March 23 at Lee
Kenneth Coomer III loves baseball and never misses an opening game of the Atlanta Braves. He also loves the military and helping military veterans. He is himself, a veteran who served two tours in Iraq.
It’s only natural that Coomer would look forward to the upcoming Military Appreciation Day being put together by the Lee University Flames baseball team March 23.
Military Appreciation Day is the baseball equivalent of other Lee sports fundraisers such as Volley for the Cure, Hoops for Hope and Kickin’ it for Kids.
“I’m very proud of what the baseball team is doing to show their support for the service of veterans, the sacrifices they’ve made and to bring awareness to those sacrifices,” Coomer said.
“I’ve served with heroes who gave up their lives to defend the men next to them, to defend their country.”
Head baseball coach Mark Brew said the goal is to honor veterans of all branches of the military in Cleveland and surrounding areas for their service to the United States of America.
Coomer is from a military and Lee University family. His father was an enlisted Marine during the Vietnam era, who went from the military into the ministry with the Church of God.
His older brother, Christian is a JAG officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and Georgia state representative. Younger brother Clayton was an Army intelligence analyst, who is now a student at Lee University.
“I was a forward observer in the Army,” he said. As a forward observer, he coordinated indirect fire from naval vessels, air support and drones “to support the infantry in their direct fire mission.”
Coomer works as a veterans affairs representative in the admissions office at Lee University, while he pursues a graduate degree in counseling.
He believes there is a chasm in society nowadays because there are simply not enough people who can identify with and reach out to the young veterans returning home from war.
The Army veteran has been to the dark places with PTSD and back again. He talks about the disorder, but he doesn’t talk about the circumstances.
“There’s a difference between being able to talk about PTSD and sharing specific war stories. I’m not going to tell you any of those because those are mine,” he said.
“I’ll talk about PTSD, because I think it’s something we need more awareness about. There’s nothing good about war, but in the last decade there has been more awareness about PTSD and its symptoms.”
Audie Murphy, the most decorated hero in American history dealt with PTSD. Then it was shell shock and later survivor’s guilt and now, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
“They put all these different names on it, but PTSD is something that, if you have deployed, you have dealt with it,” he said.
Coomer deployed twice to Iraq and once to Kuwait. During his nearly 10 years of service, he actually called for indirect fire on three occasions. Those were to counter enemy rocket fire. Clayton served one tour during his four-year enlistment.
“I was in Iraq in 2004, during the fight for Fallujah when we took it back from the insurgents,” he said. “I spent nine months after that in Ramadi in a place called Combat Outpost.”
Ramadi is about 70 miles west of Baghdad in Al Anbar Province.
“That 2004 tour was … was where I saw the most action,” he said.
Operations in Fallujah involved going door-to-door, clearing houses, clearing quadrants and neighborhoods.
“… and that was followed by security details,” a term understood by infantry soldiers. “During that tour, I actually ran over three IEDs. I was never hurt in those. I had a lot of friends who were. I always happened to be on the right side of the vehicle or in the right place at the right time and realistically, it was a God-thing. I was very blessed to make it through that tour unscathed.”
He returned in 2010 to assist in the troop draw down. It was a switch in strategy from what he’d experienced six years earlier when the mission was to close in on and destroy the enemy.
In 2010, it was more of an avoidance strategy. That’s when he was hurt. Both ankles were shattered, a knee torn up — and the unseen scars of PTSD.
“We were in the last couple of months. We were just kind of going along and the truck I was in ran into a hole, threw me out and I got hurt,” he said.
His injuries were classified as a “non-combat injury in a combat zone.” Though he did not receive a Purple Heart for his injuries, many of his friends did.
“I have lifetime friendships I’ve made with guys who — they’re missing limbs and things and it’s just something that … it’s just something that … you know … it’s something they call … survivor’s guilt.”
Coomer was surprised he was affected by PTSD, what he believed to be a mythical disorder some soldiers used as a crutch to shirk their duties.
“But after my first tour, it hit me,” he said.
He had been on leave (vacation) for about a month when he just slipped into a real dark place.
“I was literally putting black blankets over the windows, not getting out of bed and the whole deal — screaming profanities in my sleep and just not leaving the room, … probably on the verge of doing something drastic — not to anyone else, you know ... ?” he said.
“A couple of friends who were on the tour with me, they committed suicide. That affected me even more so because we’d kind of parted ways and said goodbye.”
Everyone cycled to their next duty stations. Some went to Ranger school and others went Airborne.
Coomer was in the process of transferring to the reserves when it hit him. He just felt like nothing would ever be the same.
“Dealing with all of that, and I was dating a girl and she broke up with me, that compounded the issue. I was away from my family. I was just in a bad place,” he said.
He moved to Cleveland to attend Lee University in 2006 at a time when he was still trying to deal with his emotions.
“I actually had a roommate who moved out, because I was screaming profanities in my sleep and he couldn’t deal with it.”
But, he said. “That was a long time ago and if you asked me back then if I’d been talking to the press about this, I would have called you crazy and called you some expletives.
“I just feel like there are some misconceptions about PTSD because I don’t have those issues anymore. I’m very happy and have since gotten married and realistically, I owe my life to Lee University. That’s why I’m here, because some of the guys on campus reached out to me.”
Some of his fellow students were afraid of him, but there were a couple of others who came by his room every night, knocked on the door and asked him to play basketball, throw a football around or just hang out for awhile.
“They saved my life,” Coomer said. “I love it here. I’m a big fan of Lee University because it saved my life.”
The Army veteran is now a graduate student employed as a veterans affairs representative in the admission’s office.
“I love what I do now because I get to see the guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and realistically, coming back from Libya. We’ve got some Navy guys coming back from Libya and going to class now. I get to see these guys and identify with them and let them know I’m here,” he said.
He tells them about his struggle of transitioning from soldier to student and warns them of a possible dark future.
“I make myself available to them. I hang out with them on the weekends,” he said.
Most recently, he took a group of veteran-students to Adairsville, Ga., to do tornado relief work because he believes the service-oriented mindset doesn’t leave service members once they leave the service.
“I find it’s a good release to get back into that service aspect of things,” he said. “I’ve seen guys literally sacrifice their own lives to save others and once you see that, it changes you and sometimes you wonder … you know, ... it changes you.”