Colin Cooper of Elk Grove emerged from his stint in Iraq with newfound maturity and a single-minded determination to help veterans with the transition from military service to college and employment.
In just two years, Cooper, 24, who was assigned to Army telecommunications in Iraq, initiated an Elk Grove chapter of the Student Veterans of America at DeVry University where he is a senior, held a panel discussion on mental health for returning veterans and helped draft three bills that lawmakers in Sacramento are carrying to make college education a little more accessible and a little easier for the 60,000 post-9/11 veterans attending college in California.
"I'm much older and more reserved, so the way I deal with things is with patience and endurance, but he's like a dynamo," said David Gordon, a 49-year-old veteran who met Cooper as a fellow DeVry student.
Cooper's dad, Chuck Cooper, said his son wasn't always so focused. As a student in the Bay Area suburb of Pleasant Hill, Copper drifted from drama to baseball, a shy student "just going through the motions" of high school with the aim of "getting the job done," Chuck Cooper recalled.
As a junior, Colin Cooper said, he decided to join the Army, taking basic training the summer before his senior year. His grandfathers had served in the military, and for Cooper, joining up "made things a lot easier in my senior year. I didn't have to fumble around thinking of college."
Chuck Cooper, 47, an office manager for Sierra Pacific Tours, said he didn't worry about his son's decision "until I found out where he was going to go - and that would scare anyone."
Cooper's deployment destination was Balad, Iraq, where he spent his 19th birthday serving in telecommunications with the 101st Airborne Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. He was "shot at but never hit" and found homesickness the most difficult part of his job.
"That was the first time I was really gone from my family," he recalled. "But when you're in the military you have another set of family, which are the guys you serve with."
That connection to other servicemen and women remained with Cooper after he was honorably discharged for a stateside training injury on his rotator cuff. It's what prompted him to get involved with veteran advocacy when he enrolled at DeVry in 2009.
Working together with a few other involved veterans on campus, Cooper created the Student Veterans Alliance of DeVry University, a chapter of the 3-year-old national Student Veterans of America, which works to help veterans transition to college.
At DeVry, Cooper's efforts have resulted in the creation of a website (www.sv-alliance.com) to connect the school's 140 veterans to activities and the peer-to-peer advice that so many veterans need to succeed on campus.
"The biggest thing is support," Cooper said. "Our club on campus allows us to have that shared experience and also gives veterans a place where they know they can go to talk with someone who has had that same experience and might understand that experience."
Peers "are the best person to teach their buddy," said Ted Puntillo, California's Deputy Secretary of Veterans Services. According to Puntillo, about half of the 60,000 post-9/11 veterans enrolled in California colleges are studying at the state's community colleges, and the other 30,000 attend a variety of schools, including the University of California and for-profit schools such as DeVry.
Cooper is extremely bright and has this desire to make changes for the better for military personnel, said Kimberley Garth-James, who taught the young vet statistics at DeVry and nominated him for this year's regional People Helping People awards.
Cooper took home the People Helping People Unsung Hero Award in 2011, and he received the 2010 Presidential Volunteer Service Silver Award from the Student Veterans of America in 2010.
Finding a physical place for veterans to call their own on campus has been challenging. Cooper said student veterans at DeVry are still looking for a designated office space. Other veterans groups on California campuses are also struggling to find a place to meet.
A bill Cooper helped draft as the California legislative director of Student Veterans of America by Assemblyman Mike Davis, D-Los Angeles, would require California community colleges and "encourage" University of California campuses to establish such offices on all public campuses.
Cooper said post-combat stress is another problem veterans experience while pursuing their educational goals.
"Stress is always going to be a trigger for those who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)," he said. In November, Cooper helped establish a panel discussion on the disorder on the DeVry campus, bringing together veterans and mental health professionals.
Two other bills Cooper has helped draft would extend the amount of time California veterans would receive priority status for college class registration from two years after leaving active duty to four or five.
"They have to get their heads straight," said Puntillo of combat veterans. "You're not going to go right back to work after you get in a car wreck. These people have been in a two- or three-year car wreck and may not be ready to jump right into school."
Cooper is due to graduate next year and is thinking of getting a master's degree in computer engineering or military social work from either UC Davis or University of Southern California. Friends have suggested a run for the state Senate or Assembly, but he said he's not ready to consider public office.
"I'm thinking of getting a job, maybe settling down for a while maybe taking a little time for myself," he said.