It is all in the name for the non-profit organization American Veterans First, founded by United States Marine Corps veteran Duke Cooper. The organization was established in 2016 to be a refuge for veterans and first responders. Since the inception, Cooper and his team have grown the organization, expanded the programs, and increased their partnerships which has led to great success.
“The volunteers that we have make this organization a success,” said Cooper. “We have the best group of men and women that we have had in the past six years and I owe all the success to this group and the volunteers. We are helping veterans heal one step at a time and making this world a better place one day at a time.”
AVF Executive Secretary Paige McLaughlin, Director of Veterans Outreach Shirley Serato, Director of the Museum Gloria Robertson, Director of Volunteers Karen Knox, and several others have made AVF what it is today.
Through the years the organization has helped several veterans in the 209 and beyond with a variety of programs including the veteran’s outreach with distribution of food, coats, blankets, socks, underwear, shoes, hygiene packs, wheelchairs, electric scooters, and walkers. Some of the programs have also been extended out to those in need even if they are not veterans.
“We are honored to do that,” added Cooper about helping the community. “When you come into our building and we can help you there is no better ‘feel good’ than that. I am proud that we have a great facility. For me there is no better feeling than to volunteer your time to help somebody that is less fortunate than you. It is very rewarding.”
The group has sent several care packages to service members overseas. They have donated vehicles to veterans in need, toys to foster kids, uniforms, and flags. Schools have taken field trips to their facility where they learned some history and were taught to properly fold a flag and how to dispose of it. They now have a military museum at their location on Oakdale Road in Riverbank with artifacts and history from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan.
They have met the needs of so many veterans in the 209 in so many ways in the six years they have been in existence including mental health services.
Cooper received Veteran of the Year honors in 2020, presented by California State Assembly member Heath Flora for all the work his organization has done. Cooper served in the United States Marine Corps from 1968 to 1974 and was an infantry rifleman.
There are no paid positions and there have been many changes through the years including the volunteers and board members. However, the focus of remembering the fallen, patriotism, honoring service members and helping veterans has been consistent and something Cooper is very passionate about. AVF has made many friends like WWII Navy Combat veteran Alan Taylor and Korean War Army Veteran Eddy Jones along the way.
Veterans Day is a holiday dedicated to American veterans of all wars and in 1918 on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month an armistice was signed officially ending World War I. The holiday on Nov. 11 was originally known as Armistice Day but in 1954 it was changed to Veterans Day.
“We strive to bring awareness to our veterans and to let them know that they are not forgotten,” expressed Cooper. “The ones that are gone, we cannot resurrect them from the grave but we can resurrect their memory and we call it not forgotten. From day one it has been important to us to make sure the veterans that fought for this country are not forgotten.”
For AVF to keep the doors open and continue the fight for veterans’ rights as well as their humanitarian efforts they hold fundraisers, accept donations, and apply for grants.