Al Cochran, a Merryville native, entered the Army as an officer the same year he graduated from McNeese State with a degree in civil engineering, 1965. (Michelle Higginbotham / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 11:59 PMAl Cochran is quick to tell you about the bridges and airstrips he helped build in Vietnam as a member of the Army Corps of Engineers.
He’ll tell you about the medal he received from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Even though it wasn’t awarded by the military, it’s particularly meaningful to Cochran because it links him to his great-grandfather, William Alfred Cochran, a Civil War veteran. It took two wars, 100 years and 12,0000 miles to receive the medal, he points out.
Freely, he will also tell you that decades after Vietnam he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A Merryville native, Cochran entered the Army as an officer the same year he graduated from McNeese with a degree in civil engineering, 1965.
“I chose the path of an officer through ROTC in college,” Cochran said. “It was somewhat of a trade-off between us and the U.S. government. They let us graduate and did not draft us,” in exchange for future military service.
Cochran’s trip to Vietnam was a slow one — a 20-day boat ride that he was “fortunate” enough to take, he joked.
Once in the service, Cochran spent his days building bridges and airstrips as a member of the Corps of Engineers, a group whose origins date to June 16, 1775, two days after the Army was formed, Cochran said in a short history lesson.
“Some of the best officers that ever served were engineers because they graduated from West Point and West Point didn’t graduate anything but officers,” Cochran said. “We have quite a legacy in the corps.”
One particular airstrip built by his group, at Vinh Thanh Valley, earned them a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
“In that project, we were very, very isolated and not really close to any group for support,” he said. “Engineers do not really have the stuff or weapons to defend or attack; we’re dependent on another group to defend.”
The engineers had to curtail the work to provide security details, but the airfield was finished on schedule, he said. He also worked reinforcing beaches to ensure land-sea tanks could land, and was forever building and rebuilding bridges.
“The VC (Viet Cong) constantly blew up bridges,” Cochran said. “They did that just for pastimes.”
It was also while in the corps that he first did some blasting himself, detonating 15,000 pounds of dynamite to make way for an airstrip.
“I learned some very good skills that helped me make a living in corporate America — handling explosives,” Cochran said.
He was in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968, he said. “It’s amazing we weren’t all killed,” Cochran said. “It’s just amazing.”
The Tet Offensive was the “capping point” of his PTSD.
“I knew something was wrong with me even before I left Vietnam,” he said. “There were differences I could see in myself even before I left Vietnam.”
When Cochran returned to the United States, he had ambitions to put his civil engineering degree to use, either working on railroads or highways.
But “nobody would take a chance on me because I had Vietnam written across my back,” he said.
Driving around the area, he saw the name Schlumberger Oil Services pasted on the side of trucks and decided to apply.
It wasn’t what he had anticipated, but he quickly took to the work.
“I had to work offshore, but I fell in love with that, too,” Cochran said. “With PTSD, it was an ideal situation for me. I was isolated from the world, and at the same time they gave me all the explosives and blasting caps I could use.”
It was a successful career. “I made a good living, I retired young and never did blow myself or anybody else up,” he said.
He left Schlumberger in 1985 and continued doing contract work until 2001. He said he loved the work he did, but said he also felt “trapped” from seeking psychiatric help for fear that a diagnosis would keep him from the job.
“If you’re a mental patient, they’re not going to let you have a blaster’s license,” Cochran said. “And that’s a good thing.”
It was his wife, Dee Dee, who finally pushed him to seek treatment in 2008, he said.
“She’s been a tremendous support to me for all these years,” Cochran said.
He found his PTSD “all goes back to Vietnam.”
“The Department of Veterans Affairs does a very good job of treating individuals with PTSD, once they will admit they need help,” Cochran said. “Like myself, I was in denial for so long.”
Since the diagnosis, Cochran has been able to get out more, working with Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion. He’s also a member of the Mayor’s Armed Forces Commission.
He works with disabled veterans, helping them to file claims, and is American Legion Post 1 photographer.
Cochran stays abreast of the latest statistics — one in five veterans coming home from war zones have PTSD, according to a U.S. Army study.
What advice does he have for those veterans? “To do their best to seek treatment early,” he said. “The military recognizes PTSD and points them in the right direction more than they did in Vietnam.”
Cochran has led a good life, he said. Still, “I often wonder what my life would have been without Vietnam.”