Their courage

In memory of Earl Glenn Cobeil, my April 2012 visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In memory of Earl Glenn Cobeil, my April 2012 visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“The brave die never, though they sleep in dust:
  Their courage nerves a thousand living men.”Minot J. Savage

In April 2012, I planned to take some visiting relatives to Washington DC, where they would spend the day sightseeing.  I decided that, after dropping them off in town,  I would stop by Arlington National Cemetery, where a good friend of ours was interred in 2011.  I also wanted to visit the grave of Earl Glenn Cobeil, whose POW bracelet I had worn while I was in high school.

In the decades since I first wept over the news that Colonel Cobeil had died in captivity, I had often sought information about him but still knew very little.  On one of my visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (known as “The Wall”) I had learned a few facts, including the notation that he was buried at Arlington, so I wanted to find out where his grave would be.  Before leaving home that day, I made what I thought would be a brief search online to find his grave’s location.

In searching for this information, I came across the devastating truth about the savage and unrelenting torture that had led to his death.  A long-buried grief stabbed at my heart again as I realized that my worst fears for this man had been less horrible than what actually happened to him.   The one bright spot amid this sorrow was the discovery of contact information for his family.  I resolved to write to them, and after visiting Arlington that day, walked across the bridge and into DC to The Wall.

Before taking a photo of his name there, I pulled out a tissue and polished the surface surrounding the engraved letters.  A photographer with an SLR and a tripod approached me, telling me he had made “some really good photos” of me, apparently for a newspaper.  I asked him if he would take a photo with my camera, and he agreed.  “Touch the wall again,” he said, and I reached up and put my fingers under the name.

After taking the photo, he asked me why I was there; whether this was a family member or friend who was lost in the war.  I explained to him about the POW bracelet I had worn, as had so many others in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and briefly described what I had just learned that day about how Colonel Cobeil died.  I thanked him for his interest and for the photo.  Later, I left this tribute at the Virtual Wall, one among many others for a man I never knew, but will never forget.

I did contact his wife Patricia, now remarried, and she called me.  We had a wonderful conversation, as well as further written correspondence.  In talking with her I mused that, during the years I wore the bracelet, I could never have imagined that I myself would someday be married to an Air Force Colonel.  What I also never imagined was the heartbreaking news Jeff and I would soon receive about his stage IV cancer.  During the very difficult early days of coming to terms with his grim prognosis and the hard battle that lay ahead for him, the courage of Colonel and Mrs. Cobeil was an inspiration and source of strength to me.

Today, I hope we all will take time to remember the brave sacrifices of countless people whose names and faces we will never know, as well as those we have loved who are no longer here with us on earth.  May their legacy live on in those of us who have been blessed by their example.

This post was originally published on Memorial Day, seven years ago. My husband Jeff now is buried a short stroll away from Colonel Cobeil’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. It was on our visit to Colonel Cobeil’s grave in July 2012 that Jeff, admiring the peaceful, well-kept grounds and hallowed atmosphere, told me that he wanted us to be buried there someday, never dreaming that “someday” would come all too soon. Less than three months later, we received the grim news that metastatic tumors were found on his liver, and weeks later, he was given a terminal diagnosis.

The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.

6 Comments

  1. This is an extraordinary story, Julia. I don’t recall reading this the first time around, but I do remember your photo. I’ll never understand brutality directed at another human being. It’s beyond my compression. I’ll always remember our day together at Arlington. I hope you are sitting more easily with your grief.

    • I’m like you, Alys. No matter how angry I get (and I do get quite angry) I never feel the slightest urge to strike anyone or do anything in the way of physical violence. It truly repulses me when I see or read about this behavior in others, partly because it feels so foreign and strange and unthinkable. Even as a child I got very upset at playground fights, or seeing someone punch someone else. No matter how much the person may have “deserved” it, I always felt horrified by it.

      Patricia (Col. Cobeil’s widow) told me she had not read and would not read the very graphic details and descriptions of the torture that were given by witnesses who survived to tell the tale. I told her that was very wise and I’m comforted that she never read the accounts I stumbled upon. They are haunting and very upsetting. War truly reduces humans to savages in so many cases. Of course, others show striking nobility, sacrifice and compassion under those same circumstances. But I still believe we need to do whatever we can to render those circumstances forever unnecessary.

      On a happier note…I too have precious memories of our day together at Arlington, when the grave was so fresh that there was no headstone, and it was covered only by a piece of plywood. I haven’t seen Col. Clinton lately and I worry somewhat that he has been ill. There used always to be fresh flowers on his wife’s grave but I have not seen any the last few times I’ve been there. I’ll always be grateful to you and Kelly for making that very personal journey with me when the grief was still fresh. It’s a memory time will never erase and a bond that will not be broken.

      I feel that the three-year mark was a sort of threshold for me. I still feel sharp pain at some thoughts and memories, but the anger and denial and resentment are growing fainter. Just past the three-year mark I quit wearing my wedding band, strengthened in part by something a friend who, like me, was a relatively young widow told me, about how she decided to remove hers almost 7 years after her husband’s death. I realized that my refusal to remove the ring was, in part, a refusal to accept Jeff’s death. Acceptance has come slowly for me, but it is coming along. Thanks for caring.

      • I’m pleased to hear that you’ve turned a corner and that the darker emotions of grief are moving on.

        I remember when our mom stopped wearing her wedding ring. It startled us at the time, but like you, I think she needed to move on.

        • Like me, your mom may have promised herself that she could always put it back on anytime she wanted to wear it. My wedding band was so tiny and thin (we shopped and shopped for the smallest one we could find, because I don’t like wearing jewelry when my hands are busy with messy work or play) that I was surprised to find it has left a tiny, barely visible mark on my finger that is apparently permanent. A tiny indentation that I can see whenever I need to reassure myself that my vanished life really did happen, and has left a permanent mark on whatever remains of my life.

  2. Judy from Pennsylvania

    The pain of the Viet Nam War is etched in my memories of being in my 20’s and having my first job as a rehab therapist in our country’s 3rd largest VA hospital. We got the wounded veterans that were stabilized from their injuries at the Clark Air Force Base hospital in the Philippines, and then sent to our VA for rehab. Terrible injuries. Some never lived and went back home. Some were horribly scarred physically/mentally for the rest of their lives. When I visited The Wall in Washington, I wept.

    Much later in life, I married a veteran of that war. He was in the K-9 Corps at the Air Force base in Saigon. I heard more stories from him and others about their experiences in Viet Nam. War makes a multitude of stories, some never told. Some shared only in private. I’ve heard some of those.

    Thank you for sharing this photo and your experiences with wearing Colonel Cobell’s POW bracelet. They’ve touched my heart.

    • Thank you, Judy. We may have talked about your time as a therapist at the VA, but if so I had forgotten. Ditto about your husband’s experiences in Viet Nam. Yes, many of the stories are never told. I did not know anyone who fought in Viet Nam (though we knew a young couple whose husband, an officer, did a tour over there but did not see combat), but I did have a friend whose brother was one of the front line troops there. She said that he never, ever spoke of it and the family (wisely I think) did not push him to talk about it. There are so many scars from that war, many of them invisible. Thanks for being here and for sharing in the remembrance of those who gave more than most of us can imagine.

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