Afghanistan Took a Toll. Then He Committed His Life to Caring for Fellow Soldiers

July 30, 2021 By McGregor McCance, McGregor McCance,

Nearly everything that has happened in Joseph Cooper’s adult life can be traced back in one way or another to that day: Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s why he joined the Army. Why he came to the University of Virginia for medical school. Why he named his son Ben. Why he is passionate about mental health. Why he worries about more American soldiers committing suicide.

“A hundred percent comes back to 9/11,” Cooper said recently. “lf 9/11 didn’t happen, I just cannot fathom how different my life would be. There is no way I’d be a doctor. There’s no way I’d have been a soldier.”

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Major Joseph Cooper military headshot

Major Joseph Cooper of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, shown in his official military portrait, serves as a battalion surgeon in the 10th Special Forces Group. He earned his medical degree from the UVA School of Medicine. (Contributed photo)

Today, Cooper, who earned his medical degree from UVA in 2017, holds the rank of major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He serves as a battalion surgeon in the 10th Special Forces Group. The job includes providing medical oversight and primary care for all of the Green Berets in the unit, as well as providing medical training for those in combat and wilderness settings.

It also focuses on mental and emotional support for soldiers who – in some cases – have been on war footing for the better part of two decades since 9/11 and are suffering from brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related conditions.

“It comes full circle for me when I’m treating our soldiers. I’m working with the most elite of the elite soldiers, who all have multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “The part of my job that is – by far – the most important is actually helping them deal with what happened to them and what they saw and experienced. I literally am helping to treat the direct effects of 9/11.”

Shenandoah Valley Roots

Cooper’s connections to 9/11 and to UVA aren’t drawn in straight lines.

He was a high school senior in Shenandoah County, sitting in government class, when he heard about the attacks. All of the emotions cycled through, including the sense that he should do something, maybe join the military. But it would take another four years to fulfill that urge. With his father enduring a rare disease, Cooper stayed close to home, attending James Madison University and working full-time at his father’s tire shop to help support his family.

One afternoon during his lunch break, Cooper read an article about a Kansas woman with two young children whose husband was killed in Iraq. The emotions from 9/11 came right back.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is crazy,’” he said. “‘I’m about to graduate college in a year. I’m not married, and these kids are about to grow up without a father. I need to help this fight.’”

And so he did. With his JMU Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and religion in hand, Cooper enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2007. He completed basic training, earned a place in the officer corps in 2008 and in 2009 headed to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province as part of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Lewis, Washington – joining a war already eight years old that rose from the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that would continue for more than another decade.

“I volunteered to join the infantry as a leader of frontline fighters,” Cooper recalled. “And then I deployed to Afghanistan.”

His experiences there deeply affected him personally and professionally, carving mental and emotional scars that he still carries. But Cooper is also certain of this: Those scars inspired him to pursue a career of service through medicine and enable him to better help soldiers and veterans with similar experiences.

Part of Obama’s Surge

In 2009, with the Taliban reasserting influence and doubts rising about the long-running war, President Barack Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

“This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda,” Obama said in a December speech about Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. “It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat.”

Cooper was in the unit that led the surge, among the first U.S. forces to reach southern Afghanistan. Once in the Maiwand District of Kandahar, his role was to help strengthen relationships with local Afghans and stabilize their regional government and services so they could function effectively and independently from Taliban presence and pressures. Known as Governance, Reconstruction and Development, the initiative included military personnel like Cooper and civilian representatives from agencies such as the World Health Agency and USAID, known for its humanitarian and disaster-relief efforts.

Left: Military sitting in a theatre clapping. Right: President Barack Obama speaking at a podium
President Obama announces the surge of troops in Afghanistan during a 2009 address at the U.S. Military Academy. Having volunteered for service, Joe Cooper was among the first soldiers to reach the Kandahar province. (Photos by Pete Souza)

In war settings, the GR&D, as it was known, goes hand-in-hand with military efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of the local populace. And for a time, Cooper felt the team was making strides, meeting regularly with tribal leaders and making decisions together through council meetings known as “shuras.” His work on the effort earned Cooper a Bronze Star.

