Local News

Wednesday, Sep 26 2012 01:24 PM

Army officer from Bakersfield wounded by suicide bomber

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    Samuel Van Kopp

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

One of Bakersfield’s best and brightest was critically wounded in a suicide bomb attack while on Army patrol in Afghanistan early Wednesday.

Lt. Samuel Van Kopp, 24, a 2006 honors graduate of Bakersfield High School who went on to the United States Military Academy at West Point, was struck by shrapnel when a suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives detonated the device, said Samuel’s father, Cliff Van Kopp.

“He was leading a dismounted patrol — he’s a platoon leader — when they came under attack by a suicide bomber,” said Mr. Van Kopp. “The Army hasn’t told us much, except that others were killed in the explosion.

“A piece of shrapnel is in his brain,” the grieving father said, his voice breaking with worry and emotion. “He is in a coma and on a ventilator at Bagram Air Base hospital.”

Samuel is expected to be flown to an Army hospital in Germany, but Mr. Van Kopp and his wife, Kristi, were not sure when that transfer would take place.

Understandably, they were sure of very little Wednesday.

BHS Principal David Reese said all staff at the school were informed of the situation Wednesday morning. Many, he said, are close to Samuel, who he described as an excellent student, the kind of young man teachers remember for the rest of their lives.

“Sam graduated 10th in his class with a 4.3 grade point average. The highest a student can get is 4.5,” he said. “He was in ROTC all four years, was involved in academic decathlon, forensics — he could have gone anywhere, but he chose to go to West Point.”

All BHS students are part of an extended family, Reese said, even after they graduate and move on.

“We’re staying positive,” he added. “I spoke to the parents this morning. We’re hoping for the best.”
Jeremy Adams, a longtime government teacher at BHS, said Samuel was one of those rare students who are universally beloved by faculty and students alike.

“This is very difficult for all of us,” Adams said Wednesday afternoon.

Although he promised himself he would not become emotional in class Wednesday, Adams’ promise proved difficult to keep.

“In fourth-period class I kept staring at the seat where Sam always sat,” he said.

“This is literally your worst fear as a teacher in a town where many students go on to serve in the military ... it was a tough day.”

Jane Hawley, 23, was also thinking about Samuel for much of Wednesday. Hawley competed alongside Samuel on speech and debate teams at BHS. Now she’s working toward a master’s degree at Texas State University, but the friends have kept in touch since high school.

“Samuel has always had a passionate fire in him,” Hawley said, “in how he speaks with people and argues. He always cared about his civic duty and his place in the world.”

Hawley recalled one day years ago when Samuel approached a young man on the street to talk. When he discovered the man spoke both English and Arabic, he asked him to give him lessons in the Arabic language.

Always curious. Always wanting to learn more. Always interested in building bridges between people and cultures.

That’s Samuel, Hawley said.

Generous. Dependable. Kind. Whip-smart. Those who know Samuel say he possesses those traits, and more. And the possibility of losing such a fine young man through such a seemingly senseless act of violence is beyond imagining.

“Last time I talked with him, he said he wanted to become a history professor,” Adams recalled.

On Wednesday, all who know and love Samuel were hoping he will live to see that dream come true.

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