A great honor was recently bestowed upon local veteran, Oakdale resident, American Veterans First founder Duke Cooper by California State Assembly member Heath Flora. On Oct. 1 Flora presented Cooper with a Certificate of Recognition for his selection as Veteran of the Year 2020.
“Every year each Assembly member chooses a Veteran of the Year for their respective district,” said Flora. “This year I was proud to have selected Duke Cooper as Assembly District 12 Veteran of the Year.”
When Cooper was notified by Flora’s office that he was selected for this honor he was overwhelmed and humbled.
“I am honored that I would even be considered for that,” stated Cooper. “It set me back because I figured that there are a lot of people out there that are more deserving than I.”
Cooper served in the United States Marine Corps from 1968 to 1974 and was an infantry rifleman. He enlisted after his best friend was killed in Vietnam which fueled his fire to fight for this country. Although he has been out for many years Cooper will tell you “once a Marine always a Marine.”
“Duke’s long and continued service to the veterans of our local region speaks for itself,” added Flora. “His leadership of American Veterans First and the non-profit work his group does on behalf of local veterans makes a big difference. His significant contributions and selfless service to men and women who have served our nation has been inspiring.”
In 2016 Cooper opened American Veterans First on Patterson Road in Riverbank. His efforts to assist the veteran community grew along with acquiring a 501(c)(3) designation in 2018 for the organization. Since the beginning of AVF there have been changes to the board of directors, program changes, and a variety of volunteers but the one thing that has always been consistent is his passion for helping veterans. With programs like the coat and blanket drive, Pets 4 Vets, Sail for Recovery, and the hygiene pack giveaway, the ideas and efforts continue for the organization and the Central Valley.
“When we were distributing food out to people, one guy said I have been unemployed since May and have not gotten any checks and we gave him some food and essentials. Then you see the look on his face, it makes it all worth it,” expressed Cooper. “You have to go above and beyond the call of duty. I have a servant’s heart and I love helping folks.”
Through the years AVF has sent care packages to service members overseas, assisted veterans struggling with PTSD, and adjusting back to civilian life along with resources and assistance with the VA. They have distributed wheelchairs and scooters to those in need making it possible for veterans that have a hard time getting around the ability to be mobile once again. During the past several months with the effects of COVID-19, AVF has collaborated with other organizations like Flora’s office to distribute food and personal protective equipment (PPE) to the community. They have also added an educational component speaking at different high schools in the Central Valley and beyond. Making it a point to teach the younger generation about pride for the country and what it means to be a veteran as well as the proper disposal of the American flag is a big part for Cooper and the AVF team.
AVF’s new President, Vietnam veteran John Hinkel is continuing the acts of goodness for the veteran community with Cooper assisting behind the scenes.
“With his leadership John will take us (AVF) to the next level,” said Cooper.
AVF has no paid positions and Cooper expressed that all funds raised go back into the community.
Flora hosts a Facebook Livestream and during his livestream he presented Cooper with the honor.