Despite fighting in wars apart, two vets find they're brothers in arms

07/30/2011 8:44 PM

02/15/2012 8:58 PM

Two weeks ago, when The Bee invited Vietnam War veterans to share their experiences in Southeast Asia, we knew we'd get some compelling responses and moving stories.

We have. None, though, may be more moving and compelling than this one:

Four years ago, Army vet Ronn Cossey of Turlock was invited to ride in the parade and speak at the annual Veterans Car Show at Pismo Beach. The event raises money to aid veterans.

There he met Zeb Lane of Ohio, who had served in the Marines' Lima Company in Iraq. Lane's unit lost 23 men — 14 in a single explosion — in 2005. Lane was among the 40 survivors wounded in the fighting around Haditha.

He had come to Pismo Beach to auction artwork to benefit the Lima Company Memorial to be built in Columbus.

These men, who fought in different wars in different decades, spent hours talking that weekend. They compared battle notes and what has happened to them since leaving the military. They became friends. They formed a bond.

In Lane, the 63-year-old Cossey saw a younger version of himself — a veteran who experienced the horrors of war and will deal with them for the rest of his life.

In Cossey, the 30-year-old Lane found someone who understands combat, fought the internal war that followed, and who can help him navigate the emotional no-man's land of post-traumatic stress disorder.

War does horrible things to good people, and many simply cannot turn in their demons when they muster out and return to civilian life.

"One night, I had bad flashbacks of PTSD," Lane said. "I called Ronn. We talked for hours and hours."

Cossey wanted to help Lane. Lane wants to help those who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

So they began writing letters back and forth. Cossey would tell Lane a story about Vietnam, his time in a tank battalion and life in Southeast Asia. War stories.

Lane would write back, telling Cossey about dealing with insurgents, improvised explosive devices and life in the Persian Gulf. War stories.

This went on for months, letter after letter that became chapter after chapter.

Similar wars and stories

They discovered their wars were similar. Vietnam became the war Americans said they never wanted to repeat. Iraq became the war, these veterans concluded, that repeated it.

In both wars, distinguishing between ally and enemy posed problems. Cossey described the perils of jungle warfare and never knowing where the snipers hid; Lane matched it with depictions of going house to house in Iraqi towns and cities, building to building, searching out and snuffing out insurgents.

Both men lost more friends and comrades than they could bear.

War, they concluded, is universally awful.

They've compiled their letters into a book they've titled "NamRaq." Like the group of veterans in Stanislaus County writing a book about their Vietnam experiences, Cossey and Lane find writing therapeutic and traumatic. Therapeutic because it helps them sort out their issues. Traumatic because they have to relive those life-altering moments.

They hold back nothing. They tell of moments that affected them deeply and still do. There's no political correctness, no caving to revisionist histories.

They were there. They know what it was like.

Cossey is sick and tired of hearing that the United States lost the Vietnam War. President John F. Kennedy's edict, he said, was to stop the spread of communism in the Pacific Rim.

"We did that," Cossey said. "The only place that is communist now that wasn't when we got there is South Vietnam."

Survivor's guilt

In the first chapter, Cossey explains what so many survivors from so many wars have felt and carried with them the rest of their lives.

"I am successful to many, but feel guilty because I am alive, and they aren't," Cossey wrote. "I should have fought harder, to the death if need be, so my brothers would still be alive. Survivor's guilt they call it, and sometimes it controls my whole life, but I will keep fighting it with all the other horrors that I remember."

Lane wrote about his disgust with Vice President Dick Cheney's ties to Halliburton, the only company allowed to bid on providing services in Iraq, and how its subsidiary, KBR, fed the troops. Cheney, Halliburton's chief executive officer from 1995 to 2000, earned stock options and deferred CEO pay from Halliburton while serving as vice president in George W. Bush's administration.

"Granted, KBR provided good chow," Lane wrote. "But where is the incentive to end a war when your companies are making a fortune off of the war? That is all I am going to say about that topic."

Both men wrote of hitting the ground upon arriving in their war zones. When Cossey landed in South Vietnam in 1967, fighting greeted him at the airport.

"The heat hit me like a blast furnace!" Cossey wrote. "Then I noticed everyone was running to get off the plane, there were soldiers that hit the deck, even the flight crew. What the hell was that noise? It sounded like a hundred freight trains going through the air.

"Then the explosions, Machine gun fire, more explosions, burning buildings, people dead, dying and screaming. I never forgot those sounds of those people dying, and screaming, please someone help me, save me, save me, I'm hit, Where's mom?"

Lane's outfit came under mortar fire as its helicopters reached the Haditha Dam in Iraq.

Common bonds

Chapter matching chapter, story matching story.

Cossey wrote about engaging in combat 87 out of 91 days during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Lane detailed the explosion that claimed 14 of his "brothers" in Iraq in 2005.

After Vietnam, Cossey worked in construction and fighting oil fires before going to work for Foster Farms. In 1999, he belatedly received a Silver Star for bravery, which he describes in the book.

Lane, a sergeant, is 100 percent disabled.

"I'm a liability," he said. "My medical condition is a liability."

He awaits his Purple Heart for the head injuries he suffered in Iraq. When bombs exploded close by, shrapnel shredded his wrist, and he fought through it all.

"I didn't try to get out of battle because of a frickin' scratch," he said. "(Members of his unit) look up to you as a leader. You get a major wound, you've got no choice. You keep going."

That is what these men are trying to do — keep going by helping each other knowing combat veterans everywhere will relate. They hope to find a publisher for their book, not so much to make money as to help other veterans. And if they do make money, they'll use it to help veterans.

Compelling stuff, indeed.

Two men, two wars. Similar stories and parallel lives.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383.

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