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Road to Baghdad: Marine shares experiences spanning decades of service to country

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Geffrey Cooper, now a member of the Star of the North Marine Corps League, finds Park Rapids to be a ‘very patriotic community.’2 / 2

Geff Cooper met the “climax of his military career” at the age of 50 as a Marine Corps battalion commander in Iraq.  The commanding officer of 2nd Battalion 23rd Marines played a key role in the 1st Marine Division’s invasion of Baghdad in March 2003.  The George W. Bush administration, convinced Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaida, had ordered the invasion.   Cooper and his battalion of 1,100 Marines and Navy medical personnel departed Kuwait in a 144-vehicle convey, making their own road across the desert, with no communication with the outside world.  “This was the march to Baghdad. We didn’t stop to eat (their one meal a day) or sleep. The only stop was for fuel, and to meet with town leaders along the way,” he said of the 600-mile journey that began March 19 and would span 19 days.  “Intelligence told us it would take six months…”   ‘Call your wife’   “No one prays for war,” said Cooper, who enlisted in the Marine Corps just as the Vietnam War was coming to an end. “But you train for it, being involved in combat. You hope it never comes. But you want to be ready.”  

Cooper, enlisting in 1973, spent three years in the military police field in Quantico and Yorktown, Va. before arriving back in Minnesota. He pursued a degree in criminal justice at St. Cloud State University on the GI Bill, working part-time at the VA hospital and at the state prison.  After graduating in 1980, he headed back to the Marine Corps, taking his commission as 2nd lieutenant, an infantry officer. He and wife June moved to California where he would see active duty in Camp Pendleton and 29 Palms as well as Okinawa, Japan.  In 1993, he joined the Marine Corps Reserves, where he would spend six to nine months a year on active duty until 1998, when he decided to pursue a civilian career.  “I always wanted to be a cop,” he said. “Coop” headed to the Sheriff’s Academy in San Bernardino, Calif., subsequently becoming a full-time deputy in Joshua Tree.  But in 2003, he was reactivated by presidential recall. He took a leave of absence from his role as a law enforcement officer and was soon bound for Kuwait to engage in the anticipated “stabilization” march to Baghdad.  “The possibility of going into conflict was very real.” The decision, he explained, hinged on Saddam Hussein complying with sanctions.  

In early March “we got the word. We were going to Baghdad to get rid of a brutal dictator,” who they would soon learn had gone “underground.”  Meanwhile, with no means for Cooper to communicate with family, wife June was relying on the media. A story by a Fox News reporter who she knew was with Cooper’s regiment tipped her off as to his location.  Later, a New York Times reporter traveling with them asked Cooper when he last talked with his wife. “A month,” Cooper told him.  “Call your wife,” the reporter directed the battalion commander, handing him a satellite phone. “Let her know you’re okay.”  The call was met with tears, and the question, “When are you coming home?”  “I don’t know,” he told her in the 90-second call.  He would miss his oldest of three daughter’s graduation from college. But he arrived home in time to hear his middle daughter, the class president, deliver an eloquent speech on the military.  “It was hard on them, watching the news, not knowing where their dad was.”

Shift to stabilization   “It’s hard to convey how poor that country is,” Cooper said. On the journey to Baghdad, he recalls stopping to assist a man with two children who were living under a tarp in the desert, starving and dehydrated. “The country is so dirty. Hygiene is so poor.”  Arriving in Baghdad in early April, they would learn Hussein and members of the Republican Guard had headed south, in civilian clothes.  “They didn’t want to fight. They just left.”  Their mission shifted to stabilization, providing a ravaged population with food, water and medicine. Hussein had dismantled hospitals, removed equipment and filled them with ammunition.  Under the Geneva Convention, those buildings aren’t targeted, Cooper explained of the motive.  The coalition forces removed the ammunition and restored the buildings, medical personnel lending expertise with setting up gurneys, generators and cots.  Initiatives like this “don’t make the news,” Cooper said. “But the humanitarian effort was a large portion of our job.”  Spending two months in Baghdad, the soldiers addressed the lack of fresh water, got the sewer system working again (smaller towns had raw sewage flowing in streets) and turned the electricity back on.   “I’d missed Vietnam, the first Gulf War and other conflicts,” he said, likening his service to a benched football player who – at last – had been sent onto the field.  The battalion commander lost but one Marine in the mission, this to a vehicle accident; 19 in the 1st Marine Division died on the march to Baghdad.

 In June 2003, he was redeployed to the United States, but seven months later, February 2004, he was asked by a two-star general to return to train Iraqi police officers, “so they could take care of their own country.”  He arrived in Iraq and began setting up police academies. By then “enduring bases” had been established by the U.S. military, email was available, chow halls fed troops.  Cooper worked with 63 police stations, running two academies training 11,000 Iraqi police officers.  “The language barrier was a big problem,” he said. More Iraqis spoke English than Americans spoke Arabic.  The moral structure of the two cultures is basically the same, he said of the contents of the biblical 10 Commandments guiding both. But Islamist customs, courtesies are “very different.”

Promotion to colonel  Arriving back in the U.S. in September 2004, Cooper remained on active duty. He was promoted to colonel, the most senior field grade military officer rank, because of his role as a battalion commander in combat.  The United States was still involved in the stabilization of Iraq and because of his training and experience in Iraq, he was sent to 29 Palms, the last place troops went for 30-day training before being deployed.  Villages were set up to replicate those in Iraq. Iraqi immigrants who’d settled in California and Michigan were hired to offer information and insights as to their native culture.  In 2007, he retired from the military, returning to his role as a sheriff’s deputy five more years.  In 2014, the Coopers headed back to Minnesota, having grown up in Aitkin, and purchased a home on Portage Lake near Park Rapids.  Cooper would soon join the Star of the North Marine Corps League, becoming a member of the Honor Guard.  “It’s a way of giving back to veterans,” he said. “I enjoy the camaraderie.”  “Park Rapids is a very patriotic community,” Cooper said of services offered free and at discounts to veterans. “It’s enjoyable to march in parades and see streets lined with people 9 months to 90 years, with hands on their hearts. I can’t say that for every state I’ve been in.  “It’s breathtaking, seeing them showing their respect.”

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