Senator seek answers

NOTE:  With regard to the following story, the Webmaster has learned that what the family saw on the day of Corporal Kopp's funeral was not a caisson platoon practicing, but rather a caisson platoon returning to the barn at Fort Myer after taking part in a funeral at the Columbarium near Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery.  The reason that they saw a black-covered casket on the caisson is that when cremated remains are transported to the Columbarium, they are contained in an empty casket covered with the American Flag.  The burial flag is removed at the Columbarium with the urn containing the individual's remains and the caisson then returns the Fort Myer with the empty casket which is then covered only in black mourning cloth.

Senators seek answers
By Bob Baird
Courtesy of LoHud.Com
August 13, 2009
There was no horse-drawn caisson for Army Ranger Ben Kopp, who gave his life to save several members of his unit during a firefight in Afghanistan.

When he was buried Friday in Arlington National Cemetery, a hearse carried his casket to his grave, followed by a long procession.

His mother, Jill Stephenson, had wanted a full honor funeral for her son, in view of his sacrifice for his country. But despite her wishes and the efforts of many to see that happen, she was forced — amid her grief — to settle for less.

She had been advised that the full honor funeral was not possible because there simply wasn’t a horse and caisson available unless she was prepared to delay her son’s burial for as long as six to eight weeks.

Kopp, who grew up in Minnesota, was shot through his leg and lost so much blood that his heart stopped. Brought back to life on the battlefield, he was taken to Germany, then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

His mom was at his side, joined by Greg Tobin, a retired Clarkstown police officer and Nanuet Fire Department Volunteer. Tobin had met Kopp and other Rangers when visiting his Ranger son, now on his third deployment in the war zone.

Tobin took up the cause of getting a horse and caisson — elements of a full honor funeral — for a young man who called him “Pops.” Not succeeding, even after contacting anyone he could think of, including Rep. Eliot Engel and Sen. Charles Schumer, he says, “is perhaps one of the biggest failures of my life.”

But Stephenson has been appreciative of his efforts, telling him in an e-mail, “I’m giving you an A+++, a blue ribbon, a gold medal and anything else that rewards tenacious efforts.” She had never, she wrote, had anything in her life brought to the attention of senators and congresmen.

“I can only hope that my full story will bring the issue to light,” she wrote to him. “It makes me wonder why our national cemetery has only two caissons available for use with full honor funerals, forcing families to wait a ridiculous amount of time to have their loved one’s service.”
She just couldn’t wait.

And Friday there was more reason for pain — a reason that registered even with the newest senator, Al Franken of Minnesota, Ben Kopp’s home state.

He attended the funeral and became aware of the caisson issue from Greg Tobin in the family waiting area at Arlington. Franken had no idea of the injustice, Tobin says, and promised to do what he could to correct it.

Of course, that couldn’t come in time for Ben Kopp or his mother, but what happened on the way to his grave only worsened matters.

As the procession moved toward Arlington’s Section 60, Tobin says, they saw a horse-drawn caisson about 100 yards away on a training detail.

What they saw wasn’t lost on Franken. On Tuesday, Franken wrote to John C. Metzler, superintendent of Arlington Cemetery.

Kopp’s mother had been told he would receive a full honor funeral, Franken wrote, only to be informed later that “there would be no horse and caisson available until October and so received a standard honor burial.”

“But on Friday,” Franken’s letter goes on, “and to their dismay, the family viewed the horse and caisson unit practicing their procedural routine on the periphery of Corporal Kopp’s funeral.”

That was, he went on, “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.” Franken asked “why the same, or similar, horse and caisson unit that was unavailable for Corporal Kopp’s funeral was practicing near his funeral procession.”

He further wants steps taken to “significantly reduce the unacceptably long wait for a full honor procession for those who have given so much to our country.”

Schumer, whose office had been working with Greg Tobin, also wrote Metzler, noting a policy change early this year. “As I understand it, there was a change in policy effective January 1, 2009 where all soldiers killed in action (KIA) would receive full military honors at Arlington. To provide these honors requires the availability of horse and caisson, band, colors team and escort platoon. Since the change in policy, has there been any increase in resources available to provide full military honors at funerals? If not, what are your estimates for resources you would require to expedite the too-long wait for full military honor interments?”

Schumer went on: “I know you share my belief that our military families deserve the best, especially during what is usually the most agonizing time of their lives. But drawing out this period with extensive wait times to properly honor an American hero … is unacceptable.”

He offered to work with Metzler to identify resources that could address what he described as “this unfortunate situation.”

He concluded: “Families should never need to choose between full military honors and a timely funeral.”

Jill Stephenson hopes their interest and pressure will prevent other parents having to wait in line for weeks, maybe months.

“If Ben’s passing changes this, then I will add it to the list of prayers he gave away to help others.”

And help others he did, in life and death.

There are those buddies, the ones wounded in the firefight where he suffered what would prove to be mortal wounds.

And there’s Judy Meikle, who lives in the suburbs of Chicago. Meikle was a robust, active woman until about a year ago, when her health took a turn as a result of what proved to be a congenital heart problem. Before long, it became clear she would need a heart transplant, and soon.

Last month, in Ben Kopp’s final hours, one of Stephenson’s relatives told her about her friend, Judy Meikle.

When the time came to fulfill her son’s wish to donate his organs to benefit others, Stephenson made his heart available to Meikle through the transplant protocol.

On Monday, the two women met each other when they were interviewed by Harry Smith on the CBS “Early Show.” Meikle was thankful for her gift of life and Stephenson was honored that part of her son was living, making Meikle healthy again.

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