The Rev. John Cook needed no reminders of the significance of this Blue Star Memorial Veterans Day ceremony.
His father, J.J. Cook, sat in the second row at the N.C. Veterans Park visitors center.
“My dad was my hero,” the retired preacher and Army veteran would say Friday about his father, 89, who served 27 years and retired in 1982 as a colonel on Fort Bragg.
Poignant was the moment.
“I was destined to become a soldier,” John Cook, a West Point graduate, would say. “I wanted to serve my country, like my father and his friends had.”
He would graduate in 1979 from West Point, where John Cook was commander of the Corps of Cadets his senior year. He would spend five years on active duty with the 82nd Airborne Division on Fort Bragg, including his first combat tour as a battery commander in Grenada as part of Operation Urgent Fury in 1983.
John Cook left active duty in July 1984 to attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he earned a master’s of divinity in 1987. He served as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Hardinsburg, Kentucky, from 1985 to 1989, when he returned to active duty as an Army chaplain.
He would spend the ensuing 20-plus years serving as a chaplain to soldiers and their families throughout the world, including combat tours of duty in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as part of Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990 to 1991 and from 2004 to 2005 in Kuwait.
“I was a chaplain,” Cook would say. “I didn’t carry any weapons.”
John Cook carried the Holy Bible and the angst, fears and hopes for military men and women and their families praying for better days and years to come.
There was, he would say, a bond of camaraderie.
“There is a special camaraderie of those who serve,” he would say, and allude to the 1991 television miniseries “Band of Brothers.” “We became family. ‘Band of Brothers’ talked about those bonds of those in combat. Our spouses’ and families’ sacrifices are just as important.”
Celebrating veterans past and present
The N.C. Veterans Park visitors center was filled to capacity on this day of honoring military veterans of all service branches. Many veterans were in attendance. Others were in our thoughts, including John Milton Rose Jr., the retired Air Force brigadier general who died at age 99 on Nov.7, and Holcomb Max Stroup Jr., the retired Army Air Corps sergeant, World War II veteran and commander emeritus of the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry, who died at 99 Nov. 6.
The FILI would present Friday’s colors. Paul Monroe led us in singing the national anthem and later a moving “Toast to the Flag.” Vietnam veteran Don Talbot, 82, who retired as a 7th Special Forces chief warrant officer in 1984, later would be honored with the Col. Robert Rowan Daughters of the American Revolution distinguished service award for his work in developing nearby Freedom Memorial Park, where Cross Creek Briarwood Garden Club members Connie Michaels, Gerri Arrowood, Shelton Shearon, Debbie Nepstead and Polly Strickland would place a wreath at the Blue Star Memorial marker.
That Blue Star Memorial has a special place for me, with my late mother’s fingerprints a part of when it was dedicated at the park when she was a member of the garden club, and when then late-president Elaine Nunnery worked with Talbot to relocate the marker.
“Your mother is smiling,” Sybil West, the garden club president, would remind me when the wreath was in place.
John Cook would retire from military service with the rank of colonel in 2009 to become pastor at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church. He retired from the church in 2021.
Looking into the eyes of veterans who had served after him and a father and others who served before him, John Cook left us with a final word.
Another, if you will, poignant moment on this Veterans Day.
“We get one shot at life,” said Cook, 65, whose twin sons, Jonathan and Joshua, followed him to West Point and were 2010 graduates. “If I could live my life all over again, I’d do it all again for the fulfillment to serve my country and God. So today, may God bless you and the men and women who have served our great nation. God bless you, and God bless our veterans.”
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.