"If you waste your time a-talkin' to the people who don't listen,/To the things that you are sayin', who do you think's gonna hear./And if you should die explainin' how the things that they complain about,/Are things they could be changin', who do you think's gonna care?"
"To Beat The Devil" – Kris Kristofferson
Death’s been hanging around my family’s door for about the last two weeks now. Actually, when I really think about it, I guess death’s been hanging around my uncle, hence my family, since the end of the Vietnam War. As I sit here and write this, death finally claimed him, as just a few minutes ago I heard the chime of my phone informing me I had a new text. The message was from my brother Shaun in Texas, and it was simple – “Ron passed away.”
Ron Cossel was a great guy – my favorite relative. He taught me everything I know about football and I remember him always giving me hell when his Chiefs beat my Dolphins. That was back in the days of Dan Marino, so my uncle couldn’t give me much hell back then. Ron helped me develop a standings board that we taped to the door of my bedroom. Every week he and I would watch whatever game was on T.V. and then anxiously await the results of the Monday night game so we could adjust my standings board. We’d sit and chit-chat about the dawning playoff picture for the season, who had the stuff to make it, who didn’t, and who was going to take it all – Ron ALWAYS bet on the Chiefs.
Ron Cossel was a Marine and not just any Marine, Ron Cossel was a Marine Corps sniper and he was an absolute, one-shot, one-kill, death behind a rifle marine. But like so many veterans of the Vietnam War, my uncle didn’t get a fair shake, neither while he was serving nor when he came home.
Ron was asked to do many terrible, terrible things while he was over there, things that he never wanted to talk about, things that drove him to the bottom of a bottle – a bottom he never could find his way out of as his demons kept dragging him back down every time he just about broke free of it.
The war left Ron with occasional epileptic seizures, the result of being tossed around like a rag doll after a mortar round landed near him. That was a huge blow to my uncle. He was a strong, strong man, loved working on cars, and had a swagger about him that exuded cool and confidence. But those seizures worked a number on him and his pride, and he stayed home, didn’t want to go out, and alienated those who loved and cared for him.
It’s not right to be angry at someone when they just passed away, but I am angry at my uncle. Angry that he never got the help he so desperately needed, help that could have kept him around, kept him with his family, kept him with his wife and kids.
But even more than angry, I’m sad. I’m sad I lost someone who, whether he knew it, or not was an inspiration to me. When I went through Marine Corps boot camp, it was the memory of my Dad and his accomplishments in the military and my uncle that kept me going – “If they can do it, so can I,” I kept telling myself.
He never out and out said it, but my uncle was incredibly proud of me the day I graduated Marine Corps boot camp. Like my relationship with my dad after I came back from Iraq, my relationship with my uncle changed on that May morning back in 1993. He talked to me more deeply, we talked about the Marines, we talked.
On one of his darker nights, I got a call from my uncle at something like one in the morning.
“Once a Marine always a Marine, Ben,” he said, anguish and slur distorting his voice as he repeated those words over and over again.
The hallowed halls where fallen warriors go to rest have a newest member of their fraternity. Ron, wherever you are, I hope you are finally free.