FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Staff Sergeant Noah Cole has served in the Army for nine years and planned on many more until a severe case of COVID-19 left him with likely permanent asthma, lung damage and rib pain.
Cole, assigned to 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), is expecting results from a medical evaluation within the next six to nine months.
He already knows he can never be an infantryman again and will likely have to leave the Army. In the meantime, Cole is sharing his experience with Soldiers across Fort Campbell and encouraging them to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I got the vaccine because I don’t want to potentially catch COVID-19 again,” he said. “The doctors told me that if I do, it’s a high probability that I’m going to die. My wife is pregnant right now, so I got vaccinated to mitigate the chances of me contracting it and bringing it home to her.”
Cole was exposed to the virus in August 2020 while on a rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center-Fort Polk, Louisiana and went into quarantine after testing positive later that month.
“When I was in isolation on the third day, that’s when I felt like death,” he said. “I had really bad flu-like symptoms – coughing really bad, coughing up blood, pain in the chest and lungs, body aches. That lasted for a day and a half, then it all stopped.”
After most of his symptoms faded and enough time had passed for him to leave quarantine, Cole was ready to get back to being a Soldier. He thought the worst was over, but his continued pain and shortness of breath became too much to ignore.
“I was doing normal [physical training] after JRTC, and I thought at first that I was just out of shape because we’d been in the field for 30 days,” Cole said. “But it went on for about a month and I thought, ‘I’m not getting back into shape, I can’t breathe.’ I started going to doctors about it, and that’s when they told me I had all these things wrong with me.”
Until he contracted COVID-19, Cole was in good health and had no preexisting conditions. Now he has an immunodeficiency and constant pain that doctors attributed to long-term effects from the virus.
“I have extreme shortness of breath, even doing simple things,” Cole said. “Walking up a flight of stairs, walking with my Family or playing with my dogs. I can’t do cardio for an extended period of time because it’ll make me pass out, my lungs hurt and I have rib pain almost 24/7.”
Along with those physical struggles, Cole had to come to terms with the fact that he could no longer serve the Army in a combat role – the entire reason he enlisted.
“When they first told me, it hit me pretty hard and affected my mental health a lot,” he said. “At this point, I’ve just accepted what’s going to happen, and I need to move on with my life and figure out what I’m going to do after the Army.”
That represents a significant turning point for Cole, who joined the Army shortly after graduating from high school and working various jobs in the restaurant business. He started his career at Fort Campbell and spent three years in Vilseck, Germany, before returning stateside. He also has deployed on a combat mission in Afghanistan and peacekeeping mission in Egypt.
“I have an extreme sense of pride in what I do,” Cole said. “I love being an infantryman, and the past couple of years have been extremely rewarding, just influencing younger Soldiers to continue their careers and watching them progress from private to sergeant.”
Working with Soldiers has been Cole’s strongest coping mechanism since COVID-19 sidelined him, and he began speaking to battalions about his experience in April after vaccines became widely available on post.
“I’ll talk with them about everything I’ve been going through, what I’ve been diagnosed with and why I believe personally that they should get the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. “The biggest thing I like to tell people is you’re not really doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for others, and it’s something I want them to think about prior to them getting the vaccine.”
Cole’s speaking engagements highlight how the virus can impact young, healthy Soldiers as much as people in high-risk groups, and he hopes to inspire them to protect themselves and their Families through vaccination.
“Since I can’t do the job that I was doing before, I feel that as long as I’m having an impact on Soldiers and their decision-making process, I’m maintaining an impact in the Army,” he said. “I want to get the point across that this can happen to you … I don’t want people to end up like me, because to be honest, I’m miserable on a daily basis.”