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Zachary Cooper remembers the names of 24 U.S. Marines who lost their lives in the Iraq War. He does not recite the names of his fellow Marines to recall what transpired during the war; he will never forget those details. He retains their names for one reason: he is alive.

 

Cooper, a West Carroll Parish native, describes his fellow Marines, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, as his family. They lived together in a “tin can on a ship,” and they were a community.

 

“The second deployment was really rough. I was close to many who died, but there was one who had a wife and kids, and that was hard to take. That one was the toughest. It changed things for me. It was the type of loss a 21-year-old wouldn’t normally experience.”

 

Cooper’s first deployment to Iraq was in 2003, after the Iraq War began, when he was just 20 years old. He married his high school sweetheart Elizabeth before being deployed a second time in 2004. His unit started in Haditha as the most junior Marine battalion and became the most senior battalion stationed in Fallujah, where loss was a daily occurrence.

 

The daily reality of losing good friends during that 10-month span spurred Cooper to develop a coping mechanism.

 

“I had to remind myself I could die tomorrow. I had to make peace with that or lose my mind. I did it to survive. When you do that, it really feels like you’re giving up a piece of yourself that you never get back. It’s a lonely experience.”

 

Cooper left the service a decorated Marine sergeant; he received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his service in Fallujah. He now views his life in two parts: before and after the Iraq War.

 

“The war made me realize the fragility of life and the value of things. We take so much of this life for granted: our buildings, our electricity, our water, every bit of it. After the war, when I was working on my medical residency at the University of Tennessee, I had a lot of hard days. And then I recited those 24 names. I owed that to them, and it was a real motivator.”

 

That motivation—to live his best life because his Marine brothers could not—reignited a dream he had at five years old, which was to be a doctor. Cooper was also inspired by Dr. Richard Jadick, who saved the lives of 30 Marines during one battle in Iraq.

 

“It was amazing what Dr. Jadick did for us in Fallujah. His drive to help Marines who were in a bad way was incredibly strong, and it made me realize that medicine could be the route to make all of this worth something.”

 

Cooper attended Louisiana State University Medical School, and after his rotation in anesthesiology, he understood his path. Today, he is an anesthesiologist with SMSO Anesthesia, serving both P&S Surgical Hospital and Monroe Surgical Hospital.

 

“Anesthesiology was the best two weeks in medical school; I was fascinated by the physiology and the procedures. I enjoyed building rapport with patients. The patients form a level of trust with you in a short period of time, and I liked making people feel comfortable when facing a stressful time like surgery.”

 

A self-described “Delta boy,” Cooper grew up in Kilbourne, just west of the Mississippi River, where he hunted, fished, and worked odd jobs within his community. He and his two siblings were known as “the red-headed triplets.”

 

Their red-headed great-great-grandfather, Dr. Benjamin F. Green, was a physician and donated a significant amount of land to West Carroll Parish. The community dubbed the land “Green Acres.”

 

“I was proud, and yet I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the fact that we had a doctor in the family. Our mother was always telling my siblings and I we were smart and could achieve anything.”

 

The triplets were raised by their mother, their grandparents, and their mother’s brother, Kenneth Green, who is now the Chief Criminal Deputy for West Carroll Parish.

 

Green remembers Zachary as “a very good kid.”

 

“I started taking care of him when he was little bitty thing. I was about 17 when I began changing diapers and feeding bottles. He was pretty reserved as a child, sitting back, listening, and taking it all in. As he got older, he grew to be very dependable; anything I asked him to do, he jumped all over it.”

 

Cooper, who is now a father to Lee, 9; Kate and Wade, 7; and Stephen, 4, will always be grateful to his uncle for being the father he and his siblings benefitted so much from as children.

 

“I got a lot of my work ethic from watching him. He filled that male influence role—a very good one—that we needed growing up. He was always taking us fishing or hunting, and if there was work to do around the house, one of us came with him. Even when I look back now, as an adult, I think of him as a very moral person who can do no wrong.”

 

Cooper’s mother did not want her son to join the service, but he knew it was something he had to do. Despite the trauma, he does not regret his decision.

 

“For years, I thought the Marine Corps wasn’t going to change me as a person, but that second deployment definitely changed all of us,” he said. “When I am asked if I regret my decision to enlist, the answer is no, and yet it is complicated. To put it simply, I don’t regret my decision to enlist because it was an honor to serve this great country with my Marine Corps brothers.”

By Laura Clark