WASHINGTON — While bike riding along a busy German road, Rory Cooper suffered an injury that changed the trajectory of his life.
An avid runner, the Army sergeant pedaled to work while recovering from knee pain on a summer day in 1980. Suddenly, a bus sideswiped with his bike. The impact pushed Cooper into the oncoming traffic, where a semi-truck hit Cooper and his bike.
Cooper awoke in a German hospital with tubes inserted into his body. The impact broke his clavicle, several ribs and ruptured his spine. Doctors told him that he would never walk again.
The sergeant didn’t know then, but the devastating injury would steer him towards a career where his work would touch the lives of thousands of Soldiers and civilians.
Years of treatment and therapy would follow for the sergeant before his medical discharge from the Army in 1982. As Cooper recovered and began planning his next steps, he never forgot the lessons he learned during his years in the Army as a unit armorer and civil affairs Soldier.
“If you take care of your people, they will take care of you,” he said. “I also learned about the importance of selfless service and not leaving anyone behind.”
The native of San Luis Obispo, California applied those lessons to the rest of his life.
He devoted his career to improving the lives of people with disabilities, from his research at the University of Pittsburgh to his more than three decades of work as a senior scientist and director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Human Engineering Research Laboratories. Cooper and his research teams developed new models of wheelchairs and services designed to make activities and facilities more accessible to patients throughout the nation.
Those achievements culminated in a White House ceremony Oct. 24 when Cooper accepted the National Medal of Technology and Innovation Medal from President Biden, the highest honor for technological achievement.
The medal reflected the impact of his wheelchair and service innovations, and the example he set for future rehabilitation engineers as a professor and mentor. Two days later, the distinguished professor was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Since 2014, Cooper has served as a Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army, or CASA, for Western Pennsylvania. In addition to acting as advisors to Army Secretary Christine E. Wormuth, CASAs use their positions of influence to connect the Army with the larger civilian population.
“I think the CASA program is awesome. The CASAs that I’ve had the opportunity to work with are truly remarkable Americans and patriots,” Cooper said from his office in Pittsburgh. “[The CASA program] allowed me to connect with the Army in a deeper, broader way. I intend to stay connected and serve the Army in any way I can add value.”
As a CASA, he has coordinated Army-related events at the Pittsburgh Marathon and worked with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Steelers on visits by Army leaders. During the marathon, he organized the planning of Army recruiter stations at the race and a military relay. Cooper said he coordinates internships for veterans and helps former service members with job placement.
“Being a CASA has been good for me because at the time I was injured, there was no warrior transition support,” Cooper said. “You just kind of went from being in the Army to being a patient. It’s been great to reconnect with the Army and serve again.”
Following that July 1980 injury, Cooper faced a crossroads in his life. He had originally considered returning to the Army as a commissioned officer prior to the accident, but after his spinal injury, he admittedly didn’t know his next move.
Cooper’s commanding general in Germany, then-Maj. Gen. Clarence McKnight visited Cooper at the hospital and encouraged him to pursue a career in engineering science.
“[He] told me I should continue to pursue my dreams,” Cooper said.
Before the bicycle accident, Cooper represented the Army as a track and cross country athlete at the World Military Games. While studying electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo County, Cooper again found his competitive edge, and began training to compete in wheelchair racing and wheelchair basketball.
He later participated in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and eventually became a Paralympian, winning bronze at the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. He currently chairs the Paralympic Games Science Task Force, which studies athlete classification and ethical standards.
After receiving his master’s degree in electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University Cal Poly, Cooper earned his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Cooper considers himself a “Soldier for Life,” concurrently contributing to the Army while working on his research in academia.
One of his projects at the University of Pittsburgh included the development of a lightweight, battery less wheelchair called a “PneuChair,” which allowed people with disabilities to participate in waterparks. Through the use of a joystick, patients could control their movements in the park while eliminating the danger of electrocution.
Cooper also invented a device known as the SmartWheel, which tracks and categorizes user movement and a variable-compliance joystick that makes wheelchair controls customizable.
“My proudest achievement, besides convincing my wife to marry me, is creating the Human Engineering Research Laboratories and all that we have been able to do, the people I’ve been able to train, and the impact that we’ve been able to have on the lives of people in our veteran population,” Cooper said.
For more nearly 30 years, Cooper worked with the Wounded Warriors program to help accommodate the needs of veterans with spinal injuries, traumatic brain injuries and multiple amputations. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Cooper made regular visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Cooper provided the veterans with devices that included ultra-light wheelchairs, and manual wheelchairs.
“To see our service members come back despite the challenges they were facing was very rewarding,” Cooper said. “We really give them good, quality wheelchairs and teach them about hand cycles, [cycles powered by hands]. To me it was very rewarding to see that the technology that we had contributed to was allowing them to get back into society.”
Cooper served as an Army World Class Athlete Program coach for the Army’s Paralympic athletes in wheelchair racing in 2011, even training future Paralympian swimmer Elizabeth Marks. Cooper also helped former Army Col. Greg Gadson, who lost both of his legs during a bomb attack, with his mobility. Cooper trained Gadson on hand cycling and helped get his wheelchair fitted.
“It is a privilege to serve. I’m very grateful to have served as a Soldier and then again as an athlete, and as a coach,” Cooper said. “It’s pretty meaningful.”
Civilian Aides to the Secretary of the Army (CASA)