‘I understand it now:’ Dad, son serve together in 82nd
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: April 14, 2018
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Cpl. Michael Cooke scanned the faces alongside him in the darkened plane over Fort Benning, Georgia.
This was Cpl. Cooke's fifth and final jump at the Army's Airborne School. He could feel the heft of the parachute on his back. And like most everyone else in the plane, he was nervous as he waited for the plane to reach the skies over his drop zone.
But as he scanned those faces on the plane, one stood out. It was familiar and a little unnerving, he would recall weeks later.
"There's all these terrified faces," Cpl. Cooke said. "And then there's one happy, glowing face."
That face — smiling back at him — was Cpl. Cooke's father, Master Sgt. Travis Cooke.
"He was having the time of his life," Cpl. Cooke recalled, laughing as he looked back on the jump.
For the younger paratrooper, the sight of his father — then on his 100th jump — had a calming effect.
It was also eye opening.
"I understand it now," he said.
"It" was more than just his father's smile. It's his passion for being a paratrooper and his devotion to the 82nd Airborne Division.
After a lifetime of watching his father serve, the younger Cooke has a better understanding of his motivation, because now the two share a similar drive.
It's rare for father and son to serve in the same brigade. Rarer still for the two to jump together as paratroopers.
But on Fort Bragg, that could soon become the norm for the Cooke family, who are both assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
Master Sgt. Cooke is the operations sergeant major for 1st Battalion, 73rd Cavalry Regiment. And Cpl. Cooke is a team leader with 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.
The pair have already jumped together twice — once at Fort Benning and again at Fort Bragg.
Looking back, the father-son paratrooper team seems almost inevitable, the two said last month from Master Sgt. Cooke's office on Fort Bragg. After all, it's in their blood.
In the Cooke family, paratroopers now span three generations.
"My dad was a paratrooper," Master Sgt. Cooke said. The elder Cooke served with the 82nd Airborne Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, jumping into Vietnam with the latter.
Master Sgt. Cooke never got the chance to see his father jump. But he remembers him standing apart as a legend in his eyes.
"I used to look at him all the time," he said. "He'd do things nobody else could. I would think, 'That man jumped out of airplanes.'"
That paratrooper background later inspired Master Sgt. Cooke early in his Army career, too.
While still a young soldier, Master Sgt. Cooke was assigned to Fort Stewart, Georgia, as "leg" infantry — a soldier who is not airborne qualified.
He wasn't happy about his situation, he recalled. And when a friend suggested reenlisting as paratroopers, he jumped at the opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps.
After Airborne School in 1995, Master Sgt. Cooke's first unit was in the 82nd Airborne Division — he was a corporal at the time. And he served with 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.
That first assignment was eye opening for Master Sgt. Cooke, he said.
He recalled seeing his reflection in a plate glass window one day and being taken back.
"It just stuck with me," he said. "That beret and the shiny boots. This is who I am."
Still, Master Sgt. Cooke did have a bit of an identity crisis in the middle of his Army career.
In 2000, he left active duty and joined the Texas National Guard. He returned to active duty five years later and receive orders to return to the 82nd Airborne Division.
Cpl. Cooke said his dad changed overnight.
"He was parading around the house," Cpl. Cooke said. "He was so proud he was going to be a paratrooper again."
Despite his upbringing on and around Fort Bragg and early visits to local drop zones, Cpl. Cooke wasn't convinced at first that he was destined to follow the family business and jump from planes.
When he enlisted in the Army in 2013, he did not think Airborne School was in his plans. Instead, after training, he reported for duty at Fort Riley, Kansas.
But while his own career was underway, Master Sgt. Cooke never stopped recruiting his son.
And Cpl. Cooke couldn't help but notice the "AA" patches he came across. The patch had a pull, even if Cpl. Cooke wasn't always ready to admit it.
During a deployment to Iraq, Cpl. Cooke said 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers relieved his unit.
They marched off the same C-130 that his unit had used months earlier. But there was something different about these soldiers.
They marched off the plane in formation, weapons ready.
"We called them 'try hards,'" Cpl. Cooke recalled. "They were prima donas. Arrogant. They wanted to 'do it their way.'"
Cpl. Cooke thought the soldiers' unit pride was something forced on them. But he's come to realize it was something special that is unique to a few Army units.
"I despised that whole group of people," he said. "But now I see the motivation and esprit de corps is not forced. You don't have to be reminded to be proud here."
Cpl. Cooke said he made his decision to become a paratrooper after talking with former airborne soldiers at Fort Riley. They all missed the 82nd Airborne Division, he said. And Cpl. Cooke decided he wasn't satisfied where he was.
Master Sgt. Cooke said it was a similar feeling that pulled him toward the 82nd Airborne Division.
He said the division's paratroopers have a reputation for being different from other soldiers, with good reason.
"We're not a heavy organization," he said. "We begin in the dark, surrounded, outgunned and outmanned. It's a select group of personalities that find that appealing."
A former leader said it best, Master Sgt. Cooke said. "You're not in the Army. You're in the division. We do things differently."
As his son prepared for the Army's Airborne School, Master Sgt. Cooke was deployed to Iraq with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He returned to Fort Bragg last year, where officials prodded him to join his son on the drop zone at Fort Benning.
"It never even crossed my mind that I could do that," Master Sgt. Cooke said.
With the support of his leaders, Master Sgt. Cooke was soon watching his son's fourth jump of Airborne School. He held his phone up so his wife could see their son drift to the ground.
That jump nearly ended in disaster.
With his parents watching, Cpl. Cooke drifted over another paratrooper, sucking the air out of his parachute and leaving him falling onto the other soldier's canopy.
Master Sgt. Cooke said he moved the phone to another soldier so his wife couldn't watch what happened next. Cpl. Cooke rolled off the other parachute and was able to pull his reserve parachute to land safely.
On the next jump — with father and son both preparing to descend — Master Sgt. Cooke admits he watched his son closely to make sure nothing would go wrong, although he left the job to ensuring his son's safety to the jumpmaster.
"I definitely kept a very close eye on him," he said. "I was hovering, but not interfering."
At Fort Bragg, when the two men jumped side by side for the first time — and Cpl. Cooke's first jump in division — the son insisted on going out the door first.
"I didn't want to step on his parachute," Cpl. Cooke recalled. "I'd never hear the end of that."
Master Sgt. Cooke said he's still coming to terms with the maturation of his boy.
"There are no words," he said. "That's my child. I changed his diapers. but that's a man. That's a grown paratrooper."
Cpl. Cooke said he has to earn his own way in the division. He can't rely on his name.
Master Sgt. Cooke said the family has always included fellow paratroopers.
"It's the Falcon Family," he said, referring to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, or Falcon Brigade. "I use that term a lot."
Cpl. Cooke had grown up hearing stories of many members of that family. Now they are the leaders overseeing him — after serving under his father several years earlier.
Cpl. Cooke said he doesn't want special treatment because of who his father is. He just wants to live up to the expectations.
"It's almost like hearing about super heroes your whole life and then meeting them in person," Cpl. Cooke said. "You just have to get to work."
As Cpl. Cooke's 82nd Airborne Division career begins, the two paratroopers hint that a fourth generation could be on its way.
Cpl. Cooke's young daughter has already seen her father jump.
Master Sgt. Cooke said he'll serve as long as the Army will let him. And when it's time to leave the 82nd Airborne Division, they'll have to drag him out kicking and screaming.
"And I'll stay in until the next Cooke comes in," Cpl. Cooke said.
Information from: The Fayetteville Observer