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Ashe County Veterans History Project: Laura Parunak Cole
Laura in the cockpit, ready for flight mission - Apache Longbow Helicopter - Iraq 2007
Laura in Iraq in 2007
Laura on a USO Tour giving a sneak peek of the Apache Helicopter to Frank Shorter, former Olympic Gold Medalist, 2009
Sending a US flag as a gift to supporters
Laura with Bill Davis (her Papaw) having hands cast for a veterans art sculpture
Bill Davis and Tobe Gentry WWII veterans casting hands for veterans art project. (Jan. 2011)
Laura's hand in the casting box, a very interesting process
Dean Eldreth with Bill Davis and Laura Parunak at the reveal of the hand project at NC Veterans Park in Fayetteville.
Laura at ROCK ON Veterans Program in Georgetown, Texas
Laura, with Mustang Heritage Foundation, trained this wild horse during a 12-week veterans program. She named the horse Rosco.
Laura Parunak Cole's Story
(Editor's Note: What follows are excerpts from Suzanne Moore's interview with Laura Parunak Cole. Ms. Cole's recollections are provided in quotation.)
Laura Parunak was born at the Watauga County Hospital in Boone, North Carolina. She grew up in West Jefferson, graduating from Beaver Creek High School in 1999. She is the daughter of Herbert and Tammy Parunak and sister of three brothers. She married in August 2020 to Jerry Allen Cole, Jr.
During high school, Laura discovered JROTC—a federal program established to 'instill in students in United States secondary institutions the values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment. JROTC’s mission is “To Motivate Young People to be Better Citizens.”' Beaver Creek High School’s JROTC program was sponsored by the Army and lead by LTC John Marsh and SGM Bill Royal.
“I loved JROTC. I learned a lot from my teachers, learned a lot about myself, and found a niche I wanted to continue to explore. During my senior year in high school, I was awarded an appointment to the United States Military Academy in West Point, as well as an ROTC college scholarship. Both options would pay for a bachelor’s degree and require years of military service. The prestige of West Point was tempting, but I chose the scholarship route after attending a student orientation at West Point. There, I realized that rather than giving up ‘who I was’ to join the military, I could maintain my values and still commission as an officer in the United States Army.”
“While progressing through ROTC in college at N.C. State University, I completed Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I also spent a month in Hawaii with an Army aviation unit. When my senior year arrived, I submitted my top choices of Army branches (specialties within the Army). My first choice was Aviation, and thankfully I was awarded that and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 2003.”
“I was a junior at N.C. State when 9/11 happened. My mother recollects me calling home and voicing my and my fellow cadets’ readiness to go to war if so called. We knew that in just over a year, we would officially be Army officers, and combat was a reality. After graduation in May 2003, I went to Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama. During that year of training, I was able to choose which airframe I wanted to fly. I chose the Apache Longbow helicopter (AH-64D)—the Army’s attack helicopter—because my philosophy was ‘If I’m gonna get shot at, I’m gonna shoot back.’”
SERE School and Apache Helicopter Blackout Training
“SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. During our officer training at Fort Rucker, we completed SERE school. In short, they put us out in the woods, with no food, very little water and supplies, and then left us there for several days to teach us how to survive while evading capture by the enemy. I learned a lot about myself as a soldier and as a leader—mostly that I’m not a patient person when I’m hungry and tired. For me, SERE school was in the summer of 2004, and during that time of year, any edible vegetation had been picked over by previous training groups. I remember being so hungry that I wanted to eat a snake we found one day. After a few days of finding nothing to eat, we were given a live chicken and rabbit. Our instructors taught us how to kill, dress, and cook the animals. I remember having to kill both animals because the guys in my group didn’t want to. We were very happy for the food, and that nourished us for the next few days until our training ended.”
“One of the best parts of flight school was known as ‘Blackout Training.’ In the Apache aircraft, we learn to fly at night using only the images and symbology we see through a one-eyed device, known as IHADSS (Integrated Helmet and Display Sight System). Before practicing this at night, we train during the day, using black material to cover the windows of the student pilot, while the instructor pilot’s windows remain uncovered so he/she can safely maneuver the aircraft. I learned to trust what I saw even when it ‘felt’ different. That was a fun experience!”
