SHERIDAN — The year was sometime around 1965, and Red Cossel had it all. With a full head of long red hair — thus the nickname that’s survived his whole life — he dropped out of high school in favor of a car, girlfriend and $100-a-week construction job, good money for the time.
“I was actually a wise ass,” he chuckled. “I thought I knew more than the teachers did.”
Like many teenagers who think they have the world figured out, the Sheridan resident was about to realize he did not, in fact, know it all. His education would come quicker than most, as he was drafted to the U.S. Army in 1966.
Twenty years later, Cossel retired in Alaska after a career as an Army cook. In those two decades, Cossel would start a family, travel the United States and the world, including two tours of Vietnam, and later bestow his passion of cooking onto his children and grandchildren.
But it all started with a rude awakening in the form of a draft card. After his pre-induction visit and physical, he was classified as 1A. In other words, he was fit and ready for service. He took a battery of tests to determine his job, and he became a cook.
“At first I hated the idea of being a cook, but over the years I got really good at it,” he said. “So now I enjoy cooking. I like to cook.”
Eight weeks of basic training were followed by eight weeks of job training. Cossel then received his orders: He was going to Germany. The plan for drafted men was two years active duty, two years active reserves and then two years inactive reserves.
But Cossel reenlisted for six years active duty “to figure out what the devil I wanted to do. At 19 years old, I had no idea.”
It turned out his career was right in front of his face. And so the journey of a military man began in earnest.
Cossel ultimately spent three years in Germany. Then he went to Fort Lee in Virginia, then Fort Campbell in Kentucky, then Vietnam. Vietnam wasn’t easy, but orders are orders, Cossel said, and he made due the best he could.
“Vietnam was less than ideal conditions,” he said. “You used all field equipment. There was no kitchen such as you think of in the Army here. It was just a wooden building. You had gas fire units. You had your field unit stoves. But on the stoves, I could cook anything you could make in the kitchen here. I could cook. I could bake. I could do anything.”
Cossel then returned home and was stationed in Fort Sam Houston in Texas. There, he met an Army brat named Patricia. Two-and-a-half months after they met, the couple got married on Friday, Nov. 13.
“That’ll be 45 years ago this November,” he laughed. “So I think it kind of worked out.”
Only a month-and-a-half later, Cossel was sitting in the Oakland Army Air Terminal en route to Vietnam again.
Tough? Maybe, but again, he knew he had a job to do, and his new wife understood how the military worked.
The second tour of Vietnam proved noteworthy. Cossel, a sergeant, was asked to set up in the field with an artillery unit. Cossel agreed under the guise that his help was experienced. Turned out, however, none of the other men had ever worked in a field crew before, he said with a laugh.
“It was situations like that, to me, that better prepared you for what was going on everywhere else,” he said. “It showed you that you could step into any job, take over and get the job done. I used to tell my men, ‘Don’t think about it. Just do it.’”
There were some rough patches and long nights. The artillery troops used 8-inch howitzers to take out enemy guns. The Vietcong wanted to hit the American guns just as bad, though.
“There were some scary times,” he said matter-of-factly. “But at the same time, you’re a soldier. You expect to have those scary times. You signed up for it, so you accept the orders and go. That’s just the way it is.”
The orders were to keep the men fed. When people think of modern Army food, most tend to think of MREs, or meals ready to eat, packages that require little preparation or expertise. But Cossel worked mainly with raw ingredients. It was serious work. He didn’t just want the soldiers to be fed — he wanted them to enjoy what they were eating.
“To me, taste was always important because I felt like those guys deserve as good a meal as I can possibly prepare,” he said. “Given what I had to work with, I wanted that meal to taste right.”
That often involved some creative thinking while in the field. Shipments got lost. Food didn’t show up. It was a challenge, but one Cossel relished.
One such occasion left Cossel with cans of tomatoes, green beans and carrots. Alone, they wouldn’t taste very good, but he mixed them together and used some beef base and onions. When the troops came back for dinner, they weren’t quite sure of the concoction Cossel had created.
“I said, ‘That’s a vegetable medley. You’d pay a lot of money for that,’” he said. “They loved it! You just had to be creative with what you did.”
Cossel would sometimes take C-ration peanut butter and chocolate cake mix to create chocolate-peanut butter cookies. One time he received unripened tomatoes, but he had powdered eggs and flour, so the soldiers ate fried green tomatoes that night.
After his tour ended, he returned to Texas at Fort Hood. He and his wife then went to Germany, followed by Fort Dix in New Jersey and then Alaska, where he retired in 1986.
Cossel served as a drill sergeant while in New Jersey. He said it was tough on a family man because he spent so much time with the young troops, but it was one of his favorite, most rewarding times during his military service.
“You see kids come down, little smart-mouthed kids,” he said. “And when he leaves, he’s a well-trained young soldier ready to move onto the next phase of his training.”
But, like always, Cossel and his family moved on from New Jersey. Moving and family are consistent themes for the Cossel clan. He and his wife had five children, and now they have eight grandchildren. Needless to say, moving became second nature — and made for a unique childhood for his kids.
“Not too many kids today can say they camped out from New Jersey all the way to Washington state, and from Alaska all the way down to Texas,” he said. “That’s a camping trip!”
It was the same tight-knit family, unsurprisingly, that led Cossel to Sheridan three years ago. After four of his five children moved to town, he got a call pointing out he and his wife were both retired, so it was time to move.
Nowadays, Cossel’s family keeps him plenty busy. He still loves to cook, and he’s passing his skills down to his grandchildren — and some of them are getting pretty good, too, a point he notes with undeniable satisfaction. He also delivers newspapers and sometimes cleans carpets.
More time with the family has been great, but Cossel wouldn’t trade his military service for anything. He talks with pride about how he saw parts of the world that, as a small-town kid from Kansas, he never thought he’d visit. He grew up fast and turned the Army into a career.
“Even, like in Vietnam, with the adverse conditions, still there is that opportunity to learn about other people and the way they live,” he said. “For me, it was a great opportunity, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”