“We were successful. In fact, we were so successful that I ended up briefing 35 senators and congresspersons because of our success, because we were effective without spending much money, significantly less than everyone around us,” he said. “Rather than telling the Afghans what to do and asking how much money they needed, we spent an enormous amount of time listening to the needs of the people and aligning our efforts to help them rebuild their traditional tribal structures.  Our focus was on sustainability, which is difficult and time-consuming, but also much less expensive and more effective than throwing money at projects we thought they wanted. We sat down and listened to the folks on the ground and said, ‘What’s actually going on in your area?’ Not, ‘What do you want from us?’ In the end all we really did was listen and work hard to respond to their needs.”

David Abrahams, a retired Army colonel now living in San Antonio, got to know Cooper well in Afghanistan, when Abrahams was a battalion executive officer and Cooper served as a lieutenant on his staff.

“I never met a guy my entire time in the Army who was as uninhibited about speaking truth to power. And I think that’s what is making him successful in his role now as well,” said Abrahams, who spent 32 years in uniform.

He agreed that Cooper’s governance work paid dividends in relationships on the ground and security in the district.

Cooper credits much of that momentum to Army Capt. Benjamin Sklaver, for whom Cooper would later name his son. Sklaver headed up an Army civil affairs unit that used military resources to provide humanitarian aid, such as digging wells. He also founded a nonprofit, ClearWater Initiative, which worked to provide clean water to communities in Africa and elsewhere. The two worked closely together and, Abrahams observed, Cooper was intent on absorbing whatever he could from Sklaver.

Ben Sklaver in uniform with military issued weapon

Ben Sklaver served as a mentor and inspiration for Joe Cooper. His death from a suicide bombing deeply affected Cooper, and played a key role in his decision to pursue a career in medicine. (Contributed photo)

The early success in Maiwand wouldn’t last, however, and the demoralizing losses that followed would plant the seeds for Cooper’s eventual turn to medicine, a specialization he would find more meaningful and durable.

The first of those losses was the death of Sklaver.

The second was entirely self-inflicted for the Americans.

Suffering Emotional Traumas

Sklaver and another soldier died in a suicide bomber attack in October 2009.

“When Ben was killed, that was like losing a close family member,” Abrahams said. “You can’t really exaggerate the level of bonding that happens in that environment where your life could be taken at any minute. So it’s a completely different kind of family that you create.”

Heartbroken by Sklaver’s death and the loss of other close friends in an area known as the “birthplace of the Taliban,” Cooper channeled his grief into action.

“Good Lord, if this guy is dead for this, the least I can do is take every idea he had and try my darndest to make it happen,” he recalled.

By this point, Cooper was one of two primary points of contact with the local Afghans. He regularly met with community leaders, who began to complain about U.S. soldiers killing animals and threatening civilians. The situation grew worse. Five soldiers would eventually be charged with murder in a series of unprovoked killings of civilians that were made more heinous by the casual attitude of the servicemen who became known in media reports as “The Kill Team.”

“When those guys committed the war crimes, it felt like everything I worked for was thrown away because our whole message to the Afghans had been that we’re not here to take you over. We don’t want to kill another person here,” he said. “We genuinely just want to help you rebuild this and keep al-Qaeda out of here. And that’s it. And when you have a bunch of guys who are just murdering people, you lose all the goodwill.”

4 images of Joe Cooper in Afghanistan working

A key role in Afghanistan for Cooper was to establish relationships with local civilians and help coordinate with agencies providing aid and other services. For his efforts, Cooper would earn a Bronze Star (Photos courtesy Joe Cooper)

When his deployment ended and Cooper returned home in 2010 to his wife, Jessica (who earned a post-master’s degree as a reading and literacy specialist from UVA’s School of Education and Human Development in 2016), Cooper was emotionally erratic, careening from happiness to anger to sorrow.

