National Guard Armory named for former Mountain Warriors commander

Published 10:08 am Friday, December 1, 2023

By Jennifer McDaniels

jennifer.mcdaniels@middlesboronews.com

Middlesboro’s National Guard Armory was recently the gathering ground for some of the highest-ranking guardsmen in the state, as well as local dignitaries and residents, as the facility was officially named in a patriotic ceremony in honor of a late unit commander who was memorialized not only for his excellence in leadership, but his compassion for his fellow soldiers and deep faith.

The life and service of Lt. Col. Jeffrey D. Cole, who fought his bravest battle against cancer in 2015, was honored and celebrated by his comrades, family, and community members on Nov. 17 when the Middlesboro National Guard was named after him in a ceremony that brought the head of the Kentucky National Guard, Adjunct General Haldane B. Lamberton, to the local command unit as the keynote speaker. Cole’s wife and two daughters, as well as his family and friends, filled the civilian seats for the ceremony as the impressive assemblage of guardsmen and military leaders remembered and extolled the late Cole’s contributions to the Mountain Warriors battalion.

Col. Timothy Starke, Director of Operations with the Kentucky National Guard, said that far more important than Cole’s former tactile abilities and his expertise as an infantryman was his commitment to developing and nurturing people.

“Several of the finest officers now leading this organization are products of Jeff’s mentorship, his coaching, and his teaching,” Starke said during his time behind the speaker’s podium. “The example he set as an officer, as a husband, and as a dad left deep impressions on all of us that carried throughout our lives…We had never seen an officer like Jeff Cole before, and we will never see one again. So, it’s only fitting that every soldier who enters this building is greeted by his name, and they can take pride in the fact that he once commanded here, and that you are now part of his legacy forever.”

The former Mountain Warriors commander, who bravely and successfully led guardsmen on past deployments to Iraq, lost his life to cancer eight years ago. It was evident, however, that Cole’s past leadership, friendship, and mentoring had profoundly impacted a large number of soldiers, both his subordinates as well as his superiors. Each Kentucky National Guard officer who spoke during the naming ceremony on Nov. 17 spoke of Cole’s love for his country, love for his fellow comrades, family, and love for God. Each officer spoke on Cole’s pursuit of excellency, but also how he was approachable, kind, and how he strived to encourage and empower soldiers. LTC Jason Mendez, Battalion Commander for Recruiting and Retention, shared during the naming ceremony that Cole remained one of the Kentucky National Guard’s “very best” who carry the title of Mountain Warrior.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better role model and leader,” Mendez said. “No one worked harder than Jeff, knew more about the mission, or was more committed than he was. His example set the tone of professionalism and proficiency that was expected from each soldier in our formation…He was a steadfast leader and exceptional mentor. Leaders like Jeff Cole are invaluable. As a subordinate, I always knew no matter what the circumstances we faced, even in the midst of combat operations, having him on your team brought a level of confidence.”

Mendez also pointed out that Cole had been an empathetic command leader who took time to understand his soldiers and who demonstrated valiant courage in making tough decisions when faced with adversity.

“It was easy to give Jeff your trust,” Mendez said. “He earned it day in and day out through his consistency and his care for the organization and each of his soldiers. Jeff was not only my up close example for leadership and stewarding a profession, he modeled the ability to live up to other titles – husband and father – and his identity was rooted in his faith.”

Lamberton, Kentucky National Guard’s commanding major general, said what he remembered most about Cole was how he always strived to improve himself as well as his spirituality. Lamberon said he had the honor some years ago to accompany Cole’s wife, Christi, to the Pentagon after Cole was named a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Award, which recognizes company grade officers who demonstrate the ideas for which the U.S. General Douglas MacArthur stood – duty, honor, and country. Lamberton joined Cole’s wife for the award presentation in Washington, D.C. because Cole had been deployed to Iraq.

