More than 700 people gathered at Rosemount High School on Saturday to honor the memory and heroism of Army Ranger Cpl. Ben Kopp, who graduated from the school in 2006.
"We continually find men like Ben who rise to the occasion," Ranger Chaplain Jeff Struecker told the mourners for Kopp, a 21-year-old special operations soldier who died July 18 from wounds suffered during a gun battle with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. "They come from communities like this one. Ben was a hero because he had no choice. It was hard-wired into him."
Also honored at services Saturday was Air Force Capt. Thomas J. Gramith, 27, of Eagan who was killed when the fighter jet in which he was a navigator crashed in Afghanistan on July 17. Gramith, whose funeral was held at the Cathedral of St. Paul, was a 2000 graduate of St. Thomas Academy and 2005 graduate of North Dakota State University in Fargo.
Kopp, who will be buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., was a popular student at Rosemount High, where he played on special teams and the offensive line for the football team and did a lot of work in the weight room. Jill Stephenson, his mother, said she decided to hold the memorial at the high school. "I wanted to make sure everyone could be inside and part of the service," she said.
Her son told her when he was age 12 that he wanted to join the Army. "He admired his great grandfather who served in World War II," she said. Before being deployed to Afghanistan, Kopp served two tours in Iraq.
Tracy Bailey, a public affairs officer for the 75th Ranger Regiment, said Rangers are elite soldiers who train and go into combat together. "These men have a bond a lot of people don't understand," she said. About 25 members of the Regiment, which is based at Fort Benning, Ga., came to Rosemount for the memorial Saturday. Also attending the memorial service were Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
According to a Ranger news release, Kopp's unit "attacked a Taliban safe haven where they fought a determined enemy from multiple directions for several hours, resulting in the killing of more than 10 Taliban fighters."
The combat took place in the early morning hours. Struecker said Kopp was leading a machine gun unit that was providing cover for a reconnaissance team that was attempting to make a safe withdrawal. During the exchange of gunfire, Kopp had to emerge from cover and was shot in the leg.
"The gunshot wound to the leg was a little overwhelming," said Pat Vos of St. Paul, Stephenson's boyfriend. "They got a tourniquet on him. He was conscious and they got him on a table and he went into cardiac arrest" from the loss of blood. Kopp was flown on to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., but did not regain consciousness and died eight days later.
In a living will, Kopp asked that his organs be donated, which Stephenson noted on a website. Maria Burud of Chicago, a cousin of Stephenson, posted a note that she had a friend who needed a heart transplant. Stephenson responded, there was a match, and Judy Miekle, 57, of Chicago, received Kopp's transplanted heart July 19. "She is doing wonderfully," Burud said.
"To experience that joy along with the sorrow, it is a miracle," Stephenson said after the memorial.
During the memorial, Spc. Chase Vanderhule, a close friend, described Kopp as a "headstrong" man who "lived in the moment" and enjoyed their "good time" trips to Florida, where he hoped to eventually attend college.
Vanderhule told of a trip the two took down a river in a little boat. They saw an alligator in the water, but nonetheless Kopp dived in, swam to the shore then returned to the boat. They saw more alligators and Vanderhule said, "He told me that was the stupidest thing that he'd ever done."
Chaplain Strueker said he has presided at nearly 40 funerals of U.S. soldiers since 2001.
"I'm a former infantryman," he said. "I realize this is part of war. Men die in war. I try to give them the honors they should receive."
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382