Proud to Serve

Remembering the service of our veterans

By Shanna Hogan

It was 1944 — five years into World War II and a young U.S. Army pilot was soaring over Germany when a hail of gunfire suddenly pierced his plane. As the aircraft lurched toward the ground, John Cooper tightened the straps on his parachute and prepared to jump.

“Airplanes don’t fly when they are full of bullet holes,” John says with a laugh more than seven decades later. “I started to parachute and then the plane exploded and parachuted me out anyway … I lost two of my crew members, unfortunately.”

Eight others survived, but once on enemy soil John was captured by German soldiers. For the next year and a half he would remain in a German camp as a prisoner of war.

Now a 97-year-old resident of Grandview Terrace, John is one of many veterans who reside in one of the three Sun Health Senior Living communities. In honor of Veterans Day, LiveWell invited John and another resident to reflect on their war stories.

Finding freedom and a lifelong career

After being captured by the Germans, John was interrogated for hours before being forced onto a train and hauled to a prison camp near the former Czechoslovakian border. Later, the prisoners were marched through East Germany. While shuffled between camps, some prisoners tried to dig holes or plot escapes. But John mostly kept to himself and says he was treated decently. 

“The Germans were very pragmatic about how they took care of prisoners,” John says. “The German guards we had were older and they were sick and tired of the war.”

At the end of WWII, American soldiers freed John and the other prisoners. John returned to the United States but jokes he didn’t have the “sense to get out” of the military. He continued serving in the Air Force for three decades during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

During peace times he was stationed in Australia, where he met his wife Elaine. The couple later relocated to Washington where John worked for several years in high-level military desk jobs before retiring in 1972. In 2003, the Coopers settled in Arizona.

Navy launches a career

Her interests range from fine art to world culture to human history. It sounds like heady stuff, but Rita Holton is very practical.

When she earned a degree in anthropology in 1968 from George Washington University in Washington, D.C, she knew finding a job in the field without further education would be tough. Her practical side kicked in.

“I wanted to get into the workforce in a responsible position where I could learn leadership skills and where there were better opportunities for women,” the Long Island native says.

Two older sisters, both nurses in the Air Force, encouraged Rita to explore the armed services as an option. She took their advice and enlisted in the Navy in 1969.

At the time, the Navy was opening more doors for women, but they still were few in number compared to men. Unlike today, women were barred from combat missions and serving at sea other than on hospital ships and transports. Rita was assigned to administrative duties but worked her way up to become a personnel (human resources) and training officer. She served two tours in San Diego and one in Hawaii, where she was stationed near Pearl Harbor.

“I would take a boat to work every morning and we’d pass the USS Arizona Memorial, which was always moving,” Rita says.

Rita feels grateful for her seven years of active duty in the Navy. “It definitely gave me the skills to really launch a solid career.” After her discharge, she moved to New York City and carved out a successful career in human resources, mostly in the financial services industry. Rita continued serving her country in the Naval Reserve for 20 years, retiring as a commander.   

“When I look back on my service, I’m amazed how much I learned,” Rita says.

Today, she lives at La Loma Village, a Sun Health Senior Living community, where dozens of other veterans reside. “The veterans here have such great stories. It’s inspiring to listen to them,” Rita says.

Her self-appointed duty these days is to encourage young people to consider joining the service. “It’s a great place to learn responsibility and integrity and to gain leadership skills.”      

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