Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this rare and candid interview with Night Stalker pilot Greg Coker conducted by Delta’s George Hand IV. — GDM
Greg, if you would please, can you describe your military progression up to and until such point that you decided to try out for and were accepted by the elite rotor-wing unit TF-160?
I came into the Army and served time with the 101st Air Assault. I applied for and was accepted to Flight School. I was able to return to the 101st this time in the capacity as a pilot. I eventually set my sights on the Night Stalkers. I was accepted and flew with them until my retirement.
Can you describe, please, your involvement with Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)?
As the story goes, I was shot down south of Fallujah by a surface-to-air missile while supporting a Delta Force combat patrol. My engine cut out immediately and I had to autorotate my aircraft to the ground. We had a sweet touchdown but we slid forward catching the skids on some rough terrain. We flipped end-over-end three time while burning. My copilot and were both hurt pretty good, but we picked up and formed a defensive position some 50 meters east of our smoking helo.
Some Delta boys in gun trucks came screaming up to protect us. They picked us up and asked us what we wanted to do from that point on. They already had a gun truck hammering the building where the launch came from. I told them I wanted to go after the bastard who shot me down; I was very unhappy about losing my gunship.
We climbed aboard and I took a machine-gun position immediately. All of us gun trucks were online abreast of each other screaming across the desert like angry bees headed for that building. It looked for all the world like we were filming a remake of the Rat Patrol. Two gun trucks got stuck in deep sand. An armored Pandur fighting vehicle from Delta came immediately and pulled the two truck out, all while under fire.
We stopped in good view of the building where the launch came from and hammered it viciously with non-stop machine-gun fire.
An enemy appeared on the roof talking on a phone. I laid waste to him knowing he was calling information to his buddies. Soon, two more of the enemy appeared on the roof; one with an RPG and one with an AK-47. I eliminated them with bitter prejudice. There was satisfaction to be gained that day, after all.
Greg, how did your co-pilot fare through all of this?
Peter did as well as could be expected. On impact, he bit through his tongue so severely that he almost bit it in half. He was brand new to the unit, and this was his first combat operation.
Our helo came to a rest upside down. Peter had quite a large amount of blood on his face and was unconscious. I released his seatbelt harness, and he crashed to the ground. He regained composure, recovered his weapon, and sat in a security posture with me, ready to fight.
Can you comment on how all of these robustly emotional experiences have affected you; were you afflicted with traumatic emotional events such as PTSD?
Emotions…Fear, anger, sadness, and pain come to mind. The Warrior experiences all of these and more: compassion, joy, trust, and anticipation. We ride a roller coaster at times, switch it on, switch it off, time after time and it wears on you. The professional warrior accepts this and stays focused on the greater good and his buddies, we view a challenge as an opportunity. We are mindful of the impact of our actions and we will give up our lives to save another.
PTSD…I do not like those letters, the media has put a stigma on veterans and the gen pop thinks that every service member is gonna “crack” at any moment. This has affected the Vet in seeking employment, trying to contribute to society and take care of his family. I have been on a Crusade to change PTSD to PCS – Post Combat Stress.
A person that has been in a traumatic event, abuse, rape, accident, etc. can experience PTSD and many times it is short term. The Warrior, experiences combat long term, months and years, we leave our “tribe” and try to make sense of all of this. The modern-day Special Operations soldier experiences months and years of combat, dirty, nasty, exhausting fighting. Less than 10% of the force saw real combat, how is it that so many claim PTSD?
I was diagnosed with TBI/PTSD in Aug of 2005, I was completing my annual flight physical when I broke down, doc walked me over to the psych. I was shot down on 19 Mar 2004 and experienced many negative emotions that did not make sense to me. I have a very strong faith and I know that God has a plan for me but sometimes I argue with him. I knew I was struggling but did not dare speak out about my issues, I was a senior gun pilot in the 160th and did not want to lose my job so I pushed my pain, feelings, and emotions down into that dark place in my soul.
I surely did not want to be branded with a “C”, Crazy, on my forehead and did not want to let my buddies down at all. I prayed a lot, I drank a lot, I abused prescription drugs, yet continued to march on. I was easily angered and took it out on my family, I wanted to get back in the fight. I conducted 2 combat tours April 2004 to June 2005.
Our docs did not know what to do with me, we have the best doctors on the planet, so they sent me to a Psych in town. I saw her for the rest of my time in the Army. She was one of 4 psych’s in the U.S. that could conduct EMDR, a new therapy for PTSD and she was right there in town. I was diagnosed with Survivors Guilt and severe TBI and PTSD so we started the EMDR, rapid eye movement therapy and it seemed to help along with my long chats with the psych.
