Soldier’s Organs Saved Dozens. Now His Mom Honors Him on Memorial Day

Jill Stephenson, mother of U.S. Army Cpl. Benjamin S. Kopp, who passed away July 10, 2009, after complications from a gunshot wound, wears a button in remembrance of her son on Memorial Day, May 27, 2013, at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (Laura Buchta/U.S. Army)
Jill Stephenson, mother of U.S. Army Cpl. Benjamin S. Kopp, who passed away July 10, 2009, after complications from a gunshot wound, wears a button in remembrance of her son on Memorial Day, May 27, 2013, at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (Laura Buchta/U.S. Army)

Jill Stephenson has taken heavier steps before. To hug her son goodbye each time he deployed. To step onto a plane headed for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. To walk out of that hospital after doctors asked whether she would donate her 21-year-old's organs.

So 100 miles of steps do not intimidate her. That's how many miles are in the Freedom Walk to the Wall, a Memorial Day weekend event she organized set for Friday and Saturday. Participants will walk all or part of the journey from Veterans' Memorial Park in Glencoe to a memorial wall in Marseilles in honor of service members like her son, who gave their lives in service.

Despite all she has endured since her son, Benjamin Kopp, died after being shot in Afghanistan in 2009, there still is something that causes her to crumple: the phrase "Happy Memorial Day."

"That's the equivalent of congratulating someone at a funeral," she said.

This weekend, Stephenson, 51, hopes not only to honor fallen service members like her son, but to also remind Americans that Memorial Day is not a holiday that revolves around barbecues and patriotic swimwear.

Veterans and service members' family members will finish the walk in Marseilles, at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial. Organizers say the memorial, dedicated in 2004, is the only memorial in the United States that regularly updates a list of all the service members who have died in Middle East conflicts.

The 7,933 names etched in granite begin at 1967, when the USS Liberty was attacked during the Six-Day War. Each year, more names are added during an annual dedication ceremony hosted by the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which raises funds for the memorial.

When her son enlisted at 18, many people asked Stephenson, who was a single mother, "How can you let him do that?"

But she had known there would be no other route. He was determined. And she was proud of him.

Kopp was a "boy's boy" who played with trucks and dirt and pored over his great-grandfather's war medals in their Minnesota lake house. The death of his great-grandfather, a World War II veteran, and the Sept. 11 attacks that followed soon after, turned into a mission of grief and vindication for him.

Kopp's great-grandfather told him not to follow him into the military solely because he respected him, according to Stephenson. He told Kopp that he would find his calling eventually ... that he would feel it in his gut.

And that, his mom said, was to be an Army Ranger. Kopp enlisted in the Army in 2006, after graduating from high school. She said he first deployed to Iraq in 2007, and again in 2008.

"I choose to be positive," Stephenson said. "It was a great fit for him."

She said she didn't worry. She knew, of course, of the dangers. But she had lost her brother, who was hit by a car, when she was 15, and a part of her, she believed, had already done her penance in life. She felt her son would be safe when he deployed a third time to Afghanistan. He was strong. He was capable.

Kopp, however, confided in his mother and grandmother before leaving that he had concerns. It was a different country, and a different war. His grandmother offered to take him to Canada. When Stephenson tells this story, people often laugh. But the Canada offer was anything but a joke. Her mother was a woman who had lost a son and saw an opportunity to save a grandson.

"If Ben would have agreed to it, they'd still be there," Stephenson said. "But there's no way Ben would ever, ever, ever, in his wildest dreams ... turn his back on his brothers in arms or on this country. There's no way."

Stephenson last spoke to her son by phone on July 1, 2009. He sounded, she remembers, "kind of far away, emotionally."

Days later, as she was sitting at work, her phone buzzed. It was an unknown number, one she'd learned to pick up, because it could be Kopp. It was his commanding officer with news that her son had been shot. He made it out of surgery and was in recovery. He had not yet woken up.

Stephenson boarded a plane to Washington, D.C., to see him. The day after she arrived, doctors told her they believed he was brain-dead and asked if she would consider organ donation, she recalled. She spent five days by his side before he was taken off life support, holding his hand.

"I didn't hesitate," she said about considering whether to donate his organs.

Her brother had been an organ donor. She knew what it would mean to families if their loved one received an organ. She said yes. But it was Kopp's decision, so she searched for any documentation he might have left behind. In papers he had signed, on the line about organ donation, he had checked the box "yes" and wrote: "any that are needed."

His story lives beyond his 21 years.

His donations eventually benefited dozens of people, Stephenson said, from bone and tissue donations to four lives saved with his kidneys, heart and liver.

Kopp's heart was given to Judy Meikle, a Winnetka woman who had found out months earlier that she had a congenital heart condition and her only hope to live was a heart transplant.

"It's an incredible gift in one way, but a burden in another, because you know that someone has to die in order for you to live," she said.

A cousin of Stephenson's worked with Meikle and knew about her heart problem. That cousin told Stephenson about Meikle when she found out the possibility of Kopp's organ donations.

Meikle, 65, remembers getting the phone call that would extend her life on a Sunday morning. She now wears a bracelet with Kopp's name that reads DOW, or "died of wounds." Her story is told in Bill Lunn's book, "Heart of a Ranger: The True Story of Cpl. Ben Kopp, American Hero in Life and Death."

In the nine years since the transplant, Kopp's heart has allowed Meikle countless memories -- traveling to Florida with her 12-year-old cocker spaniel, Lacey, a 60th birthday party where Stephenson surprised her with a cake that read "Young at Heart," being able to travel around Illinois to speak on behalf of organ donation.

"I put their hands on my chest and say, 'Meet Ben Kopp,' " she said.

Kopp received Army honors, including a Bronze Star Medal, a Purple Heart and a Meritorious Service Medal.

This year, 37 names will be added to the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial in Marseilles. Stephenson is walking to remind Americans about other mothers who receive knocks on their doors and phone calls from unknown numbers about the fate of their son or daughter.

"I think a lot of people would find that hard to believe," Stephenson said. "Can we think in our minds about being notified 37 times in the last year of someone who was killed in combat?"

She has visited the Ranger Monument at Fort Benning, Ga., which honors Rangers like her son. She has spent a lot of time in the nation's capital after that first flight to Washington. She has been back to the East Coast to visit her son, buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

But the memorial in an Illinois town of about 5,000 feels different, she said.

"It makes sense to me that it's in the Heartland, because that is where our men and women of the military come from," she said. "Of course they come from big cities as well, but a lot of them don't."

Stephenson will walk the beginning and the end of the 100-mile trek. To prepare, she is hiking the dunes near her home in Gary, Ind., where she moved in January, after living in Minnesota, then Florida.

"It's a lot of uphill in the sand," she said. "So a nice flat walk should be easy for me."

The feeling of feet sinking in sand summoned a memory, the day she learned her son's heart would go to someone she knew. She received the phone call confirming the match on a street in Washington, D.C.

"In that moment my feet felt like they were in cement," Stephenson said. "But at the same time I felt like if I would have just went like this," she said while waving her arms up and down, "I would have flown away. I felt really heavy and really light at the same time."

"And I said," she recalled, "'That must be what a miracle feels like.'"

Her eyes still glisten at the memory. She knows this weekend, she will again shoulder many emotions. Purpose. Comfort. Joy. Grief. But all she can do is put one foot in front of the other.

This article is written by Alison Bowen from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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