OCW grant helps couple start 'second half' of life

In the warm Florida air typical for September, Chris Cochrane stands along the range at Klondike Archery Park in Pensacola, his wife Ashley next to him. Time and time again, Chris unleashes an arrow at the target, routinely landing his shot inside the small circle some 40 or so yards away.

But Chris isn’t shooting a bow in the typical way. Two strokes three years ago have left Chris partially paralyzed on his right side. He now uses a specially adapted bow that he can operate with his left arm and his mouth.

Archery has been a way for Chris to deal with his health issues. And the bow, which was given to Cochrane through an American Legion Operation Comfort Warriors grant, has been a big part of that therapy.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Chris of the Legion’s donation and the impact it’s had on him. “(The American Legion) doesn’t just want to help. They want to make you flourish or take the next step. It’s been amazing.”

Already flying on his own prior to joining the Air Force to become a pilot in 2007, Chris found himself permanently grounded when he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. He became an intelligence officer and was deployed to Europe.

When he came back to Hurlburt Field in Florida in 2013, Chris, 32 at the time, told his wife he didn’t feel well. After several trips to doctors and the emergency room without getting a diagnosis, an infection caused him to have two strokes in a span of two days – one impacting his heart and another his brain.

The result was paralysis on his right side and slipping into a coma for three weeks. When he awoke, he could barely speak three words.

Going through both physical and speech therapy, Chris eventually learned to both walk and talk again. But it wasn’t until Ashley “dragged” him to an Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) camp that he became interested in shooting a bow again. It was there he met a fellow veteran who was an amputee but still managed to participate in archery. Chris, who began hunting with a bow as a child, got the bug again and began attending other AFW2 camps.

The camaraderie he experienced at the camps was a game-changer for him.

“(Ashley) started a snowball, and it just kept building,” said Chris, who was medically retired from the Air Force as a captain in 2016. “That was the starting point. It’s amazing (how) it can help."

When Chris realized he could shoot a bow again, the U.S. Special Operations Command's Care Coalition reached out to The American Legion. Through an OCW grant, American Legion Department of Florida Veteran Services Director Al Diaz and other Legionnaires presented Cochrane with a $3,400 bow and accessories especially set up for his condition.

The bow was presented in January of this year.

“I cried,” Ashley said when she learned of the Legion’s donation. “During that time we didn’t know what our financial situation was going to be like. We were still waiting to see what his disability rating was going to be. I wasn’t working full-time anymore because I was taking care of him. It was a big life change for us.

“(Getting Chris a bow) was obviously something I wished I could myself and had been thinking about. When (the Legion) came along and not only gave him a bow, but a … bow loaded up with everything he could ask for, that was a great moment.”

Chris said shooting the bow makes him feel like “a kid in a candy store. Just pointing the bow again, letting it fly and hitting the target with that sound, it’s just an amazing feeling. Anyone … who has ever played a sport that takes ultimate focus, you just drown everything out. Everything else is blocked out.”

For Ashley, who met Chris when the two were in college at Auburn University, the difference in Chris since before and after getting back involved with archery is “night and day. We had been married two and a half years at the time (of Chris’ strokes), and a great portion of that time he’d been either deployed or (on temporary duty). During that time (after the strokes) we called it the ‘period of darkness.’ It was the first time I genuinely saw him happy after (shooting the bow).”

Chris has plans on competing in archery next year in the Department of Defense’s Warrior Games, which are open to wounded, ill and injured servicemembers and veterans. But his road to recovery has given the Cochranes what they call an even more important purpose in life.

“We call it ‘the second half,’” Ashley said. “This is our second half of life. We really feel like, medically speaking, Chris should have died. He’s on this earth for a reason, and I’m on this earth for a reason. We feel like we a higher purpose and a mission to help other people. We have dreams of starting a nonprofit and doing respite retreats for wounded warriors and their spouses.

“We woke up and realized that this life is so short and can be taken away literally at any moment. So we want to do something big with it.”

“I’m now a two-time stroke survivor,” Chris said. “Everything is different. Every situation is different. But we can embrace the good stuff together and press on.”