Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “ From the Homefront ,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network .
Written by Shelley Kimball
A word often-used to describe military kids is resilience. One Coast Guard kid has brought new meaning to the word, and even received a national award in recognition for her enduring spirit in the face of adversity.
Mary Kate Cooper, 17, a below-the-knee amputee since birth, has excelled at several sports and has volunteered for 14 different organizations. She was selected as the Military Child of the Year by Operation Homefront, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency and financial assistance to active duty service members and wounded warriors.
“I was really humbled,” Mary said. “I know a lot of Coast Guard kids and I could find an award to give all of them because they are amazing.”
The award recognizes a military child from each branch of service who has shown exceptional citizenship while overcoming the challenges of military family life. As part of Mary’s selection as the Coast Guard Military Child of the Year, she attended Operation Homefront’s annual awards gala, where she was also recognized as the overall Military Child of the Year for 2017.
Adm. Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, spoke on Mary’s behalf at the gala.
“He was so nice and kind, and he did such a good job,” she said.
Mary and her 9-year-old sister, Caroline, are the daughters of Capt. Tom Cooper and his wife, Lynne. Tom is stationed in Washington, D.C., and is just completing a 10-month fellowship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lynne is a middle school special education teacher.
Having been around a lot of kids as a teacher, Lynne said that there is one personality trait that Mary has shown from the start that is probably the key to her success.
“She is probably the most determined kid I have ever known,” she said.
Her mom said Mary’s drive was evident all along the way as she learned to walk, ride a bike, and play soccer.
Mary excels not only in soccer, but she has earned All-American High School status in track and field and from the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Olympic Committee, and she has competed on the international level in the Can Am Para-swimming Championships.
Keeping up with practices and coaching became a family affair due to all of the moving and travel in 2016. Her dad became her adaptive coach to help her reach her goals. And it paid off. Mary qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Trials in more than one sport, a feat in itself. In her best swimming event, she was ranked 36th in the world.
Lynne said that the two important parts of Mary’s life, sports and volunteering, show who she is. She is carefree in sports and then more focused in volunteering.
“She really is truly a kid and then she has this other side,” Lynne said. “It’s funny to see the difference.”
While Mary has volunteered for many events and organizations, including a Stuff-A-Truck food drive, Sexual Assault Awareness Week, Packages for Patriots and Yellow Ribbon Week. She regularly visits the Walter Reed Bethesda National Medical Military Center with her mom, Lynne. It is there, visiting with wounded warriors, that Mary shows remarkable poise and compassion, Lynne said.
“It’s humbling, and it is a great reminder for both Mary and us to remind us how blessed we are,” Lynne said. “I think it makes a mark on her. It gives her an incentive to do more.
Her experiences with wounded warriors may be leading Mary into a career in physical therapy, Lynne said.
“I think that is her way of trying to give back,” Lynne said. “She really enjoys it. To see her with them is awe-inspiring.”
Mary is a junior at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va. She has some time to figure out an exact plan of what comes next, but she sees herself in service of others.
“I am not positive, but I have grown up around the medical field, so I know I want to do something that helps people, but I don’t have my heart set on an exact major,” Mary said.
Before that she has another obstacle ahead – another move. So far, she has lived in Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, California, Colorado, and Virginia. Her dad is being transferred to Colorado at the beginning of the summer.
To Mary, it’s just one more step in her Coast Guard journey.
“I think that it’s been an adventure, for sure,” she said. “Everything has its pros and cons. The downside is definitely that you have to say goodbye to a lot of people, but you get to have friends all over the country.”
While Coast Guard life can be challenging, she said she hopes this award is a reminder of the place military kids have in the process.
“The Coast Guard is really a family,” Mary said. “I know a lot of Coastie kids and a lot of them are my good friends. I think it is important to know that the whole family serves.”
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.