Vietnam Veteran Makes Sure Every Hero Gets Proper Welcome
By Samantha L. Quigley
National Guard Bureau
WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2004 It happened to Steve Cobb during his first tour in Vietnam with the 11th Light Infantry Brigade. He was wounded in combat - four times.
Steve Cobb has handed out information and encouragement to
wounded veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom
since being invited to Friday night dinners for them at Fran O'Brien's Stadium
Steak House in Washington earlier this year. He was in attendance when the
restaurant celebrated its first anniversary of Friday night dinners. Photo by
Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I got four Purple Hearts my first tour and zero my second," Cobb said. "I finally learned to duck."
While learning to duck may have been an extremely valuable lesson, it can't compare to what being combat wounded taught him. That is what he draws on when he meets the wounded servicemembers who arrive at Andrews Air Force Base from Iraq or Afghanistan three times a week.
It is that experience that gives him credibility when he meets one of those servicemembers, as he's been doing since April. It is also that experience that helps him put what has happened to that servicemember into perspective.
"The bond and understanding is instant, it is deep, and it's lifelong," Cobb said, "because they recognize I've been through the same thing that they have.
"It's hard to describe to someone who hasn't experienced all the trauma and the shock and the pain and the inconvenience of evacuation," he continued. "It's really hard to understand what that person feels deep inside. But when you've been there and gone through that, you have that understanding and the bonding is so instant."
Cobb, currently the commander and adjutant of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 353, Greater Washington Area, doesn't meet planes at 1 a.m. for the glory. His motivation is the reception he received when he returned from Vietnam.
"When I came home there was nobody but demonstrators to meet the troops. And I just never wanted to see another generation of troops come home without being welcomed (and) appreciated," Cobb said.
Cobb and his wife, Tanya, try to meet each servicemember at Andrews and offer whatever help is within their scope. Usually that includes easing hesitations and maybe even eliciting a laugh or two to put things in perspective. But the duo's main focus is to make sure nobody leaves empty-handed.
MOPH supports combat wounded veterans of all wars. When that status has been determined regarding a particular servicemember, they receive a specially prepared packet of information. That packet includes information on benefits, treatment and contact information in case there are any questions or problems.
It also contains some "morale boosting" items, including a miniature Purple Heart medal, a history of the medal, a phone card, a sheet of Purple Heart postage stamps and a welcome-home letter. Also included is a year's free membership with any MOPH chapter.
Non-combat-injured veterans aren't left out. They receive welcome-home packets from the Veterans of Foreign Wars that include a benefits brochure, a service officer card and a year's free VFW membership.
"The philosophy behind that is, if I walk into a room with six patients and three are battle injuries and three are non-battle injuries, no patient is ever left empty-handed," Cobb said. "It's a huge morale factor and they all appreciate it."
While the packets provide an icebreaker, getting the servicemembers to focus on the future and not dwell on the past becomes the order of the day. Cobb's weapon of choice for that pursuit is usually humor. And "Wednesday night doughnuts" don't hurt anything either, Cobb said. Occasionally, wheelchair races have to be refereed after the doughnuts are gone, he said.
Those who get the packets at Andrews represent about 80 percent of the wounded servicemembers coming in, he said. The other 20 percent of the troops are critical enough to be taken from the flight line at Andrews directly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the National Naval medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where the Cobbs follow up to make sure the servicemembers receive a proper welcome home, including one of the two packets.
It's through these follow-up visits that Cobb learns what the hospitals need by way of personal items for the servicemembers. He said the staff is not allowed to voice those needs unless asked directly, but when he broaches the subject, there are always needs. The biggest, he said, is usually breakaway sweat pants.
He said he and his wife will continue to meet the wounded servicemembers coming into Andrews with information and their own special brand of thanks, understanding and appreciation.