By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany news bureau
SLIDELL – Col. Gorton Cook is a single man who served in the United States Armed Forces during the Vietnam War.
But his commitment to fight as an American soldier, even in the unpopular Vietnam conflict, is a tribute to the thousands of military veterans in this country who put their life on the line to keep America free.
Cook is 90 years old today, living in his Slidell home where he talks about the time served with the U.S. Marines as something he did for the love of his country. Like so many before him, he put his life on the line during one of the fiercest battles in the Vietnam War.
His time served in the Vietnam War was one of three different wartime eras he was a soldier. He joined the Marines at the age of 22, following in the footsteps of a brother who had gone before him.
“In those days it was about patriotism,” he said during the 1940s era of World War II. “My brother had joined since we all knew what was going on with the war. We knew we had to fight and defend this country.”
Cook grew up in Syracuse, NY in a family with one brother and one sister. His father was a steel worker and his mother was typical for those days—a stay-at-home mom who raised the kids.
He remembers life in the Northeast, especially the summers on what is known as the Finger Lakes in New York.
“We would rent a cottage on the lakes and stay for up to four weeks,” he said. “I remember the picnics outside. It was fun, but I really never looked at that as something so different than life today. You can still do that today.”
He does remember when television came into the lifestyle of Americans.
“I was fascinated when I watched the news about Amelia Earhart disappearing in her plane,” he said. “But more than TV back then it was the radio we listened to for a lot of programs. TV was still pretty new.”
He finished high school at the age of 17 and went to college at San Diego State, simply wanting to get away from his childhood home.
“I got into a feud with my father about going to college so I packed up my ’37 Ford Coupe and drove all the way to California and started college,” he recalled. “I wanted to be a teacher.”
But by the age of 22 with World War II raging, he joined the military, even though it was near the end of the war and he was fortunate enough to not go into combat. He found the Marines to his liking and stayed.
“There has always been something about that camaraderie in the military,” he said. “If you go into combat you know those guys have your back. I loved being in the military since you knew it was the finest force anywhere.”
He survived through the Korean War and remained in the military when the Vietnam War was beginning—now a major and soon to be a colonel who would be awarded the Bronze Star for his role as one of the leaders of the Third Battalion, 9th Marines at Con Thien. Cook was about to face the most dangerous, rigorous time in the military.
Rotating in and out of Con Thien every 30 days to lead the Marines during over the 24 months of fighting, American forces were faced with maintaining control of the crucial stronghold just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Cook consistently pointed to the strength of the American forces as the reason the U.S. eventually won that critical battle.
“The American soldiers are truly the best in the world,” he said. “The mortar and rocket fire was relentless and it was the biggest bombardment in the war, but we won because the U.S. has the best air power and ground troops there are.” (See separate story in this section for detail‘s of the Con Thien conflict.)
Cook was married in 1949, had two sons and remained married for 58 years before his wife passed away. He retired from the military in 1990 after serving for 30 years, finally getting a chance to do what he started after graduating from college.
“I finally got to teach here in Slidell,” he said. “We got to know about the North Shore since New Orleans was one of the places we were stationed so we moved over here after I retired.”
He said he has no regrets in his life, although he acknowledges that the commitment as a career military man did make marriage difficult since he was gone a lot.
“But I’m still glad I chose it and I did love serving in the military,” he said. “I will say that the separation from your family is the toughest thing, but it was good to me and my family.”
Cook said he especially appreciated the years with the military when he and his wife Joan got to travel the world.
At the age of 90, his advice for the younger generation is this: “do something that you enjoy. I was fortunate to do that in the military, but whatever you decide to do with your life, make it something you enjoy doing.”