietnam.

Cole was born in 1951 in Talihina, Oklahoma. He is Choctaw and was raised traditionally by his grandparents. He joined the United States Air Force in 1970 immediately after he graduated high school. “I wanted an education,” Cole said. “I was planning on going to college, but I knew I was about to be drafted, so I volunteered for the Air Force; I thought maybe I could further my education through them. My brother went into the service prior to me; he was an infantryman in the Army and he told me ‘Little Brother, do something besides the infantry.’ So I joined the Air Force and started going to college on base and Junior College off base. They gave me a test to see where my skills were and they thought I would make a good clerk. That is not what I went in for, but I was sent to school in Biloxi, Mississippi for about four months and they taught me everything that I needed to know for administrative duties.”

In his third year the Air Force sent Cole overseas to Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima), Thailand. “They sent me there as a mailman, which was a good job; you have a lot of friends when you’re a mailman. I enjoyed working there, but I come from a long line of warriors and servicemen, and I felt like I wasn’t giving enough to my country. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to Vietnam, but at the same time I was kind of relieved.”

Cole was discharged as a sergeant in 1974. “There weren’t any yellow ribbons around oak trees, and no parades, no welcome home signs, but there was name-calling and things such as that; it was very sad,” Cole said. “I didn’t know how to accept that. When I got back I went to the unemployment office and they wouldn’t help me, they said my social security number was messed up, or something. I was married and had a child, a little boy, and I couldn’t find work. Like so many soldiers that came back, especially during Vietnam, I hit the streets, I couldn’t find work, and I started using alcohol. By that time I had another child and my wife left with the two children. I was one of those who just hit the road with my backpack to try to figure out what was wrong, what was wrong with this country, and to figure out where I was going to, what I was going to do. I traveled through El Paso and down through West Texas. My brother made it back home, but he also had trouble adjusting, like I did, but he didn’t make it. He ended up living on the streets until someone murdered him about 16 years ago.

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“Then one night I had this…I don’t know if it was a dream or a vision, but I heard this inner voice that told me this is not what was planned for me. On June 24, 1990 my life changed forever. You are taught not to surrender, not in battle, or in life itself. If something has a hold of us, like a chemical dependency, we don’t want to admit defeat, we don’t want to admit that this thing’s got us. But I finally admitted defeat, the alcohol had finally got me, it defeated me, and I was ready to surrender. I got down on my knees and said to The Creator “I’m tired and I can’t go anymore. I give up; I surrender all to you right at this moment.’ I was in terrible shape, a lot of things were wrong with me; I was dying. I thank God for that night I surrendered and I believe it was a miracle. That was 21 years ago.”

Cole turned his life around and eventually got a job with the Choctaw Nation Housing Authority, and he went on to work for the historical preservation and protection of sacred sites and burial grounds for the Choctaw Nation. He started the program single-handedly and it has grown to the point that he has a staff of 10 people, and a wall full of awards. He just received The Secretary of the Interior’s Historic Preservation Award. “That’s the highest award a person can get in my field of work,” Cole said. “There are many awards hanging in my office, and I’m grateful, but that’s not what it’s all about. I’m just doing my job. One guy asked me what I was going to do now that I’ve reached the top, I said ‘That ain’t the only mountain, son, there are other mountains.”

Cole is now a member of the Choctaw Nation color guard, he was one of the founding volunteers. They do pow wow grand entries and parades, but Cole finds the most rewarding part of the job is honoring the nation’s fallen veterans. “There’s an old saying that a veteran is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount up to, and including, his life.”

Cole’s inner battle has paid off. He had three children all together and between them he has 10 grandchildren. “They think Pa Pa is the greatest, and not one of my children has taken that destructive road that I took, thank God. I am a very blessed man today. I am very active in counseling people, speaking at many AA groups and taking people to treatment. God is using me in changing the lives of those that are like what I once was, a hopeless lost alcoholic.”