“The cool thing from my perspective is that there was only one person out of the group of around 18 award recipients who was deployed,” Lamberton said. “And that was Jeff Cole. To be the recipient of that award, to go up there amd receive that from the Four-Star Chief Of Staff from the Army, and for Christi to receive that on Jeff’s behalf was cool as heck.”

Lamberton said it was Cole’s stellar reputation as a family man, a friend, and a fellow soldier that caused him to be so well respected. The general said Cole was respected not only for his military achievements, but for, quite simply, being a “terrific individual.” The most prevalent word Lamberton said that comes to mind when thinking about Cole is “a decent person.”

“Jeff will be known for his responsibility, his reliability, and his ambition in a good way to not only make himself better, but his unit better,” Lamberton said. “Whenever any of us come around another individual like that, I think that this person is going to ideally impact on us in our lives and rub off on us in our lives. Jeff had an impact on each one of us, and he left a legacy with each of us at this point.”

The general then turned to Cole’s wife and two daughters, exclaiming that they had the senior leadership for the Kentucky National Guard in the room, who all have been influenced  beneficiaries of knowing Cole.

“He’s left a residual, an impact, that not only goes to the folks in front, here, of this group and myself, but to the soldiers, here, who are a little bit younger, whose hair is a little bit darker at this junction. It has a ripple effect, and more so, that ripple effect goes through Christi and the girls, as I noticed when each of you walked in, I saw Jeff’s face right away, and no one needed to tell me you all were his daughters…This is a terrific day, a terrific occasion that we all get to enter the armory, here, or drive by it and see Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Cole’s name up there as it keeps him very much in the forefront of all our mind’s. What a terrific example of an individual for all of us to follow.”

When retired Kentucky National Guardsman  Col. Mike Abell spoke during the naming ceremony, he brought out the more humanistic side of Cole, saying he got to spend some time with him during his last days battling cancer. Abell said when Cole’s wife needed a break, he would often sit with him and keep him company. Abell said Cole had told him he was not afraid of dying, but admitted he would miss his family.

“And I said ‘Jeff, I guarantee you you are going to heaven,’” Abell said he told Cole. “’But I don’t think you are going to miss your girls, because I don’t think space and time applies in heaven. If it’s going to be heaven for you, Christi and the girls are already there.’ And that’s the last time I saw him smile, and I feel pretty good about that visit.”

Abell talked about how competitive the National Guard was because most soldiers wanted to climb to high ranking positions in their military careers. He also mentioned how some of Cole’s past competitors had been more than eager to brag on him and thank him for his contributions.

“And that speaks volumes,” Abell said. “The idea to name this armory came from one of his peers who he competed with…Jeff would very rarely use the word I. He took selfless service to the next level. Jeff would drop what he was doing to help a fellow commander…Only the spirit of a man like Jeff Cole could bring this group to this same armory on the same day. Only Jeff could bring this group together. Only Jeff’s spirit could do that.”

Kentucky National Guard Land Component Commander BG Joseph Lear talked about his days co-commanding the Mountain Warriors with Cole during the naming ceremony. Lear had served as the unit’s operations officer and Cole had served as the executive officer.

“I called it the Jeff and Joe show,” Lear said.

During those years of their co-command, Lear said he and Cole had several conversations and that he had gained a wealth of knowledge of not only how to be a good soldier, but a good man from Cole. Lear even mentioned their past disagreements, also saying they were always resolved with Cole’s solution being the best course of action.

“We talked about what we wanted the battalion to look like – we talked about everything,” Lear said. “Religion, politics, family, just life in general…Being around Jeff, learning from him, just knowing him, made me a better officer. Jeff also taught me how to be a better person. His faith, strength, and courage were amazing and an inspiration to us all. I would not wear the rank I wear or be in the position that I am in if not for the influence of Jeff Cole…My prayers and my hope is that someday I will make it to heaven. If I do, I know Jeff will be there to shake my hand and say ‘welcome home.’”

