To hell and back

Diane Cox in front of the mural she designed
Diane Cox in front of the mural she designed (photo by Leo Gonzalez)

Diane Cox returns to TWU on her terms

Feb. 26, 2024 – DENTON – Diane Cox doesn't strike you as someone who has been through tribulations that would break most people.

She's very pleasant, friendly, outgoing. There is no telltale bitterness in her countenance, no anger or frustration in her manner. Determined? Yes. Resilient? Absolutely. Tough? As nails.

But though she's a little more mature than most of her classmates, she's having fun being just another visual arts student at Texas Woman's University. A student who was born in abject poverty, divorced twice, spent a decade pursuing an education while raising four children without alimony or child support, earned a nursing degree from TWU at age 38, joined the U.S. Air Force at 42, survived cancer, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, was a flight commander at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and endured 75 days of enemy artillery bombardment.

Calling Cox a survivor seems so… inadequate. To borrow a Marine mantra, she improvised, adapted and overcame. Cox is self-made, brick by fire-baked brick.

"All of these events in my life brought me where I am now," she said. She shrugs and smiles. "Not bad. Life experience teaches you a lot."

Volumes, one could say.

Six hundred days after retiring from the Air Force – after completing 20 years of service – Cox is in the sophomore year of her second enrollment at TWU.

"I find her to be really fun, and it's been really exciting," said Lacy Franklin, Cox's advisor in the Visual Arts department. "This is such a passion for her. She has so many options right in front of her. You can hear that in her voice whenever I'm advising her. She's just so excited. And I work with students who have graduated and then come back, but not to this extent where they express that this is like a dream to pursue an art degree, and that's what makes it extremely special."

"She's an amazing human being," said Visual Arts professor Giovanni Valderas. "It's been a joy getting to know her. We're lucky because she could have gone anywhere, but that she came to TWU is so great. If any student gets to know Diane, those lessons she's learned will translate to our students. In some ways, she becomes a de facto mentor. I don't know if she knows that or not."

Cox's journey began in Oklahoma City.

"I come from a very poor family," she said. "There were times we did not have running water and there was an outside toilet." Moving into a trailer park was a move up.

She married and had four children, three boys and a girl. But her husband's family, in which everyone had college degrees, got her to consider her own schooling which had ended with high school graduation.

"I started thinking, 'you really need to do this,' but I had no confidence," Cox said. "I was just like, I can't do this." She was living in Colorado, and a visit to a local community college confirmed her fears. "On one of the bulletin boards they had a quadratic equation. I looked at that thing and just burst into tears and walked out the door."

But furthering her education went from ambition to necessity.

"It came down to paying the bills," she said. "My spouse and I divorced. That was a motivator. I knew long before the divorce took place that I had to get a game plan together, and I wasn't going to put my children in a position that would take away from them. I didn't get alimony or child support. Never saw a dime. So that made things really tough because I had been poor. I mean, like, really poor, but my kids had never been poor."

Unfortunately, at 28 years of age and a decade after graduating high school, Cox was ill prepared for post-secondary education. She took prerequisite exams at a community college to see where she stood. The results were discouraging.

"They said, 'Oh, you're going to have to go back and do all kinds of stuff,'" Cox recalled. "So I went back and redid all the math, all the science. I was a full-time mom raising my kids, and I just started taking a class each semester. I had to go back to probably seventh- or eighth-grade-level math, take all of that over again to get to the point where I could do college-level math. I was always in the math lab with a tutor because it's just not my skill set. I was also doing science, chemistry. 'God almighty, why am I doing this?' But I really wanted to do something more with my life."

Lieutenant colonel Diane Cox in Afghanistan
Lieutenant colonel Diane Cox in Afghanistan in 2019.

After passing the prerequisites, she considered her options and flirted briefly with pursuing an art degree.

"I took a semester and thought, no, this isn't going to work," Cox said. "I'd starve. I love art, don't get me wrong, but you have to be realistic."

Ultimately, she choose TWU's college of nursing. But just getting into the program was difficult and required exemplary grades.

"That was tough because you needed about a 4.0 walking in the door at TWU," Cox said. "I had one B on my transcript and they looked at that hard. It's one B in English 101. Everything else was good. Then you had to interview with the dean. It was as arduous as getting into the military. It was highly competitive.

"I have nothing but high praise for the nursing program here. The professors were tough, but they knew what I was going to step into and I didn't. So I was very grateful that they were really hard. They'd always ask the questions they knew you didn't know and then ask you why don't you know it? I had to knuckle down. I moved into a tiny apartment and knocked it out."

Finally, at age 38, Cox graduated from TWU with a bachelor of science in nursing. It had been 10 years from the time she began taking those prerequisite courses to her college graduation in Denton.

"I don't know what made me decide to go for a bachelor's when I was terrified to even step into a community college," Cox said. "I tend to bite off more than I think I can chew but I usually get there. I have no regret. I'd do it all over again."

