HARRISBURG -- It truly was a happy 90th birthday for Don Cooper.
Cooper, a Korean War veteran who celebrated his 90th birthday Wednesday, received an honor from the Michael Hillegas chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Cooper also received accolades from state Sen. Dale Fowler and U.S. Rep. Mary Miller at the ceremony, which was limited in attendance due to COVID-19 safety protocols.
Cooper was presented a certificate in a glass case for valor, service and sacrifice. The case also contained some of Cooper's medals earned while serving as a member of the U.S. Army infantry during the Korean War, an old photo of Cooper in uniform and a recent photo of Cooper at the veterans memorial at Sunset Lawn Cemetery in Harrisburg.
Cooper has donated a considerable amount of time and funding for the improvement of the veterans memorial, now known as "Little Arlington."
Michael Hillegas Regent Kathy Morris told those in attendance that Cooper has maintained a lifelong commitment to recognizing the contributions of U.S. service members to the country.
"Today we just want to honor him as one of our special vets because he has done so very much and we're just so happy to be here," Morris said.
Michael Hillegas Veterans Chairman Shelia Albright then talked about the sacrifices Korean War veterans made.
"I think we forget a lot," Albright said. "I was reading an article the other day, and it was talking about how, when you went to war years ago, there were no cellphones. You didn't get to call mom or dad. They didn't have battlefront meetings; you didn't know what was going on. Don and I talked about several stories, and when their parents sent them away, they just hoped and prayed."
Albright recalled two stories Cooper shared with her. One was a situation where he and his men encountered another group of soldiers, but it was unclear at first to which side they belonged. Rather than command his men to fire immediately, Cooper waited, believing they could be other U.S. soldiers. His instincts proved correct, and the unit avoided any friendly fire casualties. The other story involved a tragic training incident in which several soldiers were burned to death when a flamethrower instructional segment went wrong. Cooper was burned badly over much of his body in the incident.
Albright said U.S. citizens can't truly repay the sacrifices of service members.
"We will be forever indebted to these veterans," she said.
A video from Fowler, the state senator, was presented by Fowler representative Andy Sisulak. Fowler was in Springfield, but he's maintained a yearslong friendship with Don, calling him a second father.
After the video, Sisulak presented Cooper with a certificate of recognition from Fowler and the Illinois State Senate for Cooper's service and his 90th birthday.
Saline County Board member Jonathan Russell, another longtime friend, lauded Cooper for his service and wished him a happy birthday.
A representative from U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, Travis Akin, presented Cooper with a U.S. flag that his been flown over the U.S. Capitol in recognition of Cooper's service to his country.
"We present these flags to veterans, people who have served with distinction," Akin said. "It is with great pleasure I, on behalf of Congresswoman Mary Miller, present this flag to you on your birthday today."
Cooper's son, Terry Cooper, talked with pride about his father's dedication to the community.
"When I think about my dad, I think about the word 'tenacity,'" Terry Cooper said. "Because when he puts mind to something, there's not going to be any quitting."
Terry Cooper's wife, Linda, also spoke, calling Don the father she never had.
Don Cooper finally spoke at the end of the program. Citing his own family's ancestry as descendants of a Revolutionary War officer, Cooper said he and his son wished to join the DAR organization through the Sons of the Revolution. He also thanked those who attended the recognition ceremony.
"It truly means a lot for all of you to come out here today and see me," Cooper said. "I love every one of you."