More than five years after an Army psychiatrist nearly killed him in a shooting rampage that killed many others, Matt Cooke received a Purple Heart medal at a ceremony Saturday.
Cooke of Stanly County was one of 32 soldiers and civilians wounded that day in November 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, by Major Nidal Hasan, a Palestinian-American psychiatrist. Cooke, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, was a specialist 5 awaiting deployment for a third tour when he tried to protect one of the first wounded soldiers and was shot five times.
He and the other wounded were the lucky ones. Thirteen died in the rampage.
Saturday, at the VA Medical Center in Salisbury, Cooke received the medal that the survivors have long sought – and the major general who presented it to him said was overdue.
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“The Purple Heart took a long time, but now we have our recognition and I’m just honored to be here,” said Cooke, honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2013 and still recuperating from physical and mental wounds. “The United States finally realizes there are home-grown terrorists.”
That recognition came after five years of military leaders and politicians grappling over whether the victims were eligible for the Purple Heart – historically reserved for troops killed or wounded in combat.
The survivors fought to get the Army to recognize the Fort Hood shooting as a terrorist attack, which automatically would have made them eligible for the medal and other combat-related benefits. The military resisted, labeling the attack as “workplace violence.”
A Pentagon paper concluded that presenting the medal to the victims could alter the “fundamental character” of the Purple Heart and undermine Hasan’s prosecution by compromising his right to a fair trial.
In August 2013, Hasan was convicted and sentenced to death.
Yet the military still resisted until last month, when lawmakers approved legislation that broadened the definition of terrorist attacks to include contact the attacker may have had with – or motivated by – a foreign terrorist organization before the attack.
Army Major Gen. Jefforey Smith, who pinned Cooke’s medal on his jacket Saturday, agreed that it should have come sooner.
“The enemy will do whatever they can and wherever they can get to to do harm to Americans ... and our values and way of life,” said Smith, deputy commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg.
Government and military leaders “had it within them to recognize ... that a soldier can defend this country from the continental United States and be wounded and be recognized for being wounded,” Smith said. “This award is reflective of that.”
Many of the survivors gathered at Fort Hood this month to receive their medals.
Cooke said Saturday he could have joined them, but chose to get the medal at a ceremony at home, indebted to family and friends for their support.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also attended the ceremony, where Cooke was lauded by elected officials.
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, who hosted Cooke at President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, called Cooke a hero. Pittenger co-sponsored a bill directing the military to award the Purple Heart to the victims and to provide appropriate benefits.
“No one would have blamed you had you run for cover when Nidal Hasan opened fire,” Pittenger said in a statement. “Instead you flung yourself on top of a fellow soldier, saving his life even as you got shot five times.
“Today’s recognition is long overdue.”