During this time I started to research my “brain bruise” and I read everything I could find about PTSD and TBI, I was broke so I wanted to fix it! I continued the battle and started to talk to other guys about this intangible condition to see how they coped with this “gift that keeps on giving”. I was told that ya can’t fix it, it is always there and will never go away.
The demons come at night – I went days without sleep, if I slept, the demons would come and I would fight them. I have not had a dream since Mar 2004, only livid scenes of burning while rolling end over end, hearing my buddies screaming to save them. It has been 15 years now and still no dreams but the demons are not as active. I have talked to hundreds of vets post-retirement and consider myself somewhat of an expert on TBI/PTSD so I try to help my brothers cope with this condition.
I have spent many hours praying for relief and God has answered those prayers for me, my faith kept me alive. I have had several friends take their life and it is heartbreaking to say the least, some wounds you can’t see. We all beat the enemy, together, some extremely bad situations, gunfights, bad weather, bad places, bad people. I just don’t get it, can’t comprehend why a highly intelligent warrior that has reached the pinnacle of a career, the best of the best, living through some terrible experiences, loved by many…quit.
After talking to several that came close, reviewing what had happened in their lives, I have a theory, they lose hope and don’t have a loving God. My best friend MSG Leon Hanson took his life on 26 Jun 2016 and that is when I started to Crusade. It broke my heart and was very angry with God for quite some time.
He called me on my birthday as he had every year, a few days before, we talked about life, kids, war, philosophy, etc. for quite a while, we talked couple times a week for years. He showed no signs of severe depression and was quite happy as usual. Leon was a casualty of war and I miss him every day.
How has your personal coping mechanism served you through all of this, Greg?
Coping mechanism-NEVER QUIT! In the early days, it was easy, beer, whiskey, meds, war. My war ended when I retired and spent most of my time trying to integrate into society and take care of my family. Now I faced a new battle. My faith helped me cope, and I would disciple to Vets, yet still heavy drinking and Ambien.
What on earth am I here for, what is my purpose, God! I would get so very frustrated. I dove into work, staying busy training, shooting, and flying and visiting with buddies that had endured the same. I entered into the dark place and would fight my way out. The doctor that had started my PTSD treatment in Clarksville had moved to Plano so I was seeing her as often as possible, she was a gift from God.
One day my SOF rep had told me about a brain center in Dallas that was treating Vets with TBI/PTSD so I researched the program and after 18 months of putting it off I entered Carrick Brain Center for their 2-week program. It turned my life around
and was introduced to a therapist that worked with veterans that had TBI/PTSD. I saw her every week for 4 years, she saved my life. Her name is Tempa Sherrill, CEO-Stay the Course, a non-profit that works with Vets and First Responders in the DFW metro. You MUST talk about your fears, frustrations, failures, with someone. Do not hold it back or push it down into the abyss. Call a buddy and tell him you love him — it may save a life!
Can you describe a little of your personal life these days in Texas?
Life in Texas-Every day is a bonus, that is my motto. I never have a bad day; some are better than others. I am very active in my community and church family. I was baptized and attended the Walk to Emmaus, and my Christian beliefs have grown exponentially. I have my own company and stay busy teaching safety and security to school districts.
I developed a plan, “Not on My Watch,” for schools, corporations, and churches. I teach emergency response to corporations and first responders. I surround myself with like people, happy people, and spend a lot of time enjoying life with my wife Edie.
God has a plan for all of us, and she was a part of his plan. We raise longhorn cattle and chickens. We have a non-profit here that helps veterans, Young County Warrior Ranch. We have a helicopter hog hunt every year and bring in 20-24 veterans, some active duty, from all over the country, and it is medicine for all of us. I have a sense of urgency to help my fellow Vets; I now know my purpose.
How has the Regiment evolved since 9/11 in terms of capabilities and missions?
Unit Capabilities and Missions are CLASSIFIED. Army SOF has evolved at light speed over the past 18 years, 18 years…wow! Every unit in DOD is faster, lighter, more technologically advanced than 5, 10, 15 years ago. The evolution happened right in front of our eyes; we get paid to think outside the box so to speak. If we think of a better mousetrap, we tell someone and get it done. Aircraft have advanced, vehicles have advanced, weapons have advanced, but it still comes down to the Operator on the ground or in the air who has to pull the trigger or land on the X. We used a grease pencil mark on the canopy as our site and still do today, as far as I know, we can put a rocket in a window. We tested everything back in the day, there is nothing faster than the human brain, I still have my grease pencil.
By Almighty God and with honor,