Country singer-songwriter Stephen Cochran is a former
Marine and a wounded veteran. His back was broken in an ambush while
he was serving in Afghanistan in July 2004. Now, with his music
career on track, Cochran also works to promote programs that help to
meet the needs of wounded veterans. Courtesy photo.
WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2009 -- Stephen
Cochran was a normal 19-year-old with a dream of making
music his life when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
led him down an unplanned path to the Marine Corps.
“I dropped out of college. I walked away
from a record deal,” he said. “I was engaged.”
He didn't discuss his decision with his
parents, or even his then-fianc�e, who broke the engagement
when he announced he'd enlisted. “It was really the first
grown-up decision I'd ever made,” Cochran said.
The musician, born in Pikeville, Ky., grew up in Nashville's
songwriting and recording community. There, he learned the
art of songwriting from his father. He made his musical
debut on the radio at age 3 and had his first band by 15.
At 17, he was offered a record deal, but he and his parents
agreed that he needed to go to college first. If this offer
had been made now, they reasoned, there would be others
While at Western Kentucky University, Cochran played
lacrosse and continued to write songs and play music. True
to his parents' prediction, he was offered another record
deal. But he wanted to finish school.
The company offered a promissory note, but
then Sept. 11 happened.
was just so horrific,” he said. “It's like I'd been called.
I'd never been pulled so hard to do something.”
It may have been the audacity of the
attacks, but more likely it was his family's long history of
military service that drew him to enlist, he said. Both
grandfathers served, as did an uncle and several other
“I've always been raised very, very patriotic. It's just
what I had to do,” Cochran said of his decision to join the
It wasn't long before he found himself in Kuwait with the
2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, part of the 1st
Marine Expeditionary Force, waiting to cross into Iraq. He
Once the unit crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border, contact with
the enemy was a daily ocurrence, Cochran said. When the
unit's tour was finished, the Marines had fought their way
to Tikrit and back.
“We brought every man home with us,” he said. “They said we
did 111 missions. That was more missions than any other unit
had done since Vietnam.”
But daily battle takes its toll. Cochran said he thinks
every Marine in his section showed signs of post-traumatic
Four months later, however, the entire battalion volunteered
to go to Afghanistan with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary
Unit. They figured nothing could be worse than Iraq.
They were wrong.
“In Afghanistan, everything was just dead. There was no
foliage. The people wouldn't look you in the eye,” he said,
adding that he and his buddies had learned that usually
meant they had something to hide.
In fact, after several months of daily fighting in
Afghanistan, the Marines began to wonder just how wrong
they'd been about nothing being worse than the fighting in
“Some of us came up with a theory that maybe we had been
killed in Iraq and now we were in hell,” Cochran said with a
chuckle that belied the seriousness of the thought.
That theory may have been conceived during a mission where
the Marines were outnumbered more than 2 to 1 and he lost
one of his best friends.
“It was a suicide mission,” Cochran said. “We 100 percent
knew there was going to be a casualty on this mission. We
The mission initially sent a five-man team into what Cochran
described as very hostile territory. When 26 insurgents
ambushed the team, another seven-man team responded. Despite
killing 14 insurgents before the fight was over, they'd lost
“If you wanted to pick one man to represent the entire
military, it was him,” he said about the Marine. “We were
all trying to figure out different ports we could get drunk
in. He was trying to get us into Bible study.”
About a month later, on July 14, 2004, Cochran was on his
last mission, working security for convoys carrying
equipment back to Kandahar, when he was injured.
Just 20 yards inside Kandahar, the vehicle he was riding in
hit an anti-tank mine. He was thrown from the vehicle and
broke the five vertebrae in his lower back.
When he woke in the National Naval Medical Center in
Bethesda, Md., a month later, he discovered he was paralyzed
from the waist down and most likely never would walk again.
To add insult to injury, the record company that had offered
Cochran the deal dropped him, saying they couldn't put $1
million dollars into a paraplegic.
“I understand. It's a business,” he said. “[But] I never
believed I was never going to walk again.”
The doctors at Bethesda weren't so hopeful. Despite the fact
that Cochran's spinal cord was intact, the bone and
cartilage were severely damaged and were pulling on his
spinal cord. The doctors' best suggestion was to fuse the
bone together to alleviate the pain.
Another option surfaced, however. Though his doctors in
Bethesda, who were just beginning to see the types of
injuries that became typical with servicemembers fighting in
Iraq and Afghanistan, were vehemently against the idea, his
mother -- and first sergeant -- pushed for the procedure.
They finally won.
Kyphoplasty, a procedure used to restore fractured vertebra,
usually is reserved for older patients suffering from
degeneration of the vertebrae and cartilage. However, six
months after an orthopedic surgeon at Vanderbilt Medical
Center used essentially 4 pounds of cement to fix the
crushed vertebrae in Cochran's back, he was up and walking
with the help of a walker.
Today, he's back on the country music scene and has a deal
with Aria Records. His debut album, “Friday Night Fireside,”
has received more than favorable reviews.
While music is his passion, Cochran said, he found room for
a second passion after his recovery: working to make sure
wounded veterans have what they need to recover and live the
fullest life possible.
He does this is by working with the Independence Fund, a
nonprofit organization that, among other things, provides
robotic wheelchairs to veterans confined to wheelchairs. The
high-tech chairs can walk stairs and give the veterans their
height back, Cochran said.
“They can look everybody in the eye,” Cochran said. “That's
the biggest thing. When I was in a wheelchair ... I had to
look up at everybody. It was a big shock to your confidence.
This raises them up to where they can have a conversation
and look you in the eye.”
It has the same technology as the Segway personal
transporter, so it won't fall over, he added.
As amazing as that piece of technology is, Cochran said,
bigger things are on the horizon and he'll do everything he
can to make sure veterans have access to them.
“My goal is that the bigger I get in music, the bigger my
pulpit can get to preach on my soapbox ... and really get more
people involved,” he said. “There's a lot of people in the
music business who talk a lot. We just need them to get
their checkbooks out now.”
What Cochran said he would really like, however, is for
veterans to never have to worry about what comes next.
“I want to have a foundation that covers you from the time
you enlist or from the time you're commissioned until we put
you in the ground,” he said. “There is no reason a man
shooting a basketball should have to not worry about
anything in life, and a man that is ready to take a bullet