Matt Cooper’s Damascus Road

The Covington police officer was shot between the eyes while responding to a shoplifting call on Sept. 3, 2018. Though his miraculous physical recovery has been wrought with difficulty, it has strengthened his marriage and resulted in spiritual renewal for an entire family.

by Nat Harwell

Matt Cooper chose his words carefully. I had asked him about what his family calls “the accident” and the day the Covington police officer responded to a shoplifting call at Walmart. He had pursued the fleeing suspect and rounded a corner of a building before being shot between the eyes at nearly point-blank range. The man I call “Coop” stunned me when he spoke.

“I don’t know why it was me that took the bullet,” he said softly, “but as I’ve had time to think about it, I feel honored that God chose me to be there. I don’t know if it was because God believed I was strong enough to bear it and maybe someone else would not have been, but I’m honored, in a way, that God chose me.”

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Cooper’s words humbled me when I realized what manner of man he had become since I had coached him as a football player at Indian Creek Middle School. The poignancy of the moment was made even clearer as he continued.

“I’d seen a lot of bad,” said Cooper, a former Army sniper who did two tours in Afghanistan. “To be honest, I’d lost my faith, grown away from God; and I saw a lot of bad as a police officer. Getting shot saved my soul, got me closer to God.” 

I thought about the man called Saul of Tarsus, who pursued and persecuted Christians in the first century. It took a bright light and the voice of God to knock Saul to the ground and bring him—now known as Saint Paul—to a new relationship with his Creator. For Matt Cooper, it took a bullet between the eyes.

“I don’t know why it was me that took the bullet, but as I’ve had time to think about it, I feel honored that God chose me to be there.”

Matt Cooper

The miraculous story of Cooper’s survival and recovery is well-known to local residents and, thanks to widespread media coverage, to people flung far and wide across America and beyond. A brief recap entails miracle after miracle—the first being that the bullet hit cartilage, diverting it down behind his right eye and eventually lodging against his carotid artery, blocking the flow of blood to the brain. It was later discovered that Cooper had inexplicably grown a network of smaller blood vessels which took over the task of supplying his brain with blood and life-giving oxygen throughout the trauma.

Airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital’s trauma center and then later to Emory University, Cooper underwent multiple and unbelievable surgeries, including the temporary removal of part of his skull. His story became widely reported, prayer groups sprang up and Badge 148—his number—began appearing on signs, banners, flags and even on the iconic incinerator smokestack at the intersection of I-20 and I-75/85 in downtown Atlanta. Friends, family and untold numbers of everyday citizens rallied in support for him and his family. Two years later, Cooper was the starter for the Covington Police Department’s annual 5K Fuzz Run. The Atlanta Braves honored him with a day, as did the Atlanta Falcons. I am reminded of a Paul Simon lyric from “Slip Slidin’ Away,” which reads: “God only knows. God has a plan. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.”

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An Unlikely Union

Kristen Osburn was a quiet, somewhat shy, student when she was in high school. As it happened, when Matt was deployed, Kristen was working with Sharon Cooper, his mother, who suggested the two them should date when he returned home.

“Oh, it was so prearranged,” Kristen said. “In high school, I’d always been quiet, and Matt was the popular, handsome stud athlete. I told Sharon that I didn’t think that dating would be a good idea, but… she persisted. I finally gave in, figuring I would at least get a good steak dinner out of it and that would be it.”

Matt and Kristen had been together for eight years when “the accident” occurred. Their two children, Noah and Natalie, were but 4 and 2 years old. In the blink of an eye, this shy, lithe brunette with Miss America good looks had to make some quick and impossibly difficult decisions. 

“It was such a shock,” she said. “We’d had a plan for our lives. We were doing what we thought was everything the right way, and just like that, we had to go into role reversal. Now I had to be the head of the household, making the decisions, taking care of the kids, being with Matt in the whirlwind of hospital procedures and with the surreal shock of what had happened.”

As Kristen spoke of those ongoing trials, I remembered another Biblical story of the man called Job. Faithful to God, nonetheless he was subjected to horrific loss of family, possessions, virtually everything. Friends turned on him, yet Job never lost faith.

