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A warrior heals step by step

Marine Corps reservist Josh Cooley recovers after a blast in Iraq put shrapnel

Published February 19, 2006

through his skull.

TAMPA - Josh Cooley is eating meatloaf.

A year ago, that wouldn't have been news for the burly, 6-foot-6 member of the Pasco County Sheriff's SWAT team.

But swallowing solid foods from his mother's kitchen is a sign of just how far Cooley has come since a roadside blast in Iraq sent shrapnel through his skull and left him fighting to survive.

As ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff's head injury from a roadside bomb has made headlines in recent weeks, Cooley, a 29-year-old corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve from Land O'Lakes, is quietly recovering from his wounds at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.

Just last week, he reached another milestone: With the help of his physical therapists and some support, Cooley took his first steps.

"He's doing amazing," said wife and courthouse bailiff Christina Cooley, who screamed with joy when she was phoned with the news at work.

The slow and often frustrating road to recovery for Cooley began after the amphibious assault vehicle in which he was riding came under attack in July. Shrapnel pierced his skull, including one piece the size of a credit card.

For a month, Cooley lay in a coma in the intensive care unit at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Part of his skull was removed to relieve the pressure from his brain. He also received skin grafts to cover the burns on his hands.

Cooley, his parents and wife returned to Florida from Bethesda in late September.

Since then, his mother, Christine Cooley, hasn't missed a day by his side.

She pushes him in a wheelchair on walks outside, reads to him and watches DVDs with him, often forwarding to a movie's funny parts "and of course he looks at me like I'm nuts."

Cooley responds with a crooked smile.

In fact, he has yet to speak. He has moaned several times, his parents said, which may signal that his vocal cords still work. Sometimes he communicates by raising his index finger for a yes or no response. He can push himself backward in his wheelchair.

His older brother Christopher showed up for a surprise visit Saturday. He asked Josh to lift one finger to show him he loved him. Josh lifted his index finger slowly.

The family is careful not to baby him. They have come to recognize his chances of full recovery are not good but are hopeful he will regain some level of independence.

Lunchtime demonstrates a measure of success.

Cooley is able to hold onto a drink bottle and is trying to feed himself.

His mom brings him homemade pot roast, meatloaf, mash potatoes, chicken casserole with stuffing and his favorite vegetables. A big step forward from the ice chips he was eating a few months ago, the foods have bumped his weight up to 197 pounds. His 240-pound frame dropped to 171 after the attack.

"He chews and he swallows," Christine Cooley said. "He's having to learn all over again."

Three weeks ago, she fed her son home fries with ketchup. She told him to lick the ketchup off his mouth.

"And damned if he didn't do it," she said. "It's a beautiful thing to see him coming back."

Mindful of his privacy, the family doesn't want him photographed.

A major procedure lies ahead. This spring, Cooley will fly back to Bethesda so doctors there can rebuild his skull by inserting a plate. The surgery, Christina Cooley said, will give her husband's head a normal shape again.

Doctors have told her Josh could spend two to five years in Haley's Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in Tampa. But she doesn't think it will take that long to get him home.

"I told the doctor my goal is to have him walking by the (Marine Corps) ball in November," Christina Cooley said.

The doctor said he'd try to do one better. He wants to see Josh dance.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 727 869-6236 or

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:09:21]

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