“In hindsight, I probably had some post-traumatic stress, probably some depression over that and a whole lot of survivor’s guilt,” he said. “The Kill Team’s actions really messed with me. For a long time, I felt like their actions meant that our hard work and the deaths of my friends were all in vain.”

Cooper knew he needed help, and he knew other soldiers needed help, too. His deployment, he said, suffered from high casualty rates, a higher-than-normal rate of suicides post-deployment, and too many instances of soldiers harming themselves and others after returning to the States – but refusing to get help.

After spending time with two behavioral health specialists without much progress, Cooper connected with the approach from a third doctor – and a new passion was ignited.

The Power of Medicine

In medicine, he saw a way to make a difference that couldn’t be erased by a suicide bomber, couldn’t be swept away by rogue actors, and where he wouldn’t have to start from scratch because of a change in strategy or politics.

“You can take away all those gains we made in a year of war in a heartbeat. But no one can take away the fact that my life might be very different and very destructive right now if that doctor hadn’t helped me, that psychologist hadn’t helped me,” he said. “And it just opened my eyes to – wow – here’s a field where I can be passionate. And that’s what drew me to medicine: my own struggle with mental health.”

Before coming to the UVA School of Medicine, Cooper and his wife lived in Columbia, South Carolina, where he served as company commander at Fort Jackson, while also attending the University of South Carolina full-time for post-baccalaureate, pre-med studies. He discovered that schools like UVA, Duke and Harvard were interested in students with interesting, non-traditional backgrounds. But there was something about UVA, even more than the existing emotional connections and interests through his alumna wife, or from growing up on the other side of the mountain from Charlottesville.

“I’m a romantic,” Cooper said, with a smile breaking out on his face. “Thomas Jefferson’s University – oh, man, are you kidding me? How could I not go there? There’s nothing more beautiful and frankly, opposite of war than the idea of the Academical Village. And once they gave me an acceptance offer, I immediately pulled the rest of my applications.”

At UVA, Cooper would make a lasting impression on classmates and professors alike.

Earning a Medical Degree

Dr. Chris Holstege, a professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics and chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology, met Cooper during his time at UVA, helped him explore career and residency options, and has continued to stay in touch. Holstege said Cooper has “seen unique aspects of the world that most never encounter.”

“His work in Afghanistan and in the military gave him a maturity above other medical students when he was at the University. He has experienced adversity as a soldier and seen significant conflict. All these help to form his world view,” Holstege said. “Despite the trauma that he has seen in military conflicts and the poverty in overseas countries, he has retained a strong sense of compassion for others and a desire to make the world a better place. He is also not naïve and is well aware of the dangers in the world and the challenges that we face as a country.” 

Abrahams remembers the day Cooper called to tell him he was thinking about returning to school for a medical degree. He wasn’t expecting that from his old friend, but he also wasn’t surprised to hear that Cooper was aiming high for his next move.

Abrahams said he admires Cooper’s ability to find an outlet that focuses on others in the aftermath of his difficult experiences in Afghanistan.

“I think his coping mechanism and his outlet is to do good,” Abrahams said. “Spend every waking moment trying to help others.”

Returning to the military wasn’t necessarily on his mind during medical school, but the UVA experience nudged Cooper in that direction. He credited the inspiration of Dr. Rob Marsh, with whom he completed his family medicine rotation, and his exposure to Holstege and Dr. Greg Saathoff, a psychiatrist and professor in the Departments of Public Health Sciences and Emergency Medicine.

Dr. Chris Holstege headshot

Dr. Chris Holstege, a professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics, met Cooper during his time at UVA, helped him explore career and residency options, and has continued to stay in touch. Holstege said Cooper has “seen unique aspects of the world that most never encounter.” (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Cooper said Marsh continues to inspire him today, particularly for how he said Marsh models a life of selfless service, first through his career in Army Special Operations medicine and then through his commitment to rural family medicine.

