09 May 2007

Into the light: A wounded Marine and his Vietnam Veteran father

I've never written about Josh Cooley, but not a day has passed since July 7, 2005 that I haven't thought about him.

That was the day I received an email from Sandy Gay, whose husband Norman worked with Josh at the Pasco, FL Sheriff's Office. Josh had been hurt in Iraq two days before. It was bad, and his wife and mother were flying to Germany on orders.

Josh had always thought about joining the military. After all, the Cooley men have served since the Battle of Bull Run. Josh's grandfather was a Marine, as was his father Ed. And his two older brothers served with the Corps in the first Gulf War.

But Ed and his mother Christine didn't want Josh to follow in their footsteps. He went into law enforcement instead, where he became a sniper with the Paco Sheriff's Office SWAT team.

Until 9/11.

Ed tried to talk Josh out of it, although the circumstances must have been familiar to him. Ed had enlisted as soon as he could after his 18-year-old cousin, Edward Monahan Jr., was killed in South Vietnam in 1965.

Wounded near Da Nang in May of 1968, Ed's real injuries were inflicted later.

When Christine had to pay her own way to visit him in Hawaii where he had been medevac'd. When he got back home and was called a baby killer. When he was pelted with eggs. When the military sent his Purple Heart and other decorations via Parcel Post several years after he had left the service.

But after Josh's injury, Ed's wounds started to heal along with his son's.

When he found out the CINC was going to award Josh the Purple Heart, there was a lot Ed wanted to say. And he wanted to make sure he got it right. So he composed a letter:

“When I was notified you were coming today to present my son with the Purple Heart I thought, ‘This is different, but also the way it should be,’ I myself served in Vietnam... upon return I was not treated well by the military or our country.”

“As I stand here today watching you honor my son as well as the other soldiers of our country, I have nothing but pride, honor, and yes dignity, too.

“Not only have you honored my son but you have also healed some old wounds as well.”

And this too, was as it should be:

As Bush read, his eyes got wet. He pulled out his handkerchief and turned away from the cameras. [He then turned back] to Ed and called him a hero.

“I’m sorry it was never said to you before,” the president said, “but thank you for serving our country.”

Then he hugged the old veteran so tightly that Ed thought Secret Service agents standing nearby might intervene. He felt a 36-year burden lift as he hesitantly returned the embrace.

Fast forward to November 11, 2006 at the Tampa Convention Center. The 231st birthday of Marine Corps and the largest reunion of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion in three years.

17 months after being gravely wounded by a car bomb near Hit, Iraq, Cpl Josh Cooley was there.

Word of Josh's arrival quickly spread to his platoon mates. They crowded him in excitement. Then the reality of his condition and the memory of the bomb's billowing smoke hit, and several went outside to compose themselves. ( ... )

A hush fell over the ballroom as Maj. John Wright spoke the names of each of the battalion's dead and wounded. He saved one name in particular for last.

"And with great pleasure - as a goal we set last year has been fulfilled - one of our own, Josh Cooley."

Two hundred Marines sprang to their feet. They clapped and whistled and whooped their guttural cry.

"Ooh-rah! Ooh-rah!"

Josh stared straight ahead, his mouth curved in a half-smile.

During the first weeks the doctors had agonized about the multiple surgeries Josh would need to survive... would removing the large piece of shrapnel embedded in his brain cause more harm than good? Would Josh be blind? Paralyzed? Would he be able to speak?

I checked with Sandy every couple of months after that. Josh was now at the Tampa VA, but there was never much encouraging news. I am ashamed to admit there were times I dreaded writing the email to ask. I didn't want to hear the answer. That there was no change... that Josh was just existing but nothing more.

And even one year after his injury, in July of 2006, Josh once again looked as bad as the days following the blast. After a seven hour surgery to return his skull to its original shape, more complications had set in. A further, complex 14-hour surgery followed, and another emergency surgery after that.

But then Josh turned the corner. He started making progress. He could feed himself, and he beat his mom Christine at arm wrestling. When his former SWAT team buddies visited him and reminisced about their past adventures, Josh's shoulders shook with laughter.

The progress made during the months leading up to Josh's first big outing at the Marine Corps birthday celebration gave Ed and Christine new hope, but it also left them frustrated.

Josh still couldn't walk, or speak.

Together with Josh's neurosurgeon at Bethesda, the Cooleys decided on a private rehab program called Casa Colina in sourthern California. There, the physical therapists had talked about Josh some day walking on his own. Even the speech therapists were positive.

Then, one day not long after his arrival, Christine leaned over, gave him a hug and said, "I love you, Josh."

And Josh replied, "I love you too, Mom."

The latest news from Sandy and Norman is that Josh has been able to stand up and support his weight for short periods. I hope to have an address for cards soon.

Update 15 May: I now have an address. Please email me if you would like to send Josh a card.

Update April 2008: Overcoming all odds, wounded Marine to return home after three long years

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