Dave Cole, a resident of Texas Trails RV Resort in Pharr, spent four years in Vietnam in the Army's Security Agency. He has lived in the Valley for 16 years.
Dave Cole is a Vietnam War vet who has seen a lot of things to say the least. His story is one of a man who was looking for something – and it wasn't to be an accountant.
Cole is from Grand Island, Neb. In 1966 he had just finished his first year in college and didn't want to go back – the accounting life wasn't something he could see in his future. And he couldn't imagine what he might see in that near future, but a phone call started him on a different path.
“My best friend's dad was the president of the draft board and he told me 'Dave, dad says your name is coming up on the draft board,” said Cole, who resides at Texas Trails RV Resort in Pharr. “So I went down and enlisted.”
Cole ended up in the Army Security Agency, a part of the military he said that they couldn't talk much about because they were trained by the National Security Agency, where everything was top secret. They even changed the name to Radio Research - “then we went to Vietnam,” he said.
Cole spent four years in the Army, 18 of those months in Vietnam. He was part of a group that made sure communications were secure and leaks were not transmitted. They would use descramblers in the field so they could talk normally, without using code upon code to get messages delivered.
“We could talk openly, the descrambler made it so we could talk but they couldn't hear our communication, even if they were on the same channel we were on,” he said. “They would just hear static. We did some work where we went out with units and watched the Ho Chi Minh Trail and we would call in air strikes or troop strikes when there was troop or supply movement. That way we could get it quicker; we didn't have to worry about remembering all the terminology.”
Cole said back then – he enlisted in June 1966 – nobody knew what the Secret Service was and the Army Security Agency was similar. After enlisting, however, he knew that a neighbor in his hometown had been part of the same organization. One day, Cole approached him with curiosity and asked questions to help enlighten him for what he had in store. But it was critical that nobody knew who was in the top intelligence agencies to keep them from being a bigger target.
“Even the recruiters didn't know what the Secret Service was,” Cole said. “When I asked my neighbor about that he looked at me like he was dumbfounded and was like 'what are you talking about?'”
During those 18 months in Vietnam, Cole said he became a believer that “the Good Lord was watching over me at least three times.”
The first of those was one day as he and a small unit were heading to their battalion with critical classified documents that needed to be delivered. While speeding along Highway 1 (“I didn't know there was a speed limit on Highway 1” Cole said jokingly), an MP stopped Cole's jeep to check out identification.
“They stopped us and when I explained what I was doing, they were going to let me go,” Cole said. “Before they let us go a deuce and a half truck went around us.”
A deuce and a half truck was first manufactured for Vietnam. It was a vehicle that was constructed quickly, could be transported en masse on a Navy ship and would be used primarily to transport troops.
“The truck got 200 yards in front of us and hit a mine in the middle of the road,” Cole said. “Those boys were killed. It was command detonated and we saw the VC running out across the rice patties and they did get him.
“That was my first one.”
The strikes continued on the North Vietnamese's supplies and troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was actually a series of trails that the North Vietnamese used as a route for its troops, weapons, food and equipment to get into the South. Finally they realized how the strikes were happening with such frequency.
“We were out there too long and they knew we were there because of too many direct hits and they started looking for us,” Cole said. “One night they scaled a cliff where we were and one of them ran between the bunker I was in and the bunker beside me. To this day I say he had to be left-handed because the threw the satchel charged to the left. If he had thrown it to the right, I wouldn't be here.
“That was my second one.”
The night was a long one of combat. Cole said it's during those times that you just don't have time to be scared or think about anything but survival. “You didn't have time to think about things when you were in combat,” he said. “You might think about it after – that's when you might get scared.”
The third was filled with bittersweet emotions. While sitting in the operations center and teletyping, he received a message asking where Dave Cole was.
“I said 'talking to you.' They said I was supposed to be in Saigon processing out to go home but the orders never got from the battalion to where we were. The next day they brought a replacement and I started heading to Saigon. That night the camp got run over and two or three of the guys in my group got killed in the attack. I never found out who.
“I said that was my time to leave.”
Cole returned to the states and left the Army in June 1970, four years after enlisting. He went back to college and earned his degree – in accounting.
“I still didn't want to be an accountant,” he said.
Cole ended up being a produce buyer for a large chain similar to H-E-B, called Nash Finch and they had several locations all through the Midwest. He worked there until he brought his dad for a vacation visit to the Valley.
“We came down after my mom passed away, and while I was playing golf he bought a place down here,” Cole said. “I've been down here ever since – 16 years and this is home.”
Cole tells the story of Vietnam in a calm and professional way, like telling somebody about a movie he just watched. There is little emotion, it's just matter of fact.
But when he talks about what he calls one of the best experiences he ever had since returning from Vietnam, even he can't hold back choking up ever so slightly.
“Some friends of ours and us went up to San Antonio to the Alamo. Me and my buddy were sitting on one of the benches and this young lady came up to me, probably 10 or 11 years old, and thanked me for being a vet,” Cole said. “She asked me if I was a hero. I told her no. I said if your parents ever get a chance to take you to Washington, D.C. and see the Memorial, those are the heroes.”
Cole said living in the Valley has been an overwhelmingly positive time in his life.
“The people in the Valley thank me more for my service than anywhere I've been all my life – at home I never got thanked but here it's the young people and the older people. Everyone.
“When my dad passed away, he told me on the last day he was alive – 'son, don't ever leave the Valley. You have more friends and family here than you will ever have anywhere else.'
“I found this place with my dad. This is home.”