Melissa Cooper grew up listening to her grandfather’s tales of serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. Then, she witnessed firsthand her father’s service in the Air Force. So, it was no big stretch that when she was deciding what to do with her own life, entering the service was a natural choice.
Originally from Muskogee, she officially joined the Army at age 21, only a couple of months after her younger brother also enlisted. After basic training, Melissa went on to become an E-4 records specialist and was assigned to the adjutant general’s office in Mannheim, Germany, for six years. She served from 1990 to 1992 as a part of Operation Desert Storm, followed by four years in the Army Reserves after the hostilities ended.
During peacetime, her responsibilities included processing routine orders for soldiers who were transitioning out of the service. During Desert Storm, however, it was a different matter. Soldiers departing for Iraq would first fly to Frankfurt, where they would be transported to Mannheim for processing. Melissa was part of a team who went over records, making sure life insurance policies were filled out properly, along with any other paperwork that would be needed if the soldier were to die during deployment.
That was far from the worst of it, though. While she may not have been on the front lines of combat, working in the general’s office was hellish in its own way. Melissa was also responsible for keeping track of combat fatalities and helping determine where soldiers needed to be transferred to replace those who had been killed or wounded. The worst part, however, were the consolation letters she wrote each day to spouses, parents and family members of those who had died. Those letters numbered in the hundreds, and it was a job that still haunts her today.
When asked how she coped with the intensity of her work, Melissa’s answer reflects that of her comrades in arms.
“People ask how you deal with it on a daily basis, and that’s hard to answer,” she said. “You just do. It’s your job.”
While Melissa said she thrived on the structure and the camaraderie with her fellow soldiers, she nonetheless struggled as a veteran. Already a single parent, Melissa emerged from the Army as a self-described alcoholic with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and at one point was even homeless.
Today, however, she has been sober for six years, is happily married to Tinker Air Force Base employee Ken Cooper and is the proud mother of a successful grown son and daughter, Casey and Jessica McKinney, and has two grandchildren. Casey, a Tulsa police officer, is planning to continue the family tradition by enlisting in the Army Reserve.
Melissa, meanwhile, recently had yet another life-changing event.
Malnutrition and chronic infections stemming from her post-service struggles caused Melissa to lose her teeth when she was 37. She struggled with ill-fitting dentures for 15 years, until Dr. Perry Brooks of Oklahoma Dental Implants & Oral Surgery recently fitted her with implants.
“I was referred to Dr. Perry by Aspen Dental,” Melissa recalled, “but the funny thing is we had already looked him up on the computer and was reading his credentials. He was our pick anyway. The fact that he was a good Christian man was huge plus. He prayed with us before the procedure and it really helped me calm down because I was nervous. Dr. Perry knows his stuff and he was very upfront with me about everything. He’s very patient and definitely not in a hurry when he has an appointment with you. I definitely made the right choice.”
“Ms. Cooper presented to me with a desire to improve/restore her smile and increase her ability to chew food without her dentures falling out of her mouth,” Dr. Perry said. “This is a very interesting case. Melissa had been homeless and suffers from a history of PTSD. Her confidence in smiling was lacking. She couldn’t chew hard foods. Had been missing all her teeth for many years. She had been told by many dentists that she wasn’t a candidate for dental implants due to lack of bone.
“My initial exam revealed that she had plenty of bone to reconstruct her bite. Subsequently, I designed her custom dream smile using advance imaging and the ability to do virtual reality surgery. She approved of the plan. Just after two visits, Melissa had a single visit surgery with general anesthesia and walk out with a fixed (non-removable) bridge.
“After four months, the temporary bridge was converted to a final permanent bridge,” Dr. Perry added, noting that Melissa was never without teeth through the entire procedure.
“It was amazing to watch the transformation of a woman who served her country proudly while in the military, who suffered from depression and PTSD, was living on the streets, and who had been at the end of life’s rope, changed into the happiest patient with gorgeous smile.”
“I look like a completely different person now,” Melissa says. “I am so thankful to Dr. Brooks for all he has done for me. It has given me my self-esteem back, and I get compliments every day!”