First casualty I escorted home from Vietnam 1965

First casualty I escorted home from Vietnam 1965

I was on my first tour of duty as a Marine drill instructor at MCRD San Diego. Orders came down from Headquarters Marine Corps, as requested by the mother of Lance Cpl. Donald L. Bennett.

I had put him through boot camp a year earlier. I remembered him because at one of the mail calls, he had received a large box of home baked cookies from his mother and I made him share them with the other recruits and made the statement, "if you get anymore cookies or cakes from home, my favorite is chocolate!"

Well, I had forgotten that statement by the time the platoon graduated. But I was overly surprised by a small woman standing outside of the base theater where we held the graduation, holding a square box and asking me, "are you Corporal Cooper?" I said, with a salute, 'Yes ma'am.' " She handed me the box while saying (in the presence of the commanding general, regimental, and battalion commanders) "Here is the chocolate cake you asked for!" I thought my career had just ended until the commanding general and his staff turned and walked away.

Years later, I flew to Donald's home in Fairfield, Calif., as his mother had requested. I was not prepared for the knowledge that he was her only child. She had been married to Babe Bennett at age 19 and could not carry a child to full term until she gave birth to Donald at age 32 to lose him in combat four months before he was supposed to rotate back to CONUS.

Up until that time, as I now do, I have never cried in the presence of anyone but my mom, dad and siblings. I could barely make the flag presentation. I cried through it and she comforted me.

This may sound strange to some but, all of my time in Vietnam (Southeast Asia: 1966-'71), I was more afraid of losing one of my Marines in a firefight than I was about my own life. I trained them hard, even when we were out of harm's way. Mrs. Bennett asked for my mother's telephone and address; they called and wrote to each other until both passed from this life, in the 1990s.

Gene F. Cooper, GySgt. USMC, 1958-1973.

God bless and keep you all, in the name of Jesus Christ.