Mendez talked further about Cole’s unfeigned faith, saying he was “an unapologetic believer in Jesus Christ.” Mendez said in a departure ceremony before the Mountain Warriors were deployed to Iraq in 2005, Cole referenced scripture as a source of comfort to the soldiers leaving their families and communities.

“Jeff made it a point to be clear where he had placed his hope,” Mendez said. “He knew that caring for his soldiers would mean being open about his faith, and ultimately, his faith was his source of strength that would withstand his roughest battle.”

The naming ceremony had many moments of emotional displays with soldiers choking back tears at times when they remembered their departed comrade. But, there were also times of laughter as peers and family members recalled light- hearted times where Cole’s sense of humor made challenging days bearable. Lear drew laughter from the gathering when he recalled Cole’s fixation with spread sheets and how his keen business sense always resulted in one of his masterful, carefully designed Excel creations.

“There was no one who could work Excel like Jeff did,” Lear said. “The only two things he needed was coffee and ChapStick. The ChapStick might have been an option. The coffee was not.”

The Middlesboro National Guard Armory naming ceremony Master of Ceremonies retired First Sergeant George Long, touched on the more serious times when Cole’s expertise in leadership command saved lives and brought soldiers safely back home to their families after deployment in Iraq. Long said it was Cole’s efficient training that got the Mountain Warriors unit through intense heat and taking over a unit in Iraq that had lost 11 soldiers, were demoralized and no longer combat ready.

“It was crazy. It really was like the wild, wild west,” Long said. “It was very challenging. There were raids in the middle of the night, daily fire fights, IED’s (Improvised Explosive Device), exhaustion. It was pretty rough. But thanks to Jeff Cole, our unit never suffered not one heat-related injury and that is all due to what we did back at camp with the physical conditioning.”

Long said he had been told that during May of 2006, the Mountain Warriors Infantry out of Middlesboro had been in contact with the enemy more than any Army unit all over the world.

“And yet with all that, we only ended up with four wounded soldiers and Jeff brought everyone home alive,” Long said. “That is all a direct reflection of Jeff Cole’s leadership. He was an extraordinary man, and I loved him. He was a dedicated servant of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

The Middlesboro National Guard naming ceremony also included remarks from Christi Cole Pope, as well as testimonies from Cole’s brother, uncle, and others from the crowd. Pope and her two daughters unveiled the new plaque that declared the Middlesboro facility as the LTC Jeffrey D. Cole National Guard Armory. Flowers were presented to Pope and her daughters by soldiers and the 202nd Army Band Woodwinds Quintet led the gathering in singing My Old Kentucky Home and The Army Goes Rolling Along. It was evident that devout patriotism permeated the crowd, and Pope said she was certain her late husband would be pleased – not because of the honor bestowed upon him, but because of the camaraderie, love of country and love of God that was palpable during the ceremony.

“He mentored soldiers very well,” Pope said. “He actually told me at one point that was one of the things he was most passionate about was mentoring soldiers. If he was your commander, he cared…We are very humbled and honored with this designation. It is more than anything we could have ever expected. It’s amazing to see all this outpouring of love and support.”

LTC Jeffrey Cole was born on Nov. 13, 1976 in Tazewell, Tenn. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Berea College and a Master’s Degree at Touro International University. After receiving his commission through the Federal Officer Candidate School, Cole served nearly his entire career with the 1st Batallion, 149th Infantry Regiment – the “Mountain Warriors.”

Beginning as a rifle platoon leader, Cole eventually served as a mortar platoon leader, rifle company executive officer, rifle company commander, battalion operations officer, battalion executive officer, and finally battalion commander. In the naming ceremony program, it was relayed that Cole died on Sept. 11, 2015, “after a valiant fight against cancer, a journey that truly embodied the essence of bravery, resiliency, and faith.” The program handout went on to say that Cole “will always be Mountain Warrior 6 in the hearts and minds of the soldiers and alumni of the 1-149th Infantry, and he is truly one of the best to ever wear the uniform of the Kentucky National Guard.”