Donald Cooney and fellow soldiers

Learn how answering his call has taken Donald Cooney (above, far right) from health care, to the military, to getting his Master of Divinity degree at Seattle Pacific Seminary.

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and this is my producer, Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.

Kyle Brown: Hi Kyle.

Amanda: This episode of Inside Voices, we sat down with Donald Cooney. He’s a seminary student here at SPU. He’s also a hospital corpsman, third class. He’s assigned to the Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command in Bremerton. Cooney has always known he wanted to be in a profession where he could help others, and spent the early years of his career in hospital settings and clinics where he worked with patients every day.

Like most of us, his path was not a linear one. He didn’t enlist in the Navy until 2017, but now as a graduate student in the seminary, his goal is to be a Navy chaplain and hopefully still serve somewhere within the medical field.

Donald, thank you for joining us today.

Donald Cooney: Thank you for having me, Amanda.

Amanda: Well, let’s just start at the beginning, shall we? I remember you telling me that you have always wanted to spend your days serving others. Why did you choose the medical field? There’s lots of ways to serve others. Why medicine?

Donald: Well, I think part of it has to do with, I really believe that the heart, the soul, the mind, the body, it’s all interrelated and interconnected, and I think there’s a lot of good that comes out of the medical fields. And at the time I was trying to figure out what I was going to do after college and I knew I wanted to help people, and I felt like with medicine, you really see that immediate impact that you can have in people’s lives. And I think that’s what really attracted me to the medical field.

Amanda: Yeah, for sure. There’s all sorts of ways to help, but they’re not all quite so immediate, isn’t that true?

Donald Cooney in uniform

Donald: Right.

Amanda: Yeah.

Donald: Yeah.

Amanda: So then why the military? What made you want to join the military?

Donald: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think it’s definitely been a calling for a very long time. I think the number one event that really motivated me or made me start to look at the military was actually 9/11. I really remember being 11 years old and remembering how our country really united around that. And I saw all these individuals, both men and women, standing up and protecting our country, and it just made me realize that in my opinion, I think there are a lot of heroes and that’s something that I really connected with. My grandpa served in the Navy and so my family has always been very supportive of the services, and I think that’s what really originally piqued my interest to serve.

Amanda: So after high school, you went to college and then you were serving with some hospitals and clinics. What made you then decide to actually enlist in 2017?

Donald: So off and on, probably when I was 17, when I started thinking, “Okay, I’m getting done with high school. What am I supposed to do with my life?” I was really praying and reflecting and I really felt like God was calling me to specifically chaplaincy, to be a pastor to the services. And at the time, I wasn’t quite prepared for that. I felt like, well, I’m going to go to college and have that college experience. So I attended Central Christian College of Kansas and I decided, I think I’ll try going business and psychology, but I really just at different points, I really specifically felt called to chaplaincy for one reason or other. And I just remember about three years ago on Easter, I was in the service and I just remember this overwhelming sense of God really talking to me and saying, “This is what I’ve called you to do.”

I didn’t feel like what I was doing at the hospitals was bad. It’s the medical, it’s a good field, it’s a wonderful field. But it wasn’t what I felt passionate about, what I felt specifically like God was calling me to. And I finally just realized, if this is really what God wants me to do, I’m going to follow him, whatever he wants me to do. So that’s when I went to the Navy recruiting office and said, “Okay, what jobs are available?” I specifically said, “I’m willing to be a hospital corpsman or a religious program specialist.” That’s where they work directly with the chaplains. And hospital corpsman was an option at the time, so that’s when I enlisted.

“I just remember about three years ago on Easter, I was in the service and I just remember this overwhelming sense of God really talking to me and saying, ‘This is what I’ve called you to do.'”

Amanda: I love those full-circle moments because how many of us at some point in life have felt that God is calling them to something, but there’s no obvious path that day or that moment in their life? And they think, maybe I heard wrong, maybe I don’t understand, maybe I’m doing something wrong. And yet if we just wait and hold on, those moments do come full circle and then we can look back and say, “Oh, God was preparing me for this all along.” So I love to hear that within your own story. Tell us about a typical day for you now. What’s the work you’re doing today?

