Local News

Tuesday, Dec 18 2012 03:39 PM

Wounded warrior greeted by hundreds at airport

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    After the welcome home celebration Cliff and Samuel Van Kopp visit with Army veteran Wesley Barrientos at Meadows Field.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By The Californian

    Jim Weaver greets Samuel Van Kopp during his homecoming celebration at Meadows Field on Dec. 18, 2012.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Samuel Van Kopp took a few moments to talk with local media during his homecoming celebration at Meadows Field.

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Samuel Van Kopp reacts to the hundreds of well-wishers at this homecoming celebration at Meadows Field. Joshua Brubaker, left, made his way to be one of the first to greet Samuel.

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  5. 5 of 5

    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Samuel Van Kopp along with his mother, Kristi Van Kopp, reacts to the hundreds of well-wishers at this homecoming celebration at Meadows Field.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The anxious father waited teary-eyed, his arms full of flowers, his heart full of love.

But he did not wait alone.

Bakersfield veterinarian Cliff Van Kopp was surrounded by an estimated 400 friends and well-wishers Tuesday morning, when his son, Army 1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp, walked into the crowded airport terminal in Bakersfield to be met with joyous cheers and applause.

It was the first time the Bakersfield High and West Point graduate has been home since he was struck down by a suicide bomber in the midst of a firefight nearly three months ago in Afghanistan.

As the 25-year-old looked around, clearly amazed by the turnout, he thanked the community for its support.

"I appreciate you all coming out," he said in the now-hushed silence. "God bless you all and have a merry Christmas."

Van Kopp, who was deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year, was leading his platoon when the men came under attack Sept. 26.

In the midst of the chaos of battle, an old man wearing a suicide vest hidden beneath his clothes approached the men, Sam recalled in an interview last week with The Californian.

He saw his staff sergeant move to intercept the man as machine gun fire raked the embankment beside the unit's southern flank. But it was too late.

When the blast hit, it caught Van Kopp from behind and knocked him to the ground.

He could taste blood and felt it streaming from his ears -- but he could hear only ringing.

He was able to get on the radio and report that his unit had been attacked and that they needed immediate relief and a medivac helicopter.

And then he lost consciousness -- for two days -- waking up at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C.

But on Tuesday, people said he looked good as he shook hands and exchanged hugs from scores of well-wishers.

"We wanted to come out and support him," said Joe Lowry, who was at the airport with a group of friends Sam worked with years ago in junior theater and melodrama.

Virginia King, accompanied by her daughter Sally Osborne, said it's important that Bakersfield show its support and gratitude to the wounded warrior and other returning veterans.

"I was 11 when the Second World War started," King said, "so I relate to this."

Both King and her daughter said they want school children to be more aware of the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces.

Although Sam Van Kopp is the first to minimize his injuries in contrast to so many others he's seen at Walter Reed, his own sacrifice has been profound.

The bomb blast he was exposed to sent a single ball bearing crashing through Sam's right cheek and skull.

It impacted the back of his skull and followed the curvature of bone before stopping between the right and left hemispheres of his brain.

And that's where it may remain for the foreseeable future -- possibly for the rest of Sam's life.

Over the past three months, he has experienced tremendous progress, but is still plagued by what he describes as a seasickness-like feeling marked by nausea and vertigo.

Still, his ability to read has improved, and he's gained back at least 15 of the 35 pounds he lost following the trauma.

These improvements have allowed Sam to live in a small apartment on the Walter Reed campus, and go in each day for physical therapy and other rehabilitation.

His family is just glad to have him home.

Sam's mother, Kristi Van Kopp, has stayed in the Washington, D.C., area for the past several weeks to be close to Sam. So Monday was a homecoming for her as well.

"To have this many people show up is just overwhelming," said Cliff Van Kopp.

Following his 30-day leave, Sam expects to return to Walter Reed for continued treatment and therapy. His future with the Army is also uncertain.

But those concerns are for the future.

On this day, there are glad tidings in the air:

Sam has come home for Christmas.

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