June 1, 2017
Justen Charters | Independent Journal Review
The loss of a child is a painful and life-changing event that shakes any parent to the core. Jill Stephenson, who lost her son — U.S. Army Ranger Benjamin Kopp — is all too familiar with the pain that comes from such loss.
In July of 2009, she received a phone call that Kopp had been shot and was coming home to be treated at Walter Reed Hospital. “When I got the call Ben was shot, my heart fell into my stomach. I was told he was shot in the leg and had undergone surgery and was recovering. My first thought was that he lost his leg,” said Stephenson.
After eight days of fighting, Kopp's body gave out. He was just twenty-one years old.
Since that time, Stephenson has made at least two trips to Arlington National Cemetery each year.
The visits fall on in mid-December for Wreaths Across America and over Memorial Day weekend.
But a few months before her visit in 2017, she had another life-changing experience. Stephenson attended an event in Virginia Beach in March where the Ambassador of Afghanistan, Dr. Hamdullah Mohib, spoke.
Stephenson described the experience to Independent Journal Review. “I had no idea what I was about to hear. I opened the program and read that the gentleman that was about to speak was Dr. Hamdullah Mohib, the Ambassador to the United States for the Embassy of Afghanistan,” she said.
She shared the reason Mohib's speech moved her deeply. “In his address, Dr. Mohib expressed his gratitude for being asked to speak at the event and then went on to thank the combat wounded veterans and Gold Star families for the sacrifices given for his country. He gave specific examples of positive changes that have come to Afghanistan because of the United States Military.”
“To name a few, he spoke of decreased mortality rates and increased literacy rates, educational and employment opportunities for women and children, and health care and nutritional improvements,” Stephenson said. “He stated that the actions and efforts of our armed forces were humanitarian in nature.”
It didn't take long for a flood of emotions to roll in for the mom:
“Less than two minutes into his speech, tears were rolling down my face. In the nearly eight years since my son died, I had never heard such words uttered from anyone's mouth. This man thanked me for my son's sacrifice. This man from Afghanistan thanked me for my son's life. Not only had I never heard these words, I had never expected to hear them or even had a fleeting thought that such words would ever be said to me.”
After Mohib was done speaking, Stephenson felt compelled to meet him. She first shook his hand, and then gave him a hug. “Through my tears I told him how moved I was in hearing his message, especially to know there are people in Afghanistan who were grateful to my son for fighting for and defending their liberties.”
“He was very gracious, listened intently to my chatter and then told me I was welcome to visit the Embassy in Washington DC anytime. I said I was planning to be there over the Memorial Day weekend to spend time at Arlington National Cemetery where my son is laid to rest,” Stephenson said. “Dr. Mohib introduced me to his colleague from the Embassy who was a Gold Star wife. She and I would stay in touch to make a plan. Before we parted, he shook my hand and gave me his coin from the Embassy.”
When the time came to go to the Afghan Embassy, Stephenson wasn't able to reconnect with Mohib. He had a sudden family emergency — his mother had died. But Stephenson still stayed at the embassy for the Memorial Day event. And she said it “forever changed” her.
She told IJR how the environment at the embassy was friendly and incredibly respectful towards the Gold Star families in attendance. But it was the moment when a 7-year-old Afghan girl got up to speak that was the most memorable for Stephenson.
“Her head barely rose above the podium, but she spoke very clear and concise into the microphone,” she continued. “She shared her personal gratitude to each of our families and went on to tell of the opportunities she will now have because our armed forces were willing to fight for her.”
“The tears were running down my face as I looked over at my friend who was also crying, so was her 16-year-old daughter,” Stephenson admitted. “We put our arms around each other and knew that this little girl's thoughts, and our tears spoke volumes about the kind of men our sons were.”
The gratitude of the ambassador was further expressed in a letter that Stephenson was handed at the Afghan Embassy along with the other Gold Star families in attendance.
It reads, in part:
Dear Jill Stephenson,
We are so pleased and honored that you joined us at our Embassy this evening. Please know how very grateful we, and all the people of Afghanistan, are for your family's service and sacrifice. Please also accept our deepest condolences on the irreplaceable loss of your loved one.
In the capacity they served, you should know they made an enormous difference in the ongoing struggle to the make the world a more peaceful place. The enemies they faced hated freedom — and that's why they fought, to keep us all free.
Stephenson left the embassy with a full heart: “It was full of a greater sense of admiration and respect for the men and women of our armed forces, especially my own son. Ben was not a killer, he was a humanitarian. He was a young man who answered the call to fight for freedom for a people who did not know the taste of it as wonderfully as he had.”
“He wanted them to know it, too. He laid down his life so women and children can live past the age of 21 — which was not likely a short time ago — and was the age when he died so they could live.”