Sunday, February 11, 2001

Veteran finally gets his Purple Heart

Ky. man was burned in Korean War

By Ray Schaefer
Enquirer Contributor

        PINER, Ky. — You have to look closely to see the wounds.

        Robert Cooper served in the Korean War, but he didn't receive the Purple Heart he had earned in 1953 until last week, at a Kenton County Fiscal Court meetingin Independence.

        Janet Cooper said her husband has never said much about the medal.

        “The paperwork got stuck in a drawer,” said Mrs. Cooper, 64. “He never thought anything about it.”

[photo] Robert Cooper, 67, last week received the Purple Heart that he was awarded in 1953.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        Mr. Cooper's family and friends had been trying for years to get him his medal.

        “I was surprised they would do this for me,” said Mr. Cooper, 67. “I knew the family would, but not the fiscal court.”

        He struggled to fight back tears as Judge-executive Dick Murgatroyd pinned the medal on his sports jacket and he received a shadow box plaque containing all the medals he earned and a picture of him in uniform from the 1950s.

        John Frazer of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs office in Williamstown did not know if the nearly 48 years between Mr. Cooper's injury and receiving his medal is a record. But he said it's not unusual for veterans to avoid the fuss of receiving the medal.

        “They felt like they served their country, they did their job,” Mr. Frazer said.

        “They hold it in their hearts. They saw their buddies die in front of them. I guess they feel fortunate they made it home.”

        Mr. Cooper left after the 11th grade in Simon Kenton High School in 1951 and joined the Army.

Robert Cooper in Korea
        On June 22, 1953, Mr. Cooper's unit was about a half-mile south of the border between North and South Korea. Observers saw enemy soldiers not far away when “enemy rounds came over the hill into the valley where we were,” Mr. Cooper said.

        Those rounds landed about 50 yards from Mr. Cooper and detonated some nearby boxes of ammunition. He said the rainy weather that day saved his life.

        “The only thing that saved me was that I had wet weather clothing on,” Mr. Cooper said. “A poncho and a rubberized suit.”

        Mr. Cooper's uniform is about all he remembers of that day.

        “When you're burned and hurting, you don't remember much,” he said.

        The severe burns ran down the right side of his face. He spent 30 days at Pusan Red Cross Hospital and nine months at Walter Reed Army Hospital. He endured numerous surgeries and skin grafts.

        Then there were the mental wounds.

        The flashbacks. Not being able to watch a movie with a military theme. Simply wondering why it all happened.

        “You wonder why God spared you,” Mr. Cooper said.

        “You're trained to kill when you go into the military. When you get out, they don't de-train you not to kill.”

        Mr. Cooper filled out paperwork for the Purple Heart, but no one is sure what happened to it. Dennis Glacken, a friend and Piner native, started the research that led to this week's presentation.

        Time took care of Mr. Cooper's emotional pain.

        He worked 33 years as a laborer and maintenance supervisor at GE Aircraft Engines in Evendale before retiring in 1989.

        Time took care of his physical pain, too. You have to stand just inches from his face and stare to see the scars on Mr. Cooper's right ear and neck.

        The years did one thing more — they made Mr. Cooper proud of what he and his buddies accomplished.

        “If I had it to do over, I'd serve my country,” he said. “Even if I didn't make it.”


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