Thursday, April 20, 2017


            I remember the day, sixty-six years ago, that I was called to the Quonset hut headquarters of my commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Lenton D. Roller. He shared with me a Top Secret communication he had just received from a U.S. Army CID officer requesting that an Investigator from our unit look into reports of an unusual level of criminal activities in a South Korean village near us, but in a remote area off the beaten path. There was something of a political challenge inasmuch as this area was under the control of the Columbian Military, the South American country of Columbia being one of our United Nations “partners”.  The small town was known to us as “Little Chicago” because of the lawlessness which surrounded it. (I will not mention the real name of that village out of respect for the people who may call it “home” today.)
            I selected three of my fellow Air Police men to go with me, minus identifying helmets and armbands. Instead of our similarly marked (and widely-hated Willys jeep with its obvious siren and mounted .50 caliber machine gun, we chose an older (and much-loved) Ford-made WWII model from the motor pool. It was a long and rough ride to the village, and it was late in the day when we entered the seemingly empty village.
            Like most such agricultural enclaves, the residents’ thatched huts were in the background to an area of packed dirt at the center of the short street on which we parked. The military center surrounded a long system of what appeared to be three squad tents hooked together end-to-end, from the open door to which blue smoke issued, accompanied by a strong smell and a strange sing-song of human voices. Leading our foursome inside where a lone, weak light bulb hung from the center overhead strut, revealing two rows of double high G.I. cots with a narrow space between their length, a strange sight reached my (until then) innocent eyes. Fifty or sixty soldiers (?) lay languidly and half-stoned smoking opium and cocaine and making the happy moaning noise we had heard.
            So far we had seen no one to talk to, but I had this disturbing feeling that we were being watched running down my spine. “Fellows” I whispered, “we’re getting out of here.” We moved, slowly but watchfully back through the settling dusk to where we had left our jeep. But it was not to be quite that easy. We found our jeep, not exactly where we had left it, but turned upside down in the dry creek bed.
                Fortunately there were four of us, and luckily we were driving the lighter-weight old WWII Ford model.  We soon had it upright and in running condition, and we were on our way, promising each other that we didn’t care if we ever saw Little Chicago again. That was in the year 1951, but I can still feel that unmistakable shiver that went up my spine telling me that someone’s rifle scope was trained on my back.
            One year later, 1952 and I was serving back in Washington State in the good ol’e USA and working on a special military liaison assignment with the nearby County Sheriff Department and the Seattle Police Department Vice Squad.  In the process, my partner (M/Sgt. Walter Korewo) and I uncovered information that linked a local nightclub known as The ------- Gardens with possible drug distribution activity AND a teenage prostitution ring. Accordingly we documented our undercover operations with a report shared quietly with our superiors.   We were promptly ordered to meet personally with a U.S. Navy flag-rank officer who was the military liaison for law enforcement with the “civilian world.” To our utter surprise we were “braced” and dressed down for what we were reporting. “You risk setting our local relations back by years!” he informed us. “Don’t you know who owns the - - - - - - Gardens?” (Even all these years afterward, I prefer not to mention names.)    Suffice it to say. . . M/Sgt K. was quickly transferred to an East coast assignment, and since I was within months of my end-of-enlistment release, I was left in place.
            Not only did I receive a stark lesson on the extent to which the drug trade’s tentacles were having a corrupting influence where I least expected to find it, but I changed my mind about looking forward to continuing my law enforcement career field in the civilian world. Today, all these years after that visit to a Korean town called “Little Chicago” and my rude look into that as- yet -unglimpsed world of human addiction I am reminded daily that this year the U.S. will suffer more than 500,000 deaths from what we call “Opioid overdoses”, with my own state of Utah ranking 4th in the nation’s list of shame.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


