PRESERVING A MILITARY LEGACY FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
The following Reflections represents TSgt Marion Cochran, Jr.’s legacy of his military service from 1970 to 1981. If you are a Veteran, consider preserving a record of your own military service, including your memories and photographs, on Togetherweserved.com (TWS), the leading archive of living military history. The following Service Reflections is an easy-to-complete self-interview, located on your TWS Military Service Page, which enables you to remember key people and events from your military service and the impact they made on your life. Start recording your own Military Memories HERE.
Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Air Force.
I was graduating from high school in 1968, and the conflict in Vietnam was going on. I had a fairly low number in the lottery and knew I would get drafted. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I picked the Air Force instead of the Army and began talking to an Air Force recruiter. My Dad was an MP in the Army in WW2, and I thought I’d like to get into the Security Police field. Every time the recruiter would get a slot, I’d put him off because I was working my 1st job out of high school and was enjoying it. Then one day, while I was at work, my Brother, who is 10 years younger than me, called and said I had a letter. I asked what it said, and he started out, stumbling over a couple of words since he was learning to read, “Greetings, you are hereby ordered…” I said that’s enough. I told my boss I had to get off. Drove up to the Air Force recruiter’s office and said, ” Please, please, get me in.” I joined the AF 2 days before I was supposed to go into the Army.
Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
My whole existence in the Air Force basic was at Lackland AFB, with direct duty assignment to Bolling AFB in Washington DC, where I learned to drive a stick shift on the old runway, Bien Hoa Air Base Vietnam, back to Bolling AFB, and then a special duty assignment to the Security Police detachment at the Pentagon. Then after 11 years, the Air Force decided to send me to Plattsburg AFB in New York, almost to Canada. That was a SAC base. Being Security Police, I figured that would entail my fat butt humping around a plane in the middle of winter.
Luckily I didn’t have enough retainability to take the assignment without extending about 4 months, so I declined after 11 1/2 years and got out. Glad I did. If I had taken the assignment, I wouldn’t have gotten the government job four years later.
If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
I actually enjoyed my tour in Vietnam. After seeing all of the news stuff on TV about the jungles, fighting and monsoons, I was scared to death. Then I landed at the Bien Hoa Air Base terminal and started walking around to process in. Here’s this snack bar at the terminal with hot food, a large Base Exchange, NCO Club, an air-conditioned movie theater, hot and cold running water in the barracks, and flush toilets: I figured they sent me to the wrong place; and wasn’t going to tell anyone. I got the general layout of the base; Bien Hoa AB was connected to the Bien Hoa Army base. The only thing separating them was a small gate shack with an Army MP, an AF Security Policeman, and one of our Vietnamese counterparts, a QC. The flight line was located near where the bases met, and I was on the far side of the base one day after being there only a week.
I saw this big puff of black smoke go, and I asked someone, “what happened, did a plane crash?’ The guy laughed at me and said, “no, it’s Friday; that’s the Army burning their s***.” I’m like, thank you, Air Force gods. I really liked the Vietnamese people that I got to meet and tried to pick up Vietnamese. The first thing they taught me was the dirty stuff because that’s what the GIs wanted to learn. After they saw that I was really interested, they actually took the time to help me learn, even the words starting with NG. I had a Vietnamese girlfriend there. Her name was Hoa. She worked at the base exchange. She would come by to visit when she wasn’t working. Sometimes she would bring food, and we would eat there in my room. She lived very close to the Main Gate and would come by to visit when I was working. More food sometimes. I got along well with the QCs I worked with on the Main Gate. Really liked it when they would go out and bring back iced coffee. I’d give them some money to get it and bring it back. It was the best, a plastic baggie with ice and coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Poke a small straw in and enjoy.
I did actually assist the QCs on the main gate a couple of times when some of the pilots from the Vietnamese AF would try to exit the base when they had a 100% restriction on them, leaving the base for an alert. I got into a couple of shoving matches too. I did get a nice letter from their commander thanking me for assisting, Got to know one Vietnamese officer, Colonel Tan. Very flamboyant purple scarf with his uniform. Most of the GIs ignored him, but I would always pop him a salute when he came through in his jeep. One day he came by and handed me an invitation to one of the Vietnamese Tet celebrations. I was only in Vietnam for 9 months. Broke my left kneecap in a vehicle accident. I was operated on at Long Binh Army Hospital. This was in April of 1972 and was about the time the VC had started coming south, and they sent me back to the States because I had a full leg cast on my left leg, and if the base were overrun, I would get hurt, and someone could get hurt trying to help me.
Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.
Not really. Of course, just being in Vietnam, there was always the possibility of something happening, but at the time, I didn’t even think about it. One of the scariest things was when I broke my kneecap, and they sent me to Long Binh Army hospital to fix my knee.
One of the last movies I saw before I went over was MASH: same thing, old Quonset hut, doctors and nurses running around in fatigues and t-shirts. The nurse came up with a t-shirt and boobs out to – Okay, you get the idea. Put an IV in my right arm, and it popped out. She goes, oops, fucked that one up. Put one in the left arm, came back, and bandaged the right arm up. Said you’ll have to a nice goose egg there in a couple of days, you can thank Lt so and so for that. I’m thinking, get me outta here. Guess they did a good job. They Installed 2 screws to hold the kneecap together. They told me that I might have to replace the knee later, but the screws are still there, which was in April 1972. Guess they held up pretty good.
Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?
I actually enjoyed all of my assignments. The most favorite assignment to the Security Police detachment at the Pentagon was my favorite. I met many people there, even some of the higher-ups like the Secretary of the Air Force, Tom Reed, and a couple of the Under Secretaries, Antonia Handler Chayes and Dr. Hans Mark. Shortly after being assigned, I was drafted to work on this special assignment. The JCS and NMCC area has a Military Security Force that is assigned a year at a time. Air Force will have it for a year, then the Army, and then the Marines. It is a bare minimal assignment with the personnel assigned to each shift and 1 supernumerary in charge.
The Air Force took it over about the time I was assigned to the Pentagon, and one of the guys assigned to one of the shifts put his retirement paperwork in after only being there 6 months, so it put them one person short. They asked for volunteers, and when no one volunteered, I got volunteered. We had to have a TS clearance at the assignment I was at, and the Military Security Force needed one just a little higher, and since mine was so current, they just upgraded it so I could take it. I did get a Joint Service Commendation Medal out of it, and the 3 points helped me get promoted.
From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect back on to this day.
The assignment in Vietnam was good because I got to see another country and culture and gained friendships with people from there. While there, I had a Vietnamese girlfriend and did continue to write to her after I was sent back to the US. I would say the assignment at the Pentagon was the most memorable because we got to see a lot about the workings of the AF, and it actually felt like we were accomplishing something.
While there, I also was training in some Locksmithing skills. The Air Force really didn’t have a Locksmithing AFSC. Usually, it was Civil Engineers. We had 2 Security Police personnel that were performing locksmith duties. We would conduct training for personnel assigned to assist customers if they had problems securing their area or safe after the locksmiths had gone for the day. I hung out with them quite a bit, picking up more information. I worked part-time as a security guard but didn’t want to do police work when I got out of the military. Saw a correspondence course in Locksmithing advertised and took it. VA paid 90% of the course. It pretty much taught you enough to get you in trouble, but by working with the guys at the Pentagon, I had a leg up and understood more than someone just coming in with no experience. I found a place that would hire me part-time as an apprentice and got away from the security guard job.
It worked out pretty well, as I got a part-time job as a locksmith at a local company while still at the Security Police assignment. Then went full-time with them when I got out of the Air Force, then went back to the Pentagon in September 1985 as a civilian. I got really lucky because most jobs in the government for locksmiths are Wage Grade, blue-collar jobs. Still, because we had higher clearances and supported the Secretary of Defense office and everything that fell under it, the position was a GS position as a Security Specialist/Locksmith with OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) in the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. Before Sept. 11th, 2001, they were Defense Protection Agency, but they created the Pentagon Force Protection Agency in 2002. It was the Police, and I was part of them in Security Services, dealing with all of the safes, high-security locks, and vaults. Started as a GS9 and maxed out as a GS 13. I couldn’t go any higher.
I only supervised 2 guys, so I didn’t have enough supervision for a GS 14. That was OK. I figured $115,000 a year for somebody that barely made it out of high school; I’ll keep it Guess that Air Force training came in handy. We were very busy after 9/11. My locksmith shop had to open over 200 safes that came out of the crash area. The Navy Command post was highly classified, and all of these safes were taken to the heating plant, where we had a burn facility. Because of the classification level, Navy personnel were there along with DIA since they adjudicated anything higher than Top Secret. Once safes were opened, they checked to see if anything was salvageable. Because the safes were so mangled, we made an emergency purchase request and got 2 used Jaws of Life. They were a lifesaver.
