Deployed captain 'attends' children's graduation

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joshua Stevens
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
For most service members, deployments create unique stresses. From the change in environment, to the change in operations tempo, to the detachment from loved ones, the extra weight can have a heavy toll on emotional health. All this can be especially true for deployed parents who often miss milestones in their children's lives while they are away.

One of these deployed parents is Capt. William Cooke, currently serving at Victory Base Camp, Baghdad, Iraq, as the Multi-National Force - Iraq Headquarters strategic planner, working the responsible drawdown of forces in the country. Due to his deployment, he expected to miss the high school graduation of his triplet boys, Cory, Kyle and Sean, but soon found out that would not be the case.

"One of the people I work with, Navy Lieutenant Al Dozier, overheard me talking about how I was going to miss it and sent e-mails to the major news networks and local Public Affairs offices, asking if they would like to do a public interest story," Captain Cooke said. "(In the mean time), I contacted Whitewater High School in Fayetteville, Ga., where they attend and asked Greg Stillion, the school's principal, if the ceremony would be linked to their Web site so I could watch it."

After their conversation, Mr. Stillion contacted local news affiliate NBC Channel 11 Alive out of Atlanta, whose news team decided to cover the story and set up a live satellite feed for Captain Cooke to witness the graduation through the Whitewater High School Web site. The news station contacted the triplets' mother, Cooke's previous wife, and soon the network interviewed them, featuring the story across Atlanta for the entire week prior to the graduation.

"Eleven Alive had come out (for other stories) to Whitewater several times, so we knew who to talk to in order to get things rolling," Mr. Stillion said. "They came out various times throughout the week for footage and to set things up. To be able to do this for a parent was just awesome." 

The Atlanta crew worked with NBC Baghdad to set up the live feed at Camp Victory in the public affairs studio in Al-Faw Palace, and on May 29 at 7 p.m., (2 a.m., May 30 for Captain Cooke) the graduation began.

"The quality of the feed was excellent," the captain said. "Given the distance, there was an understandable delay of about 60 seconds, but it was well worth it to see my boys and the pride in their faces."

The surprises weren't over yet, though. As soon as the triplets each received their diplomas, news crews led the unsuspecting teenagers offstage to a special monitor set up to display the live feed of their father.

Through the system's microphones, Captain Cooke said, "I'm so proud of you boys." To which they replied, "We love you, Dad!"

After all of the graduates made their way across the stage, the feed of Captain Cooke watching the ceremony was projected to the entire 5,000-person audience, prompting a standing ovation.

"Apparently there wasn't a dry eye in the bunch," the captain said. "Even the cameraman was crying."

The significance of the event is still affecting the captain.

"As a parent, there are just moments that stick with you forever," he said. "Your child's first words, steps, tooth, etc. -- most of which I missed due to my military deployments. One of these moments is your child's accomplishment of finishing 13 years of school. It's a direct result of parent involvement and guidance and is an almost indescribable feeling of pride. I'm a pretty stoic guy normally, but when I saw those boys walk across that stage and receive those diplomas, I had a hard time holding it together."

Captain Cooke feels he owes all of the people who donated their time and effort for the project a debt of gratitude.

"The crew from NBC here in Baghdad worked a miracle with the folks back in Atlanta who went well above and beyond to make this happen," he said. "Also, the public affairs office here did an excellent job setting up their studio and making sure everything worked like clockwork. They make me proud to be serving my country."

"I'm especially grateful to my boys," he said. "They're just great men with unlimited potential, and I look forward to their future successes. Knowing they could have gone many different ways, not stuck with it and dropped out, but still chose to have the determination and character to do what's right, again, is indescribable."

Editor's Note: Captain Cooke's home station is Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., where he works as the Subscale Aerial Targets Maintenance and Logistics Flight commander for the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron.