Iraq veteran survived bomb, but he died a crime victim at Calif. home
The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee
On May 23, 2006, Michael Allen Cole was driving a Humvee through war-torn Iraq when the rig hit a roadside bomb and vaporized into a smoky cloud of flying debris.
The explosion killed three Marines. Cole's physical trauma would require a year for recovery; his psychological and emotional wounds would be slower to mend.
But it was not war that would ultimately claim his life.
In quiet suburbia Cole's life story would end – in a robbery at his Citrus Heights home, allegedly at the hands of a friend, about a mile from where his father and stepmother were getting ready for work.
That Feb. 10 morning, a neighbor found Cole lying on the floor, stabbed in the back. He was 26.
"It was very difficult on our entire family when Michael was injured," said his father, Greg Cole, 52. "His murderer stabbed us all in the back and left us with gaping wounds that may never heal.
"His death defines tragedy. After all he had gone through, he deserved a chance."
Born July 23, 1985, to a middle-class family with no history of military service, Michael was a happy, active child, with sparkling eyes and an impish smile. Relatives described a boy who loved to be the center of attention – a feat in his blended family of six brothers and sisters – but also a child with a quiet sensitivity and kindness.
His guinea pig, Stanley, rode everywhere on his shoulders, his father said. When Stanley died, a devastated Michael, then in high school, buried his beloved pet in the backyard.
"He was really a very sensitive person with a tough-guy exterior," his father said. "He never understood how anyone could be cruel."
As a teen, Michael was an avid video gamer. He and his best friend, Scott Self, traded games and hauled computers back and forth between their homes for "LAN" parties. Though his grades were lackluster, Michael was a smart boy, thoughtful and respectful, friends and family said.
"He was super intellectual, a very deep thinker," recalled Diane Boyd, who had Michael as an English student at Del Campo High School. "I could see him processing things before he made a comment."
Boyd said she tried to talk Michael out of joining the military, believing it would be a "rude awakening." Still, his decision to join the Marine Corps after his high school graduation in 2003 did not come as a shock.
"I think the Marines appealed to him because of their code," Boyd said. " 'God, country, Corps' – he knew it."
Michael was determined, and his father and stepmother allowed him to enlist when he was 17. At 19, he was on his way to Iraq.
Recovering the dead
Michael's first deployment, his father said, "was what dreams are made of." On his way to and from the Middle East, his battalion made stops in Australia, Hawaii, Ireland and Sri Lanka.
His first brief stint in Iraq, he told his father, was "boring," mostly consumed by training.
Michael was not yet old enough to drink when he returned to Iraq in 2006. His job was to drive Humvees, often recovering the bodies of dead troops. Usually the victims were strangers to him, his father said. But on one occasion, Michael picked up a buddy whom he had been joking with the night before.
"There was nothing left except his dog tags," Greg said. "Michael had to pile him in the back of the Humvee. That was, I know, very hard for him."
There were duller aches, too. Greg said his son was bothered that some fellow Marines would use stray dogs for target practice and trampled local farmers' crops – and livelihoods – as they swept for weapons.
"So it was a hard thing for him to do – to be the tough guy, uncaring Marine over there," Greg said.
On that May day in 2006, Michael was driving the second Humvee in a five-vehicle convoy in Al Anbar province when an IED exploded beneath them. Bodies flew; Michael landed in a water-filled ditch.
He never remembered much about that day and nothing of the first weeks to follow, his father said. Greg still remembers in agonizing detail.
He received the call at work. IED. Coma. Michael's survival was uncertain.
"Until recently," he said, "I thought that was the worst day of my life."
'We need peace'
Michael was considered lucky to survive. The explosion snapped his left femur, broke his kneecap, cracked his teeth and fractured bones in his back and shoulders. His calf muscle tore from the bone. He lost his gall bladder in the field and his spleen during emergency surgery to remove the shrapnel that littered his body cavity. He was trapped in a body cast for months.
A traumatic brain injury induced a two-week coma. When he awoke, his family said, his words and actions were like those of a 6-year-old; it took a year for his speech to mature to that of a man.
Michael's family met him at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he would stay for three months and receive a Purple Heart on May 31, 2006. He spent his next three months undergoing therapy in a Palo Alto hospital. In its confines, he turned 21.
Rehabilitation was excruciating. Tears streamed down his face as he pushed through physical therapy. "I've never seen anyone in so much pain before," said his sister Kendra Duncan, now 23.
Getting him to push was a battle in itself, his father said, for the brain injury had wiped away the mighty Marine veneer.
"Michael expressed it in a way that says it all," his father shared in an emailed dispatch to family and friends. " 'War is ugly. We need peace.' "
Hitting his limitations
In late 2006, Michael joined the ranks of the Wounded Warrior Project, a national program designed to aid the recovery of service members, at his home base of Camp Pendleton. He flourished under the mentorship of then-Maj. Gen. Mike Lehnert, who found Michael a job working in his office.
"He became a real favorite in the office," said Lehnert, 60, now retired and tending a cherry farm in Michigan. "He was just a genuinely decent young man."
Michael was promoted to the rank of corporal shortly before retiring from the Corps in 2007. He returned to Citrus Heights and got an apartment with Self, his childhood friend.
By then, the visible evidence of his injuries had almost disappeared. But there were signs his brain wasn't what it once was, including the five car accidents he had after returning home.
Self recalled a day the friends played a video game, one of their old favorites. Michael got so frustrated he had a tantrum, startling Self.
"His body just wouldn't do what he wanted," said Self, 28. "Every time he would hit his limitations, it would just drive him crazy."
It became clear to those close to Michael that readjusting to his new life was a serious challenge for him. "(His peers) were all talking about their cellphones and shopping and politics and stuff he didn't care about at all," said his father. Michael was struck by "how shallow it all was" compared to what he thought he was fighting for in Iraq.
Before long, he found solace in alcohol. He was not an angry drunk – the drug seemed to bring out a boyish vulnerability, his family said. But his drinking began affecting his relationships, pushing away friends and, ultimately, his fiancée.
"There were times life was hard enough that he just wanted to die, and alcohol was an escape," his father said. "And it was an escape. It wasn't him."
Amid the drinking, Michael continued collecting vintage video games and cultivating investors for a potential business involving those games. He bought a house. His finances, his father later learned, were impeccably organized, his military payout responsibly invested.
"He wanted to accomplish big things in life," said Lehnert, Michael's mentor. "I often thought he 5; had a lot of talent; life didn't always deal him the cards it dealt other people."
Much more to give
Michael peeked into Boyd's Del Campo classroom in January, nine years after he had left it, and was surprised when she remembered him.
Michael told her all he had been through, shared with her the sobriety chip he had recently earned from Alcoholics Anonymous.
She invited him to speak to a class that promotes "individual determination" as an avenue toward college. She felt he could offer "real-world lessons." Her students were entranced.
"It would be so easy for somebody in his situation 5; to be angry and spiteful and negative," Boyd said. "I could tell he had been changed, but who he was at his core had not changed."
Sobriety didn't last. In a matter of weeks, Michael had relapsed and went on a bender he wouldn't survive.
Citrus Heights police declined to comment for this story. But according to accounts that police and prosecutors have shared with his family, Michael was drinking with a man he had met in AA in the hours before his death.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Michael was stabbed in the back and a violent struggle ensued, according to the family. Police would arrive to find Michael's safe, where he kept collectibles, open with items missing; other belongings had been stolen from the house.
Later that day, officers arrested Nicholas Mangelli, 21, Michael's AA acquaintance, after he allegedly tried to pawn some of the items. Mangelli, also a Del Campo High graduate, has been charged with murder and robbery. He has not entered a plea, and declined an interview from the Sacramento County Main Jail. His attorney, David Dratman, also declined comment.
As he waits for the case to play out, Michael's father finds the waste of it all difficult to comprehend. It took millions of dollars and the efforts of so many people to put Michael back together after Iraq, and yet his life "was then snuffed out 5; for a few trinkets."
"Michael," Greg said, "would have given him more than he stole."
Distributed by MCT Information Services