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Rescued comrade returns the favor

Drafted into the army at age 20, Wambi Cook had no idea he was about to be thrust into one of the Vietnam War’s fiercest battles. 

It was the summer of 1967 and the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s “Sky Soldiers” were vastly outnumbered by North Vietnamese Army regulars at Đắk Tô in an unimaginably intense clash that would become known as the “Battle of the Slopes.”

“We always refer to it as 22 June,” said Wambi.

On that fateful day, many young American soldiers were ambushed and had their unit effectively split in two. On a ridge above the jungle canopy, the command elements were cut off from their soldiers, who were marooned in the jungle below.

Beneath the slopes, ammo ran low, a thick canopy of foliage prevented the effective use of artillery support, and wounded men were lying bloody all along the muddy jungle trail. 

Among them was 18-year-old senior medic Rick Patterson, who lay severely wounded from multiple gunshots and grenade fragmentation. 

At about the same time, radioman Wambi Cook had just managed to climb up a treacherously steep slope to safety with several other survivors—finally out of the chaos and carnage below. A few of his comrades came up after him, relaying that there was a medic still alive down in the jungle. 

“Myself and another fellow named Bill Reynolds were ordered by our commanding officer, David Milton, to go get the medic,” said Wambi. “The few guys who preceded Rick told us he was pretty bad off.” 

They found Rick, but Wambi wasn’t sure he was still alive.

“We asked Rick, ‘Can you walk a little bit?’ And that’s when he said, ‘No. I’ve been shot multiple times,’” said Wambi. 

Rick’s rescuers hoisted him up, put his arms around their shoulders, headed up the slippery path and approached the same slope Wambi had clambered up hours earlier. The three men finally got close enough to call for help. There was no way to traverse the steep incline while carrying Rick on their shoulders.

“We were close enough to our lines where we’re telling them we need help,” Wambi said. “But nobody came.”

The only thing others in the unit could send down was a rock with a rope tied around it.

Tying the rope securely around Rick, Bill and Wambi began pulling him up the hill until they were met partway by other soldiers who took over. Once at the top, Rick was taken for medical treatment. Wambi, though, still had several more months to serve in Vietnam before he could return home.

Wambi had also been wounded while serving in the war. When he got back home and transitioned into civilian life, he received health benefits from the Veterans Administration but no disability compensation. 

Several years later, a fellow Vietnam veteran asked Wambi if he was going to apply for compensation related to Agent Orange exposure. That same dense canopy that Wambi and his fellow soldiers had fought under in Đắk Tô was the impetus for the U.S. military’s decision to use potent herbicides—including Agent Orange—to thin the forest cover and destroy enemy food crops. However, Wambi was unaware of the approaching deadline for his earned benefits from exposure to Agent Orange.

“I told him I hadn’t heard about it,” Wambi said. “It had been years since I last did anything with the VA. But he told me the deadline was coming up.”

Wambi’s initial claim was denied. In fact, it would take 20 more years before Wambi would get the help he needed—help that would come from the former soldier whose life he had saved in the Battle of the Slopes.

While searching for men from his unit, Wambi was able to find Rick Patterson—who was then serving as executive director at DAV National Headquarters. Rick helped Wambi connect with a DAV benefits advocate to refile his disability claims, which were ultimately approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“It wasn’t so much the money, though that was great,” said Wambi. “It validated what [DAV benefits advocates] were trying to tell me. I was deserving [of disability compensation].” 

Over the years, Wambi and Rick stayed in touch.

“Every 22nd June, we’d call each other,” said Wambi.

But, June 22, 2022, came and went, and Wambi realized he hadn’t received the usual phone call from Rick. He assumed something had required Rick’s attention and the two would catch up another time. Three months later, Wambi picked up the September/October issue of DAV Magazine and read the headline, “DAV mourns the passing of past executive director.

“If you knew Rick, he was just a laid-back guy,” Wambi said. “A lot of guys didn’t know how important a role he played.”

For Wambi, Rick was the catalyst to finally get the benefits that he earned for his sacrifice in service to our nation. For Rick and DAV, Wambi played a central role as well—saving the life of one of DAV’s dedicated executive directors.

Honor Rick Patterson’s legacy by giving to the Rick Patterson Memorial today.

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