One unique part of the job when I first went back to the Pentagon as a civilian was the fact that our Security Division had protection responsibilities for the higher-ups, like the Secretary of Defense and visiting dignitaries. They actually got us sworn in as Special Deputy US Marshals to assist in full honors ceremonies if needed and have the ability to carry a weapon. It was a nice change of pace from the normal locksmith duties. At the time, I was heavier around the waist and carrying a bulky weapon, so I opted for an ankle holster. Most of the ceremonies had Secret Service involvement, and one of the lead agents was always kidding that if something happened, “Snake” would be hopping around on one foot, giving the time-out signal while trying to get the gun out of the ankle holster.
Met a lot of people at the Pentagon. Met Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. Casper Weinberger, Bill Cohen and his wife Janet, and Donald Rumsfeld. I met the Cohens when he was nominated to be the Secretary of Defense, and I went to their residence to check out the security with the people that do the crypto stuff. I finished looking at the locks, and while waiting for them to finish, I sat on the floor, playing with their dog “Lucky” and talking to Janet. A few weeks later, at the Pentagon, I was walking past her husband’s office with my tool bag, and Janet was coming towards me with some officers’ wives. Janet just walked away from them and came over to say hello to me. They’re probably trying to figure out why she did that. Still, send the Cohen’s an Anniversary card every year. Valentine’s Day. Janet told me, ” Snake do you know why I picked Valentine’s Day to get married? If he forgets our Anniversary, he’s in double trouble because he’s also forgotten Valentine’s Day.” One last thing, and I’ll quit rambling. When my guys from the lock shop came back one day from the Pentagon Renovation office and told me that the guys at PenRen said that I was in a book, I figured they were joking, but they said it’s called the Complete Idiots Guide to the Pentagon.
I went out and found the book at Borders in the Political Science section. I figured, OK, where would I be? So I went to the index and found Snake on page 56. Go to page 56, and it says Pentagon Parable: You would think in the Pentagon that the person with the most access to sensitive documents would be Donald Rumsfeld; it’s not; it’s a guy named Snake. Snake is the building locksmith. If you need a combination changed or an access pad for your SCIF, you call Snake. Whatever you have, he can open it. Snake gets a lot of calls after vacations when highly paid public servants responsible for handling secret war plans and billions of dollars can’t remember the combination to their safe”. I got my 2 seconds of fame and didn’t know who wrote the book. Used the pseudonym Jeff Chateau. Oh well. In the book, he also mentioned Doc Cooke. Doc was considered the Mayor of the Pentagon. He served under numerous Secretaries of Defense. I was lucky enough to have a close working relationship with Doc. One morning I got a call from Doc asking me to come by his office. When I got there, he asked me to open his safe. I wondered if there was a problem, and Doc just said, “I got out of bed this morning and stubbed my toe, then spilled cereal all over when trying to get my breakfast, so I don’t feel like messing with it. Can you open the damned thing?” I said, sure thing Doc. Doc had a funny sense of humor. One day he asked me if I could go with him to his house and change his door locks. Afterward, he tried to pay me. I said Doc, I just did it on my lunch break, so I’m not taking anything since I’m on government time. Then I said I just took this Ethics training class last week, so I can’t do that. Doc just said, “Hell, if I wanted someone with ethics, I would have called someone else.” Thanks, Doc.
What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?
Other than the lock training, I guess it would be the time at the Military Security Force assignment and the Joint Service Commendation Medal. Also, I was named NCO of the Quarter while assigned to the Security Police detachment at the Pentagon. One memorable thing from my time on my second assignment at Bolling AFB, I would get quite a few nice letters about my work on the main gate sent down by the Base Commander, Colonel Duane Erickson. Bolling AFB had a lot of Generals living on the base, and one day I stopped and asked Lt. Gen Deluca to re-enlist me. He said, “I’d be glad to; just tell me where to be.” I told him probably the reenlistment office in the building across from the main gate, but when I called the Base Commander to invite him, he gave me his office for the ceremony. That was pretty memorable.
Another very memorable event happened at Bolling AFB. I met my future wife coming through the Main Gate with her fiancee. She lived on base with her parents but was over 21. Her parents would vouch for them when she came on with him. I was at that time dating a girl in Salisbury, NC. She had sent me a Christmas card while I was in Vietnam, and when I came home after being injured, I figured I should at least meet her. Her Dad answered the door, and we were talking when she returned. Wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, her dad says Sherry, why don’t you put some decent clothes on? Marion might want to take you out. That was surprising since most fathers don’t trust a GI farther than they can spit. She said OK, and we started dating. Now back to my future wife. One day she called me up and said he was coming on. Evidently, he pissed her off or something, and she was giving his ring back. She asked how old I was and went, “hmmm.” Then she asks if I’m married. Told her no. Again I get the “hmmm.” I figured that she sounded interested; what my girlfriend in NC doesn’t know won’t hurt.
