A leader throughout her long and distinguished military career, CalVet turns to Irma Hagans Cooper Colonel (retired) to take us across the bridge from Black History Month to Women’s History Month.
The Los Angeles resident spent 30 years in the Army, much of it running medical facilities and commanding companies that went on to serve in combat zones. Very few African American women have risen to the rank of colonel in the Army, but she is among them. And Cooper continues to lead in retirement, serving as president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association of Black Women in Military, and as the vice president of the San Gabriel Branch of the NAACP.
Her career began in nursing school at Merritt College in Oakland and ended three decades later with a Bronze Star and many other honors in hand.
“My instructor was an Army nurse (reserves),” Cooper said. “She told us, ‘Some of you are here looking for a husband, and not all of you are going to marry doctors.’” The instructor also pointed out that nursing, at that time, didn’t offer great healthcare benefits. So she invited them to visit her Army unit and consider a career in the military instead of staying in the private sector. Cooper accepted the offer.
“I enjoyed it,” Cooper said. She joined the Army Reserve in 1983, and soon found herself attached to a mobile unit at the 352nd Evac Hospital in Oakland. “It was at an old military base near the Bay Bridge. It had housing, an officers’ club, an enlisted club and a bowling alley,” Cooper said. “We could set up or break down a hospital in two hours – all of the different types of equipment to be set up in the field.”
Cooper went on to earn her bachelor’s degrees from UC Berkeley and Sonoma State University, then her master’s from the University of California-San Francisco in 1986, all while serving as an Army Reservist. She displayed the leadership skills that took her up the chain of command, defying the odds every step of the way. Cooper commanded entire companies and medical groups, including the 113th Combat Stress Control Company in Iraq in 2003, where she earned her Bronze Star.
“We were the team behind the various combat units,” she said. When she returned less than a year later, she took command of the 176th Medical Command, orchestrating numerous deployments and humanitarian missions to Iraq, Afghanistan, Honduras, Germany, and El Salvador. “I was the first female and the first nurse to take command,” she said. Moreover, that made her the first African American woman nurse in charge, commanding 5,000 soldiers in California, New Mexico, and Utah. It was the largest Army medical group on the West Coast.
That led her to Army War College in 2007, where she refused to take no for an answer when it came to her admission, just as she overcame barriers throughout her entire career. “You’re always fighting for the slot to get into the classes you need to get promoted,” Cooper said. “Men just didn’t feel woman should be promoted. The good ol’ boy network. There weren’t going to let you in. They kept it closed for all women.”
When opportunities finally opened up for women, she said, whites got in. African American women continued to face obstacles. So when the chance to go to War College arose? “I didn’t tell anybody (her race),” she said. “They found out when I got there.” The commander make it clear he did not like women, and did not want to work with a black woman, she said. “I asked him, ‘Do you have a problem with me being in War College?’ ” Cooper said. “He wouldn’t have treated a male like that. You have to keep going.” And she did, graduating with a Master’s degree in strategic studies. Cooper retired as a colonel in 2013, while commanding the 7305 Medical Training Support Battalion.
“I decided 30 years was enough,” she said. Except that she’s never really stopped. Cooper remains an advocate for African American women in the military by serving in organizations and speaking to civic groups. She promotes books about African Americans in military history, and reminds people that what she and other African American women have achieved is both historic and groundbreaking.
“I help people understand that Black women have done great things in the military,” Cooper said. “Their stories need to be told.”