Tales from the Battlefield: John Cole '80

By Debra Holtz

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Capt. John Cole knew from childhood that he was destined for a military career. A year after graduating from SMC with an art degree, he became a Marine Corps Officer. “Sure it was for adventure. It was also a shared service team calling and also very selfish,” Cole says. “It was never for glory or love of violence. In fact, if I’m honest it probably saved my life, cleaned me up post-college and made me accountable for my actions very quickly.”

Cole learned early in life the sacrifices the calling could entail: the young man who taught him how to ride a bike went to Vietnam in 1970 and was killed three months later. “I might not have been able to put it in words, but I think I understood,” he says.

Cole, now in the U.S. Navy with a career as a strike-fighter and adversary pilot, is commanding officer of the Mid-Atlantic Reserve component command at the naval Station in Norfolk, VA. the unit oversees more than 13,000 navy reservists and active-duty personnel in 14 states.

in 2004, Cole spent eight months in Pakistan where he led war-fighting coordination between Pakistani armed forces, the U.S. central command and coalition forces. While chief of staff officer with the office of the defense Representative in Islamabad, Cole lived in a safe house and rarely slept because his duties required round-the-clock vigilance in support of operation enduring Freedom.

“Early coordination with the Pakistani side was critical to prevent events from appearing like the United States was operating an incursion,” Cole says. “It was imperative that the Pakistani forces intercepted the bad guys, or our folks had wasted their time at great risk.”

While in Pakistan, Cole wore civilian clothes to avoid standing out as part of a U.S. military presence. It was only when he headed west into Afghanistan that Cole put on his uniform and armor. Finding the border was a big challenge, he says, because the tribes who control the mountainous region only recognize pre–5th-century boundaries rather than modern lines.

The Santa Ana native says he enjoyed working with people from all over the world in Pakistan. The climate and vegetation made him think of home.

“Islamabad always reminded me of Orange County, California … except for the huge fruit bats, water buffalo and cobras.”