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Helping son healed father

In many ways, Ed Cooley never really recovered from wounds he suffered in Vietnam. Then his son was wounded in Iraq, and things were different.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published May 7, 2006


[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Ed Cooley holds the hand of his wounded son Josh at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
Ed Cooley during Vietnam.
Josh Cooley

Inside the granite-walled hospital, three floors above the oak and maple trees outside and the "Welcome Aboard" sign at the glass-door entrance, Ed Cooley slid a chair up to bed No. 19. He took a small night light from his backpack and switched it on.

He fished out a 987-page textbook, The Principles of Horseshoeing III. He had wanted his son to read this book, but that was before the war, before the explosion in a town called Hit.

Now his son, 28-year-old Josh Cooley of Land O'Lakes, lay in Bethesda Naval Hospital, broken and bandaged with terrible head wounds. During the day, doctors and nurses hovered protectively. But Josh was mostly alone at night.

So the father read to keep his boy company. And he prayed, though he had not prayed since Vietnam, that God would help Josh recover.

How odd then, that it was Ed who first began to heal.

* * *

Ed Cooley was wounded near Da Nang in May 1969. But in his mind, the deeper injuries were inflicted later. At home. By Americans he thought he was fighting to protect.

Ed was just 18 years old when someone called him "baby killer."

He is 55 now, and he never got over those words. He has spent his adulthood angry at how it began. He generally doesn't like people and doesn't give them much reason to like him. He drinks too much, sleeps too little and has a tough time keeping his thoughts in order. He got his most recent DUI just last year.

For all that, he had in his youngest son a devoted fan.

Josh saw beyond Ed's flaws, but he feared his father might never get past the past.

Josh was 15 when he wrote this about his dad.

His life has changed more for the worse

And now he sinks lower and lower

He has tried to get better, at some things he has.

But he can only get worse.

In his mind he is still running from THEM...

* * *

No one can say what kind of person Ed would have become if it wasn't for Vietnam and its aftermath.

We do know that Ed was an easygoing teenager who wrangled horses and listened to the Doors and the Beatles.

Then, in August 1965, his 18-year-old cousin, Edward Monahan Jr., died in South Vietnam.

As soon as Ed Cooley was old enough to enlist, he joined the Marines. He proudly wore his dress blues during his wedding to Christine, a quiet girl he met at a rodeo. They had a son, Edmund Jr., on Nov. 30, 1968. Five days later, the teenage husband and father left to avenge his cousin's death.

"I was actually young enough and dumb enough," he said, "to think I could go over there and shoot the guy who shot him and come back home."

nnn

In May 1969, in the mountains southwest of Da Nang, enemy forces ambushed his unit. A grenade exploded close to Ed's head.

The Marine Corps shipped him back to Honolulu to recuperate. He had suffered hearing loss and damage to the parts of the brain that affect moods and memory.

Christine had to pay her own way to be with him.

Ed recovered, physically. If nothing else had happened to him, perhaps life could have returned to normal.

Unfortunately, things happened.

A busload of University of Hawaii students passed him as he stood guard, in his dress blues, at the gates of the Marine barracks at Pearl Harbor.

Baby killer! someone yelled.

He returned home to Staten Island, N.Y. There was no brass-band welcome. Ed enrolled in a night class. An instructor asked, in front of the rest of the class, how he would pay for the course.

"G.I. Bill," Ed said.

The next night, as he waited for the city bus, some of those students drove by and pummeled him with eggs. They ruined his new brown suede jacket.

"Normal people" - Ed's name for anyone who hasn't gone to war - just didn't get it. To them, Vietnam was politics and morals. But they hadn't seen an 18-year-old buddy's chest get ripped open by an AK-47 or the burned remains of enemy fighters hit by napalm. The smell of diesel fuel or a loud noise overhead didn't put them "right back there."

Ed moved his family, which now included sons Christopher and Joshua, to rural upstate New York. He wanted to get away from other people's opinions.

