American Legion Station 44 Commander Ray Cobb is a natural storyteller. As a photojournalist who traveled the country on a mission, he captured many stories on film and he also collected many stories to tell.
Cobb began developing his eye for framing action through a lens when he was in fifth grade. A photographer taking pictures of a football game at his local school in Tullahoma asked if he wanted to take a picture.
Cobb loves football and was delighted to be on the sidelines with the players. One photo turned into several, and he knew he had found his talent. Taking pictures led Cobb on the journey of a lifetime.
He worked as a photographer for the Austin American Statesman assigned to cover for President Lyndon B. Johnson before being drafted into the military.
Cobb’s orders kept him behind a camera lens during his service in Army posts in America. He shot hundreds of award ceremonies, grassroots events and at Fort McClellan one unfortunate day in 1969 he was tasked with photographing a field that was being sprayed with a defoliant that would soon be used in the jungles of the Vietnam as part of the Army Herbicide War. .
The substance raining down on him was Agent Orange, a known carcinogen that also causes diabetes and other health problems.
“My pants were soaked to the knees and my shoes were covered in an oily film,” Cobb recalled.
After his military discharge, Cobb returned to the Austin American Statesman, again reassigned to President Johnson, this time covering his retirement. He has also covered the Texas State Legislature and sports at the University of Texas.
His lens captured the harsher side of reality as he photographed the riots at the grand opening of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas in 1971. A photo that won the prestigious Headliner Award shows a boy fleeing Ted Kennedy’s car as the shadow of a long arm with a stick in his hand predicts an inevitable beating.
“They gouged out the kid’s eyes when that stick cracked on his head,” Cobb recalled.
He then worked for the Tennessee Department of Tourism, covering for Governor Ray Blanton. This mission allowed him to photograph many celebrities such as Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and Charlie Daniels.
His love of sports photography led him to form the Tennessee Sports Photography Company in 1996 and he traveled the Southeast photographing the Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Braves and as head of photography in charge of the aquatic center at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
The debilitating effect of exposure to Agent Orange caught up with Cobb at age 58, prematurely cutting short his career as a journalist.
The first symptom was the onset of diabetes in 2006. His blood sugar level reached dangerous territory and remains difficult to control due to the effects of the chemical on his body.
The neuropathy in his lower limbs causes pain and limits his mobility. He lost much of the sensation in his knees, back and hands, depriving him of the ability to cook and even test the temperature of bath water. He is blind in his left eye and his kidneys are failing, meaning he will need dialysis at some point.
Cobb said it took him eight years of wrangling with government bureaucracy to receive benefits. The burden of proof was on Cobb to link his exposure to Agent Orange to his health issues. He was relieved when a letter telling him he was approved for medical and other disability benefits arrived in the mail.
“Finally, they believe me,” Cobb said.
Cobb’s frustrating experience battling the government has made him well-versed in Code 38CFR, the federal regulations for veterans’ disability benefits. Cobb has helped more than 800 other veterans navigate this confusing process.
“You know how sometimes you end up in the right place at the right time?” Cobb asked. He remembers eating at a restaurant with his wife, Pam, and overhearing a veteran talking to a friend about the complexity of applying for a disability.
Cobb offered information to the man. Three days later, this veteran had a heart attack. With Cobb’s help, he was able to get the medical and monetary benefits he needed.
“You change someone’s life and make it better,” Cobb said.
Roselyn Pickens is one of nine journalism students from Middle Tennessee State University who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.