Austintown vet recalls service in Vietnam
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans. To nominate a veteran, email metro editor Marly Kosinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AUSTINTOWN — Robert Cooper wasn’t even out of high school when he got his draft notice knowing he would eventually go to Vietnam to fight in the war.
Cooper, now of Austintown, lived in East Palestine when the notice came in May 1966, a month before he was to be the first high school graduate from either side of his family.
“My mother fought to get me to graduate and the Army agreed to let me report Sept. 6, 1966,” he said.
Cooper’s time in Vietnam was difficult.
While at Fort Sill in Oklahoma before going overseas, he shattered his right knee jumping out of an airplane during a training exercise. Cooper said he got stuck in a tree and not realizing he was several feet in the air because it was nighttime, he started cutting away his parachute lines to get down. He freed himself and fell to the ground.
“So I land in Vietnam on March 1, 1967, with a shattered knee,” Cooper said. “They put me in the fire direction center for 1 1/2 months, and the minute my cast came off I was assigned to 8-inch artillery.”
He was stationed at Gio Linh in the demilitarized zone.
“You had 2,700 pounds of artillery, rockets fall on us,” Cooper said. “You didn’t have time to think. I did what I had to do. I did what I was told to do. I had no choice.”
In April 1967, he sustained shrapnel wounds in his left leg and hip, receiving his first Purple Heart. “I couldn’t move fast enough to get to my bunker,” Cooper said. “They put a Band-Aid on it and put me back on the gun. When you have 95 percent casualties, if you can walk, you had a gun. You went back to action.”
Cooper was wounded again in October 1967 while at Cumberland Gap during a mortar attack. He still has a piece of shrapnel near his tailbone that couldn’t be removed.
Like the first time, he wasn’t sent to a hospital.
“It was another Band-Aid and then back to action,” Cooper said.
Already wounded twice, he was reassigned further south, near the Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
“They told me that I’ve been injured twice so they moved me further from the front line,” Cooper said.
But that didn’t work out either as he and his unit were outnumbered about 4,000 to 250 during the Tet Offensive in January 1968.
“I should have died,” Cooper said.
He and two other soldiers were in a bunker when one was killed and the other seriously injured. Cooper wrapped his shirt around the wounded soldier’s shoulder to stop him from bleeding to death — and earned a Bronze Star.
But while doing that, he was attacked, getting a bayonet wound in the stomach. Cooper said it could have been a lot worse as he was able to move the weapon so it would hit his stomach rather than fatally wound him.
“I got to go to the hospital for two days for that,” he said.
He was sent stateside Feb. 24, 1968, and returned to Fort Sill, where he spent six months before being discharged.
“I remember it every day,” Cooper said of his time in the war. “It haunts me.”
Upon returning to the United States, he worked for 13 years in a steel mill in Beaver Falls, Pa., and then worked several sales jobs — meeting his wife, Rochelle, who he’s been married to for 26 years after selling her a cemetery plot. He spent seven years driving truck for Federal Express before retiring in May 2015.
Cooper said he found a renewed purpose when he joined the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 2 in Austintown after seeing a sign on a restaurant door that its members were passing out food.
“I wanted to donate, and I ended up joining,” he said.
For the past two years, he’s been the junior vice commander and fundraising chairman.
“I put in a lot of volunteer hours,” Cooper said. “Also, I’ve become close with members. I’ve got five or six that if I picked up the phone, they’d be here in five minutes.”
He’s also a member of its color guard and honor guard. He attends many military funerals and visited veterans in nursing homes before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The camaraderie, giving back to the community and helping veterans means so much to me,” Cooper said.
SERVICE BRANCH: Army
MILITARY HONORS: Three Purple Hearts, Bronze Star, Good Conduct medal and three Vietnam ribbons: National Defense Ribbon, Vietnam Service Ribbon and Vietnam Campaign Ribbon
OCCUPATION: Retired Federal Express truck driver and former salesman
FAMILY: Wife, Rochelle; daughter, Cynthia; son, David; two stepsons, Jason and Brandon; 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren