Military burial that cut corners riles Franken

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 14, 2009 - 11:17 PM

Cpl. Ben Kopp's family had the option of waiting two months for full military honors or going without them.

WASHINGTON - Sen. Al Franken squared off with Arlington National Cemetery officials this week after a Minnesota soldier killed in Afghanistan failed to receive all the trappings of a full military funeral because of limited resources.

Minnesota's newest senator attended the burial last week of Rosemount native Cpl. Ben Kopp, 21, who died in mid-July after he was wounded by Taliban insurgents. Before the funeral service, officials at the cemetery in Arlington, Va., informed Kopp's mother that her son's coffin would not be escorted by a horse-drawn caisson -- a traditional carriage used in military ceremonies -- because none was available until October.

Although his family had the right to a caisson, Kopp's body was transported in a hearse because his mother, Jill Stephenson, did not want to wait two months.

"To say to a parent, 'There's such a backlog on these requests that you're going to have to wait two or three months to bury your son or your daughter' is cruel," Franken said in an interview. "If the family wants [a caisson], they should be able to have it."

Earlier this week, Franken sent a searing letter to the cemetery's superintendent, John Metzler, demanding that steps be taken to expedite full-honor military burials. Franken and Stephenson would like to see more caissons made available.

"This is an intolerable and undue burden on a family that is already mourning the loss of a loved one, and the perception left by this incident is unbecoming and unacceptable," the senator wrote.

Franken noted that the family's grief was amplified when they saw what appeared to be an empty caisson unit practicing near Kopp's burial plot, which Stephenson said felt like "a slap in the face." Arlington officials have since said the unit was not practicing, but returning from another procession.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote a similar letter to Arlington after being contacted by a friend of the family.

"In the midst of what I have going on in my life -- you know, losing my only child -- I need somebody to advocate for me," Stephenson said. "And I'm very grateful that they're doing that."

Col. Dan Baggio, a spokesman for the Military District of Washington, which oversees the units responsible for the caissons, said families wait an average of two months to use one of Arlington's two caissons.

In 2009, a new policy extended full-honor burials to all soldiers killed in action, and Arlington officials added more time slots to keep the same average wait time.

Baggio said that they are now discussing ways to improve those wait times.

"We're going to take a close look at it," Baggio said.

As of Friday, Franken's office had not heard back from Arlington about whether any action will be taken.

Kopp's funeral was also attended by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, marking the second time the military commander has done so in his current position. Given the atmosphere and nature of the event, however, neither Stephenson nor Franken approached Gates about the caissons.

The Rosemount High School graduate's death was widely publicized, because Kopp was an organ donor. His heart was transplanted into Judy Meikle, an ailing woman from Chicago. Stephenson said she now communicates with Meikle almost every day via e-mail.

"It really is an amazing thing to be involved in," Stephenson said, referring to the heart transplant. "It honors Ben's memory and gives me an opportunity to honor his memory and for him to go on living."

Eric Roper • 202-408-2723

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