Committed to Serving His Community and Country

By Brad McEwen

While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed spending time with all of the people I’ve interviewed for Beyond the Bank, there’s no denying that one of the more exciting and powerful interviews I’ve conducted was sitting down with local attorney, Army veteran and childhood friend Eric Hooper to discuss a variety of topics—including his dedication to his country and his deep affection for South Georgia—especially his home town of Albany.

Although he is now a successful wealth and business planning attorney with Moore, Clarke DuVall and Rogers, and an active volunteer with organizations throughout the community, my connection to Eric goes back to the days when he was just a fresh-faced kid one grade behind me at St. Teresa’s and later Westover High.

I think that’s why it was so fascinating for me to listen to the now husband (wife Jennifer) and father of two (daughters Elizabeth and Caroline) share some of the incredible things that have transpired in his life since we last saw each other on any kind of regular basis—experiences that have helped make him the impressive man he is today.

Naturally, as children move through school they tend to lose contact with each other—especially once they hit high school and are in different grades—but despite not being in regular contact, Eric was always one of those kids who stayed on my radar.

I distinctly remember how cool it was to learn that he had gone on to attend the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and I recall how sobering it was to later learn that he had been squarely in harm’s way during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I have to admit—it was hard at first to picture that smiling kid from grade school decked out in fatigues, and engaging an enemy half a world away. And although it ultimately made sense for the son of a teacher and a police officer to proudly serve his country, our busy lives had not afforded us the opportunity to discuss what led him down that path until recently. 

What I uncovered during that conversation was truly enlightening and deepened my affection for one of South Georgia’s most impressive champions, whose time in the service earned him numerous citations, including being awarded the Bronze Star, a Meritorious Service Medal, an Army Commendation Medal and an Army Achievement Medal, among others.

Throughout our chat, Eric was not only open and honest, his responses to my questions were both heartfelt and reflective of the values he lives by—values rooted in his Christian faith and his desire to serve others.

“I always thought service was important,” Eric said of his decision to attend West Point. “You walk around the grounds of the academy and you can feel this sense of there’s something more important than you. I think everybody goes to West Point for different reasons, but I think what’s unique about it is, regardless of your reasons … over the course of that four years, through the process that West Point puts every cadet through, I think by the time you finish, everybody’s kind of at the same point—you have internalized this concept of selfless service and duty. I think that’s probably the most unique thing about West Point.”

As much as the academy did to strengthen his feelings about service, Eric said he had a strong foundation for giving and doing for others since childhood, thanks in large part to his upbringing in a service-oriented, Catholic family.

“Looking back there were probably a couple of big influences for me,” he explained. “One was certainly my parents. They were both public servants—teacher and police officer. So they set the example early on as far as service.

“I think the second thing for me is my faith, and really, going to Catholic school. There’s so much that I drew from that experience in the sense that you’re taught all these things about thinking about others. You know, the Golden Rule.”

Another equally important factor in Eric’s development as a servant was the years he spent in scouting—an organization he still supports today as a member of the board of directors of the South Georgia Council of Boys Scouts of America that encompasses 28 counties in southern Georgia, including Dougherty and Lee counties.

“I think probably the last thing that was a big influence on me was probably the Boy Scouts,” said Eric, who first joined the organization as Cub Scout in a tiger den for 1st—graders. “Certainly that made a big difference in my life, and not just because I was an Eagle Scout. I’m proud of that accomplishment, but just the experience of scouting is really good.

“You know, in scouting everybody kind of comes together—some kids are great athletes, some kids are smart, some kids are very social, but everybody has an opportunity to get together and work on these different things and you learn different ways to share experiences with each other. I always thought that was pretty good.”

In addition to learning how to interact with others and work toward a common goal, Eric said Boy Scouts taught him a fundamentally important aspect of leadership which he believes was vital in his development as a leader later in life.

“I think the toughest leadership you do in life is peer leadership,” he said. “It’s real easy, when you’re in a position of authority, to tell somebody to do something and you’re able to do it because you’re in a position of leadership and they’re not. But when you have to lead your peers, it’s much more challenging. And scouting, to me, was my first experience with that.

“Then West Point even built upon that. You know you had these standards and even if you weren’t in a position of authority as a cadet, you still had to look at your peers and say, ‘I know we’re friends and all, but this is the rule I’ve got to enforce. You need to do that right thing.’ And that’s a challenge.

“You know everybody wants to be accepted and well-liked, and certainly you can do things and still be accepted and well-liked, but at that age, it’s hard to understand and appreciate someone just trying to do a job, or that they have some mission bigger than you and it’s not personal.”

In truth, honing those leadership skills he first started to develop in scouts played an important role in his decision to attend West Point in the first place.

“I always felt like I wanted to be a leader in whatever I did in life and I felt like that was THE leadership institution,” he said of his alma mater. “I mean the thing they say at the history department of West Point is, ‘The history we teach was made by the leaders we taught.’ And I think there’s some truth to that.”

As I listened to Eric share his philosophies and beliefs about leadership, service and duty, I started to understand how those important motivating factors were in leading Eric down another important path in his military career.

That course, Eric explained, was chosen during his final year at the academy, when cadets have to make a decision about what they’re going to do in the Army, something known as “branching.” In “branching” cadets make a list of the areas they’d like to serve in, with the top choice being their preference. Cadet are then assigned to those chosen areas based on class rank.

Since his high class rank virtually assured he would get to serve in his area of preference, I believe his ultimate decision further illustrates the quality of his character, as does his explanation for making his choice.

“I had this kind of soul-searching experience of, ‘what do I do,’” Eric told me. “West Point is a great place. To me it’s one of the ultimate educational institutions. Money is never a question. You get access to the best of the best. It’s tough but it’s very rewarding.

“And I kind of had this realization that if our nation had spent as much money as it had on me or my education—cause the joke is that they give you a value on what your education is and I want to say when I graduated they set it at over half a million dollars—I felt you had an obligation to do something serious for the military. And to me, the most serious thing you can do in the military is serve in the combat arms, which is basically, there’s infantry officer, an armor officer, an engineer officer, a field artillery officer, or an aviation officer.

“I chose infantry, which is, I think, probably the most brutal in some respects, but definitely one of the hardest branches to serve in.”

When asked to elaborate on the difficulty, Eric’s response was forthright and again offered some insight into the things that are important in his life—things like building important relationships, teamwork, and even facing adversity in order to do what you believe is right.

“The mission of the infantry, at its core, is to close with and meet the enemy and destroy them or repel them by force,” he said matter-of-factly. “So, it’s very physical, it’s very personal in the sense that it is, you know, force on force. You see what you’re doing. And certainly that was my experience in combat. It is, in some ways, traumatic. The calculus of violence is how I describe it. You’re closing with somebody and your job is to kill them before they kill you, and you have to rely on everybody on your team to support you in doing that.

“It’s kind of counter to a lot of things that we have today in our culture. But to me the teamwork and camaraderie of an infantry unit is probably the best team I’ve ever seen. It is truly a brotherhood. It’s amazing, all the things you see today in society, as far as divisions, none of that was ever present on the front lines, in my experience in a combat unit, particularly an infantry unit. Everybody had to rely and depend on everybody.”

When sharing this Eric speaks from a position of authority, having learned these lessons and tested the skills he learned as West Point firsthand during some of this nation’s most difficult times.

Not long after making his decision to serve in an infantry unit—ultimately being assigned to the Third Battalion, Seventh Infantry Regiment, Third Infantry Division based out of Fort Stewart in Savannah—Eric was thrust into conflict.

He said that his company was forward deployed in Kosovo when the 9/11 attacks occurred and because part of his unit’s duties was to rotate to Kuwait, Eric and his brothers in arms, despite their personal concerns about what was happening back home, were sent to Kuwait to defend it.

Not long after that, his unit was on the frontlines during the invasion of Iraq in 2002.

In fact, Eric said his rifle company ultimately seized the palace in Baghdad and was featured prominently in some of the early accounts of the war thanks to having an Associated Press reporter and photographer embedded with this company.

“My rifle company’s pretty famous here in Georgia,” Eric added. “I was an executive officer at the time, so I was second in command. I had a captain, who’s the company commander, and I was the number two guy in charge. He’s the guy who’s known as the ‘Baghdad Bulldog,’ Chris Carter. He was known because he’s the one, when we first seized the palace in Baghdad he flew the Georgia flag over it and Fox News picked it up. It’s in a display case in Athens.”

