08/13/07 — Service without any fanfare

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Service without any fanfare

By Anessa Myers
Published in News on August 13, 2007 1:45 PM

WALNUT CREEK -- Lou Cook is a man of many sequels.

He is patriotic and serene, a veteran who hesitates to talk about his service.

He is a grandfather and a bass fisherman whose sense of community has put him in his town's village administrator seat for four years.

And that is only a small glimpse into the movie he calls life.

The scene opens with a 27-year stint with the Air Force in Vietnam, Thailand and the Persian Gulf. He also did tours in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Cook doesn't rush to share memories of those days. That's not his way.

It isn't easy to find evidence of the medals he has had pinned to his uniform.

The case containing his honors is above his shelves and against the wall, almost hidden. It took a while to get them to the office at all.

City Clerk Sandy Allen insisted they stay.

"I had them at home for a long time, and then I brought them in to show someone how to arrange them," he said. "That's when Sandy said that I should keep them here and display them."

Ms. Allen asked how he got them.

Cook said he was just doing his job.

Among those honors is another -- from the "World Famous Rocketeers."

That's another story.

As part of the 336th Fighter Squadron, Cook earned the Order of the Rocket -- a recognition of outstanding leadership.

He will tell you that -- grudgingly. He might add -- humbly -- that it was only the second to be awarded.

Cook started his career as an aircraft weapons mechanic. He retired as chief of the 4th Fighter Group's Operations, supervising nearly 2,250 people and 125 airplanes at any one time.

He says he loved every minute of it.

"Running a fighter squadron is a lot of responsibility and a lot of hours, but it is also a lot of fun," he said.

There are lots of memories, too.

And sometimes, a leader's memorable moments are simple. They aren't about battles and victories.

They are about bringing everyone home safely.

One of those moments came when Cook was serving in Desert Storm.

"We sent out 24 F-15s. It was very satisfying to see them get off the ground and even more satisfying to see them all land. I saw the tapes of what they went into. It was a miracle they all made it back."

He could have stayed 30 years as chief of the fighter group, but he retired in 1995, leaving a few years early.

For him, it was time, but he misses the people and the camaraderie.

He didn't want a party, of course.

But his supervisor disagreed.

It was for the young airmen, he said -- a chance to say thanks.

"He told me that they wanted to show them how much they appreciated a person of my stature and rank, and I told him all I wanted was chicken and barbecue."

So, Cook agreed to a party in the hangar on the flight line with the men in battle dress. He didn't miss the formal attire, five-star dining and speeches.

"To me, it was first class," he said.

Cook is still with those who have come after him -- an airmen who has not forgotten those who serve and those who gave their lives on the battlefield.

One of those is Eddie.

He, too, is part of this script.

Eddie married Cook's cousin, and the two men were stationed together in Vietnam.

"He was killed while I was there, and I didn't even know it," Cook said.

Assigned to another station, Cook went to Eddie's room to tell him he was leaving, but the message was lost in translation.

"There was a Vietnamese lady in there that cleaned our rooms for us, and she kept telling me that he flew away," Cook said. "He flew F-4s, so I thought she meant he was out flying."

He found out later that his cousin-in-law died in a plane crash that same day he left.

Cook learned a lesson he never forgot.

"There were times like that when I had to take a step back and say 'Life is fragile,'" he said.

There is much Cook has seen that he has blocked out or never wants to speak about again. But that doesn't mean the hero who signed up long ago to serve his nation has stopped caring about his country and its people.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he wanted to help -- any way he could.

So, he wrote a letter, asking the military what he could do. He did not hear back.

"I wasn't asking them to put me up in the ranks or anything," he said. "I would have helped clean dishes in the kitchen. Maybe they thought I was too old, but I could have done that to free up someone else to go and fight."

And that began another scene in his life -- finding a new way to serve.

After his retirement, Cook worked in the N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs for eight years.

He helped many veterans receive benefits from the government that they deserved, and, up until that point, had not seen.

One of these veterans came into his office with his wife, expecting nothing.

"He said to me, 'Anything you can give us would be great, but if you can't help us, don't worry about it,'" Cook said.

It took awhile -- many stories of wounds, capture and death. Still, Cook said he could not find a way to help. He kept the man talking about the war and his service.

And then, the man shared a memory -- tears rolling down his face.

It was the day his best friend died.

Cook asked the man's wife how often the veteran cried.

"She said, 'Every day for 52 years,'" he said.

That was the tipping point.

Cook helped the couple receive governmental money to help support their $12,000 annual Social Security income, and even today, he wishes he could have helped more people like that.

That was just one way he could continue to serve.

Today, Cook has added new wrinkles to his dedication to his country.

He serves locally now -- and lives by a motto learned and earned from years of thinking of others first.

"What little I have to offer, I feel I can spare some of it to help others achieve something," he said.

Cook serves as membership chairman of the American Legion for North Carolina, serving through the Snow Hill post. The post sponsors multiple benefits for children -- a chance to take care of the next generation.

But Cook has not forgotten his brothers in service.

At Christmas time, Cook and a friend raise money to donate clothing and cash to the North Carolina State Veterans Nursing Home in Fayetteville.

"It is the only veterans nursing home around, and most of the time people drop their family members off, visiting them only a few times a year," he said. "This way, everyone gets a Christmas gift. It needs to get done, and I figured I could help."

Cook is quick to point out that he did not get here entirely on his own.

He says most of his morals and beliefs come from the person he looked up to most -- his father.

He said his father's best advice was to be able to look in the mirror every morning and like what he sees.

"My father was a simple, uneducated man with a blue collar work ethic. He told me to take care of what needs to be done, and I try to do that."

Born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., Cook calls North Carolina his home state.

He came to Goldsboro in 1970 -- and came back to retire.

"It offered the things I was looking for and didn't offer the things I wanted to get away from," he said. "For me, Memphis is a place I want to visit, but Goldsboro is my home. I bought a house here and never looked back. I will never move again."

Cook lives in Goldsboro with his wife, Pam. His two sons, Chris and Aaron, live nearby. He has four grandchildren and spends time with them as much as he can.

When he has free time, it is off to the water. A bass fishing enthusiast, he has won a couple dozen contests, which he also downplays.

"I have won some first places, but I have won more second places and even more third places," Cook said.

Surrounded by lakes at work probably doesn't bother him either.

He believes Walnut Creek is a good place for him.

He enjoys having something different to do all the time. His restless urge to serve has not been satisfied yet.

At age 59, Cook has seven more years until he can retire, but as of now, he "can't even envision it."

And so, he prepares for the next sequel.

"If it is comfortable and it fits, I will keep wearing it," he said.