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Service & Sacrifice: A thankful son

Recently, Vietnam veteran James Cook learned about the trailblazing service of his father in WWII.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On this Thanksgiving Day, one military son is even more grateful for his military dad.

“I can't even put him into words. He was just -- he was a wonderful person. He was an amazing teacher. And I mean, I grew up thinking, I want to be like my dad,” said James Cook Jr. in an interview about his father earlier this summer.

Credit: James Cook Jr
James Cook Jr honored with a replica Congressional Gold Medal honoring his late father in August of 2022

In late August, wearing his Army dress blues, James Cook Jr. traveled to North Carolina for a ceremony honoring a group of Black Marines with one of the nation's highest honors, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Cook Jr. said he only learned recently that his father was part of the Montford Point Marines. They were among the first Black men to serve in the Marine Corps during World War II. The all-Black unit served their country while they faced racial discrimination back home.

"When we were kids, he raised us like we were military. We had cooking classes, we had sewing classes, we had how-to-make-your-bed classes. You name it, we had it," said Cook Jr.

As president, Barack Obama signed a law in 2011 awarding the trailblazing group known as the Montford Point Marines -- there were about 18,000 -- a Congressional Gold Medal. Cook said he wanted to make sure his father received the credit he deserved.

"To find out the man that you adored and loved was more than what you thought he was," Cook Jr. said. "It's going to be an honor in more ways than one."

James Cook Sr. died nearly two decades ago.

At the time that Cook Sr. was preparing for war, members of his unit were only allowed on the main base of Camp Lejeune if they were escorted by a white Marine.

And like his father, the younger Cook also faced discrimination early in his military career only it happened off base. At one particular dinner, while in uniform, he said a waitress served the white men in his group but skipped him.

"One of the guys says to us, 'Hey, you forgot to take his order. And she said, 'Well, we don't serve those people. They won't allow me to serve Blacks.' And we're in uniform," he said.

Cook Jr. said he and his fellow Marines who were all white left the diner and told the base commander. The restaurant was closed around a week later.

It was a small sign of progress. A small sign of justice. It made a big impact, just like the medal that has been awarded posthumously to his father.

"Better late than never. That's the only way I can look at it. I mean, he's being recognized. He's not just a tombstone in a graveyard," said Cook Jr.

In addition to our on-camera interview, James Cook Jr. answered the following 10 questions about the influence of his military service on the rest of his life.

1. What one person influenced you most in life?

The old man. He literally cared about what me and my brothers and sisters did.  And when I was growing up in Cleveland, we're talking back in the '50s and Cleveland was rough back then. I remember as a kid, we could literally find, probably once a week I'd say, we could find a body in the alley, and it was just a rough time. And he was basically, he was our guide.

2. Do you feel honored and respected for serving your country?

Yes. I didn't when I got back from Vietnam, but that has changed. Had it not been for my father saying, "They just don't understand." And then when I realized what he went through when he came in, it was like I would have gone back to Vietnam a second time rather than go through what he went through.

3. How can people thank you for your military service?

I'll tell you one of the greatest thank yous I ever got was I was in Knoxville at the grocery store, and it was my wife and I and we went shopping and everything and just as we came out of the supermarket, it was a little girl, her mother was picking her up and she put a little note under my window.  And when we got to the car, my wife grabbed the note, she looked at it and a tear kinda came down her cheek and I said, "What's wrong?" And she said the note that the little girl left said "Thank you for your service."  That just made my year

4. How do you honor your fellow servicemen and women?

I've got a friend of mine here in Knoxville, who is a former Marine. He got pretty messed up. They didn't want to give him a Purple Heart and I stayed on his butt and guided him through. And four months ago, they gave him his Purple Heart.

5. How do you think this generation of service men and women is different or similar to yours?

I don't think right now they are having to endure the same rigor in training that we did.

6. What influence did your military service have on the rest of your life?

To be self-sufficient.  I spent most of my time in the military as a military policeman. And there were certain situations I had to deal with, some of them pretty violent and some of them...Empathy, empathy, I guess that's the keyword. It taught me to be empathetic.

7. Does your family have a history of military service?

My grandfather was in World War I in the Army, my father was a Montford Point Marine, my uncle was Navy, my other uncle was Army, my brother was Air Force, my other brother was Marines and my grandson is right now serving in Poland.

8. Would you encourage younger generations in your family to join the service?

Yes, I would. It would be one of the best experiences for them for learning discipline.

9. How has your opinion of war changed?

[Going to Vietnam] I'm thinking to myself, "I'm going to be the guy sitting behind the air conditioner, typing up reports." Next thing I know, they've got me out there cleaning bodies. That's where a bunch of my PTSD came from because I had never been to mortuary school.

10. How did your military experience shape your faith?

It strengthened it. Probably the hardest I have prayed in my life. And my grandmother taught me Lord's prayer when I was 3 years old, and I said I repeated the Lord's prayer over and over and over and said, "Just please let me see one more sunrise." It bonded me with the man upstairs.

*Edited for length

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