Calvin Coolidge Cooke Jr.

This photo of Calvin Coolidge Cooke Jr. was taken by a former crewmate, James Corkern, in February 1972. It appears on a Web site devoted to Cooke's memory.

Cumberland Times-News

CARPENDALE, W.Va. - Marie O'Donnell's big brother used to con her out of her candy - but he also taught her how to ride a bike, and he let her wear his Mickey Mouse ears.

"To me, he was 10 feet tall," she said. "To me, he was perfect."

When her big brother is laid to rest Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery, O'Donnell will welcome him home from a tour of duty in Vietnam that became extended when he and his air crew were killed in action and reported missing 34 years ago.

The rest of their family, and many friends she didn't know she had until recently, will be with her.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Calvin Coolidge Cooke Jr. grew up in Capitol Heights, near Washington. He was a loadmaster aboard an Air Force C-130E Hercules cargo plane that was shot down in April 1972 near An Loc during an emergency mission to resupply besieged South Vietnamese troops.

Cooke was 26 and doing what he wanted to do. He had parents, a wife, three daughters, five sisters and two brothers.

His remains weren't recovered immediately because of enemy activity. They were returned to American custody in 1988, but not identified until earlier this year. The remains of four members of Cooke's six-man crew have now been identified.

O'Donnell, who resides in Carpendale and has lived in this area for 40 years, said she never had illusions that her brother would miraculously come home alive. He and his crew were initially listed as missing in action but soon reclassified killed in action/body not recovered.

"I knew he was gone," she said. "The sad thing was that there was nothing ... it was a gap that never healed."

O'Donnell said she is grateful to those who helped recover and identify her brother's remains. "They never stop looking for these men," she said.

"I'll always miss Grady (her nickname for Cooke)," she said. "There'll always be an empty spot in my heart, and every once in a while it comes back and hits me, but I'm not mourning any more.

"I'm happy because he's coming back. He's always been here spiritually, but now he'll be home and with his family. He'll be with people who loved him," said O'Donnell. Their parents and two of their grandparents are buried at Arlington.

For some weeks, she has been hearing not just from people who served with Cooke, but also from veterans who didn't know him and are rejoicing because another of America's 1,800 missing from the Vietnam War has been accounted for.

"The expressions of joy are just unbelievable when you think that so many people forget," said O'Donnell. "It's been 34 years, but to these people it's someone who was lost and is being brought home. They think of him as one of their brothers."

A contingent from Cumberland's Chapter 172 of the Vietnam Veterans of America and numerous others, including veterans motorcycle groups who attend such ceremonies, have told her they intend to join her at Arlington.

"We're going to be able to meet people we've never met before and hear stories about what they shared and went through together," O'Donnell said. "There's so much that no one knows about, the things these guys are keeping inside them."

One of "these guys" is Paul Parish, a Cumberland firefighter who lives in Oldtown and was a loadmaster on another C-130 crew. He said few people are aware of the determination, motivation and courage that were displayed by the air crews and maintainers of those cargo planes.

Parish served in the same tactical airlift wing with Cooke and was on a mission transferring a fighter group to Thailand when Cooke's aircraft was lost. His C-130 was used to replace Cooke's.

"I consider myself honored and privileged to have shared the skies with your brother," Parish said in an e-mail to O'Donnell, "and I am exceptionally proud to be able to be there when he finally comes home." Parish is a member of the VVA Chapter 172 Color Guard.

Another man who served with Cooke described him as "a happy, cheerful guy always laughing and joking, except for when he mentioned his family that he showed great love for and missed very much."

O'Donnell said her big brother "had a way of bringing a little bit of joy and humor and lightness to everything."

Cooke wasn't drafted, but volunteered, and after he had completed one tour in Vietnam, he came home for a while.

"After he landed in Washington, he was spit on, and people called him a baby-killer," O'Donnell said.

"When he volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam, I was furious with him," she said. "Here we were, sweating blood the whole year he was in, and I couldn't understand why he'd done it.

"Grady told me 'If I go back, maybe I will save somebody else's life.' What can you say to someone who tells you that?" Trying to save lives is what he and his crew were doing when their plane was shot down, she said.

She said her perspective has changed. Her husband, John O'Donnell, served in the Army from 1961 to 1963, and their three sons served in the military.

Tim was an Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne; Sean was in the Navy on the submarine USS Topeka; and John was on the Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The O'Donnells' son-in-law, Jim Spiker, is an Army recruiter in the LaVale office.

"Tim told me that if he got called up and something happened to him, I should know he loved his country and was doing what he did because he wanted to," O'Donnell said. "Grady felt the same way. When he went back to Vietnam, he was going back to his other family. He was going back to do what he had to do."

When America became involved in the Iraq war, O'Donnell said, "Some of the people I work with put up anti-war posters." She responded by putting up photographs that had been taken at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

"I'd had enough of that during Vietnam," she said. "I wanted to show them the price somebody had to pay so they would be free to say those things."

A memorial Web site for Cooke is maintained by his brother, David Cooke, and can be found at virtualwall.org.

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