The first Dr. Christian J. Lambertsen Award for Operational Innovation was recently awarded to Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Craig S. Cooper during a ceremony at the 2011 Special Operations Forces and Industrial Conference formal dinner.
The award recognizes extraordinary accomplishment of a Special Operations Force member who creates and delivers a new and important operational capability for SOF, consistent with the innovative spirit personified by Dr. Lambertsen, a SOF pioneer in military operations, spaceflight, and medicine.
Currently serving as the Motor Transport Chief with 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Cooper is the first person to be recognized with the honor.
Deployed to Afghanistan during the summer of 2010, he recognized a critical need on the RG 31 and RG 33 armored personnel carriers.
“The vehicles came with an individual tool that only opens the doors on those vehicles,” Cooper said. “It was large and held in by a pin on the side of the vehicle. It weighed three or four pounds… too big to carry on your gear.”
Cooper explained that if your vehicle was disabled with an IED or rollover and that specific variant tool was unusable, you couldn’t get the locks open.
“We went down to the machine shop that SOCOM had, explained the idea and they put it together for us. The result was a multipurpose egress tool that we could carry on our gear and it actually opened up all the blast locks on all the different variants of vehicles,” Cooper said.
A couple of months later, that initiative proved to be critical when returning from a forward operating base in Afghanistan. “We were coming back from setting up a village stability platform, and it had been raining a few days,” Cooper explained.
“We crossed the bridge and one of the guys in front of me went to the left a little bit and the road gave way, when we started to pull the truck out, the road completely gave way and he just rolled over on the driver side and went in the water in about 5 or 6 feet of water.”
“We climbed up on the truck and the tool that was on the vehicle was underwater so we couldn’t get to it and we didn’t have another variant of that vehicle so we climbed up there and one of my guys said he couldn’t get it open so I told him to use the tool that he had on his vest. So he pulled that tool out and stuck it in the slot and opened the blast locks and we were able to get all four of them out.”
Although his team only had moments to react, Cooper said panic never set in.
“I had no time to think, it was just quick reaction: just get them out, get the truck out of the water and get down the road.
Everyone came out uninjured, except one troop with a scratch on his forehead. “
Cooper credited the homegrown SOF multipurpose tool for ease of egress.
“We would have had a hard time getting them out of there without it. Granted, they would have eventually been able to open the lock from the inside because they weren’t hurt, but had they been hurt, we wouldn’t have been able to get them out so quickly. We probably had them out of the vehicle in less than two minutes.”
It took an hour to get the vehicle completely out of the water. By the time they recovered it, water had completely filled the cab, he said.
When Cooper returned to base that night, he briefed his executive officer on what had happened. He was notified about the Lambertsen award shortly after.
“It caught me off guard; I wasn’t expecting anything like that. We knew we needed it, we just hoped we never had to use it,” Cooper said.
“The award was humbling, as the first person to receive it I hope there are more to be given out,” Cooper said. “It just proves that there is a lot of ingenuity in the services. People that are coming up with ideas are being recognized when they should be. It helps folks know they are doing the right thing.”
William Shepherd, SOCOM Science and Technology advisor, agreed.
“As the first SOF award of its kind, this honors Dr. Lambertsen by recognizing individuals in the force who innovate,” Shepherd said. “Cooper certainly distinguished himself in a number of aspects. Not only did he bring this capability to being, but was also able to use it in a significant and meaningful way. We hope this award stimulates the other Staff Sergeant Coopers who are out there. Innovation is a part of the SOF ethos.”
Shepherd said that Adm. Eric T. Olson championed the idea of moving capabilities closer to the warfighter.
“The Rapid Exploitation of Innovative Technology for SOF initiative is something relatively new to the command,” said Shepherd. “We began the experiment in 2009, establishing mobile shops, engineers and technologists literally on the battlefield. We knew that if we could get the right resources and talent in places that need it, good things are going to happen.”
In this case, good things were delivered in the form of lives saved through the innovation of one Marine Corps staff noncommissioned officer. Like his award’s namesake, Cooper said improving systems and resources comes naturally to him.
“My dad did stuff like this, invented things when he was young,” Cooper said. “I guess it’s in my nature to do the same. I have a habit of looking at something and seeing things I’d do differently with it, it usually works out a lot better.”
Cooper and Shepherd both encouraged all SOF servicemembers to do the same.
“Anytime you come up with an idea that works or saves a life, or betters something around you, continue to push that and don’t give it up,” Cooper said. “Just because one thing doesn’t work doesn’t mean that you’re not going to come up with something later down the road that will work. Never give up on that.”