At 13 years old, Corporal Ben Kopp told his mom in no uncertain terms that he was going to join the Army and fight for his country.
By 21, his mother would be laying her only son to rest and now, almost a decade later, she's still fighting to ensure his country remembers him and all others who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Independent Journal Review spoke with Jill Stephenson, who on Friday, will embark on a 105-mile journey to the Middle East Conflicts Wall, where she'll once more see her son's name etched into the stone.
For the majority of our phone call, Stephenson exhibited a level of graceful composure that to unknowing ears, could have passed off our conversation as simply two people discussing their weekend plans.
However, in one moment, I asked a question that brought her raw emotion to the surface, “If you could have one more conversation with Ben, what would you say to him?”
Behind the calmness in her voice that she's managed to hone, is a woman, driven by an unimaginable pain to bring awareness to a free nation, of the price for that freedom.
IJR: When did Ben decide he wanted to join the military?
Jill Stephenson: He decided legitimately when he was 13, but the thought process began when he was about seven and that’s because he was influenced by his great-grandfather, who was a World War II veteran. I raised Ben as a single mom, so his great-grandfather was truly the strongest male role model that Ben had.
When he died it absolutely crushed him. It was five months later that 9/11 happened so his sadness then turned to anger and he wanted revenge. As we were watching the coverage on television in our living room — as so many people were doing then — he [said] was gonna find Osama bin Laden and make him pay.
So I never doubted from the age of 13 onward that he was gonna make good on that promise because I knew how personal it was to him. He wasn’t gonna falter from it and he never did.
As a military mom, I'm sure you know that your child could be injured, but I'd imagine it also comes with a level of “it won't happen to me.”
You’re right on with that, that I never even gave it a thought that anything would happen to him.
I lost a brother when I was very young. I was 15, he was 11 and he was hit by a car and killed. I believed that I had already paid the piper. I’d already had this really horrible thing happen to me and I just thought, I’d already paid a price, that no way something like this would happen to me.
So, what went through your mind when you found out he'd been injured?
When I got that phone call, I still didn’t believe that it was as horrific as it would be.
Did you have a sixth sense that something was wrong before you got the call?
I didn’t, but Ben did. He knew he was facing something he hadn’t faced before. I spoke to him on the phone on July 1st and he said that things there were as ugly as he had expected. I could hear the distance in his voice, he was in a deep contemplation. He sounded far away in an emotional sense. It was nine days later that I got the call that he was shot.
Ben was injured in Afghanistan and flown back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As his mom, was it difficult to just have to sit and wait?
It’s an incredible test of your faith for one. It was a time for me to trust God that he was in there and that whatever the outcome was, that I’d be ok and Ben would be ok.
Most men and women who are killed in action, they die where they fall and their parents or significant others are called to Dover [Air Force Base] to meet a flag-draped casket. I didn’t have to do that. I got to hold his hand and tell him how much I love him and how proud I am of him.
After his death, Ben's organs were donated. Does knowing he's still leaving his mark on the world help at all with that tremendous loss?
When I got word that his heart was viable for donation, I experienced this incredible level of joy at the same exact moment I was experiencing an incredible level of sorrow.
I would attune it to something as deep as the ocean. This ocean of joy and this ocean of sorrow at the same moment. I’ve been able to put my hand on Judy’s chest and feel Ben’s heart continue to beat.
It’s been quoted that Ben is the Army Ranger who couldn’t be killed because his heart truly never stopped beating.
About the walk, I have to ask the obvious question, why 105 miles?
What I’m doing is nothing compared to what’s been done for me. It’s Memorial Weekend, it’s the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can live in a free country. So you and I can have this conversation.
Is this the first year you’re doing this? How did it come about?
This is the first year. Just having conversations about honoring our fallen and to raise awareness for the Middle East Conflicts Wall.
It’s a wall in the heartland of America that has the names of every man and woman killed in the Middle East from 1967 until today. It is the only active wall in our country where names are added every year for those killed in action.
When was the first time that you went and saw Ben’s name on the wall?
It was Veterans Day in 2017. I never thought that I would spend the majority of my adult life finding my son’s name on a wall and having a sense of pride with that. It’s quite different from being able to stand next to your child and say, “I’m so proud of you.”
If you could have one more conversation with Ben, what would you say to him?
No one’s ever asked me that. Honestly, I would just simply tell him how much I love him and how grateful I am to be his mother.
A lot of people want to show their support for Gold Star and active-duty military families, but don't know how, what would you suggest?
Befriend a family member. There’s nothing that can bring this person back but it means a lot to us to just be loved and cared for. We’re your neighbors, we’re the people who sit next to you in church or behind you in line at the grocery store. We’re just people, too.
Most of us won't spend Memorial Day Weekend walking 105 miles, visiting Arlington Cemetery, or reflecting on the loss of a loved one. Most of us will spend it with friends and family, enjoying the nice weather and a day off of work.
In anticipation for the upcoming weekend, before we hung up the phone, Stephenson left me with a final thought, “Honor our fallen and remember why we live in the greatest, freest country in the world is because of the names etched on the memorial walls.”
Kopp saved the lives of his six fellow Army Rangers before he was shot and killed during a fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was his third tour of duty in his military career, his first two being in Iraq.
You can donate to the walk, which benefits the preservation of the Middle East Conflicts Wall, on Stephenson's website.
Editor’s Note: The preceding interview has been edited both for clarity and ease of reading.
Please note: This is a commentary piece. The views and opinions expressed within it are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of IJR.