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Josh Cooley is back home and getting better

BROOKSVILLE — The man who didn't speak for two years is making a joke.

A country song about cheating plays on the iPod, and Josh Cooley, crooning along in a high-pitched voice, decides to have some fun with one of his former Pasco County SWAT buddies.

It makes you wonder

Who's doing right with someone tonight

And who's car is parked next door

Cooley, 32, turns to his buddy and ad-libs, "Yours."

His mother hears this and calls it a miracle. It may not sound like much to an outsider, but that hint of humor seemed unthinkable not so very long ago.

Cooley, a Marine reservist and Pasco sheriff's deputy who had ox-like strength, wasn't expected to live after a roadside bomb in Iraq tore through his skull in July 2005. He spent a month in a coma. A series of medical setbacks — near-fatal surgeries, spiking fevers, a body-wracking seizure — tested his will, and his family's.

So, too, did a fight over finances and guardianship with Cooley's wife, a fellow deputy. They divorced last year.

All that seemed a distant memory this week. A day after the country saluted its military veterans, Cooley's friends and family celebrated the homecoming Wednesday of a man who has spent more than three years in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, the past two of them relearning to walk and talk at a specialized center in California.

The group of well-wishers included fellow sheriff's deputies and Marines, men who had served alongside Cooley and saw in him a stubbornness they knew would aid his recovery.

Cooley wasted no time astonishing them with his reclaimed skills, standing from his wheelchair and walking into the private airport terminal in Tampa with only minimal assistance from his parents.

"I'm back," he whispered, his lips curving into a crooked smile.

• • •

Thursday morning, Cooley slept late in his new blue-walled bedroom.

While he worked to get well out West, his brother, Christopher, spearheaded a community effort to get a home built especially for Cooley's needs. The Department of Veterans Affairs and Semper Fi Fund pitched in $50,000 each.

The result is an Extreme Makeover-worthy, 3,600-square-foot concrete block house in the woods of Brooksville with the country western touches Josh Cooley always wanted.

It features an exercise room with equipment to help him strengthen his 225-pound frame and practice standing at his full 6-foot-6 height. His shower has a seat and a handlebar, the entry ways are wide enough for a wheelchair and a stereo system blasts his favorite tunes. A neighboring barn will one day be filled with horses for him to help tend.

"It's cool," he said.

Not only does he speak, but he's also beginning to initiate conversation, says his mother, Christine Cooley, who along with her husband lived with Josh in California. On his birthday last month, he walked about 3 feet to her, without any assistance. And his memory is intact, a feat she said doctors cannot explain.

During the presidential debates, she said he grew angry when Barack Obama criticized the current president or spoke about Iraq.

"How would you know?" she remembers him growling at the TV.

He voted by absentee ballot for John McCain.

Missing from all the progress and therapies, however, was the emotional boost that comes from being surrounded by the people who knew him before he became one of the estimated 320,000 military members may have suffered head injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Thursday, he laughed with two of his former SWAT friends who dropped by for a visit at the house Cooley will share with his parents. The friends made most of the jokes, but he threw out a one-liner now and then.

"This is what he needs, you know that?" said Lt. Jim Nagy.

"Exactly," Christine Cooley said. "That's why we were in a hurry to come home."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Josh Cooley is back home and getting better 11/13/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 11:47pm]

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