Transplants

Mom dedicates life to honoring soldier son who helped 60 people through organ donation

  • Jill Stephenson with her late son, Benjamin Kopp, who died in 2009 while on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

    Jill Stephenson with her late son, Benjamin Kopp, who died in 2009 while on the battlefield in Afghanistan.  (Courtesy Jill Stephenson)

  • Kopp, who was 21 when he died, was inspired by his great-grandfather to join the military. The 9/11 attacks confirmed his decision.

    Kopp, who was 21 when he died, was inspired by his great-grandfather to join the military. The 9/11 attacks confirmed his decision.  (Courtesy Jill Stephenson)

  • Through organ, tissue and bone donation, Kopp saved or improved 60 lives.

    Through organ, tissue and bone donation, Kopp saved or improved 60 lives.  (Courtesy Jill Stephenson)

After Cpl. Benjamin Kopp saved three lives on the battlefield in Afghanistan, he saved or improved 60 more when doctors couldn’t revive him from a devastating war injury. It’s all because of an idea he settled on before he joined the U.S. Army at age 18: to become an organ donor.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) recently dedicated a memorial to fallen troops who have donated their organs, like Kopp, and Kopp’s mother, Jill Stephenson, has made it her life’s work to raise awareness about the impact that organ donation can make.

Kopp was 21 when a gunfight led to a shot in the leg and eventual brain death, allowing him to donate the rest of his organs, as well as his bones and tissues.

“It’s Ben’s spirit that helps me stay in a calm and graceful state that allows me to really honor him,” Stephenson, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, told Fox News.

‘What you’re meant to be’

Stephenson raised Kopp as a single mother, and her grandfather, a World War II veteran with a Purple Heart, served as Kopp’s primary father figure. As early as age 7, Kopp would scour his great-grandfather’s war memorabilia and hammer him with questions about his service, Stephenson recalled.

“[Ben] wanted to grow up just like him, and he would state this often,” Stephenson said. “My grandfather would say, ‘That’s never OK; you should never do something just because someone else does, and when the time is right you’ll know what you’re meant to be.’”

Five and a half months after his great-grandfather died, Kopp watched the news coverage with horror as the terror attacks of 9/11 unfolded.

“To [Ben], 9/11 was a true mockery of his great-grandfather’s service to America, so he made a statement and said that when he grows up, ‘I’m gonna become an Army Ranger, and I’m gonna find Usama bin Laden, and I’m gonna make him pay.’ He was 13 when he made that declaration.”

Even before joining the military right out of high school, Kopp knew the importance of organ donation, Stephenson said. When Stephenson was 15, her 11-year-old brother was hit by a driver and killed, but he donated his kidneys. Kopp grew up knowing his uncle’s story, so he never questioned whether he would become an organ donor, Stephenson said.

In the face of previous loss, Stephenson said some friends questioned her willingness to let her only son put his life on the line by joining the military.

“There were a number of people who asked me why I didn’t stop him, with him being my only child … and I said, ‘That’s between him and God, and not me, and it wasn’t my place to get in the way of that,’” Stephenson said.

Not to mention, Kopp told her that if she didn’t sign the papers to let him join, he’d “sign them himself,” she recalled.

‘A prime candidate’

On July 10, 2009, Kopp’s team was called in to help relieve three U.S. Army snipers who had been pinned down by Taliban snipers. As a gun team leader, Kopp engaged in a gun fight to save their lives but took a bullet to the leg that would cost him his.

Before being transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Kopp was treated at an Army base in Germany, where he suffered cardiac arrest following a successful surgery to remove the bullet. Doctors tried to use a defibrillator to revive him, but the device didn’t have batteries, Stephenson said, so they performed a thoracotomy incision to restore his breathing. However, the oxygen machine malfunctioned, she explained, leading Kopp’s body to be insufficiently oxygenated and his brain to swell. Kopp never woke up from his induced coma, Stephenson said, and several standard tests confirmed he was brain dead.

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The nature of Kopp’s case presented a rare opportunity for generosity. Because he became brain dead prior to his death but maintained perfect physical health otherwise, his bones, tissues and other organs were all eligible for reuse.

“He was a 21-year-old Army Ranger— he was in tip-top shape,” Stephenson said.

By happenstance, Kopp’s heart was a good fit for one of Stephenson’s cousin’s friends, Judy Meikle, of Winnetka, Illinois, who needed a transplant due to a congenital defect she learned she had at age 57. She received Kopp’s heart on July 20, 2009, two days after his death, and regularly recruits new organ donors at her local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

“When I meet people, I put their hand on my heart and say, ‘Meet Cpl. Ben Kopp, and usually if I don’t get tears at least 20 percent of the time, I’m not doing my job,” Meikle, who at age 64 can do everything she did before she got sick, told Fox News.com. “It’s such a wonderful gift that Jill and Ben gave me.”

Stephenson met Meikle, as well as her son’s liver recipient and the two people who received his kidneys six weeks after he died. That day, she was speaking to a crowd of 1,100 people for the Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC), which recovers donated organs and tissues for transplants, research and therapy.

‘A gift from him’

Lisa Colaianni, a donor family advocate for WRTC who has known Stephenson since Kopp died, described Stephenson as “an amazingly strong woman.”

“I think it comforts her soul that she has an opportunity to talk about her Ben and his energy everywhere,” Colaianni told Fox News. “She’s very faithful and spiritual, and it’s just another journey for her.”

Today, Stephenson calls herself a “motivational speaker and life coach,” as she travels across the country speaking at conferences to discuss how organ donation can save lives.

“I’ve never been introverted or not willing to take a leadership role but Ben’s death certainly opened up something in me that I didn’t know existed, and I believe it’s a gift from him,” Stephenson said.

Last year, UNOS reported a record number of donated organs partially fueled by the opioid abuse epidemic, said Anne Paschke, a spokeswoman for UNOS. Although no organization tracks the number of servicemen and women who have donated their organs, Paschke told Fox News, UNOS observed there were over 33,600 transplants in 2016— an 8.5 percent increase over the 2015 total and a nearly 20 percent increase since 2012.

And yet, every 10 minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list. UNOS estimates 22 people die every day waiting for a transplant.

“When somebody is waiting for an organ, they are asking for prayers,” Stephenson said. “They don’t pray for someone else to die so their loved ones can live; they just want their prayer answered. And when you donate your organs, you are answering the prayers of strangers— and I can’t think of a more selfless gift than that.” 

"Heart of a Ranger," a book about Kopp and Meikle's connection, is slated for publication sometime this spring.