NCO died as he lived – out with his GIs
When 1st Sgt. David Henry heard Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Cooke had been killed outside the wire in Iraq, he wasn’t surprised.
Cooke was that kind of sergeant major, Henry said. He was a leader who went where his soldiers went and took the risks they took even though he didn’t have to.
“He didn’t have to be out there with soldiers manning checkpoints, checking on soldiers during cordon searches,” said Henry, 1st Squadron, 1st U.S. Cavalry Regiment rear detachment noncommissioned officer in charge at Büdingen. “But that’s what he liked to do.”
Cooke, 43, was brigade command sergeant major for the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade, based at Friedberg, Germany. He died Dec. 24 near Samarra — north of Baghdad — after his vehicle hit an improvised bomb. Cooke, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is survived by his wife, Dagmar; his father, Cord Cooke; his mother, Georgia Cooke; and brothers Cordy and Josh Cooke.
A memorial is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday in the Old Ironsides Theater, Ray Barracks, Friedberg, and Cooke will be buried Monday at Arlington National Cemetery.
News of Cooke’s death stunned soldiers at Büdingen, where Cooke had been a command sergeant major in 2002, said Warrant Officer 2 Jeremy Walkley, 30, D Troop, 1/1 Cav, 1st AD. “He’s the first face you see when you think of 1/1 Cav,” said Walkley, adding that he couldn’t think of a person whose loss would be more widely felt through both the military and German communities.
As 1/1 Cav command sergeant major, Cooke was regarded as the definitive soldier, Walkley said. “You knew he was a sergeant major — even if you saw the guy in civilian clothes.”
A commanding, inspiring presence and quiet authority defined Cooke’s 25-year career, Henry said.
“I never once [heard] him raise his voice,” Henry said. “You did something for Sgt. Maj. Cooke because you knew it was the right thing to do.”
Cooke’s death triggered a torrent of emotion and superlatives — unusual in the stoic Army culture.
“To all the troops who served with him in Iraq, in Büdingen and throughout his career, please take time to shed some tears [you won’t be alone] and remember to pray for the Cooke family,” Ricky A. Clark, a retired 1/1 Cav sergeant first class living in Texas, wrote to Stars and Stripes. “Then hold your head high, knowing you served with the best!”
“He was such a good man, a true friend and an excellent soldier,” Col. Mike Tucker said in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “He earned the soldiers’ respect through his actions,” stated Tucker, executive officer for the USAREUR commander, and former commander of the 1st AD’s 1st Brigade.
“There was nothing he wouldn’t do for another person, no matter how much time and effort it took. He was the absolute best CSM I had ever known and one of the best people I have ever worked with,” he stated.
“I loved him like a brother.”
Cooke had a stellar military career, a total reversal of fortune from his youth. He joined the Army after getting into trouble in Arizona, Henry said, who’s known Cooke since 1996. “He joined because he decided his life was headed down the wrong road.”
“The U.S. Army did for that boy what I could not have done for him,” his mother, Georgia Cooke, told The Associated Press. “They turned him into a man, and a man among men. …”
During his 25-year career, Cooke earned two degrees. He held every leadership position from tank commander/section sergeant and platoon leader to command sergeant major, according to a USAREUR news release. His decorations included the Bronze Star Medal.
He was with the 1/1 Cav when it crossed the Sava River into Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, Henry said. He did an Stabilization Force peacekeeping rotation to Bosnia, and a Kosovo Force rotation to Kosovo.
Cooke spent a year at Eagle Base in Bosnia, “and he told me it was the worst year of [his] life, but wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” Henry said. For Cooke, being in the Army was enough, his friend said.
“He told me, ‘That’s all I know, being a soldier.’ ”
He was, at heart, the definitive cavalry soldier.
“Stetsons, cigars and spurs,” Henry said.
Soldiering, especially with the cavalry, “was what he was meant to do,” Walkley said.
What defined Cooke was his personal style — energetic and outgoing — and his management style, accentuating compassion and team-building, say those who knew him. He had been known to salvage the careers of soldiers “who had made horrendous screw ups,” if he thought they were worth giving second chances, Walkley said. “He put himself in their shoes.”
In Iraq, Cooke stressed the importance of armored, or “up-armed,” Humvees — of adding armor and steel plates, “anything to protect his soldiers,” Henry said.
Henry last saw Cooke on Dec. 19 when the senior soldier came to his friend’s change of responsibility ceremony before Henry returned to Büdingen Dec. 23.
“He was being considered for [1st AD] sergeant major,” Henry said. “He didn’t have to do that.”
As they smoked cigars after the ceremony, Henry said they discussed their retirement plans. Cooke’s plan was to retire to Knoxville, Tenn., if he didn’t make division sergeant major, Henry said.
Instead, Cooke was the third soldier from Büdingen to die in Iraq.
“You’ve got to hope there’s a reason for this,” Henry said. “At the end of the day, you have to say the Iraqi people have a democratic government. And Sgt. Cooke helped to keep a lot of ugliness off American soil.
“He was great man,” Henry said. “My best friend.”