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Face of Defense: Country Music Star Earned Stripes in Iraq, Afghanistan

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2009 – Stephen Cochran was a normal 19-year-old with a dream of making music his life when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led him down an unplanned path to the Marine Corps.

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Country singer-songwriter Stephen Cochran is a former Marine and a wounded veteran. His back was broken in an ambush while he was serving in Afghanistan in July 2004. Now, with his music career on track, Cochran also works to promote programs that help to meet the needs of wounded veterans. Courtesy photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“I dropped out of college. I walked away from a record deal,” he said. “I was engaged.”

He didn’t discuss his decision with his parents, or even his then-fiancée, who broke the engagement when he announced he’d enlisted. “It was really the first grown-up decision I’d ever made,” Cochran said.

The musician, born in Pikeville, Ky., grew up in Nashville’s songwriting and recording community. There, he learned the art of songwriting from his father. He made his musical debut on the radio at age 3 and had his first band by 15.

At 17, he was offered a record deal, but he and his parents agreed that he needed to go to college first. If this offer had been made now, they reasoned, there would be others after college.

While at Western Kentucky University, Cochran played lacrosse and continued to write songs and play music. True to his parents’ prediction, he was offered another record deal. But he wanted to finish school.

The company offered a promissory note, but then Sept. 11 happened.

“It was just so horrific,” he said. “It’s like I’d been called. I’d never been pulled so hard to do something.”

It may have been the audacity of the attacks, but more likely it was his family’s long history of military service that drew him to enlist, he said. Both grandfathers served, as did an uncle and several other relatives.

“I’ve always been raised very, very patriotic. It’s just what I had to do,” Cochran said of his decision to join the Marines.

It wasn’t long before he found himself in Kuwait with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, waiting to cross into Iraq. He was 20.

Once the unit crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border, contact with the enemy was a daily ocurrence, Cochran said. When the unit’s tour was finished, the Marines had fought their way to Tikrit and back.

“We brought every man home with us,” he said. “They said we did 111 missions. That was more missions than any other unit had done since Vietnam.”

But daily battle takes its toll. Cochran said he thinks every Marine in his section showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Four months later, however, the entire battalion volunteered to go to Afghanistan with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. They figured nothing could be worse than Iraq.

They were wrong.

“In Afghanistan, everything was just dead. There was no foliage. The people wouldn’t look you in the eye,” he said, adding that he and his buddies had learned that usually meant they had something to hide.

In fact, after several months of daily fighting in Afghanistan, the Marines began to wonder just how wrong they’d been about nothing being worse than the fighting in Iraq.

“Some of us came up with a theory that maybe we had been killed in Iraq and now we were in hell,” Cochran said with a chuckle that belied the seriousness of the thought.

That theory may have been conceived during a mission where the Marines were outnumbered more than 2 to 1 and he lost one of his best friends.

“It was a suicide mission,” Cochran said. “We 100 percent knew there was going to be a casualty on this mission. We knew it.”

The mission initially sent a five-man team into what Cochran described as very hostile territory. When 26 insurgents ambushed the team, another seven-man team responded. Despite killing 14 insurgents before the fight was over, they’d lost one Marine.

“If you wanted to pick one man to represent the entire military, it was him,” he said about the Marine. “We were all trying to figure out different ports we could get drunk in. He was trying to get us into Bible study.”

About a month later, on July 14, 2004, Cochran was on his last mission, working security for convoys carrying equipment back to Kandahar, when he was injured.

Just 20 yards inside Kandahar, the vehicle he was riding in hit an anti-tank mine. He was thrown from the vehicle and broke the five vertebrae in his lower back.

When he woke in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., a month later, he discovered he was paralyzed from the waist down and most likely never would walk again.

To add insult to injury, the record company that had offered Cochran the deal dropped him, saying they couldn’t put $1 million dollars into a paraplegic.

“I understand. It’s a business,” he said. “[But] I never believed I was never going to walk again.”

The doctors at Bethesda weren’t so hopeful. Despite the fact that Cochran’s spinal cord was intact, the bone and cartilage were severely damaged and were pulling on his spinal cord. The doctors’ best suggestion was to fuse the bone together to alleviate the pain.

Another option surfaced, however. Though his doctors in Bethesda, who were just beginning to see the types of injuries that became typical with servicemembers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, were vehemently against the idea, his mother -- and first sergeant -- pushed for the procedure. They finally won.

Kyphoplasty, a procedure used to restore fractured vertebra, usually is reserved for older patients suffering from degeneration of the vertebrae and cartilage. However, six months after an orthopedic surgeon at Vanderbilt Medical Center used essentially 4 pounds of cement to fix the crushed vertebrae in Cochran’s back, he was up and walking with the help of a walker.

Today, he’s back on the country music scene and has a deal with Aria Records. His debut album, “Friday Night Fireside,” has received more than favorable reviews.

While music is his passion, Cochran said, he found room for a second passion after his recovery: working to make sure wounded veterans have what they need to recover and live the fullest life possible.

He does this is by working with the Independence Fund, a nonprofit organization that, among other things, provides robotic wheelchairs to veterans confined to wheelchairs. The high-tech chairs can walk stairs and give the veterans their height back, Cochran said.

“They can look everybody in the eye,” Cochran said. “That’s the biggest thing. When I was in a wheelchair … I had to look up at everybody. It was a big shock to your confidence. This raises them up to where they can have a conversation and look you in the eye.”

It has the same technology as the Segway personal transporter, so it won’t fall over, he added.

As amazing as that piece of technology is, Cochran said, bigger things are on the horizon and he’ll do everything he can to make sure veterans have access to them.

“My goal is that the bigger I get in music, the bigger my pulpit can get to preach on my soapbox … and really get more people involved,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in the music business who talk a lot. We just need them to get their checkbooks out now.”

What Cochran said he would really like, however, is for veterans to never have to worry about what comes next.

“I want to have a foundation that covers you from the time you enlist or from the time you’re commissioned until we put you in the ground,” he said. “There is no reason a man shooting a basketball should have to not worry about anything in life, and a man that is ready to take a bullet should.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCountry singer-songwriter Stephen Cochran and his band play for wounded warriors and their guests at a dinner hosted by the USO and Microsoft in New York, Nov. 8, 2008. Cochran is a former Marine who broke his back when he was ambushed while serving in Afghanistan. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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