- Road Trip Class
Through The Eyes of Ray Cobb
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
By Roselyn Pickens
MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
Ray Cobb is a natural storyteller. As a photojournalist who’s traveled the country on assignments, he captured many stories on film and he also has collected many stories to tell.
Cobb began developing his eye for framing the 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 excited to be on the sidelines with the players. One photo turned to many, and he knew that he had found his talent. Taking pictures led Cobb on the journey of a lifetime.
He was working as a photographer for at the Austin American Statesman assigned to cover President Lyndon B. Johnson when he was drafted into the Army. Cobb’s orders kept him behind a camera lens during his service at Army posts in America. He shot hundreds of award ceremonies, base events and at Fort McClellan one unfortunate day in 1969, he was assigned to photograph a field that was being sprayed with a defoliant that would soon be used in the jungles of Vietnam as part of the Army’s herbicidal warfare.
The substance that rained down on him was Agent Orange, a known carcinogen, which also causes diabetes and other health issues.
“My pants were soaked from the knees down 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 also covered the Texas State Legislature and sports at the University of Texas. He later went on to work for The Tennessee Department of Tourism covering Gov. Ray Blanton. This assignment afforded him the opportunity to take photos of many celebrities such as Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, and Charlie Daniels. His love of sports photography led to formation of the Tennessee Sports Photography Company in 1996 and traveled the southeast photographing the Tennessee Titans, the Atlanta Braves and served as photography manager in charge of the aquatic center at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
His lens captured the harsher side of reality as he photographed the riots at the dedication of the LBJ library. A photo that won the prestigious Headliner Award shows a boy running away from Ted Kennedy’s car as the shadow of a long arm with a baton in hand predicts an inevitable beating.
“They popped the kid’s eyes out when that baton cracked across his head,” Cobb remembered.
The debilitating effect of Agent Orange exposure caught up to Cobb in age 58, prematurely cutting short his journalism career. The first symptom was the onset of diabetes in 2006. His blood sugar level reached dangerous territory and remains difficult to control because of the chemical’s effects on his body. Neuropathy in his lower extremities causes pain and limits his mobility. He’s lost much of feeling in his knees, back and hands, robbing him of the ability to cook and even to test the temperature of bath water. He’s blind in his left eye and his kidneys are failing, meaning dialysis will be required 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 connect his exposure to Agent Orange to his health problems. He was relieved when a letter telling him he was approved for medical and other disability benefits came in the mail.
“Finally, they believe me,” Cobb said.
Cobb’s frustrating experience fighting the government led to him being well versed in Code 38CFR, the federal regulations that pertain to disability benefits for veterans. Cobb has helped more than 800 other veterans navigate the confusing process.
“You know how sometimes you find yourself in the right place at the right time?” Cobb asked. He recalled eating out with his wife, Pam, and overheard a veteran telling a friend about the complexities of filing for disabilities. Cobb offered the man information. Three days later that veteran had a heart attack. With Cobb’s assistance he was able to obtain medical and monetary benefits he needed.
“You change someone’s life and make it better,” Cobb said.
Roselyn Pickens is one of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.