Competing in a Man’s World
“The reality for me in flying an attack helicopter was that I was in a man’s world. One of my first memories of this concept was when my first instructor in flight school told me, 'I would never let my daughter do what you’re doing.' I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept my mouth shut and worked hard every day. It was extremely difficult to work hard and keep my mouth shut, but it served me well. I guess growing up with three brothers prepared me to ‘keep up with the guys.’"
“In each unit I served, there were between 50 and 60 pilots. Of those, only one or two were women—so many times, I was the only female pilot in the unit. During the first few days at my first duty assignment in South Korea, I was confronted by an experienced, well respected male pilot. He told me that I ‘shouldn’t be there.’ Again, I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I said ‘ok’ and continued working hard. After a few weeks had gone by, that same pilot came up to me and apologized for what he had said and admitted that he was wrong. He and I flew many successful training missions together over the next year.”
“Little did I know that these themes would follow me throughout the rest of my time in the Army. My commanders (those in authority over me) would continue to make my Army career challenging and unfair at times, while all the other pilots, and soldiers, in any of the units I served, received me with respect and supported me along the way. I have many, many good memories of the soldiers I worked with and was responsible for.”
“After serving a year in Korea, I was stationed to Fort Hood, TX, in October 2005. I deployed to Iraq in October 2006 and spent 15 months with my unit in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. We redeployed to Texas in December 2007/January 2008 and then deployed back to Iraq in April 2009 for another 12 months. While in Iraq, I was in actual combat. Our mission was to find, fix, and destroy the enemy. I got shot at and I shot back. At the time, there were very few women in front line combat units. I don’t think they were allowed yet into infantry and ranger units like they are now, but there were females who found themselves in firefights while on a convoy or other support missions in a combat zone.”
“Because our primary mission was combat, we thoroughly trained for our missions and our responses to situations were factual and non-emotional. It had to be this way to survive. We were all very focused on protecting each other and our fellow soldiers. If anybody was going to attack us, we were going to attack back. We were really just ready to do whatever it took to protect each other and defend America’s freedom—that’s the kind of mindset we were in.”
“While in Iraq, our unit had two aircraft flying 24/7, unless prohibited by weather. The first aircraft is called the ‘lead’ aircraft and the other aircraft is referred to as the ‘trail’ aircraft. Since the Apache helicopter is used for attack missions, there are only seats for two pilots. We carry 30mm ammunition, 2.75 inch rockets, and hellfire missiles. On one particular day, while flying a reconnaissance mission, my co-pilot and I were flying lead and heard a ‘mayday’ call from our trail aircraft. They had been hit by a surface-to-ground missile that did not detonate. It did, however, take out their rotor control, and resulted in a crash landing. The warrant officer I was flying with laid down a ring of 30mm around the area to deter the enemy from approaching the aircraft. Once the dust settled at the crash site, we saw the two pilots exit the downed aircraft. We immediately landed our aircraft and our two fellow pilots ran and grabbed on to the outside of our Apache. We were able to safely and quickly exit the enemy territory and fly back to our home base, preventing additional casualties that day. Although this may sound unique, there are many stories of soldiers doing whatever it took to save lives.”
“Service definitely changed me. When I got out of the military, the transition over the next few years was hard. Coming from an environment where I suppressed most emotions over several years, to an environment that put an emphasis on expressing emotions, was a difficult change. As a female, this seemed to have an added level of difficulty. I cried when nothing was wrong, I would get sad or mad for no good reason, and I didn’t understand what was happening. God has helped me through this and continues to guide me through this new journey.”
