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UT Tower hero can't forget

This story originally was published on Oct. 25, 1999.

The $286 monthly check for former Austin cop Houston McCoy is due any day now.

It won't buy much, but to McCoy, the government stipend represents more than purchasing power. It is an acknowledgement that at least some of the problems he's wrestled with for the past 33 years have a rational basis.

Since Aug. 1, 1966, when he and fellow officer Ramiro Martinez rode to the top of the University of Texas Tower and shot sniper Charles Whitman, McCoy has endured visions of trying to escape a river of blood and other nightmares.

It began within months of that fatal day, when Whitman used a high-powered rifle to kill 14 people and wound another 31 from his perch 231 feet above the UT campus. The 99-minute massacre ended when Martinez stepped around a corner of the Tower observation deck and emptied his revolver at Whitman, while McCoy fired the lethal 12-gauge shotgun blast to the sniper's head.

The ensuing years brought fame to Martinez, who was depicted in a 1975 movie, "The Deadly Tower," as the sole hero who single-handedly stopped Whitman while another officer, ostensibly McCoy, stands passively behind him holding a shotgun. Martinez served a distinguished career as a Texas Ranger before retiring in 1994 and winning election as a justice of the peace in New Braunfels, where he still lives.

Both McCoy and Martinez were presented the Austin Police Department Medal of Valor.

But McCoy, 26 at the time of the shootings, became an alcoholic, drifting in and out of rehabilitation programs. Except for a 12-year stint managing a Boy Scout camp in West Texas, he hasn't been able to hold a job.

"I've had lots of dreams, nightmares," McCoy, now 59, said recently from the rural home near Waco that he shares with a son. "The worst one is where I'm swimming in a river that's turning bloody, and over on the bank there's a short concrete wall, and next to that is a tall concrete wall.

"I swim over and climb the short wall and find myself in a river that's all blood, all red," he said. "So I swim over to the tall wall, and I look over, and there's green grass on the other side. But I can't get my leg over that wall."

Beginning in the 1970s, McCoy would discuss his sleepless nights with friends, most of them colleagues, including retired Austin police officer Burt cq Gerding, who had spent the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1966, firing at Whitman from atop a nearby building.

"I was there when Houston came down from the Tower, and he was white as a sheet and sweating," the 72-year-old Gerding recalled. "I think his drinking and a lot of his other problems started that day."

After years of living on a $47-a-month pension from the Boy Scout camp, drifting between the homes of his sons, going through a divorce and being arrested for drunken driving, McCoy met a Milwaukee free-lance writer named John Moore, who began trying to get financial compensation for McCoy. Moore's attempt earlier this year to get the City of Austin to give McCoy an honorary pension was rejected.

"Houston McCoy was a fine officer who served his community well," Police Chief Stan Knee said last week. "However, because the police retirement system is not a part of the Police Department, the department unfortunately has no authority to grant Mr. McCoy an honorary pension."

Last summer, Moore persuaded McCoy, an Air Force veteran, to begin counseling with Ellen Mink, a psychologist at the Veterans Affairs mental-health clinic in Waco. After weeks of listening to McCoy describe flashbacks, Mink diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

The disorder affects people who have been confronted with death or the threat of death, Mink said last week from her office. "It causes people like Mr. McCoy to persistently re-experience the traumatic event," she said. ". . . It caused him to isolate himself from his family, even though his family is extremely important to him."

McCoy takes comfort in the fact that his problem has been explained, but he remains bewildered by the diagnosis.

"I always thought something like that happens only to soldiers, guys like in World War II, who have been weeks or months in combat," he said last week. "I only went through about two hours of it at the Tower." The diagnosis, along with testimony from his former wife and friends who saw him in the throes of the Tower flashbacks, persuaded an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration's Dallas office to find him eligible at a Sept. 17 hearing for the $286-a-month disability payment.

"It's not a lot, but it will help me pay my son for letting me stay with him," McCoy said. "That's really the only reason I ever wanted anything like that since the Tower. I just want to give something back to my kids."

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