Wednesday, September 12, 2007

David Cooper remembered

From his earliest days growing up in Sugar Valley, David Cooper longed to be a soldier.

“It’s all he ever talked about,” said his father, David Cooper Sr. “It’s all he ever wanted to be.”

“Since he was little,” added his mother, Wanda, “he would play with plastic army men, and he wore little army outfits and an army hat … He was, gosh, he couldn’t have been two years old, and he had an army helmet. Of course it wasn’t really an army helmet. It was a green bucket.”

Family photos, scattered haphazardly about a side table in the living room of the Cooper’s home on a blueberry farm outside Jersey Shore, paint a picture of one man’s life: His devotion to his twin sons, Drake and Gage; his deep pride at being a part of the U.S. military; his love for his wife, Michelle.

Here he is at a military museum goofing around with his boys. There sitting atop an armored vehicle with two of his men in Iraq. And there he is as a little boy, wearing a green army jacket, carrying a “Space: 1999” lunchbox to school.

This is all his family has now: these photos, his myriad possessions, and memories of a brief, full life, more than half of it spent in the Army and Army Reserves.

Last Wednesday, the Coopers were informed that their son, Sgt. 1st Class David Cooper, who had been deployed to Iraq April 6, had been killed in a non-combat related incident in that war-torn Middle Eastern nation. The cause of his death is still under investigation.

“The hours they come out (to tell the family the news of a soldier’s death) is between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m.,” Cooper’s widow, Michelle, said. “Every single day for the last five months I have waited to go to bed until after 11 o’clock. I wanted to make sure that there was no Army car outside my door before I went to bed. So it was a big concern.”

Michelle works in banking during the day, she said, and in the period of time after David was killed, military officials “had been trying to reach me all day. They had come by a couple of times to knock on my door but I wasn’t home. I got home from work and I think it was 5:40 when I saw them at the door.

“And you know right away why there’s a chaplain and a captain standing at your door.”

She said her first thought as she stood at the doorway of the couple’s apartment in Fort Lewis, Washington, was, “No, I just talked to him a couple of days ago.”

“I knew where he was. I knew he was safe. It was utter disbelief.”

Soon, Michelle was on the phone to Central Pennsylvania to pass along the searingly painful news to David’s parents.

“I didn’t want them to find out the way I found out,” she said, and within 15 minutes after getting the phone call from Michelle, a master sergeant and a staff sergeant were standing at the back door of the Cooper family home in Rauchtown.

Five days later, the extended family — David’s parents and brother, Mike, a soldier based in Germany, and his pregnant wife Nikki; Michelle and her parents; and young Gage and Drake — are still grappling with the news as they sit and talk on the raised deck of the Cooper home overlooking rolling farmland.

The fact that Cooper was, by all accounts, a remarkably competent soldier gave the news of his passing a particular jolt to his family and friends.

“It helped to know he knew what he was doing and would do what he needed to do to keep himself safe,” said 16-year-old Gage.

“One thing he always told me was not to worry,” Michelle recounted. “He said, ‘Michelle, don’t worry. You handle things on the home front and I’ll handle things over here.’

“And he never worried about himself. He worried about his men. He would give his life for any of those men. He didn’t want to come home on leave because he didn’t want of the situation.”

Indeed, family members say he routinely went to a military goods store to purchase clothing and gear for his men, to make sure they had the best available material to engage the enemy.

David joined the Army Reserves as a junior at the former Sugar Valley High School in Loganton. At the time of his death, he was working with missile guidance systems and was Platoon Leader for Bravo Company. According to Michelle, he planned to remain in the military for perhaps three or four more years, then move back to civilian life.

“He was always thinking ahead,” Michelle said. “He was already talking about the job he wanted to get when he returned to Washington. He was that much a planner. He wanted a job that was going to help him transition out of the Army and into the civilian world. He was looking for a fresh start.”

But he was utterly devoted to the Army life, his family said.

When he attained his infantry Stetson and spurs, it was clearly one of the proudest moments of his life. He wore them to the first full-dress occasion the couple attended on the Army base in Washington.

“As we walked in,” Michelle recalled with a chuckle, “I told him, ‘Your spurs are making more noise than my high heel shoes.’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Not everybody can wear these spurs.’” Cooper was a man of humor, optimism, intelligence and kindness, his family said.

“He was hilarious,” said his son, Drake. “He was funny when he wanted to be, but serious when he had to be.”

Cooper was often separated from his twin sons, the product of an earlier marriage that ended in divorce, for much of the year.

But he remained devoted to them, and the boys said some of their happiest days were burned up playing the X-box computer game “Call of Duty” or just goofing around with their dad, who was more like a friend to them than an authority figure.

Other family members also recall his mischievous sense of humor.

When David Sr. was building the Rauchtown house in the early 1990s, he said, he asked David Jr. and Mike to help install insulation in the cathedral ceilings of the home’s living room.

“Boys being boys, they had been out the night before and they didn’t really want to help their dad out on the house,” David Sr. said. “So as soon as I left to do something, Mike fell asleep on the scaffolding. And David took the staple gun and stapled Mike’s clothes to the beams.”

Mike, too, has served in Iraq, and when asked if he thinks he may be deployed there again, he just shrugs. His mother, however, has a much more definitive answer to this query.

“No, he is not,” Wanda says. “I don’t care if we have to staple him to those beams again.”

The absence of David Cooper, clearly once such a dominant presence in this family, is palpable even to visiting strangers. Though few tears are shed during the two hours a reporter spends at their home, the family is clearly groping for some way to fill the vast emptiness they now face.

“I don’t know that it’s sunk in for any of us,” Michelle says. “We’re in utter disbelief, because we really believed, with every fiber, that he was going to be coming home.”

From the Express

Related Link:
David A. Cooper dies 'from a non-combat related injury'