Much of Cobra Commander's early origins, such as his birth name and childhood, are unrevealed. By all appearances he was born an American citizen sometime in the mid-twentieth century, his only known relative an older brother named Dan to which he had a strong attachment. Dan enlisted in the military during the Vietnam War and volunteered for repeated tours in order to spare his younger sibling from being drafted (federal policy being that only one sibling per family could serve in combat).
During this time, the man who would become Cobra Commander worked as a used car salesman struggling to keep his business afloat. When Dan returned from Vietnam, he displayed deep psychological trauma caused by his war experiences, and took to drinking heavily and engaging in self-destructive behavior, especially reckless driving. This ended tragically when Dan crashed head-on into another car, killing himself and a family of three. Devastated by the loss of his brother, the future Cobra Commander refused to see any responsibility on the part of Dan for the accident (and by extension, any guilt for himself for being the ultimate cause of Dan's condition). He perversely blamed the family in the other car and their only survivor, another war veteran who the family had been traveling to the airport to pick-up when they were killed by Dan. Becoming obsessed with this soldier, the young Cobra Commander formed elaborate revenge schemes against him.
Cobra Commander managed to track the former soldier to Japan, where he was training to become a member of the Arashikage ninja clan. The Commander approached the mercenary Firefly for the job, but Firefly realized he was no match for the target and instead referenced Cobra Commander to another assassin, Zartan, who took the job and infiltrated the clan. Zartan retrieved a personal arrow shot by Storm Shadow to serve as the murder weapon and conceal his involvement. Forced to shoot blind, Zartan used a sound amplification scope to target his victim's distinctive heartbeat. However, at that moment the soldier was meeting with Storm Shadow's uncle, the Hard Master, who was demonstrating a secret technique to mimic the soldier's distinctive heartbeat. As both the true target and the Hard Master were obscured from Zartan's vision, the Hard Master was mistakenly stricken and killed by the arrow. Though Storm Shadow saw Zartan fleeing the scene, no one else did. Storm Shadow was blamed for the murder and fled in search of the killer. The soldier eventually left the ninja clan to live in seclusion in the Sierra Nevada mountains, until enticed to return to service on the G.I. Joe team as Snake Eyes.
Cobra Commander attempted to resume his domestic life, returning to his wife and newborn son Billy. However, when his wife found out what had happened in Japan, she threatened to go to the authorities. Denouncing her perceived betrayal, Cobra Commander abandoned his wife and took Billy with him. Living on the road and earning a living by increasingly illicit scams and con jobs, the soon-to-be Commander became egotistical yet paranoid, blaming all his problems on what he perceived as the corrupt American system that always crushed the little guy, and began to harbor great ambitions of wreaking vengeance upon it. He traveled across America with Billy, seeking out people who shared his desire to topple big business and the government, using money earned from pyramid schemes to attract followers. It was during these early meetings that he first began wearing a blue hood to mask his civilian identity.