The attacks of Sept. 11 are still America’s chief economic blight. They are the reasons I went to war and the reason I wear Jill Stephenson’s heart on my wrist.
Cpl. Benjamin S. Kopp and I served in the U.S. Army together as members of 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Ben hailed from Minnesota and I from Illinois, but we’d both see combat before we could buy a beer in our country. I left the service in 2008 and Ben died a year later in Maryland, eight days after being shot in Afghanistan. Wounded in a foreign country, he died in his own. His name and date of death span a black metal bracelet in sleek silver cuts. I wear his tombstone on my wrist.
I received word of Ben’s death on a phone call during an Illinois summer walk at night. I walked with my soon-to-be wife, the soon-to-be mother of my children, and can still see the dusk laying gray shadows on the green leaves. The bugs were out. We held hands.
Ben was Jill’s only son and she raised him as a single mother, so on July 18, 2009, she lost her only child and the most consistent man in her life.
Jill wanted to meet as many of Ben’s fellow Rangers as possible after his death, and since his heart resides in the chest of a resident from my hometown of 12,000 people, we met. I told Jill that Ben and I weren’t best friends, but in a high-testosterone unit like the Ranger Regiment, I figured not being enemies was a point of pride in itself. Six years later, we speak regularly on the phone and visit when we can. I wish her Happy Mother’s Day every year and hope I never forget.
I think of Ben and Jill often, especially since I have two children of my own now. I think of Ben and Jill on Memorial Day. I think of them on Veterans Day. I think of them when I consider putting off a workout and I think of them when I fear for my children, which nears constant regularity.
On July 10, 2009, Ben was shot in the leg while part of a Ranger raid force operating in Helmand, Afghanistan, a region ruled by the Taliban. This was his third deployment, having served two in Iraq. He was stabilized in Afghanistan and transferred to Germany, then Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland as his condition worsened. Eight days after initially being shot, Ben succumbed to his wounds. Ben’s organs and tissues were used to prolong and enhance the lives of 60 people, according to his mother. Judy Meikle, a resident of my hometown, received Ben’s heart. I can now say I served with Ben, wear him on my wrist, have hugged his mother countless times, and felt his heart beating in another’s chest. But as incredible as all of that is, I still can’t get past the devastating reality that a mother lost her son. Ben was 21 years old.
“He had this wicked cowlick in the middle of his forehead that was impossible to fix,” Jill told me recently. “He had really strong hands as a little boy … I can still feel what it felt like to hold his hand … It’s comforting. Very comforting.”
Jill wanted Ben raised with all the things boys with fathers might have, so she played ball with him and dug up worms. “We caught frogs,” she said. “Played in the mud.”
Some of their favorite times took place at the lake house just outside Fifty Lakes, Minnesota, where she visited as a young girl. “I’m not sure if he got up there after he joined the Army,” Jill said, “…but he said that the cabin was the place in life that he always found the most peace.” It was a tight-knit community and the house was full of love and laughs. “We slept wherever there was floor space.”
I asked Jill if she remembered when she first heard about Ben.
“It was a Friday afternoon at three o’clock and I was at work,” she said. She speaks of her reality without her listeners bearing its weight. The loss is hers alone to bear. “At that point Ben had already undergone surgery but had not woken up.”
He never would.
She told me what it feels like to lose a loved one.
“It turns your whole body inside out,” Jill said. “It feels like someone put their hand in my gut, grabbed hold, and just pulled it out and put it over my head … You just walk around with this feeling in your belly that can’t be described or understood … You’re living in a fog.”
War is an infinite set of uncontrollable variables clashing in clouds of violent ambiguity. We send our sons and daughters off never knowing if the war is waiting out there in the dark to change them, for better or worse, or to give them back at all.
Jill shares her reality with the families and friends of the 6,855 American combat deaths we’ve endured in 14 years of war. That’s no fewer than 6,855 Jills in the United States and 210,000 between the lands in which we’ve fought.
Jill’s war ended with her son. She speaks publicly about her grief in hopes that others might find strength to continue living after losing loved ones. I asked her if she’s kept up with the wars that took Ben. She didn’t hesitate.
When I speak with Jill, I’m no longer a father and husband eight years removed from war. I’m a Ranger again. I hear her voice and see her Ben laughing in locker rooms and kitting up overseas. But when we hang up the phone and say goodbye, I’m back to the life I started after my war. I get to change diapers and tuck my kids in at night, smell their hair after baths. I recognize that as a privilege, a privilege Jill and the loved ones of thousands of American service members no longer know. So take some time to hug your family and friends this year. Acknowledge Gold Star families. Give them a piece of your heart and tell them you love them. Because there are 6,855 who made the ultimate sacrifice and cannot.