By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 14, 2009 - A former Marine sergeant turned country-music artist is using his newfound fame to urge Americans to do more to support the men and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having toured with major acts, including Toby Keith and Alabama frontman Randy Owen, and landing three of his own songs on the national country music charts, Stephen Cochran says everything he has planned for the next 10 years involves rising to the highest level of music he can, while working to improve the quality of life for severely wounded veterans and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I want to bring attention to that great 1 percent ... it takes to stand up and defend a whole country," he said. "One percent of our population does that, so why can't the other 99 percent of it take care of them?"
Cochran's dedication to the livelihood of combat veterans stems from his own personal story of severe injury while serving in Afghanistan.
"Everything that I can do, I believe, I have to go through before I can know what my mission is – like being injured," said the singer, who was told he'd never walk again in 2004. "I had to be injured to know that our men and women aren't being taken care of properly."
Called to Serve
As the son of a songwriter who grew up in America's "music city" of Nashville, Tenn., Cochran had a country-music career in his sights all his life. He had a bedroom full of instruments as a child – given to him as presents instead of toys – and he made his first radio appearance with his father at age 3, singing the Alabama hit "Dixieland Delight."
"I don't think that there's ever been an aspect of my life that hasn't been surrounded by music," he said, "or that I haven't ever known that's what I always wanted to do."
However, shortly into his junior year at Western Kentucky University, everything changed for Cochran. He had just been named captain of Western Kentucky's lacrosse team and was gearing up for the season when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened. That night, while watching the television coverage in his fraternity house, he made the unexpected decision to join the military.
"Everything was normal, and then it was like a snow globe," he recalled. "In one day, ... I didn't feel safe anywhere."
Cochran enlisted in the Marine Corps a week and a half later, walking away from his college education, a promissory record deal, and his then-fiancée, who broke their engagement when he announced his decision.
Enlisting wasn't a choice he had to make, Cochran said. "It was just something that I was called to do and was made to do," he explained. "It was ... just a strong voice inside me that [said] I had to do this."
Patriotism always has been driven home hard in his family, Cochran added. His father, both grandfathers, and an uncle served in the military.
"They joined when they needed to, when our country needed them," he said.
Beating the Odds
Cochran, 19 at the time, reported to boot camp on Feb. 2, 2002, and trained for nine and a half months with the Marine Corps before he was deployed to Kuwait with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion – part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force – to prepare for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Once the unit crossed the threshold into Iraq, it fought to Tikrit and back, completing 111 missions during a year-long deployment. Enemy contact was frequent, Cochran said, but the unit brought every man home.
"That was something we prided ourselves on," he said. "We brought our whole family home."
Confident after Iraq, the unit immediately volunteered to join the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit for a special operations push in Afghanistan. The unit deployed just four months after returning from Iraq. The decision to redeploy so soon was "something we would all regret later on," Cochran said.
The unit arrived to find a much more hostile environment in Afghanistan, and firefights with the enemy were a daily occurrence. It was no longer a matter of if the unit would get ambushed, Cochran explained, it was when.
"We started losing guys," he said.
The anticipated ambush happened July 14, 2004, eight months into his deployment. Cochran, serving as a reconnaissance scout, was on a routine security mission 20 miles inside Kandahar when his unit's light armored vehicle struck an antitank mine. The explosion threw Cochran off the back of the vehicle 125 feet, breaking five vertebrae in his lower back.
The medics lost his pulse twice during resuscitation, declaring him dead both times.
Cochran has no memory of the incident. When shown photos from the scene, he said, he recognizes himself, but it doesn't feel like he was actually in the picture.
"That's just a real weird feeling that you really don't know how to deal with," he said.
Cochran woke up a month later in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and was told that he was paralyzed from the waist down and would most likely never walk again.
To make matters worse, the record label he had a promissory deal with dropped him, not wanting to invest in a paraplegic. The woman he had been engaged to cut all ties with him, and the Marine Corps retired him.
"It was a bad week; it was a bad week," Cochran said. "Everything that I'd worked for in my past, present, [and] future was gone in one week."
However, nine months into his recovery at Bethesda, another option arose.
Doctors at Vanderbilt Medical Center in his hometown of Nashville proposed trying a surgery called a kyphoplasty to mend the broken vertebrae in Cochran's spine. Kyphoplasties usually are reserved for older patients suffering from degenerative discs. However it's possible to use the procedure to restore feeling in the lower body for spinal-injury victims.
