By Kari Hawkins, Rocket StaffApril 23, 2008
Remembering names hasn't been a problem for Command Sgt. Major Rickey Cooper during his 27 years in the Army.
After all, name recall has always been a matter of looking at the name tag on a Soldier's uniform.
But that's changed for Cooper now that he's the new command sergeant major at the Garrison.
"This is the first place I've been stationed where there are more civilians than Soldiers," Cooper said. "The people I'm meeting out in the community don't wear name tags and the civilians on post have name tags where their name is printed real small. I'll have to think of some better ways to remember names."
Cooper, 48, assumed his assignment at the Garrison about four weeks ago, but he first visited Redstone Arsenal and Huntsville in January. During his brief time here, he has met Huntsville Mayor Loretta Spencer and other community leaders as well as Garrison personnel.
"This is a great community and I'm excited to be here," Cooper said. "There is phenomenal support here for the military."
Cooper, who is taking over Garrison responsibilities once held by Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Cole before his retirement earlier this year, is an Iraqi war veteran whose Army career has focused on aviation maintenance.
"The majority of my time in the Army has been spent with the 82nd Airborne Division (at Fort Bragg, N.C.)," Cooper said. "It was great being a part of that division. The Soldiers in the 82nd are highly motivated all the time."
Cooper joined the Army in 1981, about four years after graduating from high school in Bellevue, Neb.
"I had a variety of jobs during that time and I was still in the same place," said the Nebraska Cornhuskers fan. "I wanted to see something different. I wanted to join the Army and see the world. Being in the Army hasn't been boring for me. I've seen a lot and done a lot."
He attended basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., followed by advanced individual training as a UH-1H helicopter mechanic at Fort Rucker. In 1983, he converted to UH-60 (Black Hawk) helicopter maintenance. Cooper has held every enlisted Soldier job in aviation maintenance, including mechanic, crew chief, technical inspector, platoon sergeant, first sergeant and now command sergeant major.
"In the Army, there is the enjoyment of seeing a mission accomplished," he said. "I've also enjoyed seeing people grow mentally, physically and technically. And I've enjoyed the Army simply for the fun of it. Sometimes it's more fun than anything else. There is nothing like the camaraderie you share with other Soldiers. They are the friends that always have your back."
And, Cooper has especially enjoyed the opportunities the Army has given him to develop his management and leadership skills, and to lead Soldiers.
"A good leader is all about helping other Soldiers in the Army. They care about the Soldier," he said.
"That makes a world of difference in a young Soldier's perspective of the Army. Having a good role model, a good mentor, is 95 percent of what it is all about for a young Soldier."
Cooper has seen the Army change its own perspective in meeting the needs of Soldiers.
"The money the Army is now putting into the care of its facilities is phenomenal. So, too, is the money the Army is spending to provide Soldier families with the services they need," he said. "There has also been a lot of modernization of Army equipment. And the intelligence level of today's Soldiers is through the roof."
During his career, Cooper's assignments have included the 48th Aviation Company, Nellingen, Germany; T Troop, 4/11 ACR, Fulda, Germany; Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 1-13 Aviation, Fort Rucker; C Company, 1-501 Aviation, Camp Page, Republic of Korea; B Troop & HHT, 1-17 Cavalry Regiment and A & D Companies, 2-82 Aviation Regiment, Fort Bragg; and C Company, 25th Aviation Brigade and HSC, 209th ASB, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, WAAF, Hawaii.
Cooper, a graduate of Class 53 of the Sergeants Major Academy, has completed two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. During his 12-month tour from November 2004 to October 2005, he served as the command sergeant major of the 1-17 Cavalry Regiment at Forward Operating Base McKenzie north of Baghdad. During his 15-month tour from July 2006 to October 2007, he served as the command sergeant major of the 209th Aviation Support Battalion at Contingency Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit in northern Iraq.
"We provided secondary level maintenance to the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade," Cooper said of his second tour. "Our brigade's aircraft fleet included over 100 aircraft. We were the only aviation unit. Most of the Soldiers deployed with us were pulling a security mission where they were going outside the wire in the town of Tikrit."
Cooper's unit represented about 50 Soldiers out of 800 from Fort Bragg who were assigned to support the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade from COB Speicher. In all, there were more than 2,500 Soldiers assigned to the brigade. The area of operation for COB Speicher stretched north of Tikrit to the border and south to Baghdad.
While stationed there, Cooper went out on a few missions to check on Soldiers and aviation maintenance operations at various FOBs scattered throughout the region. The missions gave Cooper a bird's-eye view of the region.
"It is so destitute there. It is a country of desperate people," Cooper said. "We flew to Mosul and Tallafar, and on the way there we would see these desert houses in the middle of nowhere. It would make you wonder what they do for a living and how they survive in the desert."
Though he didn't have much contact with Iraqis, Cooper was heavily involved in the management of day-to-day operations for aviation maintenance for Black Hawk, Chinook and Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
"In our battalion, 75 percent of the Soldiers were young Soldiers. All of them were highly motivated. They were glad to be doing something to help the mission," Cooper said. "Being deployed to Iraq gave them an opportunity to use their training. They did more work in 15 months in Iraq than they could do in three years in the states."
Besides aviation maintenance, the battalion was also responsible for brigade communications, supply distribution and headquarters motor pool maintenance.
At COB Speicher, Cooper said things were "very calm and sedate." But that wasn't the case where the brigade's helicopters flew.
"Aircraft were on missions all the time. They were going into bad areas all the time from our base. They were killing the enemy," he said. "Our job was to provide the maintenance the helicopters needed so that flight crews could continue to support the ground troops. That's where the mission is - with the ground troops."
During his career, Cooper has been awarded the Master Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge, Master Aviation Badge, BSM, MSM, ARCOM and AAM. In addition, he earned his bachelor's degree in aviation safety from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in 1993, and is working on his master's in management from Websters University.
For Cooper, serving in Iraq was just part of the job description for today's Soldier.
"You put on the green uniform, and the Army tells you where you are going and what you are going to be doing," he said. "Our job is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So, if Uncle Sam says I'm going then I'm going, and whatever the politicians do is on them."
Now, Cooper's job description involves serving the Redstone Arsenal community.
"This job became available, and I asked for it and, by the grace of God, I got it," he said. "I had heard a lot of good things about Redstone Arsenal, but I had never been here before.
"It's a change of pace for me (and wife Mary). It's giving me the opportunity to see how a non-operational post actually runs. And I will get to see how I can help support the Garrison commander (Col. John Olshefski) with different ideas from a different perspective. My job is to provide the enlisted Soldier's perspective to the Garrison commander."
So far, Cooper has liked what Redstone Arsenal has to offer, although he misses not seeing thousands of Soldiers on post.
"The housing here is probably the best I've seen in the Army," he said. "And it will be interesting to learn how the Garrison works with all the civilian groups on post.
"This post is very big by Army standards and the number of civilians here make it a different population than what you will find at most Army posts. That population will only grow as BRAC (base realignment and closure) becomes a reality, and I'm glad to be here to help through this time of change."