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Coping with PTSD through poetry

Marine veteran battles Alzheimer's and post-traumatic stress

Lon Cole wants his words to live on with his family. Photo credit: Richard Baker

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Lon Cole's life was once filled with space and time - space and time in Vietnam as a Navy corpsman, space and time in business, space and time with his family, and the space and time to think and reflect on his life. As a poet with Alzheimer's disease, his space and time has been narrowed to lines of rhyming couplets.  

In 1969, the 9th Marines, in conjunction with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 2nd Regiment, launched Operation Dewy Canyon, their last major offensive of the war, into the A Shau Valley with the intent of cutting enemy supply lines into the South. The operation was considered a success although supplies were not stopped. U.S. casualties included 130 killed and 932 wounded. Cole was one of the 932.

He now sits quietly at his desk in Puyallup and drifts back to that day. He is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an often lethal combination. Both illnesses allow people to retain their earlier memories while removing their short-term memory. With PTSD, the memories may be best forgotten.

Cole was assigned to the 9th Marines when his unit came under intense enemy fire. He caught an AK47 round in the chest while treating a wounded marine.

"It must have not been too bad," he said. "I didn't even feel it."

When he had finished stabilizing the wounded man, he heard another marine calling for a corpsman. He discovered the point man down a trail and seriously wounded. As he began to do the job for which he was trained, a bullet ripped through his shoulder and knocked him flat. This wound was bad. He lay there unable to move, floating in and out of consciousness. The man who had saved lives was now waiting to be saved. An ARVN soldier eventually came along and carried him to safety.

"When I first saw him, I thought he was the enemy," Cole said. "I knew I was finished, but he held out his hands to show he was only trying to help."

He spent four-and-a-half months recovering from his wounds and almost died several times.

After the war, Cole started suffering symptoms of PTSD. He wanted to return to Vietnam. He had difficulty concentrating. He went from one school to another. He attended classes at Brigham Young University, the University of Washington and Skyline before eventually earning an Associate's Degree from Green River Community College.

Work also came and went. He traveled from one security job to another. He worked at Boeing, then took a job with the Des Moines Police Department. He finally started a furniture business with his brother, but left Total Office Furniture after being diagnosed with severe PTSD.

Having PTSD is enough misery for any person to suffer. More was to come. Cole noticed he was having difficulty remembering. At first, he thought the symptom was aging or part of the PTSD. He underwent more than three hours of testing. The result? Early onset Alzheimer's disease.  

"Attitude is crucial," Cole said. "The news can be devastating."

He maintains a positive attitude and stays active through volunteer work. He regularly attends Alzheimer's support groups and is a member of the Pierce County Advisory Council. He reminds people who are concerned about their memory to contact the national Alzheimer's Association at

Cole also writes poetry and presently has two volumes published, You are not Alone and Alive and Thankful, both available from

The poetry came naturally to him.

"I have never read poetry, and I don't read books," he said. "The words just come to me."

He used to write a poem a day. With his declining memory, he is down to about three a week and often must search for words.

He tries to maintain an optimistic outlook in his poetry, like these opening lines from the poem Beach:

     I gaze upon the ocean and hear the wild waves roar
     It's such a peaceful feeling to walk along the shore ...

Occasionally, stronger views are expressed, as these lines from We Can Not Forget illustrate:

    There is a group of mostly men
    Who went to a war they could not win
    There's no time to listen to what they might say
    Most politicians just want them to go away ...

The poetry is a good mental exercise, and Cole wants to leave something behind for his wife, Chris, his children and his grandchildren.

As a blank paper stares up at him, he sits at his desk and thinks. A smile comes across his face. His pen searches for words, and he again has something meaningful to save.

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