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NEWS | Nov. 4, 2022

Cooper draws 3-decade career to a close as commander of 123rd Medical Group

By Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Col. Michael A. Cooper concluded his military career with a retirement ceremony here Sept. 11, drawing a close to 30 years of distinguished service.

Cooper, who led the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Medical Group since 2014, passed the reins to Col. Hans F. Otto, who most recently served as commander of the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 445th Aerospace Medical Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Col. Bruce Bancroft, who presided over the ceremony as commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing, praised Cooper’s leadership over the past eight years — a time punctuated by an unprecedented global pandemic and two mobilizations that sent hundreds of Guardsmen and reservists to rural Kentucky to provide more than $2.5 million in no-cost medical care to thousands of chronically underserved citizens.

“Looking back over the past eight years, you were exactly the type of leader and the type of person the medical group needed,” Bancroft told an audience of more than 100 friends and family who gathered for the event at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base. “I want to thank you for your leadership, your friendship, your sincerity, your mentoring and your dedication to our mission.

“It has been said that you are the pillar of the med group,” Bancroft added. “I agree. After assuming command, you hit the ground running.”

As proof, Bancroft cited the group’s participation in two IRTs — Innovative Readiness Training deployments that send military personnel to civilian communities to provide infrastructure development or health-care services while giving troops access to thousands of hours of training.

In the case of the Kentucky Air Guard, the 123rd Medical Group planned and led two major efforts in Western and Eastern Kentucky in 2016 and 2018 that deployed more than 400 military personnel and 60 tons of medical equipment. The campaigns, which required years of planning, culminated in two summers of clinical care at local high schools that provided 6,662 underserved and uninsured patients with over 24,000 medical or dental procedures, and 3,257 pairs of prescription eyeglasses. The events provided Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors with more than 20,000 hours of field training while delivering $2.5 million in health-care to rural Kentuckians.

Bancroft also praised Cooper’s leadership through 2 ½ years of response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which hundreds of Kentucky Air Guardsmen were called to active duty to build a field hospital, staff area medical facilities and help run clinics across the state that facilitated more than 197,000 inoculations and 119,000 tests. Additionally, Cooper was key to implementing policies that protected Kentucky Airmen from infection and ensured adequate immunizations across the base.

“On behalf of the entire wing, I want to extend my absolute appreciation,” Bancroft told Cooper. “Those were unprecedented times and, more importantly, there was no playbook to take off the shelf. We started from scratch. Your involvement, your leadership and the team that you constructed from this group of professionals was incredible.

“They were truly the architects for this program. From reams and reams of policy interpretation on force health protection, local mitigation protocols, Airmen education, vaccination and testing sites, nursing home and hospital support, the alternate care facility, and a wing-wide vaccination mandate, you and your great teams became our most trusted advisors.”

Finally, Bancroft lauded Cooper for championing the continued support of two Critical Care Air Transport Teams at the 123rd — the only unit in the Air National Guard with multiple CCATTs. The teams, comprised of physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists, are designed to keep critically ill patients stable during aerial transport from field settings to military treatment facilities. Under Cooper’s watch, the teams stood 500 medical alert hours and flew 11 overseas missions that saved the lives of 16 service members.

“Mike, congratulations. You have accomplished what all commanders strive for: You met the mission, and you've improved the unit. You forged a rock-solid team, and you're leaving the med group in great hands to carry on an outstanding legacy. The med group is better because you were there, and we are all better officers, NCOs and Airmen because of our time spent with you.”

Bancroft then presented Cooper with a Kentucky Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his exceptional leadership.

Cooper was drawn to military service early in life, joining the Civil Air Patrol as a volunteer youth cadet at the age of 12. He formalized that relationship after completing a bachelor’s degree in health sciences from the University of Kentucky, joining the Kentucky Army National Guard as a second lieutenant in 1992. He spent the next three years serving as a physician assistant for the 35th Infantry Division, 103rd Forward Support Battalion. In 1995, Cooper transferred to the Air Force Reserve, where he worked as a physician assistant and, later, chief of clinical services for the 445th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Prior to joining the Kentucky Air National Guard in 2014, Cooper also spent a year as an individual mobilization augmentee for the physician assistant consultant to the Air Force surgeon general.

As commander of the 123rd Medical Group, Cooper led more than 100 personnel charged with providing medical support to 1,200 Airmen here. The unit also provides combat support to Air Force units worldwide, as well as homeland defense and disaster-response capabilities.

The Kentucky native thanked his friends, family and colleagues for their support over the decades. He also used the occasion to speak about some of the more significant experiences in his career, including a deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom to the 332nd Air Force Theater Hospital at Camp Anaconda, Iraq.

“The base took so much rocket fire in those days, it was actually known as Mortarville,” the physician assistant recalled.

“During the Battle of Falluja, we were inundated with causalities. And so seven days a week, around the clock, I learned trauma care. Pretty quickly, my khaki-colored desert boots became stained with the blood of Marines and Soldiers and, yeah, the enemy’s too. I couldn’t tell the difference. The blood was all red. To this day, I remember the names of those Soldiers — especially the ones we couldn’t save.

“Those four months, more than any other, defined my career and left an imprint on me forever. I hope that I did some good in a very terrible situation.”

Cooper, who retired from civilian practice as physician assistant at the University of Kentucky in 2020, also spoke of immense pride in his troops here.

“You have made me so proud for our many, many accomplishments,” he told his Airmen. “Through your efforts and your dedication over the last eight years, we have achieved greatness. And yet we still have a margin of greatness beyond — there's so much more that you can — and will — do.

“Throughout my whole life, I've done things that had a sense of calling to them, whether it was taking care of patients or joining the military. But with all of those things, I reached some point when I felt that the calling was complete — my job was done.

“And such is the situation here. I certainly did feel called to do this. This is who I was. This was my purpose. I was called to be your commander. And that calling is now complete. I hope I've served you well.”

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