Photo Luke Phillips/Atascadero News/Paso Robles Press
As part of Atascadero’s Veterans Day ceremony Saturday, visitors at the Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial in Atascadero will listen to guest speaker, Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ed Cobleigh of Paso Robles, who spent two years serving in the Vietnam War, with 375 combat sorties in the F-4 Phantom fighter/bomber under his belt. He has also served as a fighter pilot in the US Air Force, achieving Lieutenant Colonel with two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Air Medal. He was a flight instructor for the U.S. Air Force, French Air Force, and the Imperial Iranian Air Force (before the Iranian Revolution), and served as an Air Intelligence Officer in covert operations for the CIA, FBI and British MI-6.
Cobleigh works as a docent at the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso, and he is a treasure trove of wisdom when it comes to warplanes, battles, and history, but the public will be invited to hear something different at the Faces of Freedom ceremony. They will hear the Lieutenant Colonel’s thoughts on how to best show appreciation to veterans.
“People need to know how to treat military people and how to honor them,” said Cobleigh, who has spoken at Rotary meetings where a show of hands of who has served in the military tends to be only the ‘older than 40 crowd’ and mostly the ‘older than 50 crowd.’
Cobleigh advises to pay attention to the things that veterans fought for.
“Vote, for crying out loud,” Cobleigh said. He has a confidence and integrity about him that only a military colonel would have, and a sensitivity that maybe only a father and grandfather might have, as well as a stoic kind of pain he carries with him, especially being someone who has seen what he’s seen in war.
He said it again, “Vote. And vote intelligently. Don’t pull the lever you always pull, but do the issues — look at the candidates. Make a decision.” Cobleigh has a slight Southern accent from his native Chattanooga, Tennessee. He said if you want to show respect to veterans who fought for American freedom, elect people who are responsible and won’t get us into “dumb” wars.
Another good way to honor veterans is the tried and true five words that he hears and uses himself, “Thank you for your service.”
“Sometimes I’ll see guys from Camp Roberts in the pizza parlour and I’ll send a pitcher of beer over to them. And people appreciate that,” he said.
But one of the biggest way to honor vets, which he will touch on at the ceremony is to “encourage your offspring to join the military.” Cobleigh said his two daughters are too old for the military, but he’s working on his grandchildren. He heard a survey that half the people in the country would not support their offspring joining the military. “And that’s not right,” he said.
Cobleigh will tell it like it is. And being a local veteran, with years of experience and worldwide wisdom, community members will ask him to counsel their own children in the military. A friend of Cobleigh’s has a son who went into F-16 pilot training for the Oregon National Guard. He gave him this advice: “Mainly mistakes not to make,” he laughed. “In the fighter pilot community you need a degree of confidence. Some self-assurance. Not so much that you’re cocky, because that causes all kinds of problems. “So I told him, ‘Be confident, trust yourself. Your reflexes. Your eyesight. Your ability to fly. But don’t get carried away with it because that can kill you and people don’t like to see it anyway. I guess the idea is learn all you can, be as good as you can, and believe in yourself.”
Cobleigh wondered if the young man, like many of the younger generations today, will stick with the military program, as repeated deployments nowadays take it’s toll on today’s military and their families. “You spend three months here and come back for a month. Then three months there, and come back. These aren’t garden spots you’re going to either.”
Cobleigh has seen enough war not to want to glorify it. There were enough times he sent planes off to war with four pilots, and only one came back. It’s painful for Cobleigh to talk about those times, but he understands the significance of sharing it, and that, he said, was one of the reasons he wrote an emotionally profound memoir about his two deployments in the Vietnam war.
Cobleigh and his wife, Heidi, live in a serene, grapevine and olive tree-lined area of Paso Robles with their Arabian horses and Catahoula/Border Collies. He has found writing cathartic, and he said it all began with something he’d like all veterans to do — to share. He wanted his daughters and grandchildren and the generations to come to know about the experiences that shaped him and his fellow pilots — not just the technical details of the planes he flew, but the emotions and thoughts he had while flying these missions. His memoir describes a deeply personal account of “everything from the carnage of a crash to the joy of flying through a star-studded night sky, from the illogical political agendas of Washington to his own dangerous addiction to risk,” as the back cover of his book describes.
“My dad was in the Army in the 1930s and 40s and he was in the cavalry with horses…” Cobleigh said his father was in the U.S. Cavalry at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. He remembers his father returning from war and getting back to his life. “Back then, that’s what you did. You didn’t really talk about it much. “When he passed away all his stories went with him. I never got the chance to ask him, ‘What was it like to be in the Calvary?’”
“In the mid-90s, I said, ‘well, that’s not gonna happen to me. I’ve got daughters and grandkids on the way.’” So when his daughters asked, “What’d you do in the war, Daddy?” he wrote it down. As it turned out, he enjoyed doing it. So he started sharing more, submitting articles on his experiences to the professional journal “Aviation Week” and soon enough he was writing a book about what it was like to be there. “The sights and the sounds and the smells… emotions, you know, things that you thought about,” he said, writing in the context of flying missions, but his goal was to relate what it was like to do it, rather than focusing on tactics and techniques. His two books, one fiction and one memoir, have sold more than 19,000 copies in 12 countries. He is now working on the biography of Roland Garros, the French aviator fighter pilot who was the first person to cross the Mediterranean Sea by air. He is also a faculty member of the Central Coast Writer’s Conference at Cuesta College. At the ceremony, he will be talking about the importance of veterans sharing these stories, as he has. He knows that many of his fellow Veterans share with one another, recounting war stories and such, but what needs to happen, he says, is the sharing of these stories with the new generations. That way, the history of war can be better understood.
The Veterans Day Ceremony, conducted by the Atascadero Veterans Memorial Foundation, featuring guest speaker Lieutenant Colonel Ed Cobleigh, will take place at the Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial, located adjacent to the Atascadero Lake Park at the corner of Highway 41/Morro Road and Portola Road in Atascadero from 11 a.m. to approximately 12 p.m. The public is welcome to attend and admission is free. Included in the ceremony will be a flyover by the Estrella Warbirds of Paso Robles, accompanied by the Central Coast Pipes and Drums band. Patriotic quilts will be presented to two dozen veterans by the Quilts of Valor ladies. The Veteran of the Year will be announced and the laying of the wreath will take place at the Memorial. After the ceremony there will be a Kiwanis Club BBQ (for a small charge) to benefit the Memorial. Attendees are encouraged to arrive early to obtain seating. Parking is available in the Atascadero Lake Park parking lot.
You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.