Cooper was in the Air Force working as a crash rescue firefighter in Pleiku, Vietnam, in 1970 when he was 19. He was fighting a fire caused by a mortar round hitting a carbon dioxide cylinder. He said he didn’t know what hit him, but he was suddenly blown backward. He regained his composure and continued fighting the fire.
Doctors later discovered Cooper’s lower back had been crushed and they offered him a medical discharge. He declined and took a transfer to the information field at Itazuke Air Force Base in Japan. He served there for a year, working as a radio broadcaster before he transferred to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina.
Cooper has always been a singer, songwriter and musician. He worked a little as an actor. He owned a real estate company in Bellingham and a log-home building business in Des Moines. He has undergone 20 surgeries, including six on his leg and a dozen on his spine. His right leg has extensive nerve damage. He finally accepted permanent disability status in 1995, retroactive to 1992.
Last year, his leg became infected and the infection spread throughout his body. “For eight months, I was always recovering, never healing,” he said. “They wanted to amputate the leg. They were fighting to save my life.” The doctors saved his leg, now fused at the knee. “It doesn’t bend,” he said.
Cooper had heard about the Trac Fab power chair and applied to the Hotes Foundation. He saw an opportunity to get outdoors again. He was chosen because he met the criteria: “100 percent disabled, a service-connected injury, service in Vietnam. They vet carefully, using documented, verifiable evidence,” he said.
When the chair was delivered in September, “it gave me a grin from ear to ear,” Cooper said. “It is so important for mobility. The tracks will let me do something constructive; to participate and not be isolated. I want to enjoy my property.” He had a vision of working on his place and landscaping, but his shop was burglarized earlier this summer. Thieves stole all of his power tools, electric screwdrivers, staple gun, nail guns and a 100-pound winch.
Not discouraged, Cooper said, “I use the tools the VA gave me to deal with it, taking the negative and turning it into a positive. When I was in the hospital, I was an advocate for other hospitalized veterans. I want them to know there are resources to help them overcome their adversity.”
Cooper suffers from severe and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, which he said is prevalent in former service members. “Twenty veterans every day commit suicide,” he said.
Born in the U.S. of Canadian parents, Cooper said he was raised to give back to his country without depending on the government. But he said he would stand up for the rights he earned and wants to help other veterans get the help they need. “Don’t let pride be confused with stubborn,” he said. “These are benefits to improve the quality of life.”
Cooper’s wife, Carolyn, said his experience in the VA Hospital was “a huge eye opener. Don’t give up,” she said.
Cooper qualified for a home improvements and structural alterations grant for injured service members to remodel his bathroom to make it handicap accessible. The VA also installed a wheelchair ramp entry to his waterfront deck in Lakebay on Carr Inlet, across from Kopachuck State Park. “It’s an uphill battle. Reaching out allows me to do some things I could not otherwise do,” he said.