            On June 28, 1914 the heir-apparent to the Hapsburg throne in Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by an 18-year-old student radical no one ever heard of while visiting Sarajevo, Serbia.  In truth the Archduke was not exactly “loved” in his own country, and one might not have expected the event to deserve more than a headline or two in a Europe where such events were not all that uncommon, but thirty days later an insulted Austria declared war on Serbia.  Upon that action a series of mutual defense treaties began to come into play. First Germany declared war on Russia, then within another few days, Belgium and France. On August 4th, Great Britain declared herself at war with Germany, and the dominoes of history came tumbling down. Within weeks twenty-seven nations had declared war, and what became known as “The Great War” (eventually World War I), and “the war to end all wars” was underway.
            World War I – “The Great War” – had been going on for three years, and twenty million were already dead before President Woodrow Wilson on April 6, 1917 finally got around to involving the United States.  A surge of patriotism swept the country, and on May 3rd, 1917, Identical twins from Washington State named Auburn and Oscar enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, along with many of  the Skagit county boys they had grown up with.  They became the subject of some notoriety and a front page newspaper article  when it was discovered that every inch of their body dimensions, and even some of their finger prints were identical.
            They trained together in California, where their superb marksmanship on the rifle range quickly got them noticed. Soon they were on their way to the battlefields of France, where the boys from Skagit County became the backbone of the 20th Company, 5th Marine Regiment. There, the twins were permitted to serve in the same Company, but not in the same squad.
            By June, 1918, the war was not going well for the Allies, and the Germans were poised to finally capture Paris. As the French retreated from the lines they had been holding near Chateau Thierry, about 30 miles short of their capitol city, the Marines were left to carry out a poorly-planned attack, across a field of wheat and oats to the side of a copse of forest growth known as Belleau Wood – a small patch of landscape which was about to make the United States Marines the legendary service branch it has been   ever since.  No one told Major Berry’s Marine Brigade the Wood was filled with a numerically-superior German force whose machine guns had been laid out to cover every square yard of the open field.  At dawn on June 6th, the 5th Marines launched the attack, with the 20th Company out front.  Auburn’s squad was decimated by enemy fire, and he himself was felled by grenade shrapnel to the head and face.  Oscar’s squad soon passed by, and Oscar saw enough to be sure his brother was dead. Spurred on by that knowledge, in the hours and days to follow, his intelligence missions behind enemy lines would win him the Navy Cross and make him one of the most decorated Marines of the Great War.
             As the grim battle swirled around him, Auburn was passed over by medics who left him with the dead where he lay until nightfall when those who came to collect the dead – Germans and Americans alike – determined he was alive.  He would eventually spend nearly a year in hospitals in France and the U.S., much of that time unable to utter a word through the bandaged and wired facial wounds.
            In a Naval hospital on the east coast he would meet a red-headed volunteer who would become his wife.  They honey-mooned back in Washington, where the twins from Skagit County would be briefly reunited.  Over the next forty years, divided by a continent, they would see each other only one more time.
            The Battle of Belleau Wood is seen by historians as the turning point in the Great War – the “Gettysburg” of World War One.  It gave the Marines the nickname “Devil Dogs” and defined the Corps forever after. The wounded and scarred twin from Skagit County refused the Purple Heart, and did not  think he had done anything special. But he was a “hero” and a quiet inspiration to his four sons, two of whom would see action in other wars, and two who would become Marines.  His full name was Auburn Forest Cooper, and he was my Dad. Not all of his wounds could be treated and he died too young. On June 6th, every year, I proudly place his circular dog tag and the attached globe-and-anchor emblem from his uniform around my neck as I dress for the day. He taught me all I needed to know about honor.

