Positive perspective: Visiting veteran champions care for wounded warriors
March 26, 2012
VILSECK, Germany -- Dr. Rory Cooper, a man with more accomplishments than many presidents, has spent his distinguished career in the service of wounded warriors.
A retired veteran, professor and chair at University of Pittsburg, senior researcher of rehabilitative science and author, Cooper has played an extensive role in revolutionizing wheelchair and prosthetic technology and making this technology easily available to veterans and VA hospitals.
Cooper visited Grafenwoehr March 9 to discuss this improved technology as wells as his larger goal of enhancing the lives of injured soldiers through sports, medical care and personal development.
This pursuit is born from personal hardship. While stationed in Worms, Germany, in the '70s, Cooper was cycling during PT when a truck struck him, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Wearing an ACU-printed tie and peppering his discussion with lighthearted jabs at Marines, Cooper spoke to members of the Warrior Transition Battalion Europe about the growing number of options for injured service members.
"It's good to see someone who's had challenges in his past," said Capt. Michael Blake, Warrior Transition Battalion, Delta Company. "He was a Soldier and we can relate to him."
A leading proponent of active rehabilitation, Cooper discussed the healing effects of self-assessment, affirmative thought and social entrepreneurship, which is, according to Cooper, "turning negative things into positive for others." Cooper finds that for wounded warriors, looking forward to new possibilities is a mark of strength.
"You find resilient people all over the world and most of these people are optimists," he explained.
The role of sports in active rehabilitation inspires the bulk of Cooper's enthusiasm. Speaking both from personal experience and that of his colleagues, Cooper touted the emotional therapy and camaraderie of team sports, favoring it over pharmaceutical options to help treat depression that often accompanies physical injury.
Wounded warriors, explained Cooper, easily transition into sports, both as a means to recuperate and develop a new self-identity. For Cooper, who excelled as a runner before his injury, wheelchair racing was a natural evolution, though a difficult one.
In the beginning, he started and ended most of his 10 kilometer races in the back of the group, clocking in at an hour or more. Over time though, he improved, eventually emerging as a leader and finishing the 10k in under 29 minutes.
"It changed me," said Cooper. "I thought I was an athlete again. It felt good that people realized 'that guy could beat my butt in a 10k' … when people start reacting to you differently, you start perceiving yourself differently."
Cooper spoke lovingly of the Warrior Games, an Olympic-like competition for active duty wounded. He showed videos of past competitions in swimming, marksmanship, basketball, track and weight lifting. He included clips of amputated and paralyzed competitors falling to illustrate that "you might have an injury or be wounded, but you're not fragile."
Cooper has lent his engineering chops to the world of parasports, creating most of the technology used by its athletes. He's also making significant advances in prosthetics: an arm controlled by brain signals; wheelchairs able to climb stairs; a robot that serves as the arms and legs of amputees.
Col. Keith Barclay, commander, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, whose great uncle lost a leg in World War II, said that this technology would have significantly eased his uncle's day-to-day struggles.
"It would have changed his entire life and the lives of his children," said Barclay. "He would have been able to do a lot of the things then he wasn't able to do."
Cooper's latest book, which he helped co-write, is "Warrior Transition Leader, Medical Rehabilitation Handbook."