Like many military veterans, Paul Cooper’s ailments translate to a long litany of injuries that doctors say can be traced back to his exposure to Agent Orange.
The chemical was commonly employed to clear brush in Vietnam and has been shown to spark myriad health conditions, including different forms of cancer. Cooper’s role as an Army combat engineer led him to massive Agent Orange exposure, as he often maneuvered through sprayed foliage in order to clear paths for infantrymen.
“That’s why I am the way I am,” Cooper, 72, explained during an interview on Saturday, sitting in a chair and holding his cane. Cooper said he did not learn until years later that he had been exposed to Agent Orange.
The same chemical responsible for his physical injuries sometimes leads to brain fog, memory lapses and a slower-than-average ability to verbalize. Cooper explained the effects of the chemical on his mind and body during a visit to VFW Post 3976 in Sugar Creek. The post sponsored a veteran’s assistance event Saturday, aimed at educating veterans about available services, and Cooper was among those on hand to offer support.
He concentrated to press past the cognitive lapses while speaking with a reporter, determined that other veterans hear his story of hope, the moral of which is to turn to fellow veterans to seek help – specifically the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Disabled American Veterans office located at the VA.
“They (the military) have got all kinds of rules, and that’s why you need the VFW to look into it,” Cooper said. “They can determine your level and chances of getting money. Thank God for the VFW. That’s what I say to so many people who don’t know.”
Bill Pugh, who was an Army medic, said he agrees.
“The VFW is where the veteran gets the help he needs,” said Pugh, who also attended the event and grew up in Sugar Creek but now lives in Merriam.
Cooper applied for partial disability in 1971 but was turned down. During a change in computer systems, his information was lost. Upon inquiry, he always received the same answer.
“They kept saying, ‘You just have got to wait – one day it’ll come to you,’” he said.
He finally was granted partial disability in 2015. As time wore on, the war-related injuries compounded and working as a concrete construction systems designer became more difficult. But, Cooper explained, he pressed on until he could retire in 2010 following a work force reduction.
Trips to the hospital for pain treatments, due to arthritis, resulted in more, unexpected diagnoses – for many conditions Cooper was unaware he suffered. During one hospital visit, a neurologist, upon watching him walk, told him he suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement, muscle control and balance.
“The symptoms were all there,” he said.
Cooper also was tested for a condition from which he was sure he did not suffer but learned that he did: post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the list of conditions grew, Evelyn Cooper said she urged her husband to continue to press for more benefits. She said, “‘You’re entitled to this.’”
Cooper’s story finally reached a more satisfying ending. About three weeks ago, the 1964 Van Horn alumnus, received a 12-page Veteran’s Administration letter stating he finally would be fully financially compensated for the long-term effects of the war. In typical VA fashion, the letter was complicated and hard to understand. He and Evelyn again turned to veterans for help interpreting the formal language as best they could. The news was almost too good to be true.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought somebody had made a mistake.”
The couple took a skeptical, wait-and-see approach before the first monthly deposit was issued to their bank account.
They now realize one source of help was all that was needed, and they want other veterans to know to reach out to the VFW. Paul’s brother, Jim Cooper, who also is a veteran, learned of the VFW’s assistance when he was applying for his own benefits. He said his long-time friend, John Musgrave, who was featured prominently in the PBS Ken Burns documentary, “The Vietnam War,” referred him to the VFW. Jim Cooper said Musgrave “has been an advocate for veterans his whole life.”
Jim Cooper said he’s on a mission to let the public know the full range of services offered by the VFW, including the ones offered by local halls, which dot the country. He said local posts do a lot of community service and are there to help other veterans. He summed it up when he said, “We’re more than just a bar.”