With degree in hand, she worked for Parkland Hospital in downtown Dallas, "which is a rough place for a new nurse," she said. "Really rough."

In the meantime, Cox's children, who stuck by her while she pursued her education, were beginning to make their own way in the world.

"Two of them went into the military," Cox said. "The oldest never got a degree, but he's super smart, he's had his own business. He's done a million things. He doesn't need a degree. And then two of them went to TWU. My son Sean is a professor at UNT Dallas, teaching political science. My daughter got a sociology degree and Sean got his master's here. It turned out all right."

With her children secure, Cox tackled another change of direction. A friend suggested joining the Air Force, an idea Cox initially rejected. But closer examination revealed the long-term benefits, including retirement, medical and dental, and travel. So in 2002, at age 42, Cox enlisted.

Joining the military, however, was no easier than getting into college.

"It took six months to get into the military," Cox said. "Fill out applications, and you had to write a paper about why you wanted to join the military. If you got past that, then you had to go to Wichita Falls, Texas, and interview with a full-bird colonel. I didn't know what a full-bird colonel was. I didn't know who I was talking to. I got through that, and then I got a letter of acceptance, packed up everything I owned, went to Alabama, went to commissioned officer training school for a month and played in the dirt and contemplated.

"They had you contemplate the blue line," she said. "Every time you stop on campus, you go up to the blue line. You have to stop, come to attention, look at that blue line, think about why you were in the Air Force and why you were joining, why you were an officer. Do cadence and the marching stuff and all that. I was just like, 'What have I done?' But that was only a month, and that really wasn't much."

The demands to come, however, were brutal. "You better be stellar, or they'll just say, thanks, it's been nice, out you go," Cox said. "But they can also be very kind. When I was 47, I came down with breast cancer. Normally they just say thank you for your service and out the door you go. But they paid for my treatment. I never lost a penny during all of my treatment. When I got done, I had to meet a board. When you meet a board, you're in your service dress uniform and you've got your attorney with you, and you have to tell them why they need to keep you. I just looked at them and said, 'I just want to have a bad day in the ER. That's all I want. I want my life back.' I was very convincing."

A blast wall in Afghanistan painted with the Grim Reaper being stopped in his tracks.
A blast wall in Afghanistan painted with the Grim Reaper being stopped in his tracks.

The board's response: for five years, Cox's condition would be monitored every 18 months.

"I said, 'We all know you're looking to see if I'm going to live or die, so I get that. So just let me go back to work. I don't want to sit at home for five years. Just let me go back to work and I'll see you on the other side.' And I made it. They took care of all of that. I really felt like I owed them an awful lot because they could have said bye, and they didn't."

Cox's value to the Air Force had also dramatically increased. She had risen to lieutenant colonel, one step below colonel (also known as full-bird colonel due to the rank's insignia, an eagle holding an olive branch and a bundle of arrows) and just two steps below general. She also had experience as a flight commander at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

"It turned out to be the best assignment," Cox said. "I lived right on the coast. It was beautiful. Beautiful, except for hurricanes. That's a downside, I guess."

There were no hurricanes where she was headed next, but the destination's danger was at an exponentially higher level: Afghanistan.

Cox was in charge of the emergency room in a war zone meat grinder: the ER at Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Air Base, approximately 40 kilometers north of Kabul.

Afghanistan has inflicted countless casualties on armies through most of recorded history, from Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. to the Russians in the 1980s to the coalition forces fighting terrorists and the Taliban in 2001-2021. From April to October 2019, it was the job of Cox and her team to save as many casualties as possible, regardless if they were soldiers or civilians, regardless of which side they were on.

Trauma cases were never in short supply.

"It never scared me," Cox said. "It never made me queasy, so I knew I would probably be a good fit for trauma because you've really got to be able to see things that a lot of people don't see and you can't un-see. I mean, I went to Afghanistan, saw unbelievable things and came back. I've never had a nightmare. I think about it on occasion, but it doesn't trouble me, because you have a job, you're in a different frame of mind. That may sound a little cold, but there are reasons.

"They have surgeons called trauma czars," she explained. "They go into surgery and they cut things off of people and they're quick about it, but your whole idea is to save their life, so you understand what you're doing and why you're doing it and just get it done. Really, the only time I ever had problems was when it was children or young people, young soldiers."

What really struck Cox was the effort the military made to save lives.

"They will move heaven and earth to save somebody, a soldier, an airman," she said. "They'll spend any amount of money to save someone. That's something I'm really proud to be a part of. Very few people understand what it is to be in the military, to serve in the military. You work with the best people on the planet. You really do. You work with people who understand what integrity is all about, what it means to be in a team, what it means to do what's right because it's the right thing to do. Not convenient or easy, but because it's right. You really work with people who are just phenomenal."

Cox was in charge of a team of approximately 60 doctors, nurses, techs and administrators, making sure everyone was doing their job, doing inspections and going to endless meetings. "Kicking the same can down the road," she said.

Morale was also high on her list of priorities. But one morale builder ran afoul of a visiting four-star general accompanied by a group of journalists.

Due to the intense heat, in the ER Cox and her staff wore headbands, which they had had embroidered with "Good Guys."

"Some little four-star general's there, and we're all working and the news reporters are there. We're in our headbands, and we're so proud of ourselves. That night, our colonel came around and said, 'You got to ditch the headband.'

"I said, 'What's going on?' 'Well, general so-and-so said that he thought that it meant that we didn't take care of the bad guys.' I said, 'Don't we take care of ISIS people when they come in? Do we not render care to everybody? My God, can't you be a good guy for patching people up?' I just went off. He said, 'I understand. Take it off.'"

So much for wearing the Good Guys headbands. But they pushed a little further and put one on a teddy bear in the facility.

"And our colonel came in, and he goes, 'What is that?' I said, 'What's what?' I knew exactly what. I said, 'Come on, you've got to give us a little bit of wiggle room here because that's bulls*** and you know it.' He goes, 'It's also a four-star general.' I said, 'Is he here? Who gives a f*** what some reporter back in the world says?" He let us have that because it was for morale."

Diane Cox's painting of Alfred E. Neuman in Afghanistan.
Diane Cox's painting of Alfred E. Neuman in Afghanistan.

Morale, however, didn't offset the conditions, which were dreadful.

"We did not sleep," she said. "We were getting bombed all the time. For the six months I was there, 75 days we were bombed. They didn't just lob one over, it was rapid fire. So you'd be in the trauma bay trying to take care of patients, and then they'd sound the sirens and depending upon who we were taking care of, you'd have to leave and get out in the hall because the bay wasn't reinforced. It was just a bunch of trailers that they stuck together and made into a trauma bay.

"We had the Iron Dome, the same defense system Israel has. And if somebody lobbed in underneath it, there were human beings there to intercept. Now, they didn't get them all, but they got the majority of them. There were times when it made contact and the ground shook. They made sure we were tired, that we never slept. They were very good at that."

There were blast walls all around the compound, and units were allowed to decorate them. Cox's unit painted a scene of the Grim Reaper being stopped in his tracks, with the words "Not Today!" painted above the scene. Cox also contributed to the camp's decorations with a depiction of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman wearing a Good Guy headband.

If the staggering amount of bloodshed and the incoming artillery weren't enough, there was the food.

"The food was awful," Cox said. "I lost 15 pounds in six months. My uniform was hanging off me. Chicken was a regular thing, but oftentimes the chicken still had feathers stuck to it. So I lived off of yogurt, bagels and peanut butter and the packages that people sent us from the states. It was just awful."

Cox retired from the Air Force on June 30, 2022, but she maintains contact with those with whom she served.

"You build relationships that you keep for a lifetime. It's a bond you never, ever lose. It was a great experience. It made me a better person. It forces you to be a better person so you don't go to all that trouble and do all that nursing stuff to go in there and fail."

Back stateside, Cox began settling into civilian life. Her children had children of their own, who call their grandmother Gigi. Having put in her 20 years, she has her Air Force pension so need never work again. She bought a condo in Dallas and got a puppy. She's also considering doing some traveling. Perhaps Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea and Europe.

"Adjusting to civilian life has been quite a thing," she said. "When you have rank, the world parts for you. Every time you walk by somebody who is of lower rank, which is just about everybody, they have to salute you and you have to salute back. Can I just get to my office? I get the reason for it, but I did not like that kind of attention. When I was back on the base and wasn't in my uniform with my rank, it felt good to walk by people and not have to engage with them. But now people look at you like you're just an old lady."

Woe to anyone who underestimates this "old lady."

Cox has also resumed pursuit of that art degree she started more than 25 years ago. She enrolled again at TWU, and because she already has a degree, she does not need to take the introductory classes outside of her major like math, science, history and English typically required of first- and second-year students. She's gone straight to her art classes, and was part of the team that created the mural on the side of the building at the corner of Third Street and Oakland. Cox designed the mural called Your Dream, Your Legacy.

She's also doing her own art.

"I enjoy painting and drawing," Cox said. "Mixed media art is really what I'm best at. Because I just don't want to paint a landscape and I don't want to just do watercolor or just do oil. I like to throw it all together and see what comes up."

"Diane is definitely in that spot where she's focused on the work because she doesn't really have anything to worry about, which is a good spot to be in," Valderas said. "Now she can be creative and not worry about the stresses of life. I mean, she's paid her dues."

As for her illness, Cox has been cancer free for 17 years.

"Sometimes I think, are you sure about all this?" she said. "Makes me nervous, because you're always, well, what's going to happen next? I mean, you get a little uncomfortable with being so comfortable. It seems a little quiet, almost too quiet. Wonder what's going to happen next.

"Life always happens."

Diane Cox's artwork

Diane Cox's painting of a bird
Diane Cox's painting of van Gogh
Diane Cox's painting, Stuff
Diane Cox's painting of a bird
Diane Cox's painting of a face

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Page last updated 12:08 PM, February 25, 2024