Cpl. Josh Cooley's life changed in one roadside blast. As he lay in a hospital, family wrangled over his care. But now he's emerging.
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
The Marine Corps birthday bash was starting inside the vast ballroom, but the young men in dress blues focused their attention elsewhere. They lined up for a turn to greet the comrade they affectionately called Old Man. They gripped his hand, leaned in close.
"Really good to see you, man."
"You look better than I do."
Some had not seen him since the blast that doctors guessed would kill him. Others visited once at the hospital stateside and found it too hard to return.
He sat now in a wheelchair, tall and straight, silent and proud. His hat hid a scalp still glossy pink from burns, and his formal jacket had been widened with Velcro to accommodate the extra girth from months of near inaction.
He was one of them, even if he no longer seemed all that he was.
* * *
After 17 months of knowing hospitals as home, Cpl. Josh Cooley is breaking out.
It is not yet a return to his pre-Iraq days of Harleys and Pasco Sheriff's Office SWAT cases and Austin Powers impersonations. But the Marine reservist, who endured grave head injuries from a roadside blast in July 2005, is emerging from his physical and mental cage.
His is a measured recovery, marked by subtle advances and life-threatening setbacks. He almost died during skull-repair surgery last summer. He cannot walk unassisted. He cannot talk by normal definitions.
Yet through a basic signing system developed by his mother, 30-year-old Josh has in the last few months begun to communicate his desires and preferences. One finger for yes, two fingers for no.
That he can express himself at all delights those looking for hints of his potential. He could become more than a soundless focal point in the ongoing legal fight between his wife and family over the power to make his medical and financial decisions.
Most days, his signs serve a simpler purpose. Like telling Christine Cooley, his mother, what he wants for dessert.
"Rice pudding or yogurt?" she asked during a recent lunchtime inside Josh's room at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
She set them on the table in front of his wheelchair. Josh looked at them for a few moments. Finally, he tapped on the rice pudding.
"Good choice," Christine said.
* * *
Josh stubbornly ignored his friends and family who urged him after 9/11 to stick with law enforcement rather than follow his Vietnam veteran father Ed Cooley's footsteps.
The hulking man with legs like logs and a Mr. Clean bald head graduated with honors from boot camp. Younger guys in his unit looked up to him, even if they outranked him.
"I thought for sure he was going to pick up rank before me," said Adam Boggs, a lance corporal in Josh's platoon. "People listened to him."
Then an enemy car bomb cut short Josh's service. Fitting for an overachiever, he quickly defied his grim prognosis. He beat fevers that spiked from shrapnel in his head, breathed without a tracheotomy, survived multiple surgeries that required anesthesia.
In July, he almost lost the fight. After a seven-hour procedure at BethesdaNavalHospital to fill out the sunken right side of his head, doctors realized that the young skin had not stretched far enough over a plastic plate. A complicated 14-hour surgery to correct the problem had to be followed by an emergency operation for a hematoma, leaving Josh as swollen as he had been in the days after the explosion.
But he bounced back, and his progress quickened.
By fall, he was feeding himself cottage cheese and fruit at lunch and licking the wayward drippings off his lower lip. He held a rooster on a trip to an Odessa horse farm with other wounded veterans. He beat his mom at arm wrestling and applied his own deodorant.
His shoulders shook with laughter when his former SWAT buddies recalled their old adventures.
Behind the drama of his recovery, another quiet drama played out.
Josh's parents and brother went to court to wrest his guardianship from his wife and fellow Pasco Sheriff's deputy, Christina Cooley. They argued Christina had not dedicated herself enough to his recovery, while his mother had not missed a day by his side.
Josh's wife is fighting to retain decisionmaking rights for her husband, whom she married two months before he went to war. A trial is set for March.
In October, Josh's court-appointed attorney visited his hospital room. Richard Minardi wanted to see for himself whether Josh could convey his wishes and, if so, what they were.
"If you want Christina to be your guardian, hold up one finger," the attorney asked.
Recalling the encounter later, Minardi said Josh didn't hold up any fingers.
* * *
One night in November, the people who love Josh put aside their dispute to escort him to the Marine ball.
The family walked into the Tampa Convention Center together, Christina in a sparkling champagne gown, Christine in heels for the first time since Josh's injury, Ed in his first-ever suit.
Josh fingered the medals on his breast pocket, the ones his father had straightened just so.
People stared. "Got hit by a bomb," a Marine whispered to his date as Josh rolled by.
Word of Josh's arrival quickly spread to his platoon mates. They crowded him in excitement. Then the reality of his condition and the memory of the bomb's billowing smoke hit, and several went outside to compose themselves.
"I was twisted up pretty bad. It touches you to see your brother like that," 21-year-old Boggs said later, getting choked again.
The 231st Marine birthday celebration - the largest reunion of the Tampa-based 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion in three years, with Marines home from deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa - opened with the presentation of colors and a brass-band rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.
A hush fell over the ballroom as Maj. John Wright spoke the names of each of the battalion's dead and wounded. He saved one name in particular for last.
"And with great pleasure - as a goal we set last year has been fulfilled - one of our own, Josh Cooley."
Two hundred Marines sprang to their feet. They clapped and whistled and whooped their guttural cry.
Josh stared straight ahead, his mouth curved in a half-smile. A mother of a Marine killed in action, sitting one table over from the Cooleys, began to cry.
Josh's first night out ended on the dance floor. As Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough pumped through the speakers, he beamed in his wheelchair as his mom swayed on one arm and his wife swung the other. Bright flashing lights and beautiful, complicated life swirled around him.
* * *
On Monday, Josh and his parents flew to Southern California.
Feeling he had plateaued in his recovery, the Cooleys and Josh's neurosurgeon in Bethesda decided a rehabilitation program called Casa Colina would be the next best step.
The center will offer Josh intensive therapies six days a week, all paid for by his military insurance. One day in, a physical therapist already talked about Josh walking on his own and a speech therapist got him to mold his lips in the shapes of sounds.
No one knows how far Josh will go or how long he will stay at Casa Colina. Every brain is different. Each milestone offers a reason to believe he might achieve self-sufficiency.
As Ed soaked up the California sun and gazed out at snow-capped mountains last week, resolve filled his voice.