“The Best Brothers You’ll Ever Have”: One Man’s Life in the Army
April 18, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
Former serviceman John Cooper talks about his life in the army and how he uses his experiences to help others.
My name’s John Cooper. I’m 54 years old. I come from Birmingham.
When I was at school I was a bit of a head-banger. I was an only child so I was spoiled rotten. Everything I decided to do, I did it.
At 16 Dad said, ‘I’ll get you a job at my place’. His job was a transport manager. So he got me a job working as an apprentice. I didn’t like the bloke who was teaching me so I thought, I’m 16, I want to do something useful, so I decided to join the army.
I went into the boys’ service at 16. At 17 I landed up in 2 Para [The 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment]. I was in the army for three years. I went to Northern Ireland and did two tours there. I was 17 and a half. It’s young but at the time that was the age it was. During my first tour of Northern Ireland, I lost one of my mates who was just coming up to 18. He had two kids and he got killed the first week we got there. That took a lot of strength out of me.
After being medically discharged from the army due to arthritis, I worked at MG Rover in Longbridge. I worked there for 16 years.
In 1991 Desert Storm erupted and I transferred into a volunteer regiment. I volunteered to go into the Royal Engineers. We weren’t deployed to Iraq but I did a good few years with them. It was a good regiment.
The army is like a family reunion. You do your training together. You go everywhere together and they’re the best brothers you’ll ever have. I’m an only child but they’re the best mates I’ve ever had. When I’ve had no money they’ve always bought me my pints and stuff. Even when I was in the reserves it was the same. I used to look forward to going to annual camps.
So now instead of throwing my military career away I’m with the Royal British Legion. I help the ex-forces out. I’m a support officer for the British Legion at the central Cardiff branch.
The British Legion are important to people who haven’t got a home to go to. If they can’t find a place for them to put them up there are always connections where they can find out. Or if you’re short of money, that’s what the funds are for, to help people, not just the lads or women who’ve been in the army or navy or air force. It’s for the people that they’ve left behind. It helps the families. It makes sure they’re ok.
One of the lads not long back, he’d been on leave and he went back and got killed and he left two girls and his wife and they’re only young. I mean, who pays for the bills and that? It’s the British Legion that pays for that. So that’s what we raise a lot of money for.
If you’re ex-forces and you can’t afford things, they’ll always help you out. I had nothing when I went in my place and they bought me a carpet, a fridge freezer and an oven.
We go out giving out poppies. People will want poppies and they put money in the collection box. We take wreaths to different places that need them; for example the Lord Mayor’s place in Cardiff. We leave our red collection boxes at police stations and even Cardiff prison. People put the money in, you know. Because even though they’re in prison they’re still human.
My priority is to help other people. I’m nobody. I’ve got a medal and a t-shirt. That’s enough for me, but what I’ve learnt in the past might help other people to come to terms with things. I’ve lost both my parents and fiancée.
For me, if I can help anybody out with what I’ve gone through and talk to people who are more vulnerable than me, that’s it. That’s where I think I can come in useful to other people. I want to use my experiences from the past to help other people.
I was talking about combat stress the other day. Recently a guy took his own life. This guy killed himself and that’s where I’d like to do the training to go and help people more vulnerable than myself. I wouldn’t have a clue where to start but I’m always ready to work and listen, and if I can help one person out, that’s what God put me on earth for. There’s a hell of a lot of vulnerable people out there.
Once one door closes another one opens somewhere. It might not take a week, it might not take a month but eventually it will open. A lot of people, they expect it straight away. But it doesn’t work that way. I thought it did but it doesn’t.
Interview by Anna Foden
[Image courtesy of Philip Stevens]