MORGANTOWN — There was no mistaking that soda can, pull-tab sound.
The underside of Brent Cole’s Apache helicopter was systematically being perforated by Iraqi rounds from below.
Warning lights were blinking, gauges were reeling and the warship was hemorrhaging oil.
Each arterial-mechanical gush of it unto the desert floor punctuated The Question: What happens if we ditch?
Cole and his co-pilot, Lee Fennema, already knew the answer. Crash-landing the craft would have made them easy targets. If they were injured, they wouldn’t be able to fight.
Chances are, they wouldn’t have been able to fight, anyway, since they surely would have been overrun, which meant being killed or captured.
None of it would matter if all the Apache’s shot-up systems failed. Then, the chopper would drop like a rock, no matter what. Base was a few miles away, and the shooting was becoming even more intense.
Fennema, the major, outranked Cole, the chief warrant officer — but Cole, a Masontown native known for his coolness in the crunch — had the stick.
“It’s your ship, Brent.”
And Cole nursed the injured bird home.
Wall of Valor
A couple of years after that mission, wartime averages caught up with Brent Cole.
He was killed in action in the skies of Afghanistan in 2009. He was 38 years old and left behind his wife, Vanessa (they were high school sweethearts) and son, Carson, who was 10 and idolized his dad.
Last week in Clarksburg, Cole was again honored for his sacrifice.
During the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame induction ceremony, his name was placed on the Hall’s inaugural Wall of Valor, which acknowledges the service of the state’s military aviators.
His mother, Helen Cole, said her son was simply patriotic.
“He died believing that he was doing what he should be doing,” she said.
“He wanted to make the world a better place for Vanessa and Carson, and for all of us.”
Jon McBride, the Beckley astronaut who flew combat missions in Vietnam and later piloted the Space Shuttle, helped preside over the ceremonies.
Her son, Helen Cole said, would have been proud — even if he would have likely tossed a one-liner (or several) in just for levity.
“That sense of humor of his,” his mom said. “Everybody he served with had a ‘Brent Cole’ story.”
Lots of Brent Cole stories abound in the family, she said.
“We’re not afraid to talk about him,” Helen Cole said. “And it’s good for Carson.”
On the day of his dad’s funeral at St. Sebastian in Kingwood, the lapels of Carson’s blue suit were weighed down with Brent Cole’s medals.
Carson would net some accolades of his own. He was a star middle linebacker on his high school football team. Playing such an aggressive position on the field, his grandmother said, helped to tamp the frustrations and hurt of a kid grieving for his father.
Now 19, Carson is studying computer and electrical engineering at college in North Carolina. Vanessa remarried and relocated to Florida.
Helen and Jack Cole, who had moved from Masontown to North Carolina to be near their son and his family at Fort Bragg, have since returned to West Virginia.
After a career in the military, Fennema is back in civilian life.
It’s that life all around us that goes on, the mother of the fallen soldier said.
Fennema’s life went on, he told The Dominion Post in 2009, because of some deft piloting by a buddy
“I’m still here because of Brent,” he said. “And now he isn’t. That’s poignant.”
Jack Cole had a poignant Father’s Day in 2009, a month after Brent’s death.
Through his tears, though, he had to smile.
Inside his mailbox was an envelope, and inside the envelope was a Father’s Day card.
A son sent it early from the war zone so it would get there in time.