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Marine Faces Family Trials, Attitude Inspires
by USMC Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes - January 1, 2012

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CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand province, Afghanistan (12/23/2011) – Benjamin Franklin once said, “... In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Tampa, Fla., native Gregory L. Cole never thought the death of a loved one could bring to life a new perspective on how to live.

Corporal Gregory L. Cole, a Tampa, Fla., native and the current operations manager for the Combat Operations Center, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), is responsible for tracking all significant events that happen within the division’s area of operations and archives them for future reference. Cole received a Red Cross message requesting he come home after his father was diagnosed with a progressive stage IV cancer. His father’s death has made him realize how short life can be. He said no one is promised tomorrow, so he plans to live every day of his life to the fullest. Photo by USMC Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes, Feb. 2, 2008
Corporal Gregory L. Cole, a Tampa, Fla., native and the current operations manager for the Combat Operations Center, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), is responsible for tracking all significant events that happen within the division's area of operations and archives them for future reference. Photo by USMC Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes, Feb. 2, 2008

 Corporal Cole, the current operations manager for the Combat Operations Center, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), received an unexpected message in May 2011 that he needed to return home from his yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. The trials Cole would face through the next three months would test those with the strongest character, but he has displayed an unwavering strength that has inspired others.

Cole, who joined the Marine Corps in April 2009, volunteered for this deployment to serve with his brothers in 2nd Marine Division (Forward), also known as Task Force Leatherneck, even if he had to take a billet outside of his Military Occupational Specialty. He is a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear defense specialist, but took an administrative position for the opportunity to deploy.

Cole tracks all significant events that happen within the division's area of operations and archives them for future reference. For Cole, it is not what job you do, but rather being able to do any job as a Marine.

“I like waking up every day and being able to put on this guy right here – the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor,” said Cole, as he pulled his left breast pocket away from his chest to exhibit the Marine Corps emblem embroidered on his uniform. “Not cheesy or anything, but I
really like it. It's a sense of accomplishment; it is one of the few things in my life I have actually earned.”

Cole assists the operations chief with battle space management. He reviews activity reports consisting of activities such as improvised explosive device finds, combat engagements and medical evacuations. These reports come from subordinate commands, and Cole tracks the activity and trends and keeps the watch officer up-to-date on where activity happens in the area of operations.

“He is responsible for inputting all of the significant acts and events that occur in Task Force Leatherneck's area of responsibility,” said Sgt. Jeffrey J. Cyprus, the Task Force Leatherneck watch noncommissioned officer and Cole's direct supervisor. “He archives all of the events ... in order to develop trends in insurgent activity.”

Cyprus, a Fraser, Mich., native, mentioned Cole's billet contributes to the overall mission of TFL because his data helps to support operation and future mission planning from the company level all the way up to the division headquarters level.

Cole was establishing a steady routine at Camp Leatherneck. Life was seemingly normal, and his deployment was going as planned. He was three months into his tour when life as he knew it changed.

Tragedy stuck, not once, but twice when Cole received two Red Cross messages within three months requesting he come home -- his father was diagnosed with a progressive stage IV cancer. Doctors found a tumor on his brain, one in his left kidney, and multiple tumors on his lungs.

“It all started back in May; my dad started getting some really bad headaches,” said Cole. “They did a (Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan on) his head, and he had a brain tumor. He ended up having brain surgery the next day.”

Cole said he was on his way home to Tampa two or three days after his father had brain surgery. His father then had kidney surgery just a couple days after he returned home. Everything with both surgeries seemed to go well, and Cole said his dad began to recover; he was able to spend a lot of time with him while he was there.

“I've never had anyone in my immediate family seriously sick before. It kind of shocked me a little bit,” said Cole. “At the time, I really didn't know how serious it really was.”

His father started treatment to take care of the tumors on his lungs a couple of days after Cole returned to his unit in Afghanistan.

Cole mentioned that he didn't hear anything new, “I figured no news is good news.”

Unfortunately, Cole could not have been more wrong. His father and family hoped the treatments for the remaining tumors would help, but two months after Cole's return to Afghanistan, his father's health took an unexpected turn for the worst and was given less than a week to live. Cole was once again granted emergency leave and en route to be by his father's side. He made it as far as Kuwait on his return trip before receiving the news his father had passed away.

“In your mind you think that nothing bad is going to happen to the people you love and care about,” said Cole. “You really hope for the best.”

Cole understands life cannot always bring “the best” to his doorstep. He has learned to push forward and make the best of any situation and to be there for those who need him the most – in this case, his four siblings.

“I have four younger brothers; they all kind of looked at me for a bit of guidance,” said Cole. “It was good to be together as a family, to understand the situation, everything that had happened, and to talk about it amongst ourselves. It was a good cleansing experience. I think we learned a lot about each other during those two weeks together.”

Before Cole left home for the second time, Cyprus asked him if he needed to stay home with his family. Cole told him no; he said he would make the most of the time he has with his family and would be back to duty at the end of his emergency leave.

Cole added, “I expected to come back. I said I wouldn't need that long to make peace with the situation.”

“Corporal Cole has truly demonstrated his dedication to the mission and Corps, given the recent events that transpired in his life,” said Cyprus. “For most 21-year-olds, losing their father would totally destroy them. Corporal Cole did not bottle up his emotions and let it destroy him; he took the time afforded to him, went home, and handled his business. The first question he asked me after emergency leave was, ‘When do you think that I can get orders and get deployed again?'”

His dedication to duty is a direct reflection of his father's personal drive and willingness to beat his illness. Cole said his dad insisted they go golfing just days after he had brain surgery and tried to go running just three days after his kidney surgery. Cole analyzed his father's carefree attitude, an attitude that had always been there and one Cole just really began to understand.

“The man was dedicated to his job, his life, and his kids. That was really good motivation for me,” said Cole of his father's inspiring life. “Despite hardships in your life, you always need to take it in stride and keep moving forward, because whenever it's your time, it's your time.”

It was tough for Cole to bounce back from his father's death, but he looked to his father's wisdom and his faith to carry him through this hardship.

“The one constant you always have is yourself and the Lord. It's always nice to be able to go to Him for guidance in whatever you need to do,” Cole said of his spiritual relationship. “It's nice to always know there may not be tomorrow, but you're still going to push as hard as you can for that day. If there is another day, then you wake up and say, ‘Ok, I've got another day.' It is an attitude that was ingrained in me, something I picked up from my parents, and I thank them for that.”

“(Death) gives you a new perspective on life; what I've kind of taken away from it is if you see something out there you want to do, something you want to experience in life, why not go do it?” said Cole. “As long as it's not hurting anyone else, it's within the realm of possibility and within your means, you should definitely go out and try it.”

Cole said having that attitude he learned from his father was “absolutely conducive” to him coming back to Afghanistan with a positive outlook.

“I don't know how much longer I want to do it, I don't know if I want to go to college (full-time), or go coach high school baseball,” Cole added. “Who knows what God has planned for me – just find what you love and just keep doing it. If you don't love it anymore, then give it up.”

Cole said if he could talk to his dad one more time he would say, “I thank him for what he's taught me and obviously influenced me in what I'll do for the rest of my life. I can never thank him enough for what he has done for me. Who can thank their parents enough for what they've done for us, right? He was a rock for us for a long time. He's in a better place now, I know that much – lucky guy.”

Editor's Note: Second Marine Division (Forward) heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.

By USMC Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes
2nd Marine Division
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2012

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