“My approach to life since being in combat has helped me in many ways, both with civilian jobs and dealing with the public. Most decisions in life are not life or death decisions—so I have time to think about them and not be in a hurry since no one’s life is on the line. For the same reason, it’s ok to make a mistake—I have learned (and am still learning) to give myself grace. Recently, our world has dealt with COVID-19. Because of my combat experience, I approached COVID much differently than the majority of the public. The God I serve is a big and powerful God—He took care of me through combat, and He can take care of me through anything. Everyone’s view on life is different based on their experiences. I am thankful for my experiences and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
“I left the service in 2013 and stayed in Texas. My family was very supportive all the way through, and I know they were super happy that I was finished. After service it was hard to have close relationships with people. With that special kind of bond in the military, you are just willing to do whatever for each other, and that's just not the way it is in most other aspects of life. Also, as an officer, I was limited on who I could 'befriend' and 'hang out with' during off-duty time, because I didn’t want to get in trouble with fraternization. My friendships were work relationships, so when I left the Army, I lost many of those connections. It took me a while to get close to people, because I didn’t trust them. For me, trust was formed when you saw someone’s true colors. In the military when you go through something hard with somebody, and they don’t let you down, you trust them. The best part and the worst part of somebody comes out when you are facing an obstacle, fighting a war, or in a struggle, and you see how they perform. You really get to know how people are. I didn’t want to go through that repeatedly with everybody I met, so I just kept a wall up and I just didn't trust for a long time. That was a tough thing for me to get over, and it took several years to change gears.”
“I am enjoying life and the freedom that we have now. While serving in the military, I gave up freedoms to defend those of our country. Now I am able to enjoy some of those freedoms, for which I am very thankful!”
“Through it all, my time in service really affected my faith. God is the only way I made it through. The military culture challenged my faith, but it also helped solidify my faith. I was in situations time and again where God showed His presence and power. Being away from home, and around very few people who shared my beliefs, challenged me to dig and learn through prayer and reading scripture. Those experiences help me now with how I approach life in general. You don't ever know what's going to happen each day, and it just really helps to enjoy each day. I know now, just don't take life, or anything, for granted.”
What I Wished Folks Knew About Veterans
“I want to encourage folks to not be afraid to ask a veteran about their service. I get a lot of people who come up to me, once they find out I'm a veteran, and admit they are afraid to ask me questions. They tell me that because of the stigma associated with PTSD, they don’t want to upset or offend a veteran. There are many misconceptions about PTSD—but one thing is for sure, a veteran will appreciate your sincere interest. When speaking to a veteran, don’t have an agenda in mind, but allow them to share what they wish. I believe it is important for veterans to talk about their experiences and share without fear of judgment or manipulation, and without fear of being unappreciated.”
“There are many programs for combat veterans that exist to help military men and women transition out of the military into civilian life. They range from athletic programs to virtual programs, one of my favorite being equine programs. Horses were instrumental in helping me transition out of the military, and I have been able to share that experience with other veterans as well. I have participated in and volunteered for programs such as the ROCK (Ride on Center for Kids) On Veterans program, the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program, the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s veteran program, and the Courtney Cares veteran equine program.”
“Going from a high stress, high operational environment to a civilian lifestyle can be a challenge. Our brains essentially have three levels—the first being stimulus and the third being response. The middle level is where we process and choose our response. The military trains us how to respond to all sorts of stressors, to survive in battle and eliminate emotion. That space to choose and process becomes unused and numb. That is how I was able to be shot at in combat and shoot back without emotions or adrenaline taking over. That is how my fellow pilots and I were able to survive a solid 15 months of combat even after losing two of our best pilots. But this numbness is also how I was emotionally and mentally disconnected from my friends and family. This numbness kept me from relationships, quality social interaction, and the joy of life. Then I got involved with horses! The numbness began to go away when I began dealing with a horse. I felt revived in spirit but also a little uncomfortable because I didn’t understand what was happening. It’s easy to cover your feelings up around people or shove emotions down so deep you forget you have any. But the horse sees right through you. The horse can get away with making you sad, happy, scared, or anxious because they help you figure out how to deal with it. They don’t judge and get upset with you, they just want someone to follow. So in turn, they teach us how to be leaders, not only of them but of ourselves. Because in that space that is no longer numb, lies our ability to grow, enjoy life, and once again have freedom.”
Papaw, Bill Davis
“My maternal grandfather, affectionately known as Papaw, served in the United States Army during WWII. He didn’t share much of his experiences, and I didn’t know to ask until after I came home from my first combat deployment. My mother commented that he shared more in those months after my return, than he ever did in her childhood years. Papaw was in an infantry unit during the war, and many of his stories were from Southeast Asia and from being in the Pacific. He talked about ‘shooting the Japs’ and taking watches off their bodies.”