Cochran traveled to Vanderbilt for the surgery. Four days after an orthopedic surgeon applied almost 4 pounds of cement to fix the crushed vertebrae in his back, Cochran had the first feeling in his legs.
It was a tingling feeling, like feet falling asleep, Cochran recalled. "It was the best feeling in the world, because it was the first thing that I had felt in nine months," he said.
Six months of intense physical therapy had him walking with a walker, and a year and a half later, he was in a recording studio working on his first album with only a brace to support his back.
Adapt and Overcome
Today, Cochran's dream of becoming a professional country-music artist has come full circle. He signed a record deal with Aria Records and released his self-titled debut album in 2007.
"Two and a half years after they told me I'd never walk, I signed a record deal," he said.
Between tour dates, Cochran has been back in the studio, recording and helping to produce his second album, which comes out later this year. The first single from the new album, "Wal-Mart Flowers," will be released for play on country radio stations across the United States this month.
Cochran said he believes the second album really shows how he's grown into being a country artist, compared to the first album, which was recorded and released quickly after his recovery.
"I feel like [the first album] was a Marine that sings country music," he said, "and I feel like now, on the sophomore album, I'm getting to show a country artist that's a Marine."
Cochran's back injury still causes him pain occasionally, but he said it doesn't stop him from doing everything he did before the incident.
Perhaps of greater everyday impact is the loss of the tip of the ring finger on his left hand – the hand he uses to form chords on the neck of the guitar. For dealing with that obstacle, Cochran lightheartedly cited a Marine Corps saying, "Adapt and overcome." He said it might take him a little longer to learn a new song now, but he'll sit down with the guitar and try playing it different ways until it sounds right.
Changing Up the Attack
Around the same time Cochran signed with Aria Records, a Marine major he had served with called to tell him his options as a retired servicemember. When Cochran informed him that he'd just signed a record deal, his friend immediately changed the subject to his ideas for a group focused on bettering the livelihoods of servicemembers returning from combat, especially those suffering severe injuries and PTSD.
Together, they founded a nonprofit group called the Independence Fund. Their goal, Cochran explained, was to create an organization that covers servicemembers from the time they enlist or are commissioned to "the time that we put you in the ground."
"I'm very proud of where we've taken [the fund]," Cochran said, "from just being two guys' ideas, to now being a full-fledged foundation that's doing a lot of great work."
Last year, the Independence Fund gave away 19 robotic wheelchairs at $30,000 apiece to severely wounded veterans. The wheelchairs use Segway technology to raise users up to a 6-foot, 3 inch height and can climb stairs.
Cochran maintains that these wheelchairs are the equipment he's seen for a paraplegic or quadriplegic.
"I remember one of the worst things when I was in a wheelchair was that I constantly had to look up to everybody," he said. "I went from being this Marine sergeant to the next day that I couldn't look anybody in the eye when I wanted to talk to them."
The Independence Fund recently joined the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, which hosts a variety of programs to help wounded and disabled veterans live the fullest lives possible – such as reconstructing homes, providing financial aid and building support networks. Cochran sits on the board of this larger organization.
Cochran is focused on finding ways to improve support for servicemembers with PTSD, which he has suffered from himself. "The paranoia [is] the worst," he said. "You think everybody is against you. That's something we need to figure out before the greatest causalities of this war don't come at the hands of our enemy, but the come at the hands of PTSD."
Multiple deployments aren't making the task any easier for today's servicemembers, he noted. "Nothing has ever been asked of our fighting men and women like has been asked of this generation," he said. "It's five, six times they're going overseas."
In addition to his charity work, Cochran has returned to Kuwait to perform for servicemembers preparing for the fight in Iraq – men and women he said he sometimes feels more at home with than his own family. He also is still in touch with the Marines he served with in Afghanistan who made it back.
"I don't believe that I was done fighting when I was taken out of the war," Cochran said, again employing a Marine Corps principle to make his point. "I just had to 'change up the way that I was attacking,'" he said. The way that I attack now is with going out here and trying to get as many benefits [and] organizations working for the men and women that are coming back home. Then, they know that they have one Marine in the United States that's going to do everything every day that he can do to make sure that ... his or her life is a better quality.
"I think that I can win every award in country music," he continued, "and still one of the greatest things that I've ever accomplished in my life was being handed a new eagle, globe and anchor and being told 'Welcome aboard, United States Marine.'"
(This is the seventh installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Kristen Noel works for the Defense Media Activity's Emerging Media directorate.)