* * *

Ed became part of a Vietnam-era cliche. Despised by some of his countrymen. Understood by almost no one. A victim of an illness few doctors recognized, much less knew how to treat. Soon after the war, one VA doctor told Ed his "nervous condition" would pass.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, known as "shell shock" or "combat fatique" before Vietnam, wasn't officially recognized until 1980. As recently as 2003, four out of five Vietnam veterans reported suffering symptoms of PTSD.

As a group, they have struggled to keep jobs and posted high rates of divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse and arrests. Post-war injustices, perceived or real, further complicated their illnesses.

Ed fit much of the pattern.

He staggered through life at a series of jobs: carpentry, horseshoeing, laying phone cables and driving a cab.

He vaguely remembers talking to a psychologist for a brief spell but resisted the notion of formal treatment. Ed figured everyone else was crazy, not him. About 15 years ago, Christine forced him to try again at a vet center support group. It was good, Ed admitted, to finally be able to express himself with people who didn't judge him.

* * *

On a snowy afternoon when Josh was 15 or so, he drove with Ed to the post office in Summit, N.Y. Josh went inside for the mail; Ed waited in the car.

Josh returned with two brown packages. The return address read: Department of the Navy.

What do they want? Ed wondered. He opened a package and found a Purple Heart and other decorations.

"Wow, Dad," Josh said.

"Forget about them," Ed replied.

Ed was furious. It had been all these years, and now the military sends his medals? Via parcel post? He dumped the medals into the snow.

That night, Josh went back to the spot where his father had thrown the decorations and found all but three.

* * *

Cooley men have served since the battle of Bull Run, and Ed's boys would be no different. Eddie and Christopher joined the Marines and took part in the first Gulf War.

The Cooleys did not want Josh, their youngest, to follow the family tradition.

In 1998, Josh, then 21, committed his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. It wasn't the military, but it was still dangerous work. Josh was a sniper assigned to a unit that handled high-risk calls. But to Ed, it was a better choice than the Marines.

In 2002, Josh saved Cpl. Gordy Larkin's life in Trilby by shooting a suspect seconds after the man shot Larkin in the face.

In his spare time, Josh started shadowing his father as Ed shoed horses. The farrier trade fascinated Josh, and the two men talked of one day going into business together.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Josh could no longer resist the call to avenge the deaths of Americans killed by terrorists.

Ed tried to dissuade him, but Josh did not waver.

"You did it," he told Ed. "You believed in it. I'm only going to do the same thing."

* * *

On July 5, 2005, about 2:45 p.m., a bomb hidden in an abandoned car blew over the amphibious assault vehicle carrying Josh from one base to another near the city of Hit, in the Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad.

* * *

Ed stayed with friends while Christine and Josh's wife and fellow deputy, Christina, flew to the American military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

This time, he noticed, the Marines paid the fare.

Ed met his family in Bethesda on July 11. Josh, in a coma with part of his skull removed by doctors, went to the ICU. Ed, Christine and Christina squeezed into a single room in the Fisher House, a home set up on the hospital grounds for the families of the wounded.

A pain worse than any he had known before overtook Ed. He felt lost, even considered suicide. Doctors said it was a miracle Josh was alive. But no one knew then if he would ever be more than that.

So Ed, who had abandoned any faith in a higher being, prayed for his son, the boy who had never lost faith in him.

Dear God, he asked, just give me a little back.

Slowly, it seemed as if God answered.

Small wonders: Josh opening his eyes on his mother's birthday; squeezing Christina's hand; moaning after a question. It wasn't much, but it didn't have to be.

* * *

On July 29, the Cooleys got word the president of the United States would visit Bethesda and award Josh the Purple Heart.

Ed worried that he might not be able to find the right words when the moment arrived. So he stayed up late into the night dictating to Christine.

The next morning, George W. Bush pinned Josh's medal to his hospital gown. Ed then handed Bush a single-spaced typed letter.

The letter began:

"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 Bush read, his eyes got wet. He pulled out his handkerchief and turned away from the cameras.

