Nov. 24—NIAGARA FALLS — John Cooper Jr. knows firsthand how hard it can be for a soldier to transition from being a member of the U.S. military to being a civilian after their tour of duty ends.
That's one of the reasons why Cooper, director of development for the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission in Niagara Falls, believes so strongly in a new initiative he's leading, one that aims to provide a unique classification of homeless men with two things he feels they need most: Dignity and respect.
The mission, located at 1317 Portage Road, announced in August plans to open a program specific to homeless military veterans. The program provides access to an eight-bed, veterans-only emergency dorm at the shelter and connects them to services offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Cooper, a 31-year-old Wheatfield native and Niagara-Wheatfield High School graduate who served for six years as a sniper in the U.S. Army, said he pitched the idea after noticing, while reviewing assistance paperwork, a significant number of applicants with military backgrounds.
After taking a closer look, Cooper found that roughly 15% of the men applying for help at the rescue mission were once enlisted in the armed forces.
He thinks he understands part of the reason why.
"When you get out, it's 'get a job, go to work, go to school, do whatever it is you are going to do,' " Cooper said. "But for guys who were ordered to do everything they did, that's a difficult thing. In the military, it's a defined structure and, for some of these guys, adjusting to the world outside the military, that's a hard thing to deal with."
Cooper speaks from experience.
His years of Army service included two deployments to Afghanistan where he experienced combat firsthand. He noted that many combat veterans struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health issues and, at times, drug addiction after they return home.
Those issues, Cooper said, can present challenges to maintaining what he views as one of life's most important things — healthy relationships with friends and family members, including spouses, parents and children.
"Every person who is homeless doesn't run out of resources, they run out of relationships," Cooper said. "These guys have burned every single bridge. That's why they end up with us. With homeless veterans, it's really the same thing. They run out of relationships."
A key part of Cooper's job, and that of the veterans' services program he runs, involves reminding veterans that they matter and their service is appreciated.
While homelessness is a serious issue regardless of the individual involved, Cooper said he is often bothered by how "accepted" homeless veterans have become in today's world.
"There's dignity involved in their story," he said. "We give them the dignity. We give them the respect in our shelter. If they come to us, we can connect them to the services."
"We show them that we are thankful for what they did," he said.
Cooper, whose family this year celebrated 100 years of owning and operating the Cooper Sign Co. in Niagara Falls, enlisted in the army after college. He said he considers himself a fighter and thought being a soldier might be a good fit for him.
He has vivid recollections of having to say goodbye to his wife and young son during his first deployment in Afghanistan. He said the experience was a reminder of the brevity of life, and the need to "live in the now" because there's no guarantee of tomorrow.
He remembers a lot of the down times, too, noting that, for him, being in the Army wasn't all combat all the time but more staying prepared to fight when it came time to do so.
"It wasn't what I expected," he said. "Everyone expects that you go in and you just go to war immediately. It was a lot better than I expected. You get to meet a lot of good people from all over the place. You see yourself getting into really bad situations and you also see yourself getting out."
After getting out of the Army, Cooper lived in Watertown with his wife, Elizabeth and their two children. After his wife's position as a nurse at a local hospital was cut, the Coopers decided to move back home to Niagara County.
He got involved in helping the Gospel Rescue Mission as a volunteer, supporting the mission's "Operation Warmth" effort and other programs. When the opportunity arose, he seized the chance to work for the mission because he said it offered him the chance to do what he likes best: help people in need.
"I like seeing people's lives change," he said.
This Thanksgiving, Cooper has plenty of reasons to be grateful.
His wife just gave birth to his third child, a son named Samuel Knox.
Cooper said he considers himself blessed to have a good family and close friends
"I'm thankful every day for my family and friends who were around me to give me the foundation that I have," he said.
He hopes his work with the homeless, including the veterans among them, can help those who were not as fortunate build their own foundations and turn their lives around for the better.
"We can't get discouraged in doing good things," he added. "Even though it can be discouraging at times, you can't let it stop you."
His message to the public this Thanksgiving: Be thankful for veterans and their service.
"I feel like the days when maybe I'm doing my best in life, I'm doing a disservice to them," he said.
The Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission is a faith-based non-profit organization that provides assistance and shelter to men who are dealing with homelessness, drug addiction or mental health concerns. The mission welcomes monetary and clothing donations as well as volunteer support from the community. For more information, visit https://niagaragospelmission.org/ or call 716-205-8805.