“For us, we had experts on life who covered us with love and support,” Kristen said. “Matt’s parents, Coley and Sharon, and my folks, James and Denise Osburn, were there for us constantly, and that love and support continues. Just recently, Coley took Matt to the Georgia Aquarium, where he swam with sand sharks. Coley helps out so much around the house with things Matt would normally do.” 

I asked Matt if he had any memories of all he had undergone, and he admitted he did not remember much but has a vivid recollection of answering that shoplifting call. He expanded on Kristen’s testimony of help from the family, giving credit to the Wounded Warrior Project. Both he and Kristen were amazed at how, without being asked, WWP representatives would show up with everything from meals to rehabilitation programs. Kristen, meanwhile, recalled a day—after some pretty bad days—at Grady Memorial Hospital when Matt had seemingly taken a downturn. Nothing seemed to be working, but he had somehow improved.

“One of our Grady nurses spoke to me that day,” Kristen said. “She said, ‘I’ve seen medical things happening with your husband that just don’t make sense, and I’ve got to give this to your God.’”

As Matt recovered and fought his way through torturous physical therapy with progress measured in baby steps, he and Kristen grew closer to God. Kristen admits there is a battle at times as the two of them hand over control to God while wrestling with the desire to take it back. They have made Him their focus, attending Crossroads Baptist Church, where they attend disciple group meetings, prioritize their time and socialize with like-minded people who offer sound counsel when needed.

The Coopers also searched for the best way to talk to their children about “the accident.” A child life specialist has provided insight relatable to training them, as well as dealing with grief, short-term memory loss and the fact that Matt will tire out more easily as he continues to recover physically.

 “We want our kids to be kids,” Kristen said. “The Bible says tribulation will come, that it rains on the just and the unjust, but we are coping.”

Matt volunteers with the Covington Police Department when time and health allow, and he stays involved in programs such as adaptive cycling through the Wounded Warrior Project. Kristen teaches part-time at First Baptist Academy, where she is afforded the flexibility she needs. This formerly shy and quiet girl has grown into a Type A wife, mother and caregiver, and she and makes no apologies for whatever situation arises to cause changes in plans.

“The role reversal has been challenging,” she said. “It’s a fact that Matt will get tired, but he does not need to apologize for that. Folks who know, know, and if they don’t get it, well, that’s OK.”

‘It Takes a Village’

Matt has an interesting approach to talking about “the accident” with Noah and Natalie. The kids have heard others mention his having been shot, being a hero and so forth. “I tell them,” Matt said with a laugh, “hey, not everybody’s dad gets to get shot. Not everybody’s dad gets to be a hero.” Kristen rolls her eyes at the quip. “Everyone close to the situation knows about the many miracles which unfolded to keep Matt alive and to bring him though this,” she said, “but there are things that transpire—even now—that truly humble us both. People will show up and provide those random acts of kindness which aren’t expected, which makes them even more special. My parents, Matt’s parents… there are no words to express how great they’ve been.”

In fact, both of Kristen’s parents got involved in the medical field. Her father was studying in a nurse practitioner course and knew a specialist in cardiac and thoracic care at Emory. It became necessary to transfer Matt from Grady to Emory but only if a cardiac or thoracic care physician would sign off on it. James asked, the Emory specialist agreed and one more miracle in a chain of miracles occurred.

To see Matt and Kristen Cooper as merely remarkable people would not do them justice. The series of events befalling this young couple would be more than enough to buckle even the heartiest of people, test the faith of anyone and would at times appear just too overwhelming to contemplate. Yet through their renewed faith in God and with the support of loved ones and friends, they are making it work.

“It takes a village,” Kristen said with a sigh. “It really does.”

As for me, I think of an eighth-grade football player who was as rock-solid as any kid I ever coached. I remember my wife telling me on the dreadful day of Sept. 11, 2001 that Matt and his buddy, Matt Tyree, had decided to join the Army and serve their country. I think of the Covington police officer and the banner emblazoned with “148” we flew on our front porch during his recovery from “the accident.” Now, in a new chapter, as I reflect on this loving couple facing down adversity on a daily basis, I am reminded of yet another passage of scripture, this from the book of Isaiah, Chapter 6, Verse 8, which I believe sums up the courage evident in the lives of Matt and Kristen Cooper: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ And I said: ‘Here am I; send me.’”

Click here to read more stories by Nat Harwell.

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