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Young Physician Hears the Call

September 7, 2011 By:
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Lt. Cmdr. Adam Cooper

Lt. Cmdr. Adam Cooper, a medical doctor and trauma specialist in the U.S. Navy Reserve, is headed for Afghanistan and along with his stethoscope and other gear, he's packing a siddur and Chumash.

The 35-year-old Center City resident, a staff physician at the VA Medical Center in University City, has for years envisioned serving his country in a war zone. Now, sometime in late September or early October, he is set to depart for a six-month stint on a base in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, where he'll oversee about 20 medics and ultimately be responsible for the lives of 700 Marines.

"The military is something I've wanted to do my whole life. It's something inside me that never went away. It was like a calling that I had to go after," said the Linwood, N.J., native. "I knew I just needed to do this for myself. This is what you do when you are a Jew and an American."

He is not someone who throws in a mention of Jewish values as an afterthought. In the past few years, he's undergone a Jewish reawakening of sorts and is seriously wrestling with how to incorporate Torah study, prayer and Shabbat observance into his hectic life. According to several folks at the Aish Village Shul, an Orthodox synagogue in Bala Cynwyd where he davens when he can, Cooper quickly earned the nickname "Doc Mitzvah" because he always seemed to be helping others.

The young physician views his medical, military and religious pursuits as part of a holistic, conscious process to become the person he envisions.

"I'm on a spiritual path," he said during a recent interview in his apartment, just prior to leaving for three weeks of additional training at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in California. At the time, his hair was buzzed quite short, at least for civilian life, but he said that length wouldn't cut it for a Marine Corps base.

He projected a quiet intensity, resting his arms on his knees and, for more than an hour, remained nearly motionless, concentrating, his eyes looking straight ahead. The Muhlenberg College graduate expressed a reticence to call attention to himself. He agreed to the interview, he said, to try to inspire more Jews either to join the Navy or serve the country in some capacity.

He said that he'd always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who fought in the Philippines in World War II, and his father, who served in the Air National Guard.

Then came the day the towers fell.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Cooper was a third-year medical student on rotation at a hospital in Jersey City, N.J. (He went to medical school at St. George's University in Grenada, which requires students to complete their studies at hospitals in the United States or England.)

The hospital had been placed on red alert in anticipation of being overwhelmed with injured survivors of the catastrophe.

The fact that no one ever arrived proved an eerie indication of just how many had perished.

"If I would have looked out the window, I probably could have seen the towers fall," he said. "It's hard to believe it has been 10 years. It is still so fresh in my mind."

In the weeks after the worst terrorist attack in American history, Cooper said his heart told him it was time to enlist in the U.S. Navy. He talked with a recruiter. He even completed the physical. But he held back. Something told him that it wasn't the right time, that he needed to complete his medical training before he'd really be of use.

He went through a similar process in the early days of the Iraq war.

Finally in 2009, with his trauma residency and years of treating emergency victims at Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia behind him, Cooper decided the time was now or never.

Cooper, who is single, is slated to leave for a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, just weeks after the 10th anniversary of the national tragedy that changed the course of the globe. He will be deployed to the country where the war on terrorism really started once the United States began air strikes against the Taliban in November 2001.

The military has officially designated him as the Jewish lay leader for the base; his duties will include coordinating a Passover seder and making sure the religious needs of Jewish soldiers are met. It's not clear whether he will be there in time for the High Holidays.

When it comes to his embrace of Judaism, Cooper made it clear that it has been a lifelong journey. He grew up attending a Conservative synagogue down the shore and traveled to Israel as a teen through the movement's United Synagogue Youth.

But it was a 2007 trip to the Jewish state organized by the Chevra -- a local group that caters to young professionals -- that he said helped him realize the kind of role he wanted Judaism to play in his life.

He's visited Israel two more times since then, spending a month studying Torah at the Israelight Center program in Jerusalem's Old City. While in Afghanistan, he plans to keep up his Torah study by videoconferencing with a rabbi from that program.

In late 2008, he returned for a shorter visit to take a crash course in disaster preparedness sponsored by the American Physicians Fellowship. That program trains American doctors to function in the Israeli system if massive numbers of Israeli physicians are called up to fight in the Israel Defense Forces.

He considered enlisting in the IDF, but in the end, the idea of serving the United States proved too powerful.

His first real chance to serve wasn't in a war zone, but a disaster zone.

In January 2010, within 36 hours of the 7.0 Haitian earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people, Cooper got a call: Did he want to be part of a relief mission? The next morning, he was on the USNS Comfort bound for Haiti. It turned out to be the largest and most complicated disaster-relief effort in the Navy's history.

At first, he treated victims aboard the Navy's floating trauma center. Later, he was flown by helicopter to some of the hardest hit areas where he performed triage duty, essentially deciding who had a chance at life and who was injured beyond hope.

He spent five weeks on call, managing just two or three hours of sleep. He was one of just a handful of the 1,200 service men and women on the mission to receive a Commendation Medal.

"Once I saw the first patient, I was like 'I know how to do this. I've done this for four years,' " he recalled.

In fact, he thinks his experience in Haiti, perhaps more than any other, has best prepared him for what he will face in the unforgiving terrain of southern Afghanistan.

The August interview took place just days after insurgents shot down a helicopter killing 30 Americans, most of whom were members of the same elite Navy SEALS squad that killed Osama Bin Laden.

"The scariest thing about this war is transportation. This is a high-profile and horrific tragedy," he said, referring to the Aug. 6 incident. "You feel a little bit of extra concern. But if anything, it made me feel like I wanted to go even more. These are the guys who are on the front lines. I'm the lucky one who gets to take care of them."

Cooper said he realized that his decision to put his life on the line will cause his parents much worry.

"I don't want to disrupt their lives," he said.

Still, serving in an overseas war zone is "one of the major reasons that I joined. The day you don't want to go is the day you shouldn't be wearing the uniform."

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