World War II U.S. Army combat medic Ben Cooper received a Connecticut Wartime Service Medal and a Certificate of Special Recognition Thursday morning.
By Ronni Newton
Standing at the Connecticut Veterans Memorial in the center of West Hartford Thursday morning, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, retired World War II U.S. Army combat medic Ben Cooper spoke of the sacrifice of his fellow veterans.
“It’s amazing how many people, soldiers, gave their lives for our country,” Cooper said. “It just shows you how important our liberties are here, our democracy is here. I think always you have to do something, be alert every day, because we have to protect our freedoms.”
Cooper, 97, a lifelong West Hartford resident, was honored Thursday by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) Commissioner Tom Saadi with the Connecticut Wartime Service Medal and a Certificate of Special Recognition.
Cooper was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame in 2017, and has dedicated his life to sharing his experiences as a member of the General George Patton’s U.S. Army 45th Infantry Division serving on the front lines in France and Germany. He was among those who, on April 29, 1945, liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
For more than 30 years, Cooper has made it his mission to speak to countless groups of students, civic leaders, and other veterans about the Holocaust as well as his service in WWII and the struggle to preserve freedom for all. He has also established a community discussion for veterans, Roll Call, which meets at the West Hartford Senior Center and gives veterans from all branches the opportunity to share their stories.
Cooper witnessed horror and tragedy, but his message is always positive. He hands out a card to everyone he meets, which states: “Save humanity. Stop hatred and bullying by practicing my life saving motto – ‘No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.’ You can do it! Never give up! Always remember we all belong to the same race … the human race.”
“Today is really a very powerful and moving morning,” Blumenthal said. As he watched the D-Day ceremonies early Thursday, Blumenthal said he thought of Cooper. “They’re more than memory, they’re people, people like Ben Cooper who was part of that Greatest Generation, who fought in some of the great battles in Europe to liberate Germany, France, and some of the concentration camps.
“We are just enormously blessed to have Ben with us on this 75th anniversary of D-Day because it brings home, it makes real to each of us, that young men barely older than teenagers stormed those beaches, took Europe, liberated the concentration camps, and saved freedom. Literally saved democracy and freedom … they saved our country and rescued countless people … to all who fought we owe a debt of profound historic gratitude and one of them is Ben Cooper,” Blumenthal said.
He said he could not think of anyone more deserving than Cooper of a Certificate of Special Recognition on behalf of the Senate of the United States, recognizing his “selfless service.”
“It is only fitting that we honor Ben Cooper, a member of that Greatest Generation,” Saadi said, those who liberated people in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific “from the tyranny of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.”
As he presented Cooper with the Connecticut Wartime Service Medal, Saadi said, “Even after he hung up the uniform he continued to serve up until today, telling about his experiences … about freedom, about remembering, about never forgetting, in particular teaching about the Holocaust and ensuring that we as a people never repeat such atrocities against other human beings.”
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Cooper said.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, whose father was a World War II veteran, said the anniversary of D-Day is a sombering day.
Cantor recalled a trip she took three years ago to Normandy. “The word ‘awesome,’ we talk about the word ‘awesome’ and people use it all the time, but when you look at those crosses and the Stars of David and individually walk along that tremendous field of white monuments, and you read the numbers, and you realize those are 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old men.”
Normandy is so bucolic, she said, and then you look out and imagine waves of people coming in, and the power of the allies. “They saved the world,” Cantor said.
“Ben has continued to tell his story … so that that history carries on. Ben has also been such a champion for veterans in our community, in the state. … That is how we heal,” Cantor said, expressing how grateful she is personally for Cooper’s friendship and leadership.
“Thank you all, this is a great surprise to me,” Cooper said. “I thank you for this honor and privilege and I’m gong to keep on talking as long as I can.” Today is an important day to honor all the soldiers who gave their lives, he added.
Ben Cooper is what public service and freedom look like, Blumenthal said. “If young people want to know what it means to serve and sacrifice this is it.”
Seventy-five years ago, on June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom led the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on the beaches of Normandy, France. Throughout the course of World War II, 6,649 servicemembers from Connecticut were killed in action.
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