“They made me realize that maybe someday I’ll be purely a clinician,” he said. “But I do have a lot of life experiences that a lot of other physicians don’t have. And I want to give back to the greater community in the way they have.”

Cooper graduated with honors from the School of Medicine. He was selected by peers and faculty for the Gold Humanism Honor Society, which recognizes those who exemplify humanistic patient care and are leaders in medicine. He also was the recipient of the Dr. David Moyer Service Award of the Student National Medical Association.

Finding His Medical Niche

Cooper knew he wanted to serve others, and particularly to help soldiers navigate the side effects of their profession, in part by building trust through shared experiences.

“I’m not smarter than other doctors, not better,” he said. “I just have unique experiences that help me understand and engage with this community and help like I did in Afghanistan.”

Drawing inspiration from Marsh, he went to Womack Army Medical Center to complete a residency in family medicine and then into U.S. Army Special Operations as a battalion surgeon at 10th Special Forces Group in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Contrary to civilian title of surgeon, a battalion surgeon is actually the primary care physician for the Green Berets in this elite unit, and also is tasked to be ready to deploy with them to distant battlefields with little notice. 

The job also includes developing and offering realistic training for soldiers in combat casualty care and in “austere and wilderness environments.”

Lt. Col. David Gaugush, a battalion commander in the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Fort Carson, Colorado, met Cooper in 2020 when Cooper was assigned to that unit. Working closely together, Gaugush said he came to appreciate Cooper’s commitment to both the soldiers and their families.

Joe Cooper with his wife and children in front of the Rotunda
The Cooper family on the Lawn during a recent visit to Grounds. From left, 5-year-old Cora Grace, 2-year-old Ben, Joe Cooper, and Jessica Cooper, who earned a post-master’s degree as a reading and literacy specialist from UVA. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Joe recognizes that war has not only taken a toll on the soldiers that served overseas, and especially those that have deployed multiple times, but also the mental and emotional toll on the family members, spouses and children, that endured stressful extended absences of their loved ones fighting abroad,” Gaugush said. “The extent Joe will go to serve our soldiers is really endless.”

He agreed that Cooper’s experiences in combat and the struggles associated with them allow him to pierce a wall of reluctance in a profession “that often times confuses toughness with mental and physical wellness.”

“Joe’s genuine empathy and similar struggles erases the stigma associated with behavioral health issues, making him an approachable medical provider, which is such a crucial ingredient of our service members taking the first step in acknowledging they have a problem, and fostering an environment where soldiers will accept treatment,” Gaugush said.

9/11’s Lasting Effects

As 9/11 grows more distant, and the United States concludes its military involvement in Afghanistan, Cooper said its influence persists. In ways, he believes, the U.S. is just beginning to confront its most lasting legacies.

“We have no idea what the effects are of sending soldiers to war repeatedly over 20 years and the psychological effects for them of doing that over and over again, as well as the physiologic trauma in their brain. And we have absolutely no idea of how it affects a family, either,” he said. “So many families have endured so much hardship because of psychological and physical trauma incurred from these wars. And I just don’t think the American public realizes just how much trauma has been suffered by so few people, and continues to be suffered.”

Cooper credits and thanks his wife for delaying and adjusting her own professional ambitions, moving multiple times as he was reassigned, and for living with the constant anxiety of a military spouse with a loved one serving in a combat zone. He describes her as the anchor of their family, which includes 5-year-old Cora Grace and her younger brother Ben, 2. Cooper also draws inspiration from his brother, a janitor in the Shenandoah Valley, who serves the greater good in his own way.

Asked if he ever takes a moment to think about how much has happened in the past 20 years, the self-described “eternal optimist” says he appreciates the journey and likely never would have ended up with a career as fulfilling as medicine if not for 9/11.

Just as quickly, Cooper says he said he would give it all back in an instant if that meant 9/11 never would have happened.

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McGregor McCance

Darden School of Business Executive Editor