I said OK, if you’re breaking up, maybe we can go out sometime. Well, six weeks later, we got married. I just went over 48 years in April. That’s pretty memorable. Then Judy married me; I guess she thought she would get to see the world. After we married, her stepfather got orders to Anchorage, Alaska. So much for seeing the world; Judy’s still stuck in the DC area. OK, one sidenote about Sherry. Then I went home to Salisbury for my 40-year class reunion; my wife didn’t want to go since she didn’t know anyone there. She was going to visit her sister in Charlotte.
Said, if you don’t want to go, maybe I’ll call Sherry and see if she wants to go. Judy said to give her a call. I called Sherry, and she asked, are you sure? Said yes. She asked, what will Judy say? I told her Judy told me to call. He said OK. The casual thing at the Country Club was the night before the official reunion, and we got there; I just told them my wife didn’t want to come, so my friend Sherry came with me. She got her name tag, and we weren’t there for 5 minutes until someone asked, How do you know Marion? She didn’t miss a beat. She said, “I’m his ex-girlfriend; I’m just here to spice things up.” Everyone cracked up. The next night at the reunion, everyone asked, “where’s Sherry”?
My wife and I have been through a lot, and she’s still putting up with me. I learned those two very important words, ” yes, dear.” She went through cancer back in 2009. She’s all better but didn’t want to go back to North Carolina when I retired since she likes and trusts her doctors here. That’s why I’m still working part-time. I took my Social Security at 62 because I knew I’d need the money to stay up here. I was limited in how much I could earn before it would mess with my Social Security, but after I turned 66, I could make as much as I wanted, and it won’t affect my Social Security. Now my wife is the one giving me crap, “you’re getting old, you need to take it easy, you’re supposed to be part-time, now you’re almost working full time.” Tell her I’m not out digging ditches, I work in the shop sitting on my ass, and when someone comes in, I get up, cut the key and sit back down. Everyone asks how long I’m got to keep doing it. Just tell them I just turned 72 on Labor Day; as long as Baldinos Lock lets me hobble my old ass in and prop me up in front of a key machine, I’ll keep doing it. Here is where I have to slightly modify this entry. I should say that I was working part time at Baldinos Lock. That changed Tuesday morning. 8 November 2022. Went to help out in the Chantilly Baldinos shop that morning. Got a call from my boss asking me to go to the Leesburg shop because he couldn’t get ahold of Kevin, the manager. I went there and opened up. Around 11:30 I get a call from my boss, saying “here’s an update on Kevin, he was making breakfast and had a heart attack and died”. First thing I’m thinking is “Oh crap, I’m getting drafted into filling in as the acting manager until they can get a replacement”. That may take a while because they have to have a fully trained locksmith that they can put in the shop. No telling how long that will take. Told my boss they need to hustle butt and find someone because I’m supposed to be retired I’m f****** 72 and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in the Leesburg shop. Keeping my fingers crossed. So much for retirement.
Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?
I guess the Joint Service Commendation Medal and the NCO of the Quarter. Also, I got a nice letter from Antonia Handler Chayes thanking me for helping with something in her office after hours. One evening she called and asked that I go to her office and patch her through to someone that was pretty high up in the political arena to discuss his nomination for a position in the administration. I told her that I was pretty much a moron and didn’t know how to connect them and just hang up. She said, “no problem, you can just listen in until we’re done.”
Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?
I would say that the Bolling AFB Base Commander, Colonel Duane Erickson, stands out with all of the support he gave when I was there. Also, after he left and went to the Pentagon, I called him one day and told him that I heard that they had Security Police at the Pentagon. He checked and then called me back and put me in contact with the people for the Special duty assignment at the Pentagon. Also, my commander at the Security Police at the Pentagon when one day called me “Snake” because he knew I had a pet boa constrictor. When I heard that, Marion was a rough name growing up, so I said, “hey, it’s more masculine than Marion; I think I’ll keep it. I still got the nickname.
List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.
I can’t seem to remember many people from the different assignments. One that stands out is my best friend at Bolling AFB, Karyl Behee. She is the one that got me interested in snakes. She had a snake named Lamia, but she had problems because you’re not supposed to have a pet in the barracks. Her people kept trying to find it. Little did they know that I had kept it in my room for her. Our Security Police Commander was pretty cool, Capt John VanDeursen. When he came around on weekly inspections, I put the aquarium in my wall locker. He would just stick his head in, say it looks great and keep going.
Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?
One incident actually involved someone else on my flight at the Pentagon. Part of our duties would be when one of the important front area offices would secure; we would go over and ensure that all of the safes were secured, no classified left out, turn the telephone night switch over and set the alarm. One of the guys went over to the Secretary of the Air Force’s Office to secure it. It was Secretary Tom Reed.
Once he had left, my guy had to go to the bathroom really bad, so he promptly used the Secretary’s bathroom. He must have forgotten something because my guy hears the door chime, the bathroom door cracks open, and he hears Secretary Reed yell out, “how about a courtesy flush” then he starts laughing. My guy thought his AF career was over. Secretary Reed was really cool.
Sometimes if he came in at night or on weekends, he might bring his kids in. He would call to see if we could give the kids a ride around on our electric carts to get them out of his hair.
What profession did you follow after your military service, and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?
As mentioned earlier, I did get involved in locksmithing in the Air Force and went into that once I got out of the Air Force. After 4 years of working after I got out, I went back to the Pentagon as a Security Specialist/ Locksmith as a civilian for 28 years, from 1985 until 2013. I liked my job, but in 2013 they came up and said, “the stupid President and Congress didn’t do their job, and sequester cuts are coming” Then they hit me with, “Oh, by the way, you have to take 22 days off without pay”.I had already bought back my 11 1/2 years of AF time and was there as a civilian for 28 years, so I had over 39 years. I told them they had me confused with someone who gives a s***. Put my paperwork in and hit the door running.
My wife went through cancer back in 2009 and is all better now, but she didn’t want to go down to NC, where her family is, because she likes and trusts her doctors here and wanted to stay. I worked part-time at a local locksmith company in Northern Virginia, Baldino’s Lock, and Key. When they heard I was staying in the area, they asked me to keep working part-time as a floater filling in the various shops if the employees needed off for appointments or vacations – a perfect part-time job. I wanted to post a picture of my wife, so I thought it would be perfect to bring Sherry from the earlier back into the equation. We went on vacation to Salisbury, NC, and met up with my brother and his girlfriend for dinner. I called my ex-girlfriend Sherry to see if she wanted to join us, thus the picture.
What military associations are you a member of, if any? what specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
I haven’t joined any other than online things like on Facebook, like the Vietnam Veterans groups. Have an application for the Vietnam Security Police Association but haven’t joined. Also, I am going to join the DAV, Disabled American Veterans. They helped me a lot recently in applying for VA Disability Compensation.
In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?
I think just being in the military and serving actually helps you in the way that you relate to other people and in dealing with any problems that may occur. Also, the Air Force got me started in a career in locksmithing, which I’m still pursuing in retirement at age 70.
Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Air Force?
I really don’t know what advice to give. Everything has changed so much since I came in back in 1970. If I had to do it nowadays, I probably would not go into the military. It seems like, with all of the crap going on in the Middle East, it’s almost a sure bet that you’ll end up there. That’s why I never went into the Air Force Reserves when I got out in 1981. I thought about it and actually applied to get into something other than the Security Police field. Because of the clearance we had to have at the Pentagon, I applied to get into Air Force Intelligence and was accepted. Then, when they sent me the Ready Reserve agreement to sign, all this crap was happening in the Middle East. I said, ” no way I’m signing this. As soon as I put it in the mail, something is going to happen, and they’re going to send my fat little butt somewhere.” Glad I didn’t now. I heard all of the stories about people in the reserves expecting a weekend a month and two weeks a year, getting sent over to Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and losing businesses.
In what ways has togetherweserved.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.
Filling this out helps me remember the various assignments, and I enjoy reading some of the other people’s stories. I haven’t been on lately to check in and haven’t seen anyone I recognized from my assignments. I was filling this out and reached a somber point this past week. I was going through an old album of pictures from my first tour at Bolling AFB and saw some pictures of people I knew there.
One girl, in particular, stood out. Her name was Margie Breske. Very sweet girl. She would always stop by to visit me when I was working on the Main gate. I did an internet search for her and several other people and was totally shocked when her search turned up a gravesite location. She died from carbon monoxide in a structure fire in 1983 when she was just 30. Rest in Peace, Margie.