Tom Cooper, of Highland, Ind. is the Commander of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 17. He has been involved with the organization for 42 years. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 3, 2014 9:12AM
“Fulfilling our promises to the men and women who served.”
— Disabled American Veterans mission statement
Tom Cooper, 64, has been married to Marcy for 42 years; they live in Highland and have raised three sons.
Cooper, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, is commander of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 17 in Hammond.
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“I grew up just south of the Lansing Airport on Burnam Avenue,” Cooper began. “I didn’t play much sports for (Thornton Fractional South High School); I was more into building fast cars.”
Were you drafted?
“No, I enlisted in the army in December of 1966 when I was 18.”
“I was a door-gunner crew-chief on helicopter gun ships. I was part of the Razorbacks Armed Helicopters; our platoon had nine aircrafts. We flew out of Saigon.”
If you don’t mind, tell me more.
“I used a .30-caliber hand-held machine gun; the other gunner shot a mounted .50-caliber machine gun.”
There were probably times those .50-caliber bullets were heading your way from the ground.
“Oh, yeah. They look like fireballs coming at you.”
What’s this photo?
“That’s what’s left of one of the aircrafts we were shot down in; all of us survived.”
“Yes, it was. We generally flew with a four-man crew: two pilots, two gunners.”
Did your aircraft pick up the wounded as well?
“No, our aircraft was real small inside and filled with ammunition. They had jet engines and could fly over 100 mph.”
What are these things mounted below the helicopter?
“Rockets. We lost numerous helicopters during the time I was there. Our group spanned from 1964 to 1972.”
Did the machine guns get hot?
“Yeah, you had to change barrels.”
Tom, how does it work; did you sign up to be a gunner on a helicopter? Bear with me.
“You could, but I went in to become a mechanic. My job as a crew chief was to maintain the helicopter and all the weapons on the aircraft.”
Plus fly as a door gunner.
You were wounded in action.
“Two Purple Hearts. I was shot in the knee once, and I tore up my arm the time we went down. I was pinned in the wreckage face down in the mud; one of my pilots pulled me out. The artery in my arm was cut real bad; they sent me to a hospital in Okinawa for nine weeks.”
Could you see the enemy firing at you the time you went down?
“We never saw them. We never saw ’em.”
You wear hearing aids.
“Those hearing aids can be attributed to this mini-gun right here.”
Mini-gun? That thing is huge.
“It’s a Gatling gun with six barrels that could fire 6,000 rounds per minute.”
You used that in action as well?
“Yep; it was very loud. They were mounted on the sides and a lot of times the pilot shot them. The right-side pilot flew the helicopter and fired the rockets. The left-side pilot fired whatever else was mounted on the aircraft.”
What are these insignias on the helicopter in this photo?
“Sampans and hooches; they’re kill markings.”
Sampans and hooches are boats and straw huts that you fired upon?
Your feelings about Hollywood’s depictions of the Vietnam War?
“Some of it is believable. ‘We Were Soldiers’ was very good. It’s about a battle at Ia Drang in November of ’65. It was probably one of the single biggest losses in Vietnam.”
When were you over there?
“From December of ’67 to August of ’69. I was there for Tet (Offensive) in May of ’68.”
What did you do when you got out of the service?
“Nothin’ for a while — a lot of drinkin’. Then, I got a job working as a mechanic on semi-trucks in Riverdale (Ill.).”
Tell me about the DAV.
“We meet the first Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. at VFW Post 802 on Hohman Avenue in Hammond.
“On March 7, we’ll donate $1,000 to an organization called Quilts of Valor, which will be presenting 12 quilts to wounded or disabled vets from World War II to current vets. We’re also sponsoring and donating $1,000 to a women veterans retreat at Swan Lake Resort in Plymouth on April 5 and 6.”
Very good. How does the DAV come up with its donation money for these noble causes?
“One of our big fundraisers will be Walk for DAV on May 18 at Wicker Park in Highland.”
“We have service officers who are trained to handle disabled veterans’ claims to the (Veteran’s Administration) for their wounds or illnesses. We also help veterans in need when they are behind in their utility bills or rent.
“There is a local veterans homeless center in Gary called Veterans Life Changing Services that we recently donated $5,000 to. That center can house up to 32 homeless vets.”
How long have you been involved with the DAV?
“I’m a 42-year lifetime member. My main objective is to help other veterans; that’s what the DAV is all about — veterans helping veterans.”
That’s a beautiful painting of a pair of Razorbacks armed helicopters and crew members.
“My platoon leader, a pilot, painted that. He was from Oklahoma; all we ever saw him draw was cowboy art. We were at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum in Oklahoma for a Razorbacks open-door tour; it was our reunion. One room was dedicated to his cowboy art.
“I turned the corner and there was that Razorbacks painting. None of us knew that he had painted it. Right away, everybody wanted to buy it. His widow had prints made so we could purchase copies. I donated one to the VA clinic in Crown Point.”
What was your platoon leader’s name?
“Major Chad Payne.”
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Many of us have given a few bucks to American Legion and VFW members in exchange for a poppy. In September, guys like Tom Cooper can be found standing in front of places like Walgreens, Strack & Van Til and Cabela’s. They too, will accept donations in exchange for a flower, but it’s not a poppy you’ll receive.
The DAV hands out forget-me-nots.