By Annette P. Gomes Warrior Care and TransitionJanuary 22, 2018
ARLINGTON, Va. -When Oprah talks, everyone listens and this month, she's listening intently to retired Army Sergeant Dr. Rory Cooper.
The Paralympian, leader, engineer and inventor is one of 14 "wow-worthy" change makers dominating Winfrey's 2018 Health Heroes list. From Journalism to Engineering, this year's nominees have one thing in common: A need to help others.
"The most important thing about the recognition is that the abilities of Veterans and people with disabilities are recognized and the power of the human spirit is inspired in others," Cooper said.
His passion to serve and inspire others began during his time as a Boy Scout where earned the title of Eagle Scout. He applied the same life principals learned through his scout participation when he joined the Army.
"I wanted to serve my country as well as better myself. I was heavily influenced by WWII and Vietnam Veterans to believe in serving our country," Cooper said. "I also wanted the opportunity to see more of the world and to obtain benefits to get a college education. Serving in the Army offered me all of these opportunities."
The California native was 20 years old when, while stationed in Germany in 1977, he was hit by a truck during a routine physical training exercise on his bike. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. However, it would catapult him onto his next journey to helping others.
"Within the first few days of being injured, it was life or death for me for about six weeks. I fought to stay alive, and then when I turned the corner, I decided that I would go as far as I could. The question of 'why me?' only lasted a short time," Cooper recalled. "Of course, I think that everyone does think that in moments when they are particularly challenged, but I was surrounded by friends and members of my unit and had good command support. Later, my grandparents and my wife (Rosemarie) provided steadfast support. I've always been a forward thinking and goal setting person, and applied those principles to my recovery," he added.
Cooper's overall goal is to design a user friendly wheelchair to aid people with physical limitations. His childhood dream of becoming an engineer is finally coming to pass.
"I enjoyed serving in the Army and had considered ROTC and making a career of it; but I also thought about working for Disney as a ride-design engineer or for NASA as an engineer or scientist. I hadn't made up my mind until after I was injured," Cooper said.
His grandfather and parents both had automotive machine shops, so Cooper was familiar with tools and machines. He says he has always had an affinity for engineering since middle school between his parents' shop, a friend's shop, and the drafting/design classes that he took in high school. Cooper remembers one design that turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing. "I designed an aluminum racing chair that looks remarkably like the chair that I use everyday today, but it was quite different than the chairs of that time."
Quite a few years have passed since that initial design. Cooper's mechanical designs have since become more sophisticated and use more comprehensive engineering. His current wheelchair design utilizes more user friendly devices like being lighter in weight, able to maneuver curbs and able to be submerged in water -- particularly at amusement parks.
"I get my inspiration by closely following technological developments and discoveries in multiple fields, working with a talented team with broad perspectives, and by soliciting information from people with disabilities, especially Veterans," Cooper said.
The innovative engineer is a frequent guest at the Deputy Chief of Staff, Warrior Care and Transition's annual Army Trials as well as the Department of Defense Warrior Games. The DoD Warrior Games is an adaptive sports competition for wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans. Athletes participate in eight sporting events, representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command and the United Kingdom (U.K.) Armed Forces. The Games highlight the resiliency and warrior spirit of service members, veterans and their families and caregivers. Adaptive sports and athletic reconditioning activities play a fundamental role in the successful recovery and reintegration of our service members and veterans.
"I tell the athletes that I was once one of them, and that they should follow their dreams and aspirations. I was just a simple Soldier, and I am happy to share my experiences with them. I still participate in hand-cycle races and have competed at all levels of competition," the former Paralympian said. "Sometimes, the athletes and I talk about racing, equipment, training, and what it means to us. It helps us connect, and I see a number of the athletes at other events and sometimes I even compete alongside of them." Cooper believes that whether the Warrior Games athletes go on to compete in higher levels of competition is not the key factor, it's what they are able to learn and gain from the experience of training and competing. "What is important is that they develop and promote healthy compensatory strategies and strive to be successful veterans in their communities."
Retired U.S. Army Col. and Executive Director, Warrior Care and Transition,
Tom Webb, says Cooper's passion for helping Veterans participating in the adaptive
reconditioning program is monumental.
"Through both sport and therapeutic activities, we try to cultivate a passion within our Soldiers for a particular activity which they can then take with them as they matriculate back into a hometown or community. No one understands that more than Dr. Cooper," Webb said.
"For me, how he dealt with his incident and what he has accomplished since is exactly my wish for every young man or woman that comes through our program," Webb explained. "If we could replicate what he has done, we will have achieved excellence in the program. Given his example, I think adaptive reconditioning plays a very important part in the journey of these service men and women and I believe Dr. Cooper feels the same way. Individuals facing physical limitations is what drives him to push on."
It's this exact determination that Cooper keeps at the forefront of his engineering design; a need to implore independence, perseverance and resiliency.
"It's a simple motto by which I live my life; I try to teach individuals to transform adversity into an advantage and actions into accomplishments."
Dr. Cooper is the founding director of Human Engineering Research Laboratories, a Veteran Administration Rehabilitation Research and Development Center of Excellence in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh. He is also the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of Army for Pennsylvania (West).