"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."

Bush turned 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.

* * *

Ed couldn't help but compare what was happening with his earlier experience. Some things were the same: a car parked in front of the Fisher House touted "Re-defeat Bush" and "Mission Nothing Accomplished" stickers.

But this time, the Marine Corps were treating the Cooleys like royalty. The military covered their airfare, their hospital housing, some food costs and a rental car. As doctors treated Josh's burns and fussed over whether to remove the credit-card sized shrapnel from his head, Ed was able to attend a two-day conference on post-traumatic stress disorder.

His own experience told him the physical challenges ahead for Josh would be matched by internal anguish. But he took comfort from the fact Josh would not have to wait years for the right therapies.

"Because I'll drag his a-- there," Ed said, sipping coffee in between smokes. "I'll be able to help him."

To begin the process, Ed started snapping pictures of his son at each stage of his recovery. The images were tough. They showed Josh with puffy eyes, a swollen tongue, a face that didn't look like his own.

But down the road, Ed knew that the painstaking healing process would get Josh down. And when that happened, Ed would be there to show his son how far they had come.

* * *

In July, Ed ducked outside a hospital lodge for a smoke.

He thought he was alone, which was fine with him, but then he saw someone crouched in a corner. It was a small woman talking on her cell phone. She spoke in an undecipherable sing-song and was Asian in appearance. Until very recently, Ed had known such people by a single word.

"Gook."

That's what they called the Vietnamese during the war. It was derogatory, offensive. But it was the way Ed felt.

Until now.

When the woman finished her phone call, Ed struck up a conversation.

He learned she was originally from Laos and now Ohio. Alone, she had come to Bethesda to be with her son, an Army man. He, too, had suffered a head wound in Iraq.

These were the people that we fought for, Ed thought. And now this woman's son had replicated the sacrifice.

Ed and the woman met again almost every night for a week.

"She was just like a little angel," Ed said later, describing their meetings. "It was just the nicest thing for me."

* * *

During the next few months, hope came in larger doses. Josh opened his eyes, breathed on his own, ate ice chips and then pork tenderloin from his mother's kitchen. He couldn't yet walk or talk.

The Cooleys returned to Florida in late September when doctors sent Josh to the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa to continue his rehabilitation.

Coming home for Ed meant leaving the cocoon of Bethesda's hospital campus and rejoining the world of normal people.

This time, he considered embracing them. He thought about going to church with Gordy Larkin, whose life Josh had saved and who had become a stronghold for Ed. He said hello to strangers instead of looking the other way.

But he also had to face past mistakes. At a fall court hearing in New Port Richey, Ed learned he would lose his driver's license and serve 30 days of weekend jail time for a DUI he got a few months before Josh was hurt. His decision to drink and drive, he said, was prompted by a disturbing phone call from Josh. The rules of engagement, Josh had complained prophetically, were too strict. They couldn't just shoot up an abandoned car by the side of the road that might contain a bomb.

"I got stupid," Ed explained.

Money worried Ed, too. He was on disability from his war injuries and made a little extra on the side shoeing horses. Even with the Marine Corps covering Josh's medical bills, he feared for his son's financial future.

The normal people Ed had so long distrusted came through. In Pasco and Hernando counties, they held car washes, motorcycle rides, silent auctions and benefit dinners for Josh, raising tens of thousands of dollars.

* * *

Difficult days lie ahead.

Later this spring, Josh will return to Bethesda to have a plate fitted to the gap in his skull. Then he will continue his rehabilitation in Tampa, where therapists are guiding his first steps and his family delights in watching his shoulders shake when they make him laugh.

They don't know how much of his old life he will regain.

Ed takes things day by day. He dreams of Josh tagging along on horseshoeing jobs. He hurts watching his son suffer, but it feels good to see the country doing right by him.

Ed doesn't feel so angry anymore.

"I'm getting there," he said. "And Josh is going to get there."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 7, 2006, 06:27:14]


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