Eric said he ended up staying in Iraq until the fall of 2003, having to fill a leadership slot that was vacated when a “sister officer” was hit by an IED and lost his leg. Next he did a mission in Korea and following a few months back home after that, his unit was re-deployed to Iraq, and Eric had another experience that had a profound impact on him.

“When we went back the second time, I was what they called ‘Battalion Adjutant,’ said Eric. “I stayed behind and managed everything in the rear and did casualty notification, which was probably one of the most solemn and somber things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

In that role Eric said he had to do two types of notifications—“severely wounded” and “casualty.”

“It was a challenging situation,” he said. “The one that sticks out my mind the most was … a fellow West Point-er, two years behind me, and he went to Iraq at the end of the rotation.

“He went there for the last two months and it was around Christmas, it was December, it was raining. It was like a Monday night and he was killed literally two weeks before he was to rotate home. So we had to go and notify, at that time, his fiancé and let her know. It's just, it's awful.”

Although sharing stories like that with me was clearly difficult, Eric’s warmth and humanity was evident throughout. As he spoke about his time in combat and his time as adjutant, his reverence for his duties was obvious. Those experiences no doubt meant a lot to him and had shaped his approach to future endeavors.

And while his military experiences are certainly important, they are not the only impressive things about the native Albanian.

Like most young servicemen Eric, after a few years of duty, was faced with an important life decision in 2005 and once again his choice was informed by the thoughtful consideration that is a theme throughout his life.

“My wife and I had the talk and I was at that point in my career where it was time to move on to a different duty station or make some decision as to if I was going to get out of the military,” he said. “I would say, out of all my time in the military, probably my hardest day was to go into my battalion commander, a great guy named Colonel Dave Funk, who’d invested a lot of time in me, a great supporter and a friend to this day, and say, ‘listen, I’ve decided I’m getting out.’

“The main reason I got out, frankly, was that over that period of time, over that five-plus years, I was really gone for the better part of three years. And my wife said, ‘I’m happy to keep doing this, but it’s really tough to see where you’re constantly going. I think we need to make a decision about what we’re going to do.’”

The decision that Eric, who left the Army as a Captain, made was once again informed by his youth.

Hetold me he had always wanted to be lawyer and after finishing law school knew he wanted to return to the Albany area to practice. When asked to elaborate on that desire, Eric shared a little about the special place South Georgia holds in his heart and about how much he enjoys connecting with the people of this region.

“Well, it helps that my wife’s from South Georgia,” he said with a smile. “She’s from Douglas and our families were here. But for me, I’ve always had a huge sense of identity and connection to South Georgia.

“I’ve always felt there was something special about South Georgia. I don’t know if it’s that the people are more resilient here, or if because life’s a little bit slower you get to have better relationships with people, but those things are very attractive to me, particularly in the practice of law. I mean, a large part of what I do is building relationships and to do that you have to trust. The only way you can do that is to interact with people.”

“One of the things I find most interesting is that you go to other places, even in this state, where lawyers practice, and the pace of practice is so much faster and the interpersonal interaction is so much more limited. To me, that’s one of the things that makes things really good here—you get to take time to get to know people, to know about their families, to get to know what's really going on with them in their business life, their personal life, their professional life. And because you have that kind of understanding, and they're able to open up and share those things with you, you can give them better service first and foremost. It means more to you. It’s personal to you at that point because you want to see these people be successful.”

And although he doesn’t live in Albany—his family instead lives in Cordele so they can be closer to the medical facilities the family needs to care for special needs daughter Elizabeth—he practices law here and Jennifer spends three days a week in the community taking Elizabeth to therapy sessions.

Because of his close to connection to the community in which he was raised, as well as the rest of South Georgia, Eric also devotes considerable time to various charitable and civic organizations, including the aforementioned South Georgia Council of Boy Scouts.

Additionally, he serves as an emeritus member of the United Way of Southwest Georgia, sits on the board of directors for Community Foundation and he sits on the board of Cordele’s preservation committee, to name a few. And again, his decision to serve those organizations is based on his upbringing and the way in which he views the world.

“I put a lot of time into charities that I think are worthwhile,” Eric explained. “Boy Scouts, I just think that’s a phenomenal program that offers everyone, regardless of your socio-economic background, an opportunity to make yourself better. I love scouting.