Donald: So primarily I’m working in the optometry department, so I’m checking to make sure that people’s visual acuities aren’t needing to be adjusted. If they need to be seen by an optometrist, I try to make sure that they’re able to see well enough to do their job. And if not, then we’re the ones that recommend them to be seen out in town. I also help with the lab right now, so I help draw patients’ blood and just make sure we’re checking to make sure that they’re not getting exposed to anything they shouldn’t, checking complete blood counts, making sure that they’re safe and nothing’s going on.

Amanda: So some very hands-on work, right?

Donald: Yes.

Amanda: You get to talk to patients every day.

Donald: Yes.

Amanda: So that’s what you do all day. And then several days a week, you would get on the ferry and come over to SPU?

Donald: Yes. On Monday nights. Specifically, I had to decide how many classes to do, and I realized last fall I had three different classes and I decided I probably need to cut it back a little bit because it is a little bit of a challenge thing. Working in the military, it’s not just a full-time job; there’s a lot of other things involved. So besides that and seminary and then also working in my local church, a Nazarene church, working toward ordination, it kept me pretty busy.

Amanda: It sounds like you’re pretty busy. So let me ask, when you’re studying, doing your seminary studies, and you’re working all day with patients, do you find it’s hard to switch back and forth, or do you find that you’re actually using what you learned Monday night on Tuesday morning with your patients?

Donald: That’s a great question. I really do feel like there is that connection, at least for me personally, with what I’m learning in seminary, whether that’s going through the Bible classes or learning the history of the church. One, it’s so encouraging to me, it builds up my faith and my understanding of Scripture. And then I can turn that around, and that encouragement that I get from classes helps not only get me through the week, but also helps me to hopefully be that salt and light to people and encouragement. Can I necessarily pray with a patient or listen to them sharing whatever they’re going through? Actually, I have had those opportunities, and it doesn’t happen every day, of course, but it does happen.

Donald Cooney and fellow soldiers

Amanda: Well, I’m going to put you on the spot here. Do you want to tell us about something you’ve learned recently that’s been especially poignant in your life?

Donald: I think with this COVID-19 situation that’s going on, definitely there’s a lot of fear and maybe anxiety that people are going through. I think there’s a lot of legitimacy to it. And yet I feel like right now we’re going through the Gospels, I’m going through Bible three class right now and there’s so many times where Christ says, “Peace be with you.” And that anxiety? It’s not from God. That’s the beautiful thing about the Gospel is it’s a gospel of hope. And I think that’s really what people need to hear right now is that.

Amanda: Absolutely. Well, can I ask what’s next for you?

Donald: So as of right now, I do have orders overseas, so I’m not 100% sure how seminary’s going to work. I know that part of my hope is that I can continue maybe an online class as I’m serving overseas, but at this point I’m not 100% sure. Obviously, nobody knows the future, but I think my goal is to serve the rest of my contract as enlisted and then go into the reserves and go to school full time at SPU through the seminary program.

Amanda: Well, we will definitely be praying for you, knowing that God will make a way, one way or another, and there might just be a silver lining in this crazy time that maybe you can continue with your seminary studies while you are overseas. But we’ll be definitely praying that you can see that path clearly.

Donald: Thank you.

Amanda: So Donald, I like to end all of our interviews with the same question and that is this: If you could tell everyone in our state or in the Seattle area, if we could all wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that would make the world a better place, what would you have us do?

Donald: I think it’s maybe easy to say, but serve your community. Find some outlet, some way of investing in the community because there are so many needs right now. I know my church, we’re offering meals every week to the community, and I’m sure that people are connected to different avenues of serving. And yeah, we need to do it safely, especially for those that maybe are at a higher risk. For those of us that do have the ability to get out and provide that community service, I think that’s really what we should be doing.

Amanda: Amen to that. And Donald, we want to say thank you for your service, both to our country and to the church and really to our community as a whole. So thank you so much for sitting down with us today.

Donald: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.


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