To look at Junior Coker and knowing his heart for veterans, you assume he is a wounded vet. The left side of his face, including his ear, is gone and his left arm bears a wide skin graft scar.
But the 51-year-old Sylvester, Ga, native is not a combat survivor. He’s actually a brain cancer survivor who is still recovering from the ravaging effects of chemotherapy and radiation. But his heart is sold out to helping physically and mentally wounded veterans in his home state of Georgia.
A lifelong hunter and outdoorsman, Coker and some friends established a non-profit foundation called “Wounded Veterans of Southwest Georgia” in 2013, taking vets on deer hunts.
And that is how he eventually met Eric Thomas, son of Dave and Becky Thomas of Albia and head of the CJ3 Foundation, a newly formed veterans non-profit to address the physical and mental health of veterans and set them up with service dogs.
“In the south hunting and fishing is in our DNA,” he said from Dave and Becky Thomas’s Westover Center recently. “We’re small town country people, a lot like you all in Albia. Back in 2013 we realized that we were taking our love of the outdoors for granted and how much hunting did for us in terms of our own mental and physical health. There is something to the healing power of the great outdoors.”
Since 2013, Coker and his foundation have served 160 wounded veterans, helping them to have a quality of life others have, making sure they know somebody out there has their “six.”
A year ago in February Coker was diagnosed with neck and head cancer and was forced to have extensive surgery, followed by aggressive chemo and radiation. “If I knew then what I know now about follow-up cancer treatment, I’m not sure I’d have taken it,” he said. He was left with a stomach feeding tube and other issues related to the chemo and radiation.
Last August, still in recovery from his cancer surgery and treatment, he received a call from Eric Thomas, who was starting his own veteran’s advocacy foundation. He had a veteran who was in desperate need of a service animal, but his 501c3 paperwork wasn’t complete. Coker agreed to help and within about eight days, the veteran was set for three days mental health treatment, three days dog training in Wisconsin, and went home for a day to acclimate with his new service dog.
“Eric and I just created a brotherhood,” said Coker.
He invited Eric and Jesse Smith, the Wisconsin dog trainer, to a hunt. Thomas L., a young Marine helped with the hunt. Eric Thomas asked Coker to serve on the CJ3 board and Coker was in Albia last week with Thomas L., the Marine veteran
from North Georgia. “Thomas is suffering from PTSD, but also has terminal liver cancer,” said Coker. “We felt he could benefit from a service dog, but he didn’t think he deserved it because of his cancer diagnosis. We told him he did.”
Coker’s own grim cancer diagnosis has left him uniquely qualified to help veterans. “I’ve always had a servant’s heart, but my cancer left me with an understanding of being physically wounded,” he said. “It let me understand PTSD.”
There are a lot of competing veteran’s foundations in the United States like Tunnels to Towers and Wounded Warriors. Some are better than others in providing for America’s veteran community. Some do battle with each other in fund-raising.
There is no competition between his southwest Georgia deer hunting foundation and Eric Thomas’s CJ3 foundation. “We’re really on the same page providing mental health, advocacy for veterans and lining up service animals,” said Coker. “Eric and I both want healing to happen so they can have the same kind of lives normal people have. The goals of all veteran support organizations should be he same. Nobody should be looking for glory. With a good deed, there should be zero expectation of some sort of return.”