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NEWS | Nov. 20, 2023

Honoring a legacy: a tribute to LTC Jeff Cole

By Capt. Cody Stagner, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

On Nov. 17, 2023, more than 100 attendees joined leaders of the Kentucky National Guard to pay tribute to Lt. Col. Jeffrey D. Cole by dedicating Middlesboro’s armory in his name.
Among the guests were several current and former leaders from the Kentucky Guard, including former and retired adjutant general Maj. Gen. Donald C. Storm and ten former battalion commanders of 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry.

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“Naming this armory in his honor is a privilege, symbolizing his lasting impact on our community and the Guard’s legacy,” said Maj. Gen. Hal Lamberton, the adjutant general for Kentucky.
The ceremony became a tribute to Cole’s surviving wife, Christi, and their children, Emmery and Abrienna, sharing the deep impact of Cole's life and actions as a professional leader and model Citizen-soldier.
“We have never seen an officer like Jeff Cole before and we will never see one again,” said Col. Tim Starke, the director of operations for the Kentucky Army National Guard. “So, it's only fitting that every Soldier who enters this building is greeted by his name, and you can take pride in the fact that he once commanded here and that now you are part of his legacy forever.”
Cole’s life ended after a battle with cancer in 2015.
According to 1st Sgt. George Long, a retired member of the 1-149th Infantry, he and others in his unit owed Cole for their own lives.
Long, hosting the event as master of ceremonies, provided anecdotal evidence from Operation Iraqi Freedom to support his claim.
“I was told by the battalion S2 that in the month of May 2006, Company D, 1-149th Infantry out of Middlesboro, Kentucky, had been in contact with the enemy more than any [U.S.] Army unit in the world. Yet, we only ended up with four wounded Soldiers. And we brought everyone home alive,” said Long, who served under Cole as a platoon sergeant then.
Long said this survival was a direct reflection of the meticulous physical conditioning and training conducted by Delta Company under Cole’s leadership.
Lt. Col. Jason Mendez was a rifle platoon leader on that same deployment and corroborated Long’s claim.
“No one worked harder, knew more about the mission, or was more committed than he was,” said Mendez.
“As a subordinate I always knew, no matter what circumstances we would face—even in the midst of combat operations—having him on our team brought a level of confidence,” said Mendez.
Mendez, a former commander of the Mountain Warrior battalion as well, commands the state’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion. His confidence was built while serving as a platoon leader and company commander under Cole’s direct mentorship.
Cole’s leaders were equally impressed by his actions.
According to Col. Mike Abell, a retired Kentucky Guardsman, Cole’s friend, commander, and mentor throughout his career, Cole never hesitated to “drop what he was doing to help a fellow [Soldier] of the same rank, same grade, same unit” to be the best that Soldier could be even when competing for the same position.
Abell said this speaks volumes of the trust and influence Cole impressed on those around him.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Lear, Kentucky’s land component commander, and Starke said their paths to success in the organization were also a result of having served with Cole.
“Being around Jeff, learning from him, just knowing him, made me a better officer,” said Lear, who served as the infantry battalion’s training officer alongside Cole as the executive officer. “His faith, strength, and courage were amazing and an inspiration to us all.”
Starke having served in mostly parallel roles but in separate battalions, noted that Cole’s training and battle products, crafted with a rare talent for communicating visions, were soon emulated in other battalions.
Lear and Starke light-heartedly joked how Cole was handy with an Excel spreadsheet, but both agreed his lasting impressions came from more than professional expertise.
“The example he set as an officer, as a husband, and as a dad left deep impressions on all of us that will carry throughout our lives,” said Starke. “I find myself now, just as I did back then, asking ‘What would Jeff Cole do?’ And the answer to that question has never steered me wrong, not even once.”
The honorary guest speaker at the ceremony was Christi Cole Pope, Jeff’s wife, who shared a more intimate view of his character.
“I know that just as much as you say he impacted you, the same was true for him,” she said.
Christi said his two greatest strengths not mentioned above and as witnessed at home were his humility and his compassion for others.
“He was really good at being able to give self-deprecating humor—telling stories about himself in which he wasn't necessarily the hero—in order to illustrate a point,” she said just before presenting a pre-recorded demonstration of Jeff’s talents while speaking at his church.
In the video, Jeff described what he felt was a challenging, poor decision he once made in Iraq and the importance of identifying, acknowledging, and learning from his own mistakes. His message on screen was engaging and thoughtfully tailored for his listeners to grow from it.
According to Christi, Jeff Cole’s talents stemmed from his compassion for others. He had the heart to ask and listen, and then used his intellect to systematically determine the best ways to help others.
“He could take mistakes and learn from them,” she said. “The way he cared for others goes hand and hand with humility. He used it to develop in both his personal and professional life every day.”
Christi's voice trembled as she recounted a circled note on one of Jeff’s workbooks that read, “The heart of leadership is putting others ahead of yourself.” She said his actions were a living testament to these values which he had internalized.
In that moment, it was clear: Jeff's legacy was not just in the work he did, but in the lives he changed.
The armory in Middlesboro, previously the home for Delta Company, now serves Alpha Company. Despite Delta Company’s relocation to Springfield, the renamed armory will remain a source of inspiration for all visitors.
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