Family carries legacy of service and sacrifice

May 23, 2019 | GET MORE : Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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Gold Star Mother Jill Stephenson spoke to U.S. Bank employees about her son and the meaning of Memorial Day.

Benjamin Kopp left a mark on the world.

His heart beats inside a woman in Illinois. His spirit gives strength to his mother in Minnesota. And his sacrifice reminds Americans across the nation the cost of their freedom this Memorial Day.

Inspired by his great-grandfather, who was a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, Kopp vowed to serve his country in the wake of 9/11. He was just 13 years old at the time, but the determination remained as he grew older. He left for Fort Benning, Georgia, in the weeks after high school and became an Army Ranger eight months later. 

On his third deployment, in Afghanistan after two in Iraq, Kopp was fatally wounded in a firefight. His bravery and action during the battle saved the lives of six of his fellow soldiers. And his selflessness and foresight continue to better the lives of the 60 people who received his donated organs, bone, skin and tissue.

“Ben is a hero in life and death,” said his Gold Star Mother Jill Stephenson, speaking at a U.S. Bank event on May 21 that honored military veteran employees and loved ones lost in service to the country. 

“I never thought of keeping Ben from joining the military because, as a mother, I never thought that he would make it to heaven before me,” she said, with a pause, adding, “[But doing so] would not have gifted the world his selfless legacy and patriotism. I’m more proud of him than I would have ever, ever imagined possible.”

Among 1,100 U.S. Bank employees listening to Stephenson was U.S. Army veteran Kevin Breuer. The former military intelligence officer has found a transferrable skill set in his role as a reputation strategy manager, in which he now translates customer survey data into insights for senior leaders focusing on how the company can better serve customers. 

Breuer is also president of the Twin Cities chapter of the company’s Proud to Serve business resource group, which brings together thousands of its veteran employees, and supporters, for networking, professional development and community service opportunities. Earlier this month, for example, 40 members of the group used their paid volunteer time off to clean up Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota.  

“Memorial Day is about remembering those who died serving and defending our country,” said Breuer. “Knowing that there will be 50,000 people out at Fort Snelling over the next couple of weeks, it’s important for those families that it looks nice. It was a powerful volunteer event.”

Stephenson understands the special meaning that these resting places have to military families. She remembers Kopp calling her before a deployment, asking, “Mom, if I die, where should I be buried?” He was filling out a living will as part of Ranger protocol. Today, he lays at rest at Arlington National Cemetery, where Stephenson visits this time each year.

She reflected by quoting an 1868 speech delivered by James Garfield at Arlington, saying, “For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

“As a mother whose son is among those white tablets,” she added, “I’ll never forget the meaning of Memorial Day.”

Written by Pat Swanson with photos by Justin Yunke and Justine Perez of U.S. Bank. Learn more about how the company supports veterans as employees, customers and community members.