Daughter of missing Air Force pilot shares story of loss

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Veronica Aceveda
  • 512th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The name, rank and service of Col. Kelly Cook are imprinted on POW/MIA bracelets to this day. He is still missing.

The pilot's name is also engraved on a memorial marker on the grounds of the Air Force Academy in Colorado. He was declared killed in action in 1976.

The ultimate sacrifice he paid for his country is honored annually on POW/MIA Recognition Day. He is not forgotten.

Seven-year-old Maureen, one of Cook's six children, was the one who answered the door in 1967, when uniformed Air Force officers asked for her mother.

She said they waited in the car until her mother returned from the commissary.

"I hid behind a chair and heard them tell her," she recalled. "I remember her putting her hand over her mouth, the stricken look on her face and being taken to the neighbors."

Her siblings, two younger brothers and three older sisters, ranged in age from 2-to-21 years old at the time they learned their father, a fighter pilot, was missing in action in Vietnam.

"To this day, we are a very tight-knit family," Maureen said. "We share a sadness that's always there. We've visited The Wall together - and it's always difficult, there are always tears."

"He was a special guy," she added.

Born and raised on a Kentucky farm, Kelly Francis Cook reportedly had a scholarship to attend a state university but decided to work his way through college at the esteemed University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where he earned money by typing manuscripts for professors. In 1942, only one semester shy of his degree, Cook joined the Army Air Corps, the precursor to today's Air Force, as an aviation cadet.

As a second lieutenant, he flew B-24s stationed out of Italy during World War II. He later authored a book, "The Other Capri," based on his experiences there. The bomber pilot returned to UND, finished his degree and became an English teacher for his alma mater. The literary scholar also had other works published, including several pieces of poetry, two of which can be found framed in Maureen's home.

As a member of the Iowa Air National Guard, 1st Lt. Cook was ordered to active federal service during the Korean War. He flew the F-84F at several bases before serving as a 5th AF staff officer at K-55, now known as Osan Air Base, Korea. He continued flying early generation fighter bombers, graduating from the Air Weapons Course in 1955.

Grooming him for a future assignment, the Air Force paid for Capt. Cook to earn his master's degree in English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Continuing his activity-duty career, his last assignment was as the assistant director of operations for the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing in Vietnam, where he flew the F-4C Phantom. At the time he went missing, he was pursuing his doctorate degree through the University of Denver in Colorado.

He shared his experience and knowledge with many over the years through teaching. He was one of the first professors at the Air Force Academy, where Maureen was born. Maj. Cook was later assigned to teach at the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell, United Kingdom, furthering the military careers of cadets both stateside and overseas.

"He was a fine man, a superb officer and an example to every cadet in his squadron," said retired Col. Jim Graham, a former student from the AF Academy. "He has been sorely missed by every one of us."

The impact her father had on others is something his daughter holds dear to her heart.

"From a very young age, he dedicated his life to his country," said Maureen. "He had done so much and was only 45 years old."

Shortly after learning her father was MIA, Maureen's mother moved the family from Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, California, back to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they still had ties and a better support system during that difficult time.

"She built a house there, thinking he was going to come home," Maureen said. "For a long time, we thought he might be a prisoner of war, so mom sent packages through the Red Cross.

"But, we didn't discuss it much - it was too painful."

After seven years of seeking answers and enduring a life of the unknown, a glimmer of hope came in 1973, when aircraft carrying POWs returned to the United States.

"I watched the television the entire day - waiting for him to get off a plane," said Maureen as she fought back tears, reflecting on that day.

Operation Homecoming returned 591 POWs, but none of them were her father.

Three years later, Lt. Col. Cook was officially declared killed in action, body not recovered.

Maureen and her family continued to live in Colorado Springs, where her father had left a legacy. Because of his contributions to the Air Force and the institution, Maureen said the Academy leadership and cadets continuously showed their care and support for her family.

She recalled growing up very entwined in military life, attending football games, weekend concerts and church on campus. This is where she met her husband 512th Airlift Wing Commander Col. Raymond A. Kozak. They married in that same church.

"Who else better to understand the journey my family has been through, than a pilot himself," said Maureen, in reference to how some might have thought she would have avoided marrying a service member.

"He helps me tremendously throughout this journey," she added. "He knows more about my father's service history than I do. It's as if he knew him. Actually, both of our fathers were World War II aviators, and we honor them in every way we can."

The Kozaks had been married eight years by 1992, when Maureen's mother received an update on Cook's KIA case.

"It was as if he died that day," Maureen said.

Nearly 25 years after he went missing, the Cook family learned new details surrounding his death.

During a night training mission Nov. 10, 1967, two F-4C aircraft, were shot down in North Vietnam. One of the pilots, Lt. Col. Cook, ejected and was one of two Airmen captured. Two other Airmen died in the incident. The report indicated Cook died within days from his wounds and was buried on a farm.

"To know that he was captured and alive for a period of time was very upsetting for everyone," said Maureen. "Even though we got a little further down the road in knowing how his life ended, the search continues for his remains. We may never get his remains, but I still can't help dream about it happening before my mother passes."

"I am very grateful our government is still searching for our POW/MIAs," she added.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command continues to conduct Joint Field Activities, furthering investigations and excavations throughout Vietnam, according to a September 2014 fact sheet on the Defense POW Missing Personnel Office website. A JFA team involves approximately 95 U.S. personnel and their Vietnamese counterparts working together for about 30 days at a time; the most recent concluded Sept. 7, 2014.

Maureen and her brother Brian have spearheaded the family's efforts in remaining active in the Department of Defense's personnel recovery and accounting community. She said it's slightly easier for them to represent the family and stay knowledgeable in the latest developments, because they were only 5 and 7 years old when their father went missing, whereas their older siblings had up to two decades of time and memories with their father.

"It's far too difficult for them emotionally," she said. "Even over the holidays when we talk about him, they always break down in tears."

For this reason, Brian and Maureen keep in touch with the league of families who have walked in their shoes. They are members of various organizations dedicated to POW/MIA support and often attend meetings, briefings and conferences centered on the same.

Maureen specifically sought volunteer work with Friends of the Fallen, an organization which helps provide comfort to the families who come to Dover AFB, Delaware, for the dignified transfer of their loved one.

"Helping in this manner means so much to me, because our family has been where their family is - having suffered a loss," she said.

As a wing commander's wife, Maureen has attended numerous events, which have featured a toast, tribute or display recognizing POW/MIAs.

"They are wonderful," she said. "I wish more of my family could see these beautiful honors. I also think they help the new generation learn something about their Air Force heritage and remind them there are still so many unaccounted for."

As of September 2014, more than 83,000 Americans are missing from World War II to present, according to the Defense POW Missing Personnel Office. From the Vietnam War, 1,641 are still unaccounted for, including posthumously promoted Col. Kelly F. Cook, a decorated pilot, revered professor, husband, father and friend.

In his honor, Maureen said she always tries to participate in POW/MIA Recognition Day, which has been observed nationally since 1979 and annually on the third Friday of September since 1986.

These observances are significant for Maureen and other families who are still waiting for their loved ones to be accounted for and repatriated.

"Whether it's a simple nod of silence or a full ceremony, they all count," Maureen said. "They all mean something - especially to me."