Saturday, April 8, 2017


            In my cigar box of personal “treasures”, and along with such items as my 1946 Boy Scout compass, my 1st “Pilot Log”, samples of frankincense and  myrrh and my Dad’s WWI  Marine Corps dog tags, lies a tiny hammered-brass coin known to history and bible scholars as a widow’s mite. Excavated in Jerusalem, its personal value lies in the knowledge that it passed from hand-to-hand in the daily transactions of real people who lived nearly two thousand years ago. When I hold it in my hand I am “transported” across time in a spiritual but undeniable way. I am often led to do just that.
             In the process of trying to live mindfully at a time and in a place in which disappointment, discouragement and self-doubt are ever-present, I have found it important to acknowledge – and yes, even celebrate – the little successes and tiny marvels that occur around us  every day. I am probably not alone in today’s world of hand-held devices, “talking” ear-buds, and an endless supply of “Apps” promising answers to every question, in wondering what great truths are being whispered to us but missed in the confusion we call modern progress.
            As I made my routine “rounds” this morning, I exchanged vocal greetings with our six golden hens waiting for the sound of my voice and the touch of my hand – and yes, a scattering of corn kernels they knew would be coming. They are just one year old this week, but they have long been delivering to us (and our neighbors) their gift of five, and often six beautiful, hard-shelled brown eggs every day. They are wonderfully garrulous, sociable and always-happy creatures who never cease to delight us. Their happy nature and undeniable generosity are contagious. We would be the poorer in every way without them in our lives I realized.
            Stepping into our greenhouse, I spent ten minutes checking out and admiring a raised bed of garlic plants already more than a foot tall. Carefully divided and planted last November 1st, they represent five different varieties brought back from last fall’s visit with our friend Brooke Bottger at her Oregon Trail Garlic Company in Baker City, Oregon. This year I mulched my planting with straw which has made a huge difference. As an adventurer in the culinary arts, garlic in all its historical wonder is for me a vegetable as valued as silver and gold and my stop in the greenhouse sent a shot of pleasure into my day’s beginnings.
            A mid-morning phone call from Denver turned out to be our Colorado grand-daughter calling to check in on us as she does several times each week. “I love you so much” she stressed before moving on in her busy daily routine. Before moving on with my own planned tasks, I sat for a moment to think back over moments which beg to be remembered.
            Some weeks ago, as my wife and I were leaving a favorite local restaurant where we often observe our weekly “day out” together, I noticed a 20-something young man seated with a small blonde girl, obviously his daughter. There was a look of mixed and abject sadness and gladness on his face. On sudden impulse I halted and stepped back. Pointing to the child I asked “where did you get this beautiful little blonde girl?” Looking up with a grateful smile he answered, “well from my ex wife mostly I guess” he replied, verifying what I had suspected from the overall picture. “Well, are you going to try and get her back?” I said. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that” he replied sadly. Leaning over to shake his hand, I said, “well that is one beautiful daughter you have sitting beside you, congratulations!”
            Almost leaping from behind his table, and with tears running from his eyes he hugged me tightly, saying “Thank you! Thank you so much!”
            I can only dare wonder what the exchange may have meant to that young father, but for me that moment of human connection was one of life’s small three-minute wonders. The kind we unfortunately too often miss altogether or too quickly allow to pass from our recollection.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


            Here two days later, I still listen to the snapping of the two flags being tossed by the breeze at the top of my flag pole in front. They were raised a couple of days ago to help our expected visitors spot our location as they arrived in unfamiliar country, the sky blue of the United States Air Force service flag touching the red, white and blue            of our National Standard flying just above it. I was proud to be standing watching as right on time the Hill AFB vehicle made the turn into our half-mile long driveway and made its way to where I was standing.
            I had known for several weeks now that the team of three Air Force specialists would be coming, and that they would be under orders to interview, photograph and videotape me (and my life) for a program originating at the Pentagon called Veterans In Blue. I had been told just enough about the project to be sure that some kind of a mistake had been made and that sooner or later someone would realize this.  While I am still full of questions, these three dedicated airmen left me with no doubts that they were here to do their job, and that escape, at least for now, and under their watch would not be easy. Thus began what would be for me two of the most compelling and rewarding days of human interplay I am likely to see again anytime soon  These three young “kids” were so good at what they did, that they had me actually believing that I was in charge of what was going on in my home. What’s more they made me feel proud to be a part of their (mistaken?) enterprise.
            Looking over what they had to work with as a shooting environment, and how to best deal with an old guy who thought he knew a thing or two, I hardly realized I had just witnessed the quiet finessing of known intelligence, isolation of best strategy for achieving their objective (getting their assignment done) before ever revealing the carload of technical equipment which would inundate our private domain the next day. While I had no reason to doubt that they were whiz kids with camera, lighting, sound enhancement and production management, I never realized until it was all over how they had quietly figured me out, won me over as a real ally and learned to use their own deep and sincere respect for me as a guiding tool in the whole process. A/1C Desiree Ware, the lone female team member, turned out herself to be a proud 3rd generation member of a family which has made the Air Force (and Army) “home”. Her grandmother is a veteran of 33 years of USAF service, and her father presently wears the uniform of an Army Warrant Officer.
            The Veterans in Blue program is itself an effort to turn the spotlight on the individual contributions of everyday airmen to the legacy of the USAF. It was initiated in 2010 from an office in the Pentagon, and to the present has told the story of about 144 individuals. The 2017 nominations may add as many as 40 more, drawn from across the country. One corridor of the Pentagon displays the photo-records of each year’s group while the digital and video elements are distributed more widely.
            What makes me feel good about this program is knowing that behind it is the recognition of the importance of building a sense of continuity and shared pride between generations of those who have served in all our wars; so that young service-men and women of the future will feel a connection with those whose example of service to country is worth feeling a part of. One of the reasons I am a noisy veteran is my fear that our society as a whole is in the process of forgetting who we are.  

                Interviewing Al in his home are A/1C Desiree Ware, S/A Codie Trimble and S/A Nicholas Brown.