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War injury now tears family

Josh Cooley, 29, married before setting off for Iraq. Now, with his brain healing from shrapnel, his parents want control.

Published September 22, 2006

[Times file photo (2005)]
Ed and Christine Cooley await news of their son Josh at the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center last year. Now he's recovering in Tampa.
Helping son healed father (May 7)

[Handout photo]
Josh Cooley

TAMPA - After a bomb tore through Cpl. Josh Cooley's brain, his family set out to heal him together.

In the two months after his return from Iraq, his parents and wife shared sleeping quarters close to his hospital bed in Bethesda, Md.

Ed Cooley, a Vietnam veteran, educated his daughter-in-law about the wounds of war. Christine Cooley taught her to make Josh's favorite meatloaf.

Back home in Florida, however, their solidarity has cracked.

Now, as 29-year-old Josh Cooley continues to recover at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, his mother and brother are seeking to wrest control of the Marine's financial and medical decisions from the woman he married shortly before shipping off to war.

Josh Cooley, a former Pasco County sheriff's deputy, named his wife as his health care surrogate and gave her power of attorney in December 2004, two months before he shipped out.

But other family members now question Christina Cooley's dedication to Josh's recovery and the lack of public accounting of community donations intended for his care.

Christopher Cooley, one of Josh's older brothers, said he and his mother should be named Josh's legal guardians because they are better suited to provide for his extensive long-term needs.

"I am not going to let Joshua sit in a room and watch re-runs of Lucy the rest of his life," Christopher Cooley said. "We are doing what we feel is best for Joshua's care."

On Thursday, Christina Cooley, 30, met with an attorney and said she would fight her husband's family in court.

"I can't speak right now," she said, "but I am shocked by all the false allegations."

The budding legal fight is another consequence of combat for Josh Cooley, who felt called to duty after 9/11, then suffered severe brain injuries when a roadside bomb sent shrapnel through his head.

Cast aside the military component, though, and the case sounds awfully familiar to guardianship experts.

"This is exactly what came up in the Schiavo case," University of Florida law professor Barbara Woodhouse said, "when the parents of Terri Schiavo were claiming that Michael Schiavo was not carrying out his duties, was not acting in her best interests."

A court can appoint a guardian over an adult if that person is declared incapacitated and requires someone else to make decisions about his welfare. Josh Cooley has regained some mental and physical abilities but cannot speak or write.

Family members, related by blood or marriage, are preferred as guardians. But attorneys disagree on whether one has a leg up on the other.

Debra Boje, Christopher and Christine Cooley's attorney, said the decision is based on the best interest of the person at stake. Spouses are not automatically chosen, she said, even if they hold power of attorney.

An attorney who helped Michael Schiavo prevail in his legal battle countered that Josh Cooley showed he preferred his wife by designating her as his health care surrogate and granting her power of attorney.

That paper trail will be difficult to overcome, said the attorney, Debbie Bushnell.

"Unless the mother and brother can show that the wife is not acting in the husband's best interests," Bushnell said, "then probably the wife would be appointed. She's considered the closest family member."

Josh Cooley had a busy year in 2004. He divorced his first wife, began dating Christina Cooley and took a leave of absence from the Sheriff's Office to train with the Marine Reserves.

He spent three months at boot camp, then went off to California for two more months of training. He came home, found out his company would be deployed to Iraq and married Christina, also a deputy, at a friend's kitchen table.

When word about the roadside bomb came, Christina Cooley and her new mother-in-law flew to Germany, unsure if Josh would live.

Some military wives saw their mangled husbands and went home to file divorce papers. Christine Cooley was relieved that her daughter-in-law stuck around.

But Christopher Cooley said his sister-in-law's dedication didn't last long. He said she has not visited her husband frequently enough at the hospital and did not stay long when Josh Cooley returned to Bethesda in July for skull reconstruction surgery.

"She's never bought him a pair of socks, never cooked him a meal, never done a load of laundry," he said.

The brother and mother filed their petition for guardianship Sept. 1. Their first hearing is set for Oct. 3 before a general magistrate in Tampa.

Barry Spivey, another of their attorneys, said the legal guardianship would establish an oversight system for the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by the public for Josh's care. Guardians file annual financial reports that are reviewed by the court.

Spivey said he has no evidence that funds have been misused, but Christopher Cooley questions how his sister-in-law afforded a pricey new black 2006 Chevy Tahoe.

Christina Cooley said she bought the SUV, adorned with Marine Corps stickers and a yellow ribbon magnet, to transport her husband when he's released from the hospital. She said she got it by trading in her old Isuzu Axiom, and makes the loan payments out of her deputy's salary.

A single mother of a 4-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Cooley said she visits her husband at night after work and on the weekends. She frequently updates courthouse regulars on her husband's progress.

Christine Cooley, Josh's mother, spends every day with him at the hospital and has been an integral part of his rehabilitation. Christopher Cooley, a national sales director, is moving to Florida from New Jersey this fall to help care for his brother.

He said the fight is not about money. His parents declined to comment before the hearing.

Experts predict the court fight will be ugly.

"I think it's a nightmare," UF's Woodhouse said, "and usually everybody loses."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or

[Last modified September 22, 2006, 01:35:57]

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