“I love the United Way because of its ability, not just to raise money—most people know about it for its campaigns, but what they really don’t see, that the United Way does very well, is they really work with charities on helping them figure out how to manage their public charity. They do a lot of coordination among charities.

“I sit on the Preservation Committee for Cordele and that’s a big component for me. The reason I like that is public service. One, I’m a big believer in preserving what we have. But more importantly, one of the things I’ve come to realize—and we all talk about the issues of south Georgia, and certainly poverty and education and young pregnancy are big issues—it’s all kind of tied together. But the one that a lot of times gets overlooked that historic preservation touches on so much is housing, and the lack of adequate housing.”

For Eric housing issues are vitally important for all communities because often housing concerns are indicative of and connected to many of the other issues facing society.

“A lot of the historic districts in all these communities, the ones that have them, a large component is housing, protecting housing, and a lot of times that is lower income housing.

“I’ve come to the realization that if someone doesn’t know where they’re going to put their head down at night, or where their next meal is coming from, then it doesn’t really matter what we’re focusing on at school to give them an education. That primitive need is probably more important than learning the skills or learning the job right now.

“It’s interesting that it kind of gets glossed over.”

Eric said being involved in those types of organizations that are focused on improving life for others also makes him keenly aware of all the blessings he’s had in his life, something which solidifies his desire to serve.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I’ve had opportunities that most people never get. I worked hard, but I didn’t do that alone. And I didn’t get it just because I worked hard. Some of it was the people that supported me. Some of it, frankly, was luck. Some people call it blessing. But things fell my way so that I had these opportunities. I think any time you’ve been given an opportunity to make yourself better… well to whom much is given, much is asked.

“I think it’s shameful that sometimes we look at others who are less fortunate and simply say, ‘well, that’s a product of their own choices in life.’ Certainly, choices do play in the way people are sometimes, but frankly, I don't meet too many people who are choosing to do bad things. They're trying to do the best they can in the situation they're in. For reasons, sometimes, that are beyond their control, they're stuck in that situation.”

Of course a large part of Eric’s feelings toward his South Georgia community is not simply the fact that there are difficult issues to be faced here. Eric was quick to remind me that his affection for the area is rooted in his love for the people that live here.

In South Georgia, Eric believes, you will find a population full of caring and giving individuals, a fact he was recently reminded of.

“I think this past year, certainly, if there’s one that comes out in the tragedies we’ve had it’s that people here still come together to help each other out,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that. We’ve got warts, but they’re nothing compared to the people we have here.

“I think what makes (South Georgia and its people) remarkable to me, it’s not just that resilience. There’s still a sense to me, some semblance of corporate-ness and collectiveness and identity. They’re the things that make us who we are. It’s different things for different people … but at the end of the day there’s something that still connects people and there’s a sense of obligation that arises out of that—that we’re a corporate body and we owe something to each other.

“That’s why I find it interesting that people are quick to point out the poverty here, but they’re also quick to point out how we’re one of the most charitable groups of people in the world too. I think that tells you a lot about our community.”

Of course, hearing Eric share his daily motivation for trying to make his community a better place truly says a lot about him.

“Definitely in the last few months I’ve had a lot of reflection because there’ve been so many angry at so many things in our nation,” he said. “I’ve decided I can’t really move the meter one way or the other to make some cataclysmic shift. But what you can do, and what I’ve decided I’m going to do is just try to treat everybody with kindness, you know.

“It could be as simple as you see somebody on the street who looks down and you just say, ‘Hey, I hope you have a good day.’ Or someone calls you upset and you just take the time to listen and hear them out. What I’ve found is, THAT, typically, is probably one of the best things you can do. It sets the example for what you think is good behavior that others can model. But, more importantly, it shows them that you care and you’re trying to understand where they’re coming from.

“I think sometimes when you step back and you’re less concerned about your rights or how you offended me, and think more about how well I am treating others in this world, things work out better for everybody.”

As I listened to him share poignant thoughts like those—thoughts rooted in kindness and duty—I came to the conclusion that life is a little better for a lot of people in this community, thanks to Eric Hooper and his spirit of service

Where he has clearly received blessings in his life, this community and this country have been blessed to count him among our ranks.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen