02/13/05 — Pat Cooper welcomed home

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Pat Cooper welcomed home

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 13, 2005 2:12 AM

When Master Sgt. Pat Cooper was deployed to Aludeid Air Base in Quatar in September, his neighbors in the Bridle Path community of Elroy decided to "tie a yellow ribbon" around a dogwood tree so that those who passed would be reminded to pray for their friend.

On Saturday, to commemorate his safe return home 10 days ago, the ribbon was presented to Cooper and his family.

"It's been saluted by many a Bridle Path resident," said Jennifer Robbins as she handed the ribbon to Karen Cooper, Pat's wife.

The afternoon celebration was held in an open field next to neighbor Greg White's home. George Vrbetic of Pikeville, a retired Navy chief and commander in chief of American Legion Post 11, grilled and served up hamburgers and hotdogs, with other fixings contributed by neighbors who attended.

A similar cookout had been held in August as a sendoff before Cooper left. His wife said he had served in the desert a couple of times but that this was his first deployment in recent years.

The couple, both from Columbus, Ga., have lived here nearly 10 years. Married for 24 of the 29 years Cooper has been in the Air Force, they have five sons. Robert will be 19 next month; Ethan is 15, followed by Thomas, 14, Caleb, 12, and Timothy, 8.

"When he left, in my words, it sucked," said oldest son Robert, adding, "It's good to have him back."

Mrs. Cooper said it wasn't really that hard being the single mother left behind while her husband was away, which she credits to her boys pitching in and support received from neighbors and the church.

"Anytime we needed help, someone was always there," she said.

She said her husband set up individual e-mail accounts for each of the boys so that they would receive their own personal messages from him while he was gone. He typically talked with them by phone every couple of weeks.

White described the family as close-knit. Cooper said that being separated from them was the toughest part of his deployment.

The one thing he said he didn't have to worry about, though, was his family being cared for. He said his support system has been outstanding.

"The Air Force support system is great, but my support goes beyond the base," he said.

One of the biggest selling points of his neighborhood, he said, is all the military retirees it contains. Air Force, Marines, and Navy are represented.

And they all showed up to honor him on Saturday.

A banner bearing the message, "Welcome Home, Pat" flapped in the breeze as the family stood together to hear words of appreciation from their friends.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's all came and went while Cooper was gone, White said.

"He was not there for his family during that time," White said. "He was out protecting our freedom so we could be with our families."

A plant from Long's Plant Farm was given to the Coopers along with a gift certificate from El Korita, a favorite eating place for the family. And then came the engraved plaque.

"In appreciation for your outstanding service during the war on terror," White read. "Your personal sacrifices have ensured our freedom."

Cooper recalled his arrival "in country" for his deployment. He said his group was asked to serve as honor detail.

"I have to tell you, I was real tired," he said. But as he and fellow soldiers stood on the ramp and watched three boxes draped in American flags being unloaded, it was a sobering moment.

"Those guys were going home for the last time," he said.

"I'm proud of what I have done for my country. Those young men paid the ultimate sacrifice. That's what this is all about."

Choking up briefly, he paused and told the crowd, "I'm just one little cog in a mighty big machine. Without you, without your support, it wouldn't have meant anything."

